by John Trybus, Managing Director

A conversation with the Indiana Jones of photography

If you’ve ever picked up a copy of National Geographic magazine chances are you have viewed one of Michael “Nick” Nichols’ photos. He’s one of the magazine’s most famous and prolific photographers, and serves as the iconic media outlet’s editor-at-large.

He also happens to be a social strategist.

Nick has literally traveled to the corners of the globe (think the rainforests of the Congo and the Amazon River) to document wild places and the wildlife that calls those remote locations home. From elephants to great apes and every creature in between, Nick has dedicated his career to photography with a purpose and has rightfully earned the nickname the Indiana Jones of photography by Paris Match. “I’m very much an advocate. I never hide that,” Nick says proudly.

I spoke to Nick from his home in rural Virginia, where he was on a brief hiatus from documenting lions in Tanzania. And yes, those are hawks you hear in the background of our conversation! Quite fitting if you ask me.

Although Nick started his career as a photojournalist, he soon realized that he had the ability to invoke change through the power of his images and the international platform that National Geographic provides. Nick puts his personal mission this way: “I can’t have an even view when it comes to people killing elephants for ivory. I make pictures that make people care. It’s pretty simple. I don’t take pictures [simply] for the challenge of taking them.”

The photos Nick took for the Megatranscent project, where he documented some of the most remote locations in Central Africa, is widely credited with the decision to create 13 new national parks in Gabon.

One of the projects Nick is most proud of his partnership with scientist J. Michael Fay, in which they jointly traveled 2,000 miles by foot between Congo and Gabon over the course of 456 days to document wildlife in one of the most remote and least understood areas of Africa. Dubbed the last place on earth, the Megatransectproject resulted in a series of articles and a book published by National Geographic.

The result of the project? True social change. Nick’s photos were widely credited with persuading President Bongo of Gabon to create 13 new national parks in Central Africa.

To Nick, effective photos are ones that inspire action. Here’s a preview of Nick’s tips for how photography can lead to social change:

  • Photos can bring the bad guys to the table. “We don’t just want to preach to the choir,” Nick says. Photography has the ability to invoke emotion (not to mention show proof) even among the most ardent of opponents. “Pictures are often used to stomp the ground and make the noise that gets everyone to the table,” explains Nick.
  • Photos should always communicate valid (and sometimes raw) emotions. Many cause-based organizations understand the power of photography yet are afraid of capturing real and sometimes unflattering situations, according to Nick. He recommends that nonprofits hire photojournalists to take authentic photos. Nick thinks that “it’s very important to keep it real, if possible. And to keep it edgy, if possible.” He adds: “Don’t script everything. Let things happen.”
  • Photos should be shared through many levels. Nick is an advocate of using social media outlets as vehicles for photography to be seen and experienced in new ways. He recently created an iPad app to display his images and believes these outlets help to bring about new levels of photographic storytelling.

Listen to my interview with this week’s social strategist, Nick Nichols to hear more about his amazing career as a world-famous photographer and how photography can bring about social change.