As 2004 ended and 2005 began, photojournalism – an industry based on light — appeared dark and dreary.
Looking back, unlike any period over the past 25 years, many photojournalists and picture editors endured great struggle and consternation – cutbacks, layoffs, less space, leadership apertures and diminished commitment. The American media landscape experienced more openings and moves among picture editors and visual leaders in unprecedented numbers.
There are new photographic leaders at: The New York Times, the Associated Press, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, the Houston Chronicle, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the (St. Paul) Pioneer Press and job searches are under way at USA Today, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Kansas City Star, the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsday, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution – to name a few.
Then just when a ray of hope was needed, America’s premiere photography magazine announced that Chris Johns would become its editor-in-chief.
“Chris Johns embodies National Geographic. He brings talent, excellent editorial instincts, great passion and leadership skills to his new role. His 18 years of field experience, combined with his recent tenure as associate editor, make him the ideal person to succeed the legendary Bill Allen,” proclaimed John Griffin, National Geographic Society executive vice president and president of the Magazine Group.
With picture editors leaving their posts and newspapers and magazines struggling to identify the causes, I set out to find some answers from a photojournalism leader, respected for his prolific documentary accomplishments and his leadership acuity. Here are Chris Johns’ responses to an e-mail interview.
Looking back, what accomplishments are you most proud of during your National Geographic career?
Chris Johns: We (I emphasize “we” because no National Geographic project is done solo) have photographed articles that are important, but often are subjects that have received little coverage in the popular press. The stories I’ve shot are as diverse as the Hawaiian Extinction Crisis to the fate of southern Africa’s Bushmen. Photographing those kinds of stories has given me much satisfaction, but the past three years I’ve received even greater satisfaction working with talented photographers such as Jodi Cobb, on her Human Slavery story, and Bill Allard, on his Untouchables story. These stories emphasize our commitment to making National Geographic a relevant, timely, and topical magazine, using cutting edge, provocative photography. Working with Bill Allen and colleagues to produce these kinds of stories has been my most proud accomplishment. It is my greatest hope that my greatest accomplishments are ahead of me as I lead National Geographic Magazine.
In your opinion what is the greatest challenge facing photojournalism today?
Building ever-higher degrees of integrity in photojournalism is our greatest challenge. Our work has to be trusted. Photojournalists are the keepers of this faith, but they are not alone. Publishers need to give photojournalists the time and the resources to make accurate, insightful, and thought-provoking pictures.
How would your articulate your mission as the editor in chief at NGM?
My mission is to make NGM a must read. We want subscribers and newsstand buyers to feel absolutely compelled that they must read the magazine every month.
As the ninth full-time editor NGM what will be your primary goal?
To work with a team of journalists dedicated to making National Geographic Magazine the greatest read in the world. Our desire is to produce a magazine with a story mix that will challenge our readers and also remind them that the world is a truly amazing place that is undergoing change at an unprecedented pace.
What are two or three of the meaningful lessons that you learned over your 18 years of field photographic experience?
- Work and think hard. Never hurry. Never rest.
- Always be honest and tell the truth.
- Wake up every morning knowing that you can do better. Never be satisfied and be committed to continuing to grow both personally and professionally.
- Be humble, there is no room for arrogance.
- Care deeply about your family, colleagues, and the work you do.
How will digital imaging impact the NGM presentation?
We are jumping into digital imaging with enthusiasm. As the technology continues to improve, we feel it can help us become an even more relevant and timely publication. But we can’t forget this simple truth, “It is the message, not the medium.” No doubt digital photography can help us with the message, but we still need very smart, dedicated journalists pressing the shutter.
What exciting initiatives will be at the top of your agenda when you begin on January 1, 2005?
We are very fortunate that William L. Allen established a foundation for us to build upon. The transition from Bill to me could not have been smoother. He had an incredible run of terrific stories and we intend to keep the momentum. More specifically, I’m especially excited about a single topic issue we have coming up for September 2005. We’re doing some restructuring to help NGM become more efficient, agile, and exciting.
As a photographer who started at the bottom, how does it feel to have risen to the lead editorial position at NGM?
I’ve been very fortunate in my career in having terrific, inspirational teachers and wonderful colleagues. I feel a deep sense of responsibility to my teachers and colleagues and the readers of National Geographic. It is a privilege to be named Editor-in-Chief. When I really stop to think about it, I can hardly believe it, but there is too much work to be done for navel gazing.
What advice can you offer those who aspire to do what you have done?
I’m a product of the field. As a National Geographic field photographer you are only as good as your last story. In short, you become production oriented, because you are judged solely on what you produce. My advice is: do your best, work and think hard, don’t play politics, and cherish every moment as a journalist. I believe journalism is truly one of the greatest callings on earth.
What is it about NGM’s photographic reporting that makes the magazine such a national treasure and the dream destination of almost every serious photojournalist?
I think it is our commitment to excellence. We care; we want to get it right. I know of no other publication that is willing to put the time and resources into stories that we do. We also need to be committed to attracting and taking care of talented people. My success as Editor-in-Chief will largely be determined by the talent and the integrity of the people I work with.