All photographs by Chris Johns
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A San tribesman with his bow and arrow in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, 1996.
All photographs by Chris Johns

A Master Photographer Reflects on Work, Love, and Finding a Voice

As curator of the National Geographic Found Tumblr, I love sharing a small sliver of our incredible collection of photographs. But sometimes I want to dig a little deeper and get to know the photographers who captured these great moments. We’re lucky to have one of them here in the office every day—Chief Content Officer Chris Johns. Johns worked as a field photographer for over 20 years before a ten-year turn as editor in chief of National Geographic magazine. Before that he worked in a number of roles as a photographer and picture editor for various newspapers. I grabbed a quick lunch with Johns and asked him about his passion for photography.

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Lava spews out of an active fissure and creates molten rivers in Zaire, 1990.

JANNA DOTSCHKAL: When did you first know you wanted to be a photographer for National Geographic?

CHRIS JOHNS: It really started in grad school. I was at the University of Minnesota, and my professor, Dr. R. Smith Schuneman, or “Smitty” as we called him, was well versed in the history of photography—from the very onset of Fox Talbot and daguerreotypes up to the present. One of his star students was National Geographic photographer Bill Allard. He’d share Bill’s work and letters he had written. So there was this rich, immersive experience in grad school, and we were always thinking, What will my contribution to photography be?

Smitty would always really encourage us: Be original. Be yourself. Develop your photography. Develop your own voice.

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A cheetah cub runs in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, 1998.

I think some of the picture editing I did at newspapers made me a better photographer. I eventually decided that I wanted to do more magazine work because I wanted more time and depth in my work. I also believed so much in the mission of National Geographic, and I really connected with a lot of subject matter that’s photographed at National Geographic.

I’ve always loved the outdoors. I’ve always loved adventure, exploration, mountain climbing, all of those things, skiing. It was a very natural place for me to want to come to.

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Newly circumcised boys from the Luvale tribe greet the dawn with traditional songs and drumming. Zambia, 1997.

JANNA: Your photograph of a man with a bicycle in Zambia is your most popular image on Found. What was happening in your career at the time?

CHRIS: This was at a point where I really loved working in Africa, and the Zambezi River—just the very name of it and the great history of the Zambezi—had always been a fascination for me since childhood. I had always wanted to see Victoria Falls and spend some time on the Zambezi River, so it was a great assignment. I proposed it.

One of the things I loved about the Zambezi River is that there’s all this rich daily life, and it was a place that was really stimulating visually, and I was fascinated with it. So I just took all different kinds of pictures of life there and felt an urgency to do that because some parts of the Zambezi had not really changed for decades and other parts were changing quickly.

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A scorching sun casts long shadows as camels cross salt flats on Lake Assal in Djibouti, 1989.

JANNA: Are there any photos you’ve taken that you consider to be the most important or meaningful?

JOHNS: Early in my career I used to think, I’m going to get that signature picture that will really help me find my voice and be a stepping stone in my career. I came to really realize that what it’s about is a journey, a body of work. The other key thing is to make pictures that stand the test of time. That was really enforced by Smitty Schuneman when I went to grad school—to make pictures that have universal appeal.

I’ve taken a lot of really bad pictures. Heavens to Betsy! I’ve had a lot of really bad pictures published. I’d be the first one to admit that. Very few of my pictures hang in my house. It’s mostly my colleagues’ work, because when I look at my pictures I’m always looking for what’s wrong with [them].

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A nomadic salt collector sews his sacks closed with palm fronds on Lake Assal in Djibouti, 1990.

JANNA: Why did you transition out of working as a field photographer?

CHRIS: A lot of it was purely practical. What happened was I met my wife on assignment. She was working in Ethiopia, at the United States Information Agency, and we were married in Nairobi. And that was a real turning point in my life—I was in my late 30s, and I really wanted to have a family. Meeting and marrying her opened the possibilities to do that.

It became increasingly troublesome to me that I was away from home so much. It became a challenge for my family to be on assignment with me.

I’ve had a very blessed career at National Geographic. Every day, I want to come to work and grow. I want to learn things. I want to challenge myself in new ways.

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A group of wildebeests running in the dusk, Zambezi River area, Zambia, 1997.

JANNA: Anyone can take a picture today. Why are professional photographers still important?

CHRIS: That very much gets to what I constantly talk about, and that’s voice. I believe in the power of people whose lives are devoted really to making great pictures. I submit that with the [ubiquity] and abundance of photography right now, their role is more important than ever because what they do is help us all see. And it’s quite something to be dedicated to that—you constantly want to be better, to reach people in more ways. What it boils down to is really powerful visual storytelling.

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Route 93 in Nevada, 1992

I think there’s value in a photographer who can go to a place that’s very familiar and come back and go, “Wow! I’ve never seen that before. I never saw that in my own home. I never saw that in my own neighborhood. I never saw that in my own community,” or to take us to a place that most of us would never have the opportunity to go [to] and come back and share it. To me, one of the great joys in life is seeing the work of a great photographer and what he or she comes back with.

To me, that was always such a rush. When you say, Whoa!—you know, I had no idea he or she would come back with with something that cool.

View more of Chris Johns’ photographs on Found.