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Monday, April 28, 2008

Jim Richardson - A Life On Assignment

Jim Richardson explains the pressures and challenges of three decades of photographing for National Geographic

Jim Richardson Jim Richardson went to college to become a psychologist. He was a senior at Kansas State before he realized what psychologists did every day, and decided maybe he'd rather do something else. An amateur photographer, he got a job at the student newspaper. Thirty years later, Richardson is perhaps the most prolific photographer for one of the world's most prestigious magazines.

On assignment for National Geographic, he has photographed roughly 25 stories over the last 25 years. His specialties are world cultures, science and environmental issues, but the real key to his success is a combination of photographic skill and an amazing work ethic—just the thing that gets you noticed at the Geographic.

“For photographers who want to be journalists,” Richardson says, “who want to tell stories and who want to address issues of our day, National Geographic is a rare opportunity. There are a whole lot of publications in the world that don't want to hear from photographers. They want to hire photographers, but they don't want to hear your ideas. And they particularly don't want you involved when it comes down to actually deciding what goes in the magazine.”

To live up to the magazine's high expectations takes a special kind of person. He or she must be not only a talented photographer, but also a brilliant strategist with marathon endurance. It's no small accomplishment to get a story from concept through publication.

“A lot of times as a photographer,” Richardson explains, “you can say, ‘Well, if I were shooting for National Geographic, I would really work this hard.' When you're out on assignment for National Geographic, you have to say to yourself, ‘Well, gee, I am.'”

“All those editors who you're going to show these pictures to,” he continues, “they've seen all this stuff. They've seen every last eagle picture and every last picture shot in these situations over several decades. They were shot by people who are probably better photographers than me, and I have to bring them back something that they haven't seen before if I'm going to get any reaction out of them. It isn't just enough to do as good a picture as, say, Bill Allard did five years ago. It's always a higher hurdle. Once you've seen what other people have done, your goal is to beat it. Even if you're not as talented as them, that's the job.

Early in his career, Richardson had been working on a project documenting the small town of Cuba, Kans., as well as an essay about the flooding of the Great Salt Lake. He had shown those pictures at a workshop along with a National Geographic editor who essentially got the ball rolling on his first assignment. He says that the key to his initial success was the fact that he had built a body of work and demonstrated not only that he had photographic talent but also that he could get things done. The same principles hold true at the magazine today.

“The general story of getting started with the Geographic is that the photographer has done something that the Geographic finds valuable. It could be an existing set of pictures or a set of skills or a profile. It could be someone who has already done a body of work about something, who has particular skills. That could be underwater photography or Jim Balog's interest in giant trees. This has become more and more the case over the years until now when it's absolutely essential: The ability to take good pictures isn't nearly enough. If you think you're going to put your portfolio together, and somebody's going to call you when they see your portfolio and give you an assignment, you're going to be waiting a really long time.


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