Former National Geographic photographer Dewitt Jones shares his world view
Dewitt Jones landed his dream job over a pay-phone call made from the Yosemite National Park visitor center. Not only did he wind up working as a photographer for National Geographic for 20 years, he traveled the world taking pictures of everything from grizzly bears in Alaska to huts in Mongolia. His personal experiences with cultures across the globe have taught him that there’s more than one right way to live in the world.
A professional speaker now, Jones talked with Smart Meetings to explain exactly what helped shape his positive outlook on life. Was it facing his fears of grizzly bears and helicopters? His inspiring encounter with a lovable cabbage farmer? Or simply traveling the world, which forced him to break outside his bubble and experience life in a way he didn’t expect?
When did you first know you wanted to be a photojournalist?
I had done a little photography in college, but it was more of a hobby. During my senior year, a bunch of us guys got together and went kayaking 1,100 miles up the coast of Japan. It was really like something that came right out of the articles that were published in National Geographic. There had been a trip the year or two before where some of these same guys went down the Danube River in canoes and eventually got to shoot some film for the Geographic, so I was really inspired by the fact that that was a possibility. There was already a photographer on the trip that was going to take the stills, so I said I’d make the movie. I was going to go to Harvard Business School and I withdrew my acceptance and applied to the UCLA film school. I thought I needed to learn how to make movies.
How did you transition from being a filmmaker to working as a still photographer?
I decided to make a movie about John Muir. I went to Yosemite and saw a guy with a National Geographic photo bag. He was actually the writer doing a story on John Muir. I asked if they had a photographer and he said no, so I used the pay phone in the visitor center and called the magazine’s photo editor. He asked to see some samples of my work and then gave me the assignment. So literally, my first published photographs were in National Geographic, which is completely nuts.
What about being a National Geographic photojournalist appealed to you?
I, like millions of folks, got the Geographic when I was a kid. Every time I read it, I felt good about being a member of the world. Once I started working there, I began to see that the editors wanted me to celebrate what was right with the world. Every time they sent me out there, they were asking me to tell a truthful but positive story. You can go into anyone’s house and make them look ridiculous or make them look neutral or make them look great. It was my job to say ‘What’s the best you’ve got?’
What were some of the challenges that went along with the job?
For me, in terms of the challenge, I was a single entrepreneur out there. Even though I was backed up by the Geographic, I was by myself. Every day I got up and created my own world; some days I’d be lonely, having been on the road for eight weeks. There was a heck of a lot of self-discipline involved. One time, I was on the North Coast of California, and I was tired. I wanted to go to a hotel and live under the covers for the next month. In the local paper, I saw a picture of a guy who raised a 50-pound cabbage, so I drove out to this guy’s house grumbling. But he was a ball of light—so excited about his cabbages. I thought, ‘If this guy can get excited about a 50-pound cabbage, I need to get excited about my life.’
What was the longest you ever went without seeing civilization?
Maybe I’d be out in the bush for three weeks, but usually if I did that kind of a trip, I was with other people. The worst was being away from my friends, family and kids. I’d be on the road for eight weeks or so and was pretty much out of touch. We didn’t have Skype or anything. The hardship increased when my family began to grow.
Did you ever debate whether or not to print a photo because of ethical issues?
I didn’t want to photograph any more grizzly bears because either I was there by myself and not ready to die for a photograph, or someone was there with a gun and the bear was in danger. I told them that it didn’t make me ethically comfortable anymore. If I was hiking down the Alaska Divide and saw a bear, I would photograph it, but didn’t want to put myself or the bear in danger.
There was another time when I was photographing a man and his son chopping big redwoods near Eureka, Calif. The young man was about 23 or 24 and pulled a massive chain saw out of a cut he was doing. It had stopped turning, but it dropped on his leg and just sliced him open. He looked at the big cut; I looked at it; our eyes were as big as saucers. The dad took his T-shirt off and made a tourniquet. I started taking pictures and documenting it. When we got to the car, I started to take a picture through the window, and [the boy] gave me a look that said he’d be hideously embarrassed if I put this in the Geographic. I then thought about the story I was telling. It wasn’t about the guy and his son—had it been, I would have printed the picture—so I ended up just not sending the roll in. There was no reason to embarrass the kid.
Another moment I remember was when I was photographing a story on Point Reyes national seashore. There was a fire out there, and a bunch of news groups came out to photograph it. I passed by one of [the reporters] talking to his bureau chief saying, ‘There’s no burning buildings; no one died.’ I was just glad that wasn’t the story that I had to tell.
