The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Chris Johns Oral History Interview

December 15, 2014 – 9:30a.m.

Video: “From Student Photographer to Head of National Geographic” . December 15, 2014

Location: National Geographic Society Headquarters, Washington, D.C.
Interviewer:  Janice Dilg

1:19:02 - Abstract | Biography | Download Transcript (PDF)


Janice Dilg: So today is December 15th, 2014 and I am at the National Geographic Society's Headquarters in Washington D.C. with Chris Johns, the Chief Content Officer for the society and an OSU alum from 1974. My name is Janice Dilg and I am the interviewer doing this as part of the OSU Sesquicentennial Oral History Project. So, we are where you are at this point in your life now, but I'd like to take you back and start with your roots in Oregon and connections with Oregon State University, please.

Chris Johns: My roots in Oregon begin actually at the University of Oregon where my parents met shortly after the war and I was the oddball in the family who knew from the very onset that I wanted to be a Beaver, not a Duck. And the reason I knew that was because at an early age I knew exactly the path for me to go in my career and that was to become a large animal vet. So Oregon State was the place to begin that pursuit. When I went to Oregon State I, along the way, was sidetracked with a couple of charismatic, great professors, one being Ron Lovell. I actually took a journalism class that I thought I could boost my GPA relatively easily after taking courses like organic chem, and low and behold I started this journey inspired by Ron Lovell, my first teacher at Oregon State, and then Fred Zwahlen, who introduced me to photography.

I had a very close friend, roommate that I had known since high school from the Future Farmers of America, Dennis Dimick, and Dennis had gotten interested in photography as well so it was a perfect influence of inspiration with professors and friends to start this journey in journalism. And I'm so fortunate to have done that at Oregon State because the kind of journalism that I've gone into and Dennis has gone into at National Geographic is a journalism that's very science based, that's very practical, and of course that was a big part of my education at Oregon State.

JD: So, just step back just a little; you grew up in Central Point?

CJ: I grew up in Central Point, Oregon.

JD: And how did you become involved in animals and wanting to be a veterinarian as kind of your inspiration to go off to college?

CJ: When I was eight years old, my family moved from the small home my father had built in Central Point, Oregon to a small farm and I just loved the small farm. In fact, Interstate 5 is being built through our small farm, is being moved there, and we had livestock. My father had had livestock as a child growing up. So I became very active in 4-H and then joined the Future Farmers of America. Again, I had a terrific teacher in Bob Alden who was my chapter advisor at Crater High School in Central Point. I learned about leadership programs through the Future Farmers of America, I had some farmland where I'd raise barley, I worked on the chapter farm, I had hogs, I had sheep and then I had some registered Herefords as well. So, it was—I had worked for local farmers in the Rogue River Valley, so it was a wonderful way to grow up and curiously all of those skills I had learned through high school and then on through Oregon State have benefitted me greatly throughout my career.

JD: Did you have a role model or someone that you knew that steered you towards wanting to be a veterinarian or a large animal veterinarian specifically?

CJ: There was a local vet named Dr. Hanwald who drove around in a Volkswagen Beetle and had his vet kit in the front of his Volkswagen Beetle. I knew him some. I also knew a local vet named Dr. Wilcox who did some large animal and small animal and I worked with him. And of course, having livestock, there were occasions when the vet would come over and I was just always really interested in animals. I still do love animals, love working with livestock, find it to be a very rewarding, fulfilling endeavor. So, it was a pretty natural thing for me. And I think it's not that unusual. I think there are a lot of Oregon boys and girls who live the rural lifestyle and could see that a great path was to be a vet, to help people and to help animals.


JD: So, you take this passion and you arrive at Oregon State University in 1970?

CJ: That's correct. I started two quarters late. I started in fall quarter because I had been State President in Future Farmers of America and there was extensive travel in that State President commitment, so I went to virtually every small town throughout Oregon as State Future Farmers of America President. I took my first trip to the East Coast for some leadership programs in Washington, D.C. and of course like Dennis and many of my colleagues my junior and senior year I had gone to the state FFA convention in Kansas City, Missouri.

JD: So when you arrive at campus, 1970 President Robert MacVicar had just become president that year so there may have been some changes going on campus, but what were your first impressions of being on the campus and getting involved in student life?

CJ: My first impression living in Corvallis was I was astonished by how much it rained, because the rainfall is roughly double what it was in the Rogue River Valley, so I had an adjustment there, which is actually, for a very outdoorsy person like myself, is actually a bigger adjustment than you might imagine. But it was certainly enlightening and I didn't regret it at all. It struck me as a place right off the bat where I belonged. I had a lot of high school friends who were going to school there. I just loved the atmosphere; I loved the informality of it.

Of course it was a very exciting time to be there because of the war in Vietnam, because of student interests. OSPIRG was being started, there was an environmental movement, we had one of the most progressive, interesting governors in the United States, Governor Tom McCall, and I, through my Future Farmers of America work been able to meet, Tom McCall, so I found him to be very inspirational.

So, the fact that it was a land grant college and that a lot of the things that I was interested in, like the environment, like livestock, agriculture, that earthy sort of education that I had received throughout my life, made me feel that I was absolutely in the perfect place. There was no place I would rather have been.

JD: And just tell a little about what OSPIRG is, for people who might not know.

CJ: Well, OSPIRG was the Oregon Student Public Investigative Research Group. I think I have the "I" right.

JD: Mhmm.

CJ: And it was through a group associated with Ralph Nader at the time. And what it was, was again, would support things like the bottle and can recycling bill, which at the time, people don't realize, was a very cutting edge environmental stand for the state of Oregon to take, along with the state of Vermont. So there were—there was a lot of interest way back then in the environment. And of course that really helped me understand and appreciate the work I do at National Geographic. Like I say, my longtime colleague and friend Dennis Dimick is Executive Editor for the Environment. We've positioned ourselves as being one of the experts on the environment. And when I talk about the environment, I'm talking about from very much a humanity based perspective; that if we take care of the environment, we take care of ourselves. If we don't take care of our environment, we do not take care of ourselves. So that, it was a heady, great time to be in Corvallis.

JD: And you mentioned the Vietnam War. A lot of people don't realize, perhaps in this day and age, there was an active draft then and a draft lottery. Were you a part of that?

