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Jim Richardson: "Technology without meaning is just a waste"

Interview by Ahmadreza Tavassoli


Jim Richardson is a world-renowned American documentary photographer and photojournalist who works for the National Geographic magazine. He is also a contributing editor of Traveler Magazine. Richardson was born on December 5, 1947 in Kansas, US, and today he is the mainstays of the photography world. In 2004, Nikon named him one of the 45 photographers worldwide they consider as a "Legend Behind the Lens".

In our world where life is often lost amidst wars, lies and darkness, Jim's photographs stay completely alive and appeal to all kinds of people across different cultures and nationalities.

AT: Many of your documentary photographs focus on rural Kansas life. Why you don't develop your work and take it to the other regions in the world?

JR: I've been very fortunate in my documentary photographic career to find subjects that mattered to me, that were worthy of being photographed, and most of all, where I had the necessary talent and had something to say. So my documentary projects have focused on the places I knew well and where I could make a real contribution. I understand Kansas and, without me stepping up to do the job, I am not sure someone else would have been there to do it.

By extension I have avoided covering places in the world that I do not know so well. Even if I could make strong pictures they would not be worthy pictures if I didn't have something worthwhile to say.

Those places are the proper subject of other photographers, who have the talent and, most important, something to say. But my career has not been just documentary photography. Most of my work for National Geographic has not been documentary and it has been just as important to me as my documentary projects. I also do travel photography, which is not documentary either. But it does give me a place to speak effectively. It has its place in my work. Then I have my work in our gallery, and in my speaking and workshops. This is part of putting the pictures to work.

All of this is saying that I can't just take pictures in many places. I have to think about what I have to say and, then, how to put the pictures to work so that they have an effect. I've tried to focus my efforts to make that happen. And I regret that I can't go everywhere and photograph many other places. Such are the hard decisions we have to make.

AT: You started experimenting with photography by using your father's second-hand box camera. These days there are many new photographic technologies, but how much has the new technology helped the craft of photography? Is technology now all you need to take good photographs?

JR: I think the digital photography revolution has been a great gift to photographers, easily on the order of the invention of film that replaced glass plates. We can now photograph more things and photograph them better that ever before. Digital really does allow us to "see in the dark" like we never could before.

In a way it has also been a curse. Now the technology has become so easy that virtually anyone can clutter the space before our eyes with bad photographs. Photographs that are technically perfect but that have nothing to say. They just get in the way. Technology alone is never enough. Meaning comes from people. Technology without meaning is just a waste.

AT: Your photograph of the southern Milky Way over the Owachomo Bridge, Utah, is one of the most popular and memorable photos of the night sky. Please describe that how do you took this masterpiece.

JR: On my blog I have written extensively about taking this picture here. So for details I'll ask you to look there.

But I'll add this: Several years ago I saw that digital technology would allow me to take photographs of the night sky in a new way, solving problems I have struggled with for many years. The new digital camera's sensitivity to low light meant that the exposure time could be short enough so that the stars would become streaks. That was the key to this picture.

But photography is always like that and progress comes from someone (like me) figuring out what can be done with the new technology to say something, something we have not been able to say before. That's the real progress.

AT: You taught photography at Washburn University for several years. In your view how helpful is university when learning photography?

JR: Whether the teaching is in an academic setting or in a workshop is, to me, not so important. What is important is the direct connection between the teacher and the student. The teacher is forced to think about how he works. I certainly was. And the student is able to see, directly, not only the thought processes but also the whole photographer: the combination of talent, desire, intelligence, passion, insight, blind-spots, biases and just stupid luck that goes together to make a photographer able to work. This exposure to the whole photographer, in person, is invaluable.

AT: In 2004, Nikon named you one of the top 45 photographers worldwide, besides legends like Steve Mccurry, Bill Eppridge, Bruce dale, Joe McNally, John H.White, etc.

JR: Well, to be among that list is really quite humbling. On one hand I'm honored to be included. On the other hand I just hope nobody sees what a terrible photographer I can be, at times, and is terribly disappointed in me.

Most of all I realize that my success comes more from persistence than from talent. I have some talent, but nothing like some photographers I know. On the other hand I have stuck with it, working for 40 years to find things I could photograph well, where I could make pictures. I have been dogged, as we say. Maybe that is my true talent. Sticking with it.

About: Ahmadreza Tavassoli is an International Freelance Journalist. He can be reached at
English Blog:
Persian Blog:

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