Chris Johns, 60, knows the African bush as intimately as he knows the tropical forests of Hawaii, or the mountains and coasts of the western US, or the icy wastelands of Alaska. For more than two decades, Johns has spent his time in remote forests, islands, volcanic rifts, and mountains, photographing wildlife, people, and landscapes, for the National Geographic magazine. In 2005, he became the first field photographer to take over as the editor-in-chief of the magazine. In India for the first time, at the World Magazine Congress in Delhi earlier this month, Johns announced the launch of the first Indian edition of the magazine. He also spoke to Lounge about his incredible experiences on the field. Edited excerpts:
How did you start working for the magazine?
The first assignment I did for National Geographic (NG) magazine was a story I proposed. I grew up in south western Oregon and I had a lot of friends who were forest firefighters and they did regale me for years with their stories of forest firefighting for the US forest service—an inter-agency fire fighting crew that would go anywhere in the US where a forest fire was out of control and bring it under control. My sense of adventure was sparked by that. And I got permission to be the 21st member, as a photographer, on a 20-person firefighting crew. So I spent four months, which is a relatively normal amount of time for a NG magazine assignment, doing an inside look at forest firefighting in the US. You slept through the day, fought fires at night, because that’s when you can put out fires with most efficiency. It was a grand adventure, and of course there was an element of risk and danger.
Intrepid: San Bushmen in the Kalahari desert,Botswana, 1996. Photographs by Chris Johns/National Geographic
I had been a newspaper photographer for 10 years, so I had the basic photojournalistic skills down, but it was still quite a leap to go from being a newspaper photographer to a magazine photographer.
It’s your time in Africa that really established you as one of the best photographers in the world. What was your first assignment there?
My first African assignment was a big one—on Africa’s rift valley. I came at wildlife probably from a different perspective than most wildlife photographers. Before this, I had covered everything from sports to “cook of the week”, fashion, hard news, and feature photography. When I started working as a magazine photographer, I approached it with a photojournalist’s perspective, even a street photographer perspective. I wanted to bring that great perspective that you see in the masters of photography like Cartier-Bresson or W. Eugene Smith to wildlife photography. So I brought maybe a slightly different aesthetic than other natural history photographers. The reason I was drawn to wildlife was actually for journalistic reasons—because what I could see, especially when I got to Africa, was hugely accelerated change, and with that, decreasing habitat for wildlife and a collision between the needs of wildlife and the needs of people.
Chris Johns in conversation. Satish Kumar/Mint
One of the most exciting things that happened to me there was that I met my wife. She was a diplomat in Ethiopia, and I wanted to go to some very unstable places in the (Great)Rift valley that were at war. She helped me get in to some of these places.
I went down to the Danakil Depression to see the Afar people. It’s a very active volcanic area with constant eruptions, and one of the hottest places on earth. It’s like another landscape, like being on Mars. When you spend time with the Afar people, you see the incredible adaptability of human beings, the spirit of living in one of the harshest landscapes imaginable on Earth, and a life that in many ways had not changed for centuries. You also see that in the next 10 years, that life will change dramatically—possibly more than it has changed in the last 10,000 years, and this is true for many other indigenous peoples.
Pioneer: Johns was the first to capture images of this rare Hawaiian honeycreeper in 1993.
You’ve obviously had some remarkable experiences working with wildlife, tell us about one such adventure?
I went to Botswana to photograph African wild dogs—they are the most endangered large carnivores in Africa. Wild dogs are just extraordinary animals—but very little is generally known about them, and there are lots of misconceptions. When you are dealing with animals that are so endangered, you have to be very careful about your contact with them because one of the reasons they are endangered is because of human contact. What’s interesting is if you are patient and respectful and you come to know the animal and its habits, they generally come to you.