CJ: Oh yes, I had—I had received, because of my work with the Future Farmers of America, I had received a II-S deferment actually as I was doing that and then went right into college. So I had a II-S until I believe it was my junior year and then they, the lottery started and I actually had my draft physical. My number was a hundred and eighty-two, so I was concerned about going to Vietnam but I think, from where I sit now, there were a lot of lessons to be learned and one was that because I had two parents who were well educated, who were middle class, who had afforded me the possibility to go to college, that I was put in a different category than a lot of my other friends in high school. And I was never comfortable with that. I did not think that was right and I still, to this day, think that was a mistake. I think you either have a draft and everybody's in it or you don't and you have a volunteer army. So, that was opinion very held strong by me and others.


JD: And there were many protests developing around the country, a lot of times on college campuses. I believe while you were at OSU there was a bombing of the ROTC building?

CJ: There was indeed. I was in Wilson Hall right—which is very close to the bombing, and then there were—this was around the same time, if I remember correctly, as Kent State.

JD: They were just a couple days apart.

CJ: That's right. And so they shut down the OSU campus and we all went to the University of Oregon to see what was going on there and got tear-gassed, you know, we were in a couple of stampedes and got a good taste of what it's like to be in a student demonstration, when in actuality we were just kids from Oregon State who were like just trying to check things out, see what was going on over in Eugene, which of course was believed as sort of the Berkeley of Oregon at the time.

JD: I've never heard that term before, that's great. And there was, you know, I mean there was a lot going on, the Civil Rights Movement—

CJ: Oh, it was a fantastic time to be at school—

JD: The Women's Rights Movement, how were those, in addition to the bombing and the Kent State, which was the shooting of some students by National Guard in Ohio, how did those kind of national and international events sort of continue to play out on campus, whether with student –led groups or protests or visitors to the campus, how did that kind of mix into the OSU culture at the time?

CJ: Well, I think OSU had its own way of dealing with it, which was much different than the University of Oregon, much different than Portland State, much different than the University of California, Berkeley. Oregon State, from my perspective, was a good place to be because we weren't ignoring the issue but we dealt with it in a different way, and that's why I think I was so fortunate to go there, was because we took—we were aware of the political ramifications of the war in Vietnam, a lot of us were scared because we'd seen friends come home from Vietnam and many were not better for that experience. It had been really hard on people, so there was a lot of emotion running high.

I think what was great about Oregon State at that point was that it wasn't just a war in Vietnam, it wasn't just through that political lens, even though a human rights and civil rights lens, it wasn't just through that, which it was, which is vitally important, I don't mean to say otherwise, but it was also through the lens of "we're a land grant college, we're science based and there are things in the environment we need to pay attention to, too." And that struck me and has lived with me since the day I left Oregon State. I mean that was deeply ingrained in me. And in fact, it had a profound effect on my work throughout my career, because when I did become a photographer, when I became a photojournalist, the natural place to migrate to was LIFE magazine because LIFE magazine and Time, Inc., in general, but other publications as well, were very interested in the social conscience; in wars, in human inequities, all things that are incredibly important for us to think about constantly and give a voice to those who are on the front lines or those who have no voice. That's a really fundamental, incredibly important part of being a journalist, especially a photojournalist.

What in time I became convinced was not many people are turning that searing lens on our relationship with the environment that nurtures us. Because you could make the case that in some parts of the world we are in fact at war on the environment, with the environment. And it was especially interesting for me to look at introspectively because of my family. My grandfather had come from Wisconsin at the turn of the century and he and his brothers were loggers and he had worked around Vernonia Oregon, he had worked in the coastal range, he had been a timber cruiser, he had been a millwright, he had his own gyppo logging crew, he had his own mills, my father came up through that business, moving from Vernonia into the Springfield area before my father went into World War—volunteered for the Army Air Corps in World War II.


So, for me it was a really interesting personal journey and what Oregon State helped me at that time was set me on a path that was a sensible, pragmatic path about how you solve problems and also how you give a voice, in this case, to the environment and those who work in that environment as my grandfather had, as my father had before he graduated from the University of Oregon, as he had for most of their lives. So, it was a really, I mean I've thought about this a lot in what I do now. So, it really grounded me. That was the thing. Oregon State grounded me and grounded my values and opened me, opened me a great deal, because of that family history of logging, of lumber, of timber, you know, with a little farming mixed in, and made me think about it in new, broader terms.

JD: So, you mentioned Ron Lovell and Fred Zwahlen. Talk a little bit more in detail about you borrowed your roomie Dennis Dimick's camera and you take this class, can you remember some of the just kind of process of revelation that started going on for you as you learned how to use a camera and learned how to take photos in their early classes?

CJ: Well, it started with Ron Lovell and the reason I took the journalism class, I joke about it and say it was, I thought I could get an easy A, but the reason I took it was because I love to write and I love to read, so I thought well this will be fun. And I'd never really thought about journalism much. It had just been something I had been immersed in all my life. I mean I always read the newspapers, loved magazines, love reading books, so it was sort of interesting to do a full immersion in a class with a really dynamic professor. And what he did was open me up to a world of possibilities I'd never even considered. And a lot of that was because of Ron's enthusiasm and then his ability to take my work and help me understand how to become much better at writing, at expressing myself, at giving a voice to someone.

So, it was a process of doing it and then Ron was, by nature, a natural coach. And what he did was inspire me, like any great teacher does. So that was sort of the first step, was Ron. And then Dennis, I always loved machines, I mean I was a farm kid, I loved gadgets, so Dennis had this photography thing going and I thought well this is great fun. And then one of our roommates was Christian Anderson, Chris Anderson, so Dennis was starting to do some work—and I loved sports—so Dennis was doing some work with the Oregon State Barometer, he was doing sports for the yearbook, some sports with—doing some sports photography for the athletic department. The other thing I loved was backpacking and I just loved being outdoors, I loved backcountry, cross country skiing and so it was a natural extension for me to try to get a camera and photograph the things I loved. So, that's really how the photography thing got started.

