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What It Takes...
To Be a National Geographic Photographer
Michael "Nick" Nichols, 52, National Geographic photographer. Here's the entire interview: Nick Nichols, uncut. As told to Kalee Thompson


Nick Nichols

Veteran National Geographic photographer Nick Nichols.

Talent is a given, but it has to be said that everything else counts for about 99 percent of success. I mean, you've got to have the talent, but then you've got to be able to sell yourself, you have to be focused, you have to be able to take rejections, you have to deal with cultures, deal with places. You have to be able to sleep anywhere, eat anything, and not be afraid of disease.

You need to be exploited. You have to work hard for somebody else for low pay early in your career. That's how you learn. I got my start with a guy named Charles Moore, who's a famous Civil Rights photographer. He did the pictures of the German shepherds attacking people in Birmingham, Alabama, and Martin Luther King being arrested. He's just got an incredible body of work about the Civil Rights movement. He's from the same little town as I am in Alabama, and when I was in college there, I knew his pictures, but I didn't know who he was—I didn't know he was from that town.

Anyway, word got out that this famous Life magazine photographer was coming back and he was going to come over to the school to visit, and I latched on to Charles like a puppy dog that decides it's going to adopt you.

He said, "Well, don't go to graduate school, come out to San Francisco and be my assistant." When I got out of school I got in my car and drove out across the country and went to his house. I only assisted him for a few months because he introduced me to the people that made my career take off. I learned more in a few weeks working for him than I had learned all through school. You can just learn so much so fast.

But you're getting exploited while you're doing it. These two guys who just went to Africa with me, Nathan and Frederic, they worked on my farm for four months at $10 an hour beforehand. That's not nothing, but Nathan is a qualified carpenter and he could have made $20 an hour. I just said, "Look, that's the way it is. If you want to do it, OK." And what I was trying to see out of that was what kind of teamwork they'd have and if they would be too competitive with each other, because they both want to be photographers at National Geographic. I don't get assistants to load my cameras; they've got to have skills like changing tires, and eating bad food, and climbing in trees. It's not like assisting a fashion photographer; my assistants have to have a lot of wilderness skills.

As he was leaving my office the first time we met, Nathan said, "I would swim through lava to work for you." And I thought, that's exactly what I wanted to hear. He wasn't saying, I love you, I love your work. Instead, it was, I'd love to work for you. So he put it in the right context. And when he and Frederic did work for me, the guys worked 16 hours a day and didn't care about themselves, about their own work or personal lives. And that's what I expect. Because that's what I did for Charles Moore in that certain period.

There are lots of ways that being exploited can add up to learning a lot about outdoor photography. For example, if you're a boating guide on the Grand Canyon, that's not being a photographer on the Grand Canyon, but it gives you access. One of the best photography books that ever came out of the canyon was by John Balustein, who was a dory boatman. Well, he was a photographer who wasn't making a living so he ran the river for maybe six years and made these great pictures.

As a photographer, you want to have a niche. You want to have something that's special to you, that you care most about. And not necessarily something exotic. You can't afford to go back to exotic over and over again. If it's in your backyard, you can. It needs to be something that you're just totally committed to, and it doesn't matter if National Geographic is going to publish it; you're going to do it anyway. You're driven to do it anyway.

I photographed caves for a hobby as I was growing up and learning photography in the South. As I matured as a photographer, I became well-known as a cave photographer. Then this cave was discovered in New Mexico called Lechuguilla, and it's incredibly spectacular. And I was the only one who could photograph it to the level of National Geographic. That's what brought me in the door. And once I did that story, which was a cover story, it just blossomed from there.

What got me to that point was passion. Passion is infectious. The day I walked into Manhattan with Charles Moore, I left with an assignment. I was 25 years old, I was freaked out, I left my cameras in the taxi, but I went to a new magazine called GEO that was just starting up and they gave me an assignment. I showed my pictures to the receptionist, and I ended up showing them five times that day—I got all the way to the main editor.

Simply taking images can be very fulfilling to the soul, but when you say that you want to make a living at it, be a magazine photographer, that's when this hard edge comes in. When you want to be published, and you want to have people buy your pictures, and give you assignments, another level of commitment comes in. You really have to be obsessed with making images.


lizard
YOU OUGHT TO BE IN PICTURES: For hot shot Nick Nichols, "it's about getting important things onto a rectangle."
For me, it's not about travel, it's not about having fun—it's always been about a fascination with getting important things onto a rectangle. I'm totally driven by the fact that my pictures have something to do with making national parks, that they can speak for things that can't speak for themselves. There's value that comes from being published. If I kept my photographs in a shoebox, they certainly wouldn't save any gorillas. And that's really my mission.

I do have the best job in the world. I'd like in some ways to keep it a secret. But, you know, the richest person on Earth probably tries to have a vacation that is in some ways like my job, and he can't do it. I think about Mick Jagger, because the Stones were always my heros, and I think, Wait a minute, with all the money they've got, they all go buy houses on boring beach islands and lay in the sand. If they go on safari, they can't get out of the Land Rover. I was trying to think of it, the richest person on Earth having a better deal than I do, and they can't. Because even with all the money on Earth, you can't buy the intimacy that I get with the subjects I'm approaching. My job is to look intimately at things. It's got lots of negatives, but I don't care. Three times a day somebody says that to me: "Hey, Nick, you must have the greatest job in the world." And, of course, that person wouldn't know I have that job unless I was bragging about it.


Photographs courtesy of Michael Nichols/NG Image Collection

Do you have what it takes? Pick up the October issue to find out.


Additional Excerpts
From the print edition, October 2004

What It Takes: The best dream adventures you can make happen—today
- To be an NG photographer
Welcome to the Neighborhood: Can mountain lions and mountain bikers get along?
Secrets of the Black Hills: Granite towers, sunken caves, and singletrack abound
Pelton's World: Five things travel guidebooks never tell you


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October 2004



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