We had been following these dogs for months, so they had become comfortable with us. So one day, after a kill, they dragged the carcass next to our Land Rover and kept it there. They are such smart animals—they knew that the hyenas and other predators will keep clear of the car, so their kill would be safe. In a pack of wild dogs, generally only one or two animals do the majority of the killing. In our pack, there was this beautiful male dog called Zermont who had just made a kill and had brought it near our car. I wanted to crawl underneath the car from the other side and take photographs of the dogs at dog-level. So I am underneath the vehicle shooting with a medium telephoto lens, and Zermont, covered in blood, walked right up to me and started sniffing underneath the car. He started sniffing my lens, then started to crawl under and started sniffing my hand, my head, my ears, my neck. I just froze. I had seen what a highly proficient killer he was, and even though wild dogs attacking humans is very, very rare, my heart was pounding lying on the ground like that. I remained calm, and he seemed satisfied and he walked off and I started breathing again in relief. And then the next thing I know he’s grabbed my pant leg on the other side of the vehicle, and he was shaking it gently, with his head down, and his rear end was up in the air, like he wanted to play. I just let my leg go limp, and he shook it all over in fun. It reinforced to me how incredibly important it is for people to know and try to understand the beauty of an animal like the wild dog and also understand the issues that could lead to their extinction in our own life time.
What about problematic encounters with animals? How often has that happened?
The times I’ve had problems are times I pushed too hard.
One time in Zimbabwe, I walked into a pride of lions in a heavy bush with a guide. The lions were not happy about being surprised at first light, and they had cubs. There were three of us; one guide with a rifle, me, and a Zimbabwean assistant.
An elephant in the Ngorongoro crater, Tanzania, 1988.
We had been tracking the pride for some days, and it was quite heavy bush so we didn’t realize how close we were. But we had seen them first, stopped and started to quietly back away when my assistant tripped over a log and fell down—and then the lions, who were feasting on a buffalo, saw us. The females quickly moved the cubs, and then mock charged us. When they calmed down, out of nowhere, two male lions came charging at us. I’ll never forget that—the big old boys running in and then stopping, the dust flying, their manes swinging to and fro in the wind, and the powerful roar! And that got the females unhappy again, and they actually started to stalk us. Obviously the last thing you do is run, so we were all frozen at our spots, and I had a big tripod and a big telephoto lens and I held it over my head and tried to make myself as big as possible and we started yelling LEAVE US ALONE, WE COME HERE IN PEACE! So they think this looks like a lot of trouble here to try to eat this guy, so that sort of stopped them. And then we slowly walked back to our car. It felt like a very long walk.
Wildlife photography is supposed to be all about patience, about camping out for days and months to get the right shot. What state of mind do you go into when you have to do that?
There are these magnificent honeycreeper birds in the Hawaiian islands which had not been photographed before. I worked with some very good biologists there to try and make photographs of these birds. Every day for 10 days we would climb 15-20 metres up these trees before sunrise, and stay on top till sundown. Often, it would rain heavily, or the sun would burn us. There was always a strong wind, and the trees would be swaying so much you could hardly get your camera to focus on the birds. You go into a very patient state of mind, but you also have to be very alert or you won’t get the picture. You have a strong sense of mission—it’s a huge motivation that you are going to show people something extraordinary, something never seen before. We made the first pictures of this bird, and it became a NG cover.
Women tend pea fields in the Great Rift Valley, Congo, 1990.
There have been animals I’ve waited for years, waiting for the right opportunity to finally get the right picture, and often there is a great deal of serendipity involved.
I’ve always loved lions for example, camped with lions in the Ngorongoro crater (Tanzania), lived with lions. Now one day in the Kalahari, I was supposed to meet a biologist to photograph meerkats, and the biologist didn’t show up. My assistant and I were driving past a watering hole on the way to visit this biologist, and we saw these two really beautiful, powerful male lions. But there was no light, so we drove on. We could not find the biologist, and the day seemed pretty worthless as we were going back towards the camp. Suddenly, a big storm starts to come through, it was very late afternoon, the wind was howling, dust rose up everywhere. I said to my assistant, we got to find those two lions. I’ve spent enough time with lions to know in that situation where they would go, how they would react, so we started to look for them. It was just about dark when we found one of the lions, and I’m shooting and shooting and shooting and there’s no light, and I can’t even see the lion sometimes. The pictures aren’t working, it’s the worst of conditions, and then suddenly—one picture! That’s it, just one perfect picture. The shutter speed was somewhere between 125th and 60th of a second, with a 180mm lens. You could say you were lucky but that’s the thing about photography—like journalism, you need to be open and flexible. You never know when something’s going to happen.
Do you have a favourite wildlife subject?
