Q&A: Geographic Photographer on Work, Africa

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
April 22, 2003

View a Chris Johns Photo Gallery on Southern Africa's Bushmen: Go>>

Chris Johns, director of illustrations and senior editor for National Geographic magazine, is one of the world's preeminent wildlife photographers. American Photo magazine recently recognized Johns as one of the "25 most important photographers." National Geographic News recently spoke with Johns about the environmental ethos behind his work and his special relationship with Africa.

What led you to focus on wildlife and nature photography? Were you a photographer first or an environmentalist?

As a photojournalist I was initially more of a generalist. I did all types of stories. I went to Africa for the first time in 1988, and I eventually met my wife Elizabeth and fell in love with Africa as well. It was really a convergence of my longstanding love of the outdoors and my newfound love of Africa and also the fact that I was a parent. In many of my stories there had been a sense of [humankind's] relationship with the landscape. That became more prominent when I was a father, because of my concern for my children's future relative to the health of the outdoors and the many places I've been able to see. I want them to be there for future generations.

It's that drive to make a difference that keeps you going?

I think it's reached a point where many critical choices are being made that will have a profound impact on what kind of a planet future generations will inherit. My job is to make sure that people have the information in a manner that not only informs them but also inspires them. We're all in this together. We have to know that every day we make decisions, whether we always realize it or not, about how we're shaping the environment.

Sharing the beauty of our planet is terribly important. Then you balance that message by setting up the stakes, showing what's happening to some parts of the planet and also [illustrate] that the long-term ramifications of our actions are profound. I think occasionally you have to show people some stuff that's hard to look at. When you do that you also have to give a sense of hope. The last thing we want to do is to give people a sense that it's a hopeless situation. A way to give that is to reinforce the power of the individual. As I get older at this game, that message has become more important to me—the inspirational message of hope

What qualities are key to success as a photographer?

A strong sense of curiosity and [an] almost a childish sense of wonderment—with virtually no cynicism. You've got to be patient and you've got to be persistent. You have to remain positive when things are going poorly, and keep a vision as to where you want to go but be very willing to let serendipity help you in that vision. You've got to want to get better. You can't be satisfied. You have to want to capture the spirit of that landscape, that person, that animal, and communicate that spirit to people. That has to be an unending odyssey. You can never be sure you've got it right. A good mentor can help raise your skill level. I've been blessed with some great teachers beginning with my parents. But you also just need to be immersed in photos, from the beginning of photography to the present. Look very hard and objectively at the work you do and say, "This isn't good enough. How do I get better?" Looking at great photographers can help you learn how. Let your ego get out of the way and be willing to make mistakes. Rejoice in others' good work and let that elevate you. One of the greatest things that happened for me was to shoot with so many terrific colleagues here, to be in the field with those people. It just doesn't get any better than that.

The other thing is to shoot a lot of film and learn to see pictures. The beauty of that is that it opens your eyes to observe the world. Even when you don't have a camera in your hand you'll develop over time the ability to observe. That's a gift that photography can give you. Constantly looking at light, at composition, and most importantly at moments and appreciating them. It can be pleasurable in more ways than you might immediately think.

Why does Africa hold such a special place in both your private and professional life?

I grew up in a beautiful part of the United States. I think that instilled a love for landscape, for wild places and open spaces. Of course Africa has that in spades. One of the mainstays of photography is the ability to make connections with a landscape, person, animal, or [even] a concept. You must connect with what you're pointing your camera at. If you don't make the connection, you tend to make pretty superficial pictures.

Continued on Next Page >>


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