Excellent questions, Mr. Atkins

Burn readers were clearly intrigued. (So are we.) Here are four comments:


… The questions I would most like to ask Chris Johns about are not directly related to photography, please forgive me, but rather ones he might prefer not to talk about publicly in this forum, about the overall direction and balance of the magazine, and the political struggles over those things for the last 30 years or so… my impression is that the magazine was a bit more gritty and activist under the stewardships of first Bill Garrett and then later Bill Allen, both of whom were forced out by the board of directors. There seems to have often been a tension between hard-hitting social and environmental stories and more conservative backers (and possibly audience as well?). We have entered an era in which large segments of the political and industrial establishment have a vested interest in quashing science-based environmental policies and denying the mounting evidence of environmental deterioration across the planet. Some of these people are major advertisers in Nat Geo. So what I am really curious about is how as editor he balances the pressures that I know must be on him to “go easy” on certain topics, or avoid certain topics, or create a certain mix for the magazine that must try to maintain a mainstream agenda but must also be accurate, relevant, and aware.

Nissan & National Geographic blow up the advertising-editorial divide.

While in general I am a big fan of Nat Geo, there is one thing in particular that has bothered me for decades. Many of the major advertisers are car companies, and their ads often show their cars displayed prominently in “adventurous” locations and situations… fragile environments where no responsible person would take a motor vehicle. Other ads by big energy or chemical companies are clearly “greenwash,” PR attempts to sanitize their impact on ecosystems. If one looks at the environmental stories in NG, and then looks at the ads, there is a very mixed message being sent out….

Sorry for the rant, but I am a former geography teacher! Many thanks again for the interview!

HARRY asks a question about the trade-offs of working from home vs. working on the road. He also wonders if Chris Johns will shoot more stories for the Magazine.
JEFF HLADUN remembers meeting NGM photo editor Kathy Moran. He also shares thoughts on David’s NGM story about the Wyeth family.
EVA wants David to ask Chris Johns: “What is the most frustrating / rewarding thing in being THE editor?”
GERHARD says to SIDNEY ATKINS: “I share your view completely. Your write-up is excellent and to the the point. Thumbs up.”

David looked over these comments and questions, and then posted his replies:

to HARRY: “working from home is both the best and worst of shooting environs…best because you are home…worst because you are home…” etc.
to EVA: “of course i asked Chris Johns these kinds of questions…my interview with him and his enlightening/informative and perhaps very provocative answers will be published here just as soon as is possible…” and so forth
to JEFF: “… Kathy and i have been friends for many years… we all are very very close all around….” etc.

What about those questions from SIDNEY ATKINS — which were enthusiastically seconded by GERHARD?


They’ve touched the National Geographic Society’s Third Rail, so don’t expect any “enlightening/informative and perhaps very provocative answers” anytime soon.

We don’t blame David, of course. His “interview” with Chris Johns isn’t really an interview at all. David will never ask Chris to answer Sidney’s (and Gerhard’s) questions — especially if David wants to continue shooting stories for National Geographic.

Needless to say, we’ll be delighted if David proves us wrong, but we’re not holding our breath. At the National Geographic Society, The Silence begins at the top.

John Fahey, Chairman & CEO of the National Geographic Society


  • David Alan Harvey


    Wait a minute!! You are a journalist…And yet you are totally jumping to conclusions or did not read the story.

    I wrote very clearly that an interview with Chris was forthcoming. To be. In the future. In two days.

    There is NOT YET AN INTERVIEW with Chris.

    He might not even know Sidney asked a question. Chris agreed to an interview by me but never agreed to answer Burn reader questions although he might indeed do so.

    So please Alan give me a chance to transcribe the interview. I am also interviewing several other editors as part of a series. I do have a long time relationship with Chris. I looked at his portfolio when he was a young photographer in Kansas. He was an intern in Kansas and I was at the Geographic , so he sought my advice.

    I do not earn my living from NatGeo. Or any part of it really. My essays upcoming on Rio and OBX only partially financed by NatGeo. So I may have personal friends and loyalties, but am not “loyal for the money”.

    Thanks Alan for caring. I know you do.

    Cheers, David

    • Hi David,

      Thank you for your speedy response. Most people with ties to NGS, no matter how tenuous, aren’t willing to talk in public (i.e., here) about the questions on my mind — which apparently are not so different from questions on the minds of some Burn readers. Your stepping up to the mic here is a real departure. I appreciate it. 

      After reading your post, it sounded as though your interview with Chris had already taken place, on the same day that you took the photo at headquarters, and that you just needed some time to do the transcription. There was no mention of “forthcoming”… “in the future” … “two days” … or anything similar. In fact, your response to Eva says: “i asked Chris Johns these kids of questions….” Asked. Past tense. So naturally I thought the interview was already complete. 

      But the interview hasn’t taken place yet?? You have two more days to pull together your questions? Perfect….. 

      You have a golden opportunity, David. You have the standing, the professional credibility, the following, the seniority, and the independence to make your interview with Chris a truly memorable one. You have the chance to ask him questions that no one — on staff, in the press, in the photo world, or here at Society Matters — ever has the opportunity & freedom to pose in public. Which is why I hope you’ll make the most of it.

      According to your Burn post, you’ll ask Chris to tell us “from his viewpoint what it takes to make it as a photographer shooting for a major magazine.” Okay, but I hope that doesn’t eat up more than 5 minutes of the hour or so (?) you have with him. Why? Because we all know the answer to that question. In fact, YOU know the answer: You shoot for a major magazine , and could talk and write endlessly about “what it takes.” …. If you ask Chris that question, there will be no surprises. Not one. You’ll be giving Burn readers absolutely nothing new. 

      Consider another approach: What if you asked Chris the questions that Sidney Atkins posed (above) and that Gerhard enthusiastically seconded? What if you really dug into what piques Mr. Atkins’ interest — specifically, in his words, “the pressures that I know must be on [Chris Johns] to ‘go easy’ on certain topics, or avoid certain topics.” Atkins highlights greenwashing and auto & energy companies that advertise in NGM. But there’s no shortage of other examples; I’ve been reporting & writing about those issues for more than two years, and have already framed the questions. Steal ’em! They’re yours for the taking! To get started, please see the “Dear John” sidebar (above). 

      As you well know, David, the world of photojournalism has been upended in the past ten years. Every shooter I know, and that you know too, is hustling to find new ways to make ends meet. Workshops… crowdsourced assignments (e.g., Kickstarter)… iPad apps… Rio-style, “behind-the-scenes” paywall experiments… the list goes on and on. So to ask Chris what it takes to shoot for a major magazine, while it’s a nice question, is sort of an outdated one — especially since there are so few major magazines left to shoot for. 

      I guess what I’m trying to say is: If you haven’t done the interview yet, then don’t let this opportunity get away. If you’re really not “loyal for the money,” then be all the journalist you can be. Ask serious, challenging questions. Have Chris defend his editorial record as Editor. Ask Chris how he’s planning on reversing NGM’s current nosedive. (And if he says: “Well, David, I’m a media agnostic who still believes in the power of a great story well told….”, remind him that approach is not working.)

      Most of all, ask him why he says things in the pages of NGM — in front of the Society’s 4+ million members — that are obviously and demonstrably false.

      Please know that you are, in many ways, representing a whole lot of photographers, writers, editors, researchers, cartographers, designers, and many others who will never be given the chance to interview Chris on the record — but whose livelihoods rely on what happens to the Magazine.  

      All those folks are counting on you — and so is this guy

      Good luck, David. Keep us posted. And thanks again for writing. 


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