What was the scariest experience you faced?
In terms of being life threatening, being around grizzly bears and bad weather in helicopters, but I was not in harm’s way shooting for National Geographic. I may have been in harm’s way in the sense that I did some climbing, saw a grizzly and was dropped out of a helicopter onto an iceberg, but those were risks I was willing to take. And I say helicopters because two of my good friends [who were photographers] were killed in helicopters. Usually when we’d do a helicopter landing, I’d tell the pilot to put me 200 feet off the deck. And at 200 feet, if something goes wrong, the helicopter’s not going to counter-rotate, it’s going to crash. There were risks in the job, but I never felt like it was a risky job.
Of all the different places you photographed for National Geographic, which was your favorite and why?
We all go many places in life, but only a few really resonate for us. That happened to me on Molokai where I live now. I didn’t expect it; I had never heard of Molokai before, but when I went there, I thought I was home.
After a while, I really did believe there would be great things to photograph wherever I was sent. The cool stuff I found were things I couldn’t have imagined before I went there: I would meet some family or see some beautiful tree in a certain kind of light or find out there was a dice-making factory. There was always something cool when that was what I was determined to find.
Where is the one place you would recommend to anyone?
Where they’re drawn to go. We all have places that we’re drawn to and that’s where you start. The only drawback is that some of those places are impossible [to get to], so you have to figure out what about it draws you and if you could find it closer to home. If you want to see Mount Everest, how about Mount Whitney? There are things you can find closer to home while you’re waiting to take the trip of a lifetime.
What about your professional role as an observer do you think gives you a perspective?
Most of all, it has taught me that there’s more than one right answer. It’s easy to see as a photographer. You take lots of pictures that are good because there are lots of ways to look at something. There are also multiple ways that you can live in this world that work. I’d go visit someone living in a multimillion-dollar mansion and then meet someone living in a log cabin in Alaska, and their choices worked for them. Those two people never got to see each other, but I got to see them both. If they knew about the other, they’d probably make stereotypes, but I’d tell them they were wrong and would actually like each other. I get very scared in the world today when we get more and more insular, when people don’t travel or if they do, they travel in a bubble and only talk to the people who are like them. The more you mix it up and see people who aren’t like you but find out that they actually are, I think the healthier the whole planet is. The more we don’t travel and see things that are different, the scarier it is.
What about how you handled the job surprised you the most about yourself?
People often ask me how I’m able to go up to people and ask if I can take their picture. Professionals do it easily and amateurs don’t. I got comfortable with that and I would figure out why exactly I wanted to take [someone’s] picture. I allowed myself to fall in love with my subjects. I let them know what it was that made me want to photograph them in the first place. Usually everyone has a story to tell, and people love to tell their story.
That hugely influenced how I worked with people after I left National Geographic—how I worked with my clients, with my family, with people I don’t know. I found that positivity worked pretty well. When I used to have to wear a suit [at corporate events], I got a kick out of telling someone they had a nice tie. It would catch them off guard because often people aren’t openly nice to each other. I just try and put something positive out there, not only because I think it’s a good idea but because my life and my business work better. You can tell the people who believe what they’re saying as opposed to the people just saying the words. You just gravitate [to the ones who mean it].
What about your message is universal, and how do you think meeting professionals can relate to it?
I do think that people know there’s more to be thankful for and grateful for even if it’s just being alive. There’s far more right with the world than wrong with it. Our media tends to say ‘if it bleeds, that leads.’ With the explosion of media, the world is becoming unhinged. We need to look at life and step back. There is suffering and pain, and there are places in this world where they’re shooting at you, but do you personally know someone who’s been murdered? Put your life into perspective.
How can travel be transformative for anyone, even if it’s just within the confines of the 50 United States?
Travel changes your perspective; it [fosters] a different way of looking at the world. It’s transformative because it shows how much all of us face the same problems. You could see a guy that lived in a mud hut in Mongolia, and you come home to see your whole place differently.
How can meeting professionals learn from your perspective and apply it to their day-to-day job?
First of all, celebrate and believe in what you’re doing. If you saw how important it was for people to travel and see that it really does transform lives, you could allow yourself to fall in love with [your job]. When you tell people ‘welcome’ or ‘my pleasure’ or ‘how can I help you’ and mean it, how cool is that?