And then again, I was very fortunate that Fred Zwahlen was just a fantastic teacher. And you know, it was not a hard sell. It was, you know, here are opportunities; here are things to think about. So, I started to work some for the athletic department, I used a school camera, I borrowed, occasionally, Dennis's camera, not too often though. I was afraid I'd drop it or something. But so I used school cameras and then I was able to purchase a Nikkormat at the Oregon State University bookstore from my still very good friend David Nishitani. I got me fixed up with the right camera and then I got to go on the sidelines at like an OSU football game and it was really cool. I could be right in the action. The same with basketball, you know. I could be at these events that I loved. So, it was a great experience creatively and it was just a neat thing to be part of socially on campus.

So, I then received an internship at the Corvallis Gazette-Times and worked at the GT, more as a writer, but I photographed in the evenings. I would photograph American Legion baseball games, so they had some good photographers at the GT, so they helped me and I was just a sponge. I learned. Dennis would help me a lot.


I'd look at his pictures and learn from him and then he had an extensive library; I started building a library of photography books and one thing led to another. Then, a big breakthrough I had my senior year was I got to work for Chris Anderson. He was a senior editor at the Albany Democrat-Herald. And at the time, the Albany Democrat-Herald was one of the best small newspapers in the country, hands down. Very good photo reproduction, very good layout and design and of course Chris taught me a great deal about journalism and excellence and how to push and how to constantly improve and be committed to that.

So, I was very fortunate there now, I knew because of my education. I hadn't really gotten into journalism in any depth until my junior year but I needed more experience, especially in the classroom, frankly, to open me, to widen me. And then Fred Zwahlen had me go to the Sigma Delta Chi—Sigma Delta Chi with Steve Clark. He and I went to Sigma Delta Chi annual national conference. And I believe it was in Buffalo, New York. And so it was the first time that Steve and I had been to New York, so we—and Ron Lovell had had a lot or experience in New York, so he told us kind of where to go, what to do. So, we went to that and there Fred Zwahlen introduced me to the head of the journalism school, or one of the most renowned professors, Dr. Emery at the University of Minnesota Journalism School and he told me about R. Smith Schuneman, the photojournalism sequence professor, and I was able to get a teaching assistantship, which again was invaluable to me. I mean again, what did it do? It broadened me; it opened me again to a whole new world of possibilities, especially because I'd been working newspapers. It especially broadened me relative to my work and the contribution I could make with photography in books and magazines.

And of course what Smitty—that's what we all called R. Smith Schuneman—Dr. Schuneman taught me, and I got to spend a lot of time with him as his teaching assistant, was the history of photography. And so building upon what I learned from Ron and I learned from Fred and what I had learned from Dennis, what I learned from Chris Anderson, what I learned in working with Steve Clark in the Barometer, I was able to take another step into a world of possibilities in the magazine-book world. But that was deeply formed through Smitty because he was a walking encyclopedia about the history of photography. From the very, very beginning of the first dim images all the way up to Bill Allard who had gone to the University of Minnesota.

He gave us the—he opened up this possibility of what you could do with your photography that would contribute to that body of work that humankind had done in photography. So that was a fantastic experience. It was baptism by fire. I mean, I made a lot of mistakes, you know, was trying to mature, become more disciplined in my work and my approach to things, and Smitty really helped me there.

And then he helped me get another internship at Topeka, Kansas at the Topeka Capital-Journal for a legend in photojournalism, Rich Clarkson. And Rich then really, every day I worked with Rich, seven days a week. Generally we tried to not work more than twelve hours a day but we often did. But I mean, it was full immersion and no excuses and that was a great experience. But it was, it all started really with Ron. And I'd say Dennis, and of course we call Fred Zwahlen "Casper."

JD: I did not know that.

CJ: That was his nickname, which he knew about and I think appreciated. But—and Jim Folts. Jim Folts was a big influence on me, too. Jim really helped me a lot; again opening my mind and helping me see the possibilities.

JD: Well, and so it sounds like from really early on in those first courses at OSU and working on the Barometer and the annual that you really were getting a variety of photography experience as well as a prodder. And you specifically mentioned some sports photography and I wanted to have you recall what you can about a couple of particular iconic photos that are in the special collections at OSU. One was from a basketball game between UCLA and OSU.


CJ: That's right.

JD: And I can provide more details or if you remember them you can just go with that.

CJ: Well I loved—I played basketball in high school. I wasn't very good but I enjoyed it. I've followed basketball all my life and I still say to people the best college basketball player I ever saw pick up a basketball was Bill Walton. And of course I would argue the best basketball coach that's every lived was John Wooden. So, for me to be in Gill Coliseum with those two people as a young photographer and to be able, you know, that close to them and to observe them was pretty heady stuff for me.

So, I talked some people into letting me put a camera behind the glass backboard and in the lower part of the frame is Bill Walton making this magnificent, you know, one of his magnificent moves. And then of course I followed him very closely when he was at the Portland Trailblazers, even when I was working Kansas, I could photograph him playing what were then the Kansas City Kings, after they'd won the NBA championship. So, that was, it was neat. I mean that's the great thing about photography, too, is there's a history there. And for me to have a picture of, in my mind, if not the best, one of the greatest college basketball players, in fact one of the greatest players, really, until he was injured in the NBA, and that I got to capture him at a young age with that big head of hair—of course I had a pretty big head of hair back then too. So, that was really, it was great stuff, you know?

The thing about Corvallis was it was, Corvallis was—Oregon State was accessible. So I mean here a kid from Central Point, Oregon can have all kinds of experiences that—and to get that, so this kid who's a principle's son from a small school in southern Oregon can be that close to people like that. Or to meet the governor like Tom McCall and to meet Ralph Nader, you know, who, controversial as he is, that was a great experience. So Oregon State was full of that and what I loved about it was that it was. It was so accessible. And so down to earth.

JD: Well, and you also mentioned that you had had an internship with both the Corvallis Gazette-Times and the Albany Herald?

CJ:Democrat-Herald. The Albany Democrat-Herald.

JD:Democrat-Herald, thank you.

CJ: The Albany Democrat-Herald.

JD: And they had some contests, so I'm sure you took this one Democrat-Herald photo as part of that contest, which was places on campus and you happened to capture the crew team.

CJ: Yes.

