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?

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?

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.

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.

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?

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?

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?

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.

rudraneil.s@livemint.com

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