Photography as a Life Lesson
Photo 1: Slocan Lake in the Valhalla Mountains of British Columbia, Canada. I wanted to find something in the foreground to show that folks actually lived on the lake and was delighted to find this old pier. As I was setting up the shot, the couple appeared with their dog. I worked to get good body language. Keep working to make a shot (or event) better.
Photo 2: Arizona’s Monument Valley. I was there in good light but nothing to make it special. Then, I heard a bell, and it turned out it was on the ram from a herd of sheep. They walked into the perfect light and completed my frame. Be ready for the unexpected and when it comes, use it to your advantage.
Photo 3: Kluane National Park in the Yukon, Canada. I helicoptered onto a huge glacier and camped for several days. This was a lesson in being patient: to have everything in place and wait for the perfect light to tell the story.
Photo 4: Stinson Beach, Calif. I had photographed this beach many times and was looking for a new vantage point. At dusk, I climbed a hill at the end of the beach and looked down on it with a very long lens. The pattern was wonderful and when the lone figure walked into the frame, I had my shot.
Photo 5: Peaks in the Selkirk Mountains (Valhalla Range), British Columbia, Canada. The shot was great, but the experience even better. I got to be up there. I never want to work so hard that I forget to enjoy the moment!
Photo 6: Great Fountain Geyser, Yellowstone National Park. The geyser went off just at sunset and, hard to believe, I was the only one there. I guess everyone else had gone back to the campground or the hotel to have dinner. If you want to see things differently, you have to break the pattern and be out there at times when others are snoozing or eating.
Jones shared a story he read recently about school kids who were trying to name the seven wonders of the world. One little girl disagreed with the traditional list and instead told her teacher that she thought the seven wonders were to see, to hear, to touch, to feel, to live, to laugh and to love. Jones agrees with her: “If every day you wake up and have all seven of them or even just six, you’re still a very lucky human being. Let’s start there, and people do resonate with that.”
It’s for this reason that Jones has a weekly photo newsletter that visitors can sign up for on his website, Celebrate What’s Right with the World. He also posts a photo taken with his iPhone on Facebook every day. “Not only is it a good photographic discipline for me, I want to show people that [beauty is] everywhere,” Jones says. “Now with things like Facebook and iPhones, our whole world is becoming so much more visual. Now people take billions of images and share them; I think that’s spectacular for photography.”
Here are some of his favorite iPhone images that inspired his Facebook audience.
Photo 1: I spent the night at the Denver airport on the way home from a talk. There was a great storm outside, so I decided to experience the storm rather than just watching it from the window. My iPhone and I were in a rather metaphoric mood. I asked two fences, dressed to the nines for some giant ongoing party, if I could take their portrait. They were only too happy to oblige. (I couldn’t bring myself to tell the left one that her rung was broken.)
Photo 2: I was waiting in the Denver airport for a flight. What used to be a drag is now much more of a delight with my iPhone. I saw a young man reading a story to his sons. It looked like a Norman Rockwell moment (love the striped socks!). I walked in front of him and snapped one image, then used apps to turn it into a painting.
Photo 3: This was taken at a hotel garden in Waikiki. Meeting planners and speakers all stay in fabulous properties around the world. How often do we take the time to just walk around and enjoy them? I use my iPhone to spend a few rejuvenating minutes drinking in the beautiful surroundings.
Photo 4: I was having a completely hectic day in Honolulu— one meeting after another. I finally collected myself enough to actually look around before I went into another glass tower for yet another meeting. There before me was a small palm tree, with bark that looked like the design of a hula skirt. It was a moment that truly brought a smile to my face and put me in a much better mood for the remainder of the day.
What Motivates You?
Smart Meetings asked planners how they stay positive in their personal and professional lives.
“I surround myself with incredibly talented and knowledgeable people whom I can learn from every day. Our industry is always changing, and keeping your mind open to the fact that there is always something new to learn will make you a stronger planner.” –Hillary Boals Bessiere, Bishop-McCann, LLC
“I am naturally a positive person, so I try to influence those around me in a positive way. If a situation appears to be negative, I look for the upside of each situation and point that out to everyone. If the people surrounding you are positive, it makes it much easier to stay in that frame of mind as well. My colleagues and I also have a word for the most stressful of situations: experience.” –Jennifer Jewett Alyea, CLT Meetings & Incentives
“I view everyday obstacles as opportunities and not problems. By nature, my glass is half full. I cannot change what is already broken. I can instill behaviors or provide tools to develop preventive measures so it does not break again.” What Motivates You? –Dana Weaver, Growmark