JD: And you won a prize for it, so it was kind of a nice reinforcement. And they particularly come into the, your unique vantage point and your technical expertise on this photo. You're—the photo is looking right down overhead. Can you talk a little about taking that photo and what you were going for in it?

CJ: Sure. Well, when I lived in Wilson Hall there were several friends of mine who were on the crew team and they were really good. I mean Oregon State had a great crew team. So, I was looking for an opportunity, because I love sports, I was looking for an opportunity to photograph them and learn more about crew.

And that, that's been a thread through the work I've done throughout my career, especially National Geographic, is get to go sort of be immersed in a discipline or a life that I'm curious about and want to know more. So, I'm just taking pictures, you know, looking around, exploring, which is what I always loved about photography. And so I went up on the bridge just to kind of see what that looked like, and I photographed them coming towards me and I made a pretty special picture and it was very early in my career and I'd say there was an element—a lot of my best pictures have been very lucky and there were a lot of pictures where I missed the whole pictures because I wasn't paying attention. But in this case, things just kind of fell into place.


It's important to recognize that because what a picture like that becomes is a building block. Because you're never done in your career. Your career is a long, arching narrative, and that was one of the building blocks in the first part of the narrative of my career. I mean that picture was made more than forty years ago. Well more than forty years ago. So, at the time when you're making the picture, you're just looking around. You're just; you think that's interesting so you take a picture of it. And I would say that picture in particular has stood the test of time. And there are times when I learned from that picture, one of my most iconic pictures I made for National Geographic, is a variation on that looking straight down theme. So, you have some success, you get some recognition and then what you do is you don't bask in that recognition, you don't pat yourself on the back, that's not the culture I come from. You say "well that's cool, I got lucky, I need to get lucky again today and the only way I'm going to get lucky is to go out and work real hard today." So, there's this constant evolution of self-improvement.

JD: And so at what point were you completely clear in your head at your time at OSU that the veterinarian and the degree in agriculture was not going to be your path but photography or—I'm not sure exactly when you figured out that photojournalism was where you were going.

CJ: Well, by nature I'm pretty obsessive. So, when I started to get into photography and when I started to get into journalism, I mean that was it. I mean I was completely smitten. I mean I was completely in it. And it didn't take me long to do that. My first photo essay I did for Mr. Zwahlen was on—I worked at the greenhouse and I used to inoculate plants with viruses and the vector for the inoculation were aphids, so I used to, with a little, suck the, transfer aphids for this wonderful man I worked for in the greenhouse. So, the first photo essay I did was—actually I think it was for Ron Lovell's class—I wrote about the greenhouse and took these pictures, which were actually horrifically bad, but of course I didn't know at the time that it's really difficult to make exciting pictures of plants. It can be done but I certainly didn't have the skillset to do it at that point.

So I think, again, it was an evolution but I, I'll never forget the day in Fred Zwahlen's class when I had shot my own film, developed my own film and the magic that I felt when the print came up in Dektol in the dark. I mean, it was just like wow, you know. So, that was a piece of it. Now, when did I recognize that that's what I wanted to do? I can tell you exactly when. It was father's weekend and my father and I were going to get something to eat for lunch and I remember so vividly we were going by The Big O drive-in restaurant and my father, we stopped at a light and my father said "how are things coming along in school?" He said "are you still thinking about University of California, Davis or Washington State for vet school?" And I said "Dad, you know, I just love these journalism classes I'm taking and I love these photography classes. I think I want to be a photojournalist." And my dad says "Okay. Just be a good one."

But see, he sort of, I hadn't, I had just been—I was a pretty happy-go-lucky guy, you know, I had just been doing stuff I enjoyed, and until he really asked that question, I never really clearly articulated that to anybody. And then he could see my obsession, you know? At home I would be climbing Mount McLoughlin, going around the back to look for a lake for a reflection and you know, just having fun. My camera was a ticket for me to be out and go places and do things and express myself. And he saw that pretty clear.


JD: And so you have this arrangement and you head off fairly directly, or very directly, after OSU to the University of Minnesota.

CJ: I went—yes, I went from Oregon State to University of Minnesota and during that summer in between I just continued working as I had all my senior year at the Albany Democrat-Herald.

JD: And so, I'm assuming with those assignments in your summer work and your internships that you're getting just a range of experiences and you're photographing people and places and events and...

CJ: Sure, I again, I did a lot of sports because I worked Friday nights and I worked Saturdays, so I'd do high school and then I'd do football on the weekends, for example. I worked the Saturday shift, so I'd do some news. I would do—I mean I'd do something for like the style sort of section where features oriented. I mean, you did the gamut. I mean, I might take a food picture, I might take a fashion picture, you know? And most of it I did quite poorly, actually, because I was just learning. But the thing was, I was given the opportunity to learn but I was also given a very strong sense of direction. I mean, you didn't want to mess around with Chris Anderson. Even though he was only like a year, year and a half older than me, I mean he was like up here and I was just trying to figure stuff out. He was a real star. And you know, and he went on to it, he still is a star. He went on to stardom, which I always knew he would.

So, I was in an extremely healthy environment. I used to show my pictures to Jim Folts a lot and we had some, Dennis and I had some other friends. We had Dave Nishitani of course, from the bookstore. He was one of my roommates. And so we had a lot of us, we'd show our pictures to each other and then we were always reading books, picking up magazines, it was a really healthy environment for growth and learning.

JD: And so it sounds like this, with all its variations, you were really immersed, but was there time for other kinds of activities and organizations when you were at OSU? Or that was pretty much taking up all of your time in all of its facets?

CJ: Well, I'd go to Smith Rock, Smith Rocks and do like a photo essay because I've always enjoyed climbing and enjoyed mountaineering and I just, it actually set a path for my life where I used my camera as a ticket to do all kinds of things I wanted to do. It was also really helpful for me because I was by nature, one-on-one, very shy but very curious. And so the camera gave me an excuse to snoop around and to be somewhere. And I'm a—I just do better when I've got a sense of purpose.

And I also deeply believed in the power of journalism and the power of photography. That came to me relatively quickly because this was, my senior year, was during Watergate and Woodward and Bernstein and Nixon being in the political hot water he eventually found himself in. So you know, that was, those were all big heady things. So, I want to make clear that I love all kinds of photography but I was deeply grounded, especially over time, to journalism.

