Griz Chat with Former National Geographic Editor Chris Johns

Chris Johns in UM's Don Anderson Hall

MISSOULA – Chris Johns, renowned former editor of National Geographic, is teaching at the University of Montana this spring as the School of Journalism’s T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Professor.

Johns began his National Geographic career in 1995 as a photographer, holding a variety of positions at the magazine before becoming editor. Under Johns’ leadership, the magazine won 23 National Magazine Awards, and in 2008, the organization named him Magazine Editor of the Year.

Johns teaches a course in conservation journalism and advises the Montana Kaimin at UM. Johns shared with UM News the value of good teachers and the impact of good photography.

UM News: What were the earliest indications that you would become a photographer?

Johns: I took my first journalism class when I was a pre-vet major at Oregon State University.  An inspirational journalism professor, Ron Lovell, introduced me to a new world of career possibilities and changed the direction of my life. Ron’s class was followed by a photojournalism course with another excellent teacher, Fred Zwahlen. With Ron and Fred as mentors, I found a home in OSU’s Department of Journalism and developed a passion for photography. 

UM News: How did you catch the eye of National Geographic?

Johns: My relationship with National Geographic began following my first year of graduate school at the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism. I received a photojournalism internship at the Topeka Capital-Journal. Another mentor, Rich Clarkson, director of photography at the Kansas newspaper, sent me to the University of Missouri Photo Workshop.  There I met National Geographic’s director of photography, Bob Gilka, and Bill Garrett, who soon became editor in chief of National Geographic magazine. Four years later, when I was named National Newspaper Photographer of the Year, I proposed my first National Geographic story to Bob and Bill. They approved my idea and sent me west to be embedded for four months as a photographer with the Rogue River Roughriders, a 20-member U.S. Forest Service Hot Shot forest firefighting crew.

UM News: How did the magazine change during your time as editor?  

Johns: I became editor in chief during an exciting time in journalism. With the rise of digital photography and the internet, we had the opportunity to use a suite of storytelling tools to reach people in new and innovative ways. We embraced change by using photography, video, audio and interactive graphics and mapping to tell meaningful stories in unforgettable ways. This resulted in an award winning website, a popular Instagram account and a successful National Geographic magazine app that complemented our print product.

UM News: In what ways can a single photograph bring about change? 

Johns: One of the most influential photographs ever made was the “Blue Marble” image of Earth taken on December 7, 1972, from the Apollo 17 spacecraft. That iconic photograph made us see our beautiful planet from a new perspective and inspired the environmental movement.

A photograph can also show horror and bring change. In 1972 Nick Ut’s heartbreaking shot of nine-year-old Kim Phuc badly burned, running naked down a road following a South Vietnamese napalm attack, had a profound impact on how the public felt about the war in Vietnam.

More often, however, it is a series of photographs taken by a photographer over time that bring the most significant change. For example, Lewis W. Hine’s horrifying photographs of child labor brought change to child labor laws in the United States.  An example of photography’s power to celebrate nature and bring change is Carleton Watkins’s photographs of the Yosemite Valley. They helped convince President Lincoln to protect Yosemite for future generations.

UM News: Your daughter, Louise Johns, is an established photographer and a graduate student in UM’s School of Journalism. How is the business of photography different for her than it was for you?

Johns: Newspapers and magazines were financially healthy when I began my career in journalism. There were many opportunities to become a staff member at a publication and gain experience, but today there are fewer opportunities in traditional publishing because consumers have many more options as to where and how they become informed. While the newspaper and magazine path I pursued has become more challenging, there are new and emerging paths journalists can take in today’s media landscape. This has resulted in innovative digital platforms journalists are using to help us understand a complex world and make well informed decisions. What that means for young journalists is that it is more important than ever to develop their own personal voice and vision. Refining your voice and striving for excellence is not new. The great masters of photography have done it for more than 150 years.

UM News: In an age where modern platforms enable everyone to consider themselves a “photographer,” how can a journalism degree set students apart?

Johns: Today taking a photograph is easier than it has ever been, but that does not mean just anyone can create a powerful body of work that informs and emotionally touches people.  To consistently make meaningful photographs takes relentless curiosity and hunger to constantly improve. A renowned journalism school, such as the University of Montana, provides the structure, guidance and inspiration to develop the skills photographers need to succeed. 

UM News: What lessons do you hope to impart upon your students?

Johns: I want students to appreciate the richness and sense of purpose a career in journalism can give your life, but that comes with a great deal of responsibility. Those of us in journalism need to seek the truth with fact based, nonpartisan reporting that builds trust. To do that well requires skill, integrity, curiosity, courage and an unwavering commitment to excellence.


Contact: Chris Johns, Pollner Professor, UM School of Journalism,