Q&A: Geographic Photographer on Work, Africa

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Africa for some reason was a place I always wanted to go. When I finally went, it was overwhelming. I connected with it…better than I imagined. My father once told me around a campfire in the Serengeti during his first trip to Africa, that he felt if my grandfather had come to Africa he never would have left. Maybe that explains the great love that I feel for the place. It's almost like there was a genetic component to some degree.

What does Africa's environmental future hold?

So much of the media is about the hopelessness of Africa. I can tell story after story about the power of people who've decided to do the right thing for the future and have had a tremendously positive impact and overcome incredible odds in doing so. They are astonishing. Like Laurie Marker (founder of the Cheetah Conservation Fund), who went to Namibia to save that country's cheetahs. [Her] passion and hard work has made a huge difference for those animals in Namibia. It's just fabulous.

At the same time, you can't back away from the reality that in some places the time frame is growing shorter very quickly and we may have to make pretty decisive commitments about what we need to do for future generations. The only way that this happens is through a grass roots effort. Just scaring people may occasionally work, but I don't think it works as a consistent approach. Keep in mind with scare tactics, usually they make light of the complexity of some of these issues. We face some very complex problems. You don't want to overwhelm people but you do want them to understand the interconnectivity of our actions and the Earth.

What major changes have you seen in Africa over the years?

There has been good and bad. I've seen, in some areas, massive population growth and that really presents some problems. I've also seen tremendous progress in some areas. In South Africa, for example, there's more attention to community development and people in long-range conservation schemes are realizing that if there's not grass roots support conservation won't be sustainable. We have to balance the needs of humans and ecosystems. You're not going to have good conservation if you have destitution, political instability, violence, and poor leadership.

It's a tragedy to see the violence. Odds are if people don't treat each other with respect they won't treat the environment with respect. In places like Sierra Leone and Liberia the government situations have played havoc with everything. Nelson Mandela, I think, has had a very positive influence on conservation with his respect for human dignity and respect for the environment. You don't exploit either. Somebody like that is an inspiration, and there are a lot of people in Africa like that. You can learn to forgive, move on and learn from our mistakes—that's powerful stuff. There are great moral lessons in Africa.

Photo Galleries by Chris Johns:
Africa's Wild Dogs
Bushmen: Southern Africa's First People
Cheetahs: Ghosts of the Grasslands
Zambezi River

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