Jim Richardson grew up in a small town in Kansas. Most photographers would have fled the boondocks as soon as possible, but Jim stayed put, honing his craft shooting stories about rural life. He has since photographed a combined 40 stories for National Geographic magazine and for National Geographic Traveler magazine, where he is a contributing editor. Among his recognized areas of expertise are the British Isles and Celtic culture, as well as a range of scientific and conservation subjects such as endangered grasslands, food production, and threats to the Earth’s soil. He still lives in Kansas, in the small town of Lindsborg, where he owns a Main Street gallery and studio called Small World.
Q & A
Your bio says that the thing you are most proud of is being named Honorary Citizen of Cuba, Kansas. As John McEnroe would say: You can’t be serious! Can you?
[Laughs] I actually am, yeah! I’ve been taking pictures there since 1974, when I was a young photographer looking to do documentary work in the grand tradition. It was close to home, and a place that took me under its wing when I didn’t know what was going on. Over time I came to learn a great deal from them that I went on to use for various projects for National Geographic.
I developed a worldview that all the fundamental things—birth, marriage, growing up, and wrestling with all the problems of life—can be found anyplace. And if I can’t find them the fault is mine. I’m not a photographer who blames a place for bad pictures. Bad pictures are my fault.
You are known for your rigorous research and deep personal involvement in your subjects. Talk a bit about your method.
I believe in the prepared mind. And research is the way I prepare my mind and the journey. I don’t want to simply reenact the standard narrative. The way I shorthand this is, “If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.” My research is all geared to that point of standing with a camera in front of the right stuff.
You have said, “My pictures are the way that I speak out on issues that might otherwise fall through the cracks of our modern world.” Explain what you mean— and which issues you are particularly passionate about.
I’ve always thought it better to steer clear of the issues of the moment and to look fundamentally at what’s important. It’s also where I can have some leverage with whatever talents I’ve got, where I can do some good. Over time that has led me to do stories about agriculture and food, soil and prairie grasslands. If you cataloged it, it would fall into the unglamorous Rodney Dangerfield subjects of the world. But I try to make images that will make people rethink their presumptions. I’m not always successful. But that’s a way I can make a contribution.
What inspires you in your work, Jim?
Fear [Laughs]. The fear of knowing there are wonderful things out there and how easily they can be missed. National Geographic hands you an opportunity with all this support and money and time, to go to a wonderful place, and it should produce a great visual narrative. Yet it is so easy not to get it. Knowing that the opportunity is there and it can so easily slip away is what drives me. I feel that most when I am doing the planning. Once I get out in the world it has a way of redeeming me. All of a sudden there are things there and, for all of the preparation, for all the dreaming, they have a way of surprising you with delights. Or squashing every last scintilla of hope that’s in you [Laughs]. It’s a high-wire act.
National Geographic Image Collection Interview With Jim Richardson By Simon Worrall