When I came to the University of Minnesota; that was like shock therapy because I came from this very nurturing, tough growth environment in Corvallis and in Albany and I came to the University of Minnesota and there I was meeting the world's best photographers. I mean the world's best: Don McCullough, Ernst Haas, Bill Allard, the people that were legends, the people that—so I was immersed in that and realized very quickly how little I knew and how much I had to learn and how inadequate my pictures were.

So, it was interesting because when I came back after Christmas break, came back to Minnesota, Smitty Schuneman said I didn't—"it's been a rough quarter for you, especially as my T.A. and I didn't know if you'd be back." And it was an odd thing for me to hear because to me it was like of course I'll be back, I mean this is, you know, this is what I want to do. And nobody said it was going to be easy. It's really hard. It's really hard. It's not any easier than what I do now. It's, if you're going to be a real good photographer, you're going to be a really good journalist. It's hard. And the day you don't think it's hard; you just pack it up and retire.


JD: Lifelong learning curve.

CJ: Right.

JD: Since this is for an educational institution, I believe I am quoting you correctly that you referred to yourself at some point as a grad school dropout? That you at some point made the decision that it was perhaps time to get out there?

CJ: Well, you know, I—

JD: Or maybe I'm wrong.

CJ: No, no, you're absolutely right, but I'll clarify.

JD: Okay.

CJ: So, I went to the University of Minnesota and, as has often happened in my life, I struggled and then, if I just keep at it, I'll sort of have breakthroughs. And the first quarter at the University of Minnesota was really difficult. I had never been that far away from home. I'm very close to my family. I had come from this very nurturing environment. When I came to the University of Minnesota I knew absolutely no one in the entire state of Minnesota. I knew, you know, I knew that it was a relatively liberal state, a progressive state like Oregon, that was about—and I knew it got pretty cold. And I was sure right about that. And I knew—and I'd read Smitty Schuneman's books Photographic Communication, and I'd talked to him over the phone, but I'd never met him. And so I was really excited about it, so I drove out there.

And the first quarter, especially working for Smitty, he's very demanding in very good ways, I mean it's just what the doctor ordered, and he got pretty frustrated with me sometimes because I was pretty immature in some ways. Kind of a go-getter but pretty immature and a little undisciplined; there was just a lot of growing up I had to do. So, it was a pretty full immersion in growing up and getting disciplined and getting done what needs to get done.

So, by then I had some breakthrough—I did, with a wonderful classmate of mine, Greg Ellis, I did kind of a breakthrough assignment project on snowmobiles, the snowmobile culture in Minnesota, which I was fascinated with. So, then I think then I did a—went back to a farm and photographed a farm in rural Minnesota. One of my classmates was from a farm family and I went and photographed this, lived with this farm family for a while. And I think at that point Smitty could see that there was not a lot, but there was some talent I had, at least. You know, he was kind of wondering "what's going on this guy?"

So, it had been very good and then I had Jim Brown, was another one of the professors there and he said, "you know, what you should do"—this was right after the Christmas holidays when they came back—he said "you should apply for an internship"—because I was looking for internships—"at the Topeka Capital-Journal." So I did that, and at the time it was one of the most sought-after internships in the United States and Rich Clarkson sort of took a chance on me. You know, some kid from Oregon? And then Minnesota, I hadn't really come up through sort of the tradition of photojournalism educational ranks, so when I went to Topeka, I mean again, it was baptism by fire. In fact, this was like the hottest fire I had ever been in, because Rich Clarkson, he was a Time, Inc. contract photographer, arguably the best track and field photographer in the world, ran track and field for Sports Illustrated and Time at the Olympics, I mean he—and he was like a complete no-nonsense, full immersion, and you either get with the program or you're just out of here, you know, high turnover, but really good place for young photographers to work in. I met a lot of really good photographers. Many of them work now for National Geographic, colleagues I had back then work here now.


So, I was in the middle of that, I was also a summer intern with Susan Ford, she was there when David Kennerly from Oregon had recommended she work for Rich, so it was kind of a crazy summer. So at the end of the summer a job open came and Rich asked me if I was interested in it and I said "sure," and for some reason that's sort of escaped me, he hired me. And the first year was a really, really, brutal. I mean it was really hard, I mean I really struggled, because I was in over my head. And just as I'd been in over my head when I went to the University of Minnesota, like I was in over my head when I worked with Chris Anderson, you know? So it was again sort of this full immersion thing.

So, I called up Smitty and said that I'd been offered this job. And then I was at a point where I just wanted to do it. I'd gotten a really good foundation and there was actually no place, and I really mean this, at that point in my career there's no place in the world I would rather have worked than the Topeka Capital-Journal. It was that good, it was that famous a place, and deservedly so. So, I could—that was an opportunity I couldn't possibly pass up.

My father, an educator who had a master's degree, was profoundly disappointed in me and in fact was disappointed in me to the day he passed away, that I did not finish my master's degree. He was that, that's something—I should not start a project and not finish it. And so I did contact Smitty a few years ago and tried to round up my transcripts and everything and he helped me quite a lot but I needed almost a year of work to finish. I needed some classwork, I needed quite—like I need fourteen or sixteen hours of classwork and then I need a couple of major projects and I just don't have time. I mean, I have three children, I'm married, happily married, I don't have time to do that. So, and maybe that will come back to haunt me someday, but that's why I was a grad school dropout.

JD: So, you head of to the Topeka Capital-Journal, you're completely immersed again, kind of in whatever assignment comes your way, I assume?

CJ: Mhmm.

JD: And you do that for a number of years—

CJ: Five years.

JD: And then go off to the Seattle Times. And then you're there for a couple years, or?

CJ: Well, there was another thing that happened which was career-changing in some degree. When I was at the Topeka Capital-Journal, I was named National Newspaper Photographer of the Year and that didn't—that opened doors for me, that's all it did. And prior to being named that, I had, at Rich's urging, gone to the University of Missouri photo workshop and I had met the editor of National Geographic, Bill Garrett and I had met the director of photography Bob Gilka. But I especially became close to Bill Garrett because he was advisor at the University of Missouri workshop. And I was named Student of the Workshop. I've again found a story of a young man who was a very young father in high school and did a story on him and his fatherhood and his very young wife and the baby. And so that's how I'd gotten to know the editor of National Geographic.

