Hubert Burda Media

In Plain Sight

National Geographic photographer Jim Robinson talks about GMO foods, rural America and how we’re ruining the night sky.

Although Jim Richardson’s name may not immediately ring a bell, you’ll almost certainly be familiar with his photographs. Having worked with National Geographic for more than 25 years, Richardson has quietly established himself as one of the world’s leading photojournalists and built up an enormous archive of socially important images, many of which are now ingrained in the public consciousness.
He has shot such a myriad of subjects that it seems almost unfair to pin his work to just one social issue; however, without wanting to ignore the rest of his oeuvre, his greatest success is almost undoubtedly the key role his photographs have played in drawing the world’s attention to the degradation of the environment. His work in this area ranges from his investigation into endangered grasslands to his ongoing project on the world’s crisis of food production and has taken him to more than 50 countries across six continents.
Speaking from his studio in rural Kansas, Richardson reflects on his prolific and varied career and explains his plans for the future.
How did your career with National Geographic begin?
My photography started as a hobby when I was a boy growing up on my parents’ farm. After that, I started working for a newspaper in Topeka, Kansas but I really wanted to photograph things on a larger, longer scale. Finally in about 1986 I moved into freelance photography; by then, what I did was pretty much what National Geographic needed done. I’ve always been a bit of a gadfly when it comes to subjects, so the ability to take on a new subject every time I went on assignment for National Geographic was really quite thrilling: all of a sudden I could go from photographing Scottish islands to photographing GMO foods.
What sparked your interest in the GMO foods project?
It came out of my background, because I understood farming, agriculture and the worries and concerns that farmers have. But I was also fascinated with it on the mega-scale of worldwide needs and concerns, so the melding of those things – the macro- and the mega-scale – really is what drove my interest.
Some of your best-known work is from your ongoing project photographing life in rural America. What keeps drawing you back?
In one way, it’s that I don’t understand cities very well [laughs]. But also I’m fascinated with the people who are left out on the edges, who are not constantly bathed in the attention of the world limelight. Whether they be rice farmers in Bali or residents of this little town in Kansas that I’ve been going back to for 40 years, I’m always fascinated by the ways that people find not just a way to make a living but a way to make a life in places that the world doesn’t necessarily always understand. That gives me an opportunity to tell a story that’s unexpected.
National Geographic must provide a great vehicle for that.
Yes, because we have such a large audience and the audience is interested in the glorious world that we show. However, it also gives us an opportunity to hold things up that [National Geographic‘s readers] don’t expect to see and simply say, “Here, this is worthy of paying attention to.” If you can elevate the images to a level of artistry, you can very often make people slow down and pay attention to something that they never thought they would be interested in. In my work, that often means trying to get people in the vast, hugely populated urban areas of the world to pay attention to things that are happening in the rural world that they really would rather dismiss.
Can you explain how your Death of Night project came about?
Once again, I go back to my youth because another of my hobbies (which was not so far from photography) was making telescopes and doing a bit of astronomy. That was how I knew that light pollution, this ever-growing mass of light that we’re illuminating our night with, was also destroying the night that we’ve experienced since mankind first ever started looking up at the sky for inspiration.
The project had to wait, really, until a confluence with technology allowed us to start producing images that we had never seen before, which happened when digital cameras became so sensitive to light that we could start taking those pictures where you can see that the Milky Way isn’t just a band of light going across the sky, it’s our galaxy. All of a sudden you could take images in which you were photographing the landscape at night with the Milky Way in it and it was all sharp – that really allowed me to start considering that we could do a story about the glories of the night and then contrast them with the vast overwhelming outpouring of light that is obliterating those glorious views.
I was pleased that the International Dark-Sky Association told me later that they’d been trying for about a decade to get National Geographic to do a story like that and I’d just unknowingly come out of the blue and made it happen.
What do you have planned for the future?
More of the agriculture, specifically. That has grown into a body of work and our understanding [of food security] has grown over the past few years to the point that we know we’re reaching a real turning point. With the population growing to nine billion or maybe 10 billion by 2050, we have this chance that – if we can reach that point of global food production -– then we have a chance as a species. So these next 35-40 years are going to actually be rather difficult. I’m not going to live that long but I’d like to be a part of [documenting] that. Then I’ll also do more work on that little town in Kansas. There are only 200 people there and I’ve been going for 40 years but there’s always more. That one place is what has given me the most faith that no matter how small or mundane any place in the world seems to be, there are rich stories to be told.
Jim Richardson will be speaking at The Economist’s The World in 2015 Gala Dinner at the JW Marriott Hotel in Hong Kong on November 20