DPP Home Profiles Jim Richardson - A Life On Assignment

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

“When I'm on assignment in the field,” he continues of the nonphotographic work that goes into a story, “if I spend 20 percent of the time with a camera in my hand, I'm lucky. The rest of it is logistics, travel and phone calls to make the right things happen. That's the tough part—to weather all that stuff and still be creative. To be able to pull off a complicated project—conceptualize it, make the set of pictures, finance it, all that stuff—that's very valuable, particularly to Geographic, because every assignment you do will involve a whole lot of just that.”

Richardson advises any aspiring National Geographic shooters to simply push themselves; get out there and shoot. That's the only way good things happen, no matter what you're shooting for.

“Lots of editors notice when good people are doing things that are worthwhile,” he continues. “They're always talking about this photographer who figured out a way to get something done and did a project and made a great set of pictures, and isn't that admirable, and maybe we've got some work for somebody like that. Make the thing that you're doing worthwhile, not abstract. The editors I really respect are the ones who say, ‘You know, I've got a lot of respect for that person. They've been out there slugging it out, doing good things. I'm going to find something for them to do.' It's amazing—the number of times that happens. And in our business, I find it quite heartening. There have been a lot of people in my career who were just that way; I was the recipient of the goodwill of any number of people.

“Once your potential clients know you, like you and respect your work, it's only a matter a time,” says Richardson. When he explains how he gets a typical Geographic assignment, like his recent Celtic Realm project, he makes it sound simple.

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.

“Chris Johns [National Geographic's editor-in-chief] was walking down the hall, and he said, ‘You know, we need European cultural stories. You got anything in mind?' I sat down and, in about 20 minutes, wrote him a pro-posal. I covered all these areas I knew we could do. I basically pitched it as the Celtic world—not ancient lost tribes but a contemporary living place. A living, fire-breathing, rollicking story. It sounded exciting. That's the position you want to put yourself in: They think you'd be perfect for this. That's ideal.”

The vetting process is crucial for assignments at the magazine. When a magazine is sending a photographer around the world over the course of a year or more, on the ground shooting for eight to 12 weeks, capturing 20 to 40 thousand images, it's no small—or inexpensive—feat. The publisher has a lot invested in every assignment, so after a proposal is vetted, a picture editor is assigned to work with the photographer developing a coverage proposal. The story's writer will do the same thing, independent from the photographer, all to provide an expectation of the arc of the story.

“Here are 20 to 30 firm ideas of things we're going to shoot so that you can get a visual idea of what this is going to look like,” Richardson explains, “and here's how much time we need, and here's the proposed budget to do it. Then it's up to all the editors to either approve, modify or reject. Critical to that, and what most people don't realize, is that going out the door, you'd better have a pretty darn good idea of what you could shoot and come back with a story, even if no moments of serendipity ever come your way. My goal, when I'm doing research, is to get three to five absolutely knock-em-dead photo possibilities to shoot for each of the thematic ideas of our story. I probably have 10 to 12 themes that I want to photograph for each story, so I want to have 40 or 50 drop-dead assignments lined up. That's before I go out the door.”

There's so much work before ever snapping a single picture, but the challenge is just beginning when Richardson finally makes it to his location. It's time to push himself past the obvious photos to find the transcendent moments that his Geographic editors appreciate. That's exactly what he worked for with his 40,000 or so Celtic Realm shots—summed up by his experience photographing the stone fences of Inisheer Island.

“All the time that I was out there,” he says, “I could remember that I had seen other people doing it better. If you want to shoot the stone fences, that's where you go. They are kind of low, and you have very few places where you can get up above them. I was getting kind of desperate to find the right stuff. I was there in the evening, and I went back the next morning. In those places, you can always do the first straight-on shot. You're going to do a really nice picture; it's kind of tough to do a bad picture. And the immediate reaction, once you're done with those pictures, is to ask, ‘Now what's better?' You've just got to kick your butt and keep looking and hoping. Don't be satisfied with the obvious suspects. Once I find that angle up there looking down on all that, then I want a shaft of light coming through; I want dark clouds behind it; I want the guy to come through there with the little horse-drawn carriage; and then, if I could, I'd like to have a sheep looking over the fence at me. I just want to keep adding more and more, keep pushing it. I don't care what I've already got, I'm going to go back and do it again.

“I've told people in my workshops, over and over again,” Richardson says, “if I were choosing between a photographer with a lot of talent and a photographer who was utterly dogged, I'd take dogged every time. These are the people who will keep going back and back and back. Steve McCurry has said that people often want to know how he takes the really good pictures. But he says they don't really want to know what I do, because if I tell them what I really do—that I go back over and over again—that's not the answer they want to hear. It's a remarkably big part of it. Just be absolutely dogged about it. Students and other photographers want to believe in the romance of the moment—that we just happened to get the picture. The idea of the once-in-a-lifetime shot. If I do my job right, it's my job to go out every day and get once-in-a-lifetime shots.”

To see more of Jim Richardson's photography, and for more information about his workshops—including his planned cruises and around-the-world photographic flight—please visit his website at www.jimrichardsonphotography.com.

Richardson's Gear
Billingham Camera Bag
Nikon D3
Nikkor 24-70mm ƒ/2.8
Nikkor 14-24mm ƒ/2.8
Nikkor 70-200 ƒ/2.8 VR
Nikkor 28mm ƒ/1.4, 50mm ƒ/1.4
Nikkor 85mm ƒ/1.8
Nikon SB-800 Speedlight
Nikon SU-800 Commander
Gel filters
Singh-Ray split ND filters
Nikon MC-36 remote cord
Blue2CAN Bluetooth
GPS receiver


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