So, the year I became Newspaper Photographer of the year, I'd wanted to go back and I'd always wanted to be a forest firefighter. One of my best friends since grade school had worked for the Rogue River Rough Riders, which were just below Crater National Park, on a hotshot crew, interagency hotshot crew. And he had told me great stories about being on these big forest fires with this twenty-person crew, so I just thought it would be a great National Geographic story. So, I worked—I got clearance, and this would never happen probably, now, but I got clearance to be like the twenty-first member of this hotshot crew that my friend John Lacey was on, who was an Oregon State grad, and so I then came to Geographic and they kind of tried me out on an assignment for almost four months. So, I took a leave of absence from Topeka.

And then of course the horse was out of the barn. I mean I got a taste of what it was like to work for National Geographic and to be a magazine person. So, I tried to get Bob Gilka to hire me at the end of that assignment, but thank goodness he didn't do that, that wouldn't have been a smart thing to do. But I missed the Pacific Northwest a lot. I still do, I miss it terribly. And I had an opportunity to work with someone who had worked for Rich Clarkson, a wonderful man, wonderful boss, Gary Settle. Chris Anderson was at the Seattle Times and I wanted to work with Chris again so I talked to them and I went to work with them. But after I'd worked there about a year and a half I took another leave of absence because I was constantly proposing stories to National Geographic. I think I proposed seventeen stories and they were all rejected and then finally they took pity on me and offered me an assignment.


So, I took another leave of absence and then I came back to the Times. But you know, it was clear that I needed to—I loved the Times, I loved working for Gary. Chris left, Chris Anderson left, which was actually a bit of a blow to me because I loved working with him so much. And I thought well, you know, I'm paid really well here, I'd just bought a house, I was really nervous about that, and I thought you know, I'm just going to quit, I'm going to. So, I got another assignment from National Geographic and I quit and started to freelance for them.

JD: So then you freelanced for a number of years and then became a staff photographer for National

CJ: Well, I became a contract photographer. Rich Clarkson, my old Topeka boss, became the Director of Photography at National Geographic and he made me a contract photographer shortly after he became Director of Photography. So I did that for almost ten years and then in '95 I became a staff photographer, along with Bill Allard and Michael Nichols. The three of us became staff photographers. And we did that, worked all over, but largely in Africa, during that time.

JD: And if you would expand on that a little about how you either made the choice or ended up doing a lot of work in Africa and, particularly, wildlife versus all the other possibilities out there?

CJ: Well, all my life I'd wanted to go to Africa because I used to, on Saturdays, my father used to work at my grandfather's men's clothing store, on Saturdays in Grants Pass, Oregon. So, we'd all jump in the car—I used to love it as a kid—early in the morning and drive to my grandfather's store and my father would work for my grandfather selling all kinds of men's clothing for him. I mean, logging, caulked logging boots made by White to harsh aftermarket [?] suits, you know, the gamut in Grants Pass Oregon. So, I would be at my grandparent's home and my grandfather was an amateur photographer and he also loved books and loved to read. So I would sit there for hours and go through National Geographic magazine and Time Life Books and putter around in the house and do little chores and hang out in this library he had in sort of the sun room that I just loved. So, I had this appreciation for books, I had this appreciation for photography. I looked at his pictures. He used to shoot pictures of us. He used to—my first memory of a wild place, the wildest place I'd been was Crater Lake National Park. I went to Crater Lake with my grandparents, he would shoot pictures and show me his pictures and so I had a strong affinity for wild places. But in his library I used to read these African Safari books and I loved to hunt at that point. I loved especially pheasant hunting. And so I loved hearing about the hunting and I dreamed about going to Africa.

So, I was offered an assignment on the Great Rift Valley, a really big assignment, the biggest assignment I'd done at that point. And so that was in 1988. Is that right? Yeah, 1988. So, I took off to Africa to work all the way from the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea, clear down to Malawi. I've worked in the Congo; I mean it was like two years of all over Africa. And it was—I met my wife, my wife was a Foreign Service Officer in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We were married in Nairobi, actually. So, it was a life-changing experience for me.


And then eventually I brought my parents there. And I was very close to my father and very close to my grandfather and I remember one night at the camp fire my father said to me—we had a spectacular day on the safari, we were in Ngorongoro Crater which at the time was not crowded like it was, we had a special permit to camp in there—and my father said "I so wish dad was here." His father had passed away before that, my grandfather had, and he said "because if he would have come to Africa he never would have left." So I mean I think there was—my grandfather was a real outdoorsman, really a good naturalist, loved to hunt. So, a lot of that had been instilled in me from an early age.

And then there are all kinds of twists and turns that you don't realize would be beneficial and come back in positive ways later in life and all that sports photography that I did, while I was a good sports photographer, I wasn't a great sports photographer. But what it did was it gave me the skills for wildlife photographer; in anticipation, quick camera movement, and then of course I was very curious and because I had the Ag. Background, animal science background, I was also fascinated with animal behavior and it was connecting a lot of those dots. And then I felt, maybe most importantly, a real sense of urgency to document places that were changing extraordinarily quickly and to try to document and get people to understand what was at stake in a place like Africa, relative to the environment, ecosystems, wildlife patterns, you know, I wanted badly for, at that point I didn't have any children, but if I ever had children, that they could have the kinds of experiences I was having.

So, it took that strong sense in photojournalism of—it goes clear back to the Watergate area, to the war in Vietnam, to the Civil Rights Movement to covering the environment to taking and really focusing then and saying you know, there's nobody else at here at Lake Manyara photographing elephants right now, except me. And I'd been to lots of events where there were lots of photographers and I thought well, I'm here, everybody's here, you know, do I really need to be here? I used to think that a lot. And then I was there and I said no, I do need to be here, because nobody else was here and these elephants, there's a story here about these elephants. There's a story about poaching, there's about ivory and it's every bit as important, in many ways, in my mind, as a story about civil rights. Because it's the same series of revelations and the same social consciousness that's just beyond what you want; it's what's best for the world.

