The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Chris Johns Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Janice Dilg.

December 15, 2014


“From Student Photographer to Head of National Geographic”  December 15, 2014  Location: National Geographic Society Headquarters, Washington, D.C.  Watch Video | Download Transcript (PDF)

In the interview, Johns discusses his rural upbringing in Central Point, Oregon, his involvement in Future Farmers of America as a teen, and his decision to attend Oregon State University in pursuit of a veterinary degree. From there he notes his involvement with the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG) while a college student as well as his involvement with the various social movements then prevalent on university campuses across the country, including OSU.

Johns then describes his shift away from agriculture and towards photojournalism while an Oregon State undergraduate. He recounts his work with the Barometer student newspaper and the impact made on him by OSU journalism professors Ron Lovell and Fred Zwahlen, as well as influential internships that he held at the Corvallis Gazette-Times and the Albany Democrat-Herald. Johns also discusses his graduate training at the University of Minnesota and the important role that his graduate mentor, R. Smith Schuneman, played in his life.

The remainder of the session focuses on the arc of Johns' professional career, beginning with his first job as a photographer at the Topeka Capital-Journal, a later post at the Seattle Times, and various freelance projects along the way. Johns then describes his first association with National Geographic as a staff photographer and the opportunity that this afforded him to live and work in Africa, a time during which he met Nelson Mandela and collected materials for numerous articles as well as two books. The interview concludes with remarks on Johns' move into editorial work for the magazine and the perspective that he has tried to bring to National Geographic as its Editor in Chief.