If I had to photograph just one animal for the rest of my life it would be elephants. They have such a complex social structure, so much family dynamics, and are so intelligent— absolutely magnificent. I worked with orphan elephants in Zambia. I befriended one and used to go on walks with her along the shores of the Zambezi river. It was one of the most delightful experiences in my life. She’d come running to me and demand that we go for walks. The way elephant families behave, you could easily project that on humans. The deep bond that the children share with mothers, the way youngsters learn how to deal with solving problems, how to move and think and express themselves. It’s a real tragedy what’s happening with elephants in Africa. There is an uptake in poaching, in the trade of ivory, because of its demand in China, and there are more roads making their way into elephant areas.
A lion pushes through a storm in the Kalahari, 1995.
Is your family as passionate about travelling as you are?
My wife, my son, my two daughters who are in college, we all love to travel. We love the experience of going to new places. We love wild, open spaces, or Italy or Spain, or Alaska. We continually go to Africa, go to the bush with good friends, see the sons and daughters of animals I’ve photographed.
What’s the most bizarre travel experience you’ve had?
See, for me bizarre is good! Shortly after I got married in Kenya, we took a ferry boat down Lake Tanganiyka. They used a crane to put our Land Rover on top of the ferry, the SS Liemba, in Mpulungu, Zambia. Now this ferry was quite old, it had been sunk once during, believe it or not, World War I, and had been revived. We had a room which had a lot of excess water from the men’s latrine, so it wasn’t ideal. So we put the rooftop tent on my Land Rover, and for the next three days we went down the lake like that. Every few hours, the ferry would stop and people would paddle out and trade all kinds of goods—everything from deodorant to hairspray to chickens and cows. The ferry was a lifeline of trade for many of these remote parts of the lake. I got arrested for not having enough permits to take pictures, but, you know, I never have enough permits. So we gave them some atlases and had some beers, and I wasn’t arrested any more, which was good. Now on one of those nights when we were sleeping in the rooftop tent, a big storm came up. The lake is really an inland sea, and I could see that the ship was rolling and pitching to such a degree that it would flip my car off the deck, by the smokestacks, and into the second deepest lake in the world. I could not help thinking that my wife and I would land up under the lake with a big vehicle on top of us, which I think would have been quite a dodgy situation.
Johns in the Great Rift Valley, Congo, 1989. Kent J. Kobersteen / National Geographic
But that was an incredible trip, and we made quite good pictures.
What are the bare essentials you need while travelling?
To me the essentials is a state of mind, and the state of mind is one of insatiable curiosity. You want to know more, you want to connect more, you are open to experiences. No matter what happens, you roll with it, be patient with it, be open—that’s the most important part of travelling. The more I travel, the less I need. I don’t even want to be encumbered by a lot of cameras, or a bunch of suitcases. I worked on a story on the bushmen of South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana for five years. They are one of the oldest cultures in the world, and when you work with them, you get to see the incredible survival skills they have, and how little they need to keep surviving. Some of my best travels have happened through incredible inconveniences, great problems. Out of that comes a great story that you remember the rest of your life.
You have lived and travelled in so many areas where the environment and ecology is critically threatened. How has that affected you personally?
It has affected me dramatically. And it has affected the way I edit the NG magazine. I have seen human behaviour at its very best in many ways, and some that is absolutely appalling—I mean in our relationship to our environment. And I think it’s made me realize that there’s a sense of urgency to our work at the magazine. These are complex issues with many nuances and it’s going to take time to solve them, but there’s an urgency to get them solved. It has had a profound impact on my career, and as a father of three children. Some of the extraordinary things that I’ve seen in my life, I want my children to see too. And the reality is that if we as humans don’t change and evolve and learn from past mistakes then it’s gonna be a very different world, and not necessarily a better world. By the same token, I’ve seen people do incredible things, make incredible sacrifices to make the world a better place to live. A very close friend of mine, who passed away recently, (Kenyan environmentalist) Wangari Maathai, she proved that an African woman who was strong and believed that the world can be a better place can have a profound impact on policy, in her case with the simple act of planting a tree. We need to live a life that is more sustainable, more in tune with agriculture. There is a celebratory message, a hopeful message that I try to convey through my photography, and the way I edit NG magazine—it’s important for people to understand what an incredibly beautiful world we have.