And then I had a really good colleague at National Geographic who came up like I did through that sort of concerned photographer, Magnum ethos, and he had sort of had the epiphany about the same time I had, Michael Nichols, who still is one of our staff photographers. So he and I really, in a very positive way, were competitive with each other in the best ways but also fed off each other. I certainly did from him. So it was a series of things that aligned themselves and then I felt that that work was every bit as important as covering a war in Sudan or the war, the terrible war in Eritrea in Ethiopia. And that was my contribution to photography. That's—and I had—the stars, unknowingly, from my youth had sort of aligned me to get to that place. It was a natural place for me to be.

JD: And going from learning from wonderful photography books and books in your grandfather's library, you started to produce some—

CJ: Yes I did.

JD: --photography books too. One on the Great Rift that you just referenced and a couple of others, including one that you did that was published in 2002 called Wild at Heart: Man and Beast in Southern Africa, that there was a—the forward was written by the late statesman Nelson Mandela.

CJ: Yeah.

JD: How did that come about?


CJ: Well, I was doing a—what I could see very clearly the more I photographed in Africa, I mean it's one thing—I mean this is not a great revelation, but I saw it played out time and time again, was that you know parks, most park boundaries are arbitrary. They're park boundaries made by human beings for all kinds of reasons, some good, some bad. And that for wildlife to really thrive in Africa that you had to forget the borders of countries and you had to think about what was best for that ecosystem and the elephants, the rhinos, the lions, the dung beetles, the acacia trees, from top to bottom, what's best for the ecosystem. So, Nelson Mandela had been heavily involved in a group that was called the Peace Parks Group and he felt too that if you had that commonality and you started to break down that border then it would play itself out in many positive ways, more than you could imagine. There would be an impact on human rights, actually; they would be literally peace parks. There wouldn't be as much strife because you would have this commonality that connected you. This thing that's so precious to the world.

So, I proposed this story on peace parks, the term they used was Transfrontier Conservation Areas, and it was—really believed in this and I knew that I was probably going to do a book out of it. I wanted to do a book out of a series of stories I'd done on cheetahs and wild dogs, on the sand, the bushmen, etc. So this was a logical extension sort of in this flow of work. So, I finally, through some of the peace parks people, was able to sit down and meet Nelson Mandela in his home in Johannesburg, with a writer who had been born and raised in Zimbabwe. And so we sat down with him. And I had read Nelson Mandela's book The Long Walk to Freedom, I had read Desmond Tutu's memoirs from The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, you know, No Future Without Forgiveness, and Africa, south Africa, had profoundly affected me; reconciliation and what that country had done, because again, I'd followed that.

In fact I actually tried, when I was at Oregon State, I was a finalist for a scholarship to go study at the University of Cape Town through the Kiwanis, local Kiwanis club. And I think they thought I was crazy. I was supposed to go to Oxford or something, but I wanted to go to the University of Cape Town because I had this long fascination with Africa. And one of my tennis partners in high school had been from South Africa and so I was just really interested in the place. So at any rate, Southern Africa, I had a lot of expectations and I had a great deal of expectations in meeting Nelson Mandela and he exceeded every one of them. So in the course of this conversation, he told me some remarkable stories. So when the book came out, and we quoted one of the stories in a magazine piece, so I asked if we could use that wonderful conversation in the forward of the book. He kindly said—his foundation said yes. So, we made a contribution to the foundation and we did the book and of course I was delighted to have a man of his stature do the forward. And it was in perfect sync of what we were trying to accomplish with the book.

JD: So at some point you decided to come out of the field and first became an Associate Editor at National Geographic magazine and then the Editor in Chief, the first position in 2003 and then in 2005 became Editor in Chief. A big change, but that allowed you to have an impact in other ways.

CJ: Yes.

JD: And perhaps talk a little about—

CJ: Sure. Well the transition from leaving the field to coming into National Geographic was much more difficult than I could have imagined. I'd always worked outside my whole life. I was inside, I'm in meetings all the time, you know, I had been—seldom ever went to meetings. I thought I understood because of my field experience how National Geographic worked. I did to a small degree but not to a large degree. The key, the first key I had to anything closely resembling success was I had a fantastic deputy, who was Dennis Dimick.


So, Dennis and I sat down the first day it was announced that I had this job. It was a big surprise to a lot of people. The CEO in particular, John Fahey, had been on safari with me. He was taking kind of a chance, taking somebody from the field, putting them right into a supervisory position, and so luckily Dennis was there and he taught me a lot. He taught me a lot quickly. And so I was still incredibly thankful for that. I don't know what I would have done without him. I—he enjoyed it and just when I started, felt like I was starting to figure out more fully what contributions I could make in that job, Bill Allen, the editor of the magazine, told me he was going to leave. And I had only been in the job at that point a little more than two and a half years. So I was two and a half years out in the field and he said to me "I'm leaving at the end of this year and are you interested in being editor of the magazine?" And I said "of course." I had no idea what I was getting into. I mean, I really didn't.

So, I said yes and I talked to John Fahey and I talked to John Griffin, another wonderful boss I had, eventually had, and I wrote a vision statement. I sat down and wrote a vision statement for where I thought the magazine should go and what it should be and I spent about three days writing that and it was pretty tedious, but I actually really enjoyed it. And then I sort of—it was sort of a one of those things where the first two days I got nothing done because I was just scared to death, but then I thought you know, I'd read about Harold Ross, the founder of The New Yorker, and I found out like he was just kind of a guy like me, you know? He was just, you know, from Colorado, he's just, and I thought—and I love The New Yorker—I thought well, why don't I just, I'll just tell them where I think this magazine should be and where it should go and if they don't like it then that's okay. I'll do what I'm doing. I got a great job anyway, or whatever, fine, you know. But I better tell them what I want to do because I don't want to be disingenuous. So, I did and they gave me the job.

And again, the first year was, I was just cleaning up my office because I'd just moved my office for the first time in ten years and I saw some of the memos and stuff from John Griffin, my boss, to me and it was like oh man. I made a lot of mistakes. I made a lot of mistakes. But John Fahey and John Griffin taught me a lot and taught me a lot quickly. And I was really fortunate for that. And then back in the spring, late spring, I was named Chief Content Officer. So, I no longer day-to-day edit the magazine. Someone I'm recruiting, Susan Goldberg, became the editor of the magazine, which I was delighted about. But, and then I have a lot more responsibilities much in more of a leadership, executive function. Not so much the day to day, but more strategic, more visionary kinds of work.

JD: Well, I'd like to touch on one aspect of your time as Editor In Chief, which were, I mean you've clearly spoken passionately about the need to have photojournalism and stories have a real purpose and the dynamic between humans and their environment is central, and the magazine has done some wonderful special issues with a focus on water, behind you, or population, food and climate change kind of early on when it was not as mainstream a topic as it is now. And you've managed to do that seemingly with; people consider that you don't have a specific agenda about those issues. How do you pull that off when those are very politically charged issues, generally?


CJ: Well, when you become Editor of National Geographic magazine, the thing you have to be aware of, and it's a wonderful thing, is that people trust this magazine. And the foundation of every meaningful relationship in your life is based on trust. I don't care who it is, what it is. It's based on trust. Those are the things that are fulfilling and really matter. And so when you start to cover issues, you come at it from a prospective of no agenda, a prospective sort of the way many of us in journalism approach life: curiosity. What really is going on in the atmosphere? What can scientists tell us? And of course at National Geographic, we not only are a media organization; we are a scientific exploration organization. We give thousands and tens of thousands of grants all over the world to study things like climate change, to study things like chimpanzee behavior, gorilla behavior, lion behavior, snow leopard behavior, the list goes on and on and on. It's a very proud and distinguished history.

So, the core of it is, is if you're going to cover those stories, you better get them right. And you better be very honest and open with your readers; "here's what we know, here's what we're trying to figure out." And science, of course, is something at Oregon State University that was deeply respected by me and my classmates and of course by the—all of our colleagues at Oregon State. We're a land grant college. Science is a foundation of Oregon State University.

And of course one of the problems is, and we're doing a story on this at National Geographic magazine, science is not as exact as you might think it is. Because you're learning, you're open, you're trying things. Therefore some people who do have a political agenda can try to poke holes in science, for their own—so there has been controversy with the stories we've done, no doubt, but we're a non-profit, we don't have a political agenda, there's a board of trustees I've answered to for years and we believe in the power of science and exploration. And we believe in the power of storytelling. That's what National Geographic is. We fundamentally believe in those powers. That may mean that some people don't always like what we have to say but they know where we're coming from and we know who we are.

So yes, I've been accused in climate change for years, and we started covering it, Dennis can tell you better than I, but we started covering it back in the early nineties and we started ramping up in the mid-nineties. We talked about all the things that are in—so we're not Johnny-come-lately to the party. We've been talking about this and supporting science to try to unlock the mysteries of global warming—let us call it what it is, it's global warming—for decades. Now, there have been, I've gotten a lot of heat for the articles we've done. I mean heat internally and externally. And what I've always said to that is "well, we just need to tell the story better." We're not going to deviate from the story, we're just going to make the story more understandable and make it more accessible so people understand.

Because what's National Geographic? We're bridge-builders. We build a bridge from science to the general public to help them understand science and the power of science and the beauty of science. We try to build bridges cultural, we try to build bridges across religions, we try to connect people, and that's a big part of who we are and what we do. So, they'll always be, you know—when I became Editor of National Geographic, very quickly my wonderful boss John Griffin said to me "you're going to get a lot of heat in this job and sometimes it's going to be pretty unpleasant. Just know that. Deal with it. I'll help you deal with it; you've got to deal with it." And so, you know, you're always listening to responses, but there's certain values and a certain leadership position that you want to have. But you better get it right, you better really—and that takes resources and time and that's what National Geographic has given us for years. It's given me, throughout my career here, it's resources and time. And that's huge because there's less and less of that in journalism right now.

JD: So, you touched back on OSU and its kind of foundation in science, I guess to bring our interview full circle, any kind of final recollections of experiences you had yourself as a student at OSU and perhaps advice you'd like to offer current and future OSU students about their time there?


CJ: At an early age I decided I wanted to be a Beaver. It was just, that was the only school I applied to. I didn't even think of going anyplace else. It was where I wanted to go to school. So, I thought I had a good idea what kind of experiences I would have at Oregon State and in reality I was incredibly naïve. The experiences were so much richer, so much more fulfilling, so much more enlightening than I could have imagined when I was in a high school, at Crater High School, applying to this one and only university. I had no idea the path I would take, that a school principal's son whose father had gone to school only because of the G.I. Bill had this opportunity, as my father did, to go to this wonderful institution and to be broadened, to be challenged intellectually, to lead all different kinds of people and also build this foundation of knowledge and values.

And the thing that always nurtured at Oregon State in every class—I can't think of a class where this didn't occur—my curiosity was always encouraged and nurtured. And some classes more than others, no doubt, but there was that and then there was some very special people. And what happened at Oregon State was it was a medium size school, it certainly wasn't as big as when I went to grad school at the University of Minnesota, but I always felt, especially when I was in that Journalism department, and I felt this to a degree in the School of Agriculture as well, that people cared about me. And they cared a lot about me and when I needed help or I needed time, they were there. Or sometimes they would lift me when I didn't even know I needed lifting. And that was a wonderful gift. And that provided an intellectual foundation but also a set of values. So, my job now is to lift people; to help them, to coach them, to try to guide them on a path of fulfillment and success. And those are the very values when I was a student at Oregon State that were given to me.

But frankly they were started by my mother and father, both who worked in education, worked in schools. And my, both of them were fantastic teachers to their last days. So, it's coming full circle and now yes, I don't go out in the field and take pictures like I used to. What I do is try to inspire others to take work, do work that was far better than the work I did. That's what it's all about. And Oregon State, you know at the time when you're there, you don't, you obviously don't have the opportunity to reflect. And now as you sit back, you can reflect and you can say wow, you know, I was very fortunate to go to Oregon State when I did.

JD: Right. And you—

CJ: Sorry if I rambled too much on some things.

JD: Not at all. This was great. Thank you so much for your time, Chris.

CJ: Oh, my pleasure. It's fun to reflect on all this. It's good for your soul, right?

JD: Absolutely.



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