National Geographic Photographer Shares Big Picture on Global Agriculture in Seminar

Jim Richardson’s latest work on soil and agriculture brought him to the Texas Tech campus to give his presentation, “Who Will Feed Planet Earth?”

jim richardsonIt has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and, for National Geographic magazine photographer and National Geographic Traveler magazine editor Jim Richardson, storytelling is at the center of his career. Having written more than 30 stories for the magazine, Richardson's work has taken him everywhere from China's Silk Road to small towns in Kansas.

Richardson's latest work on soil and agriculture brought him to the Texas Tech campus to give his presentation, "Who Will Feed Planet Earth?" Starting in the Neolithic Revolution, Richardson set the stage for the rise of farming and its transition over the next ten thousand years.

"There is no environmental effect on the planet greater than agriculture. It has transformed more land, it has remade the face of the world, it has spawned cities, it has spawned civilizations," Richardson said.

Using his photographs, Richardson painted a picture of the vast differences in agriculture from the wheat fields of the American Midwest to the potato plots of Peru. Through each photo, Richardson was able to pinpoint the universal emotion and drive that all farmers share that will, in turn, help generations go from feeding earth's 7.2 billion people to the projected 9.6 billion by 2050.

While Richardson has perfected his photography and storytelling, as seen through his presentation, National Geographic wasn't his first choice in a career path. Instead, he majored in psychology during his college years and dreamed of being an Olympic shooter. After a hearing issue kept him from the Army and he decided to leave psychology behind, Richardson got a job at his university newspaper and it stuck.

"Once I got into the newspaper world and got my feet planted, I started doing more long term projects—the small towns I covered, the High School USA book, those kind of things—I started seeing the flourishing of a certain talent for both images and storytelling. That pretty much set the course. I never thought while I was a newspaper photographer that I wanted to work for National Geographic. That was not in the plan. That came about as a natural consequence of the things I was doing, but wasn't the goal," Richardson said.

It wasn't until after Richardson left the Denver Post in 1986 that he began a full-time freelance career at National Geographic. Since then, Richardson has spent his time covering stories he describes as "off the beaten path".

"I like being a nonconformist. I like going out and doing stories in places people don't expect stories to be. I don't like doing stories in places where people have high expectations because they already know everything about it, so I don't do cities," Richardson said.

His decision to cover a unique array of stories has made him an expert in volcanoes, agriculture, rivers, aquifers and the United Kingdom, specifically the landscape, history and people of Scotland.

Richardson's role as photographer and storyteller also brings with it questions from those aspiring to work in his field, namely what it takes to work for National Geographic. However, Richardson takes his advice beyond that specific question.

"In photography, it was sufficient to know photography. For photojournalists, it was sufficient to know photography and journalism. That's no longer sufficient anymore. You have to have all of those skills and the body of knowledge to speak about the message. The photographer today is embodying the message," Richardson said.

He tells students to not only focus on their photography, but to find something they care about and to communicate that interest through both photography and journalism. He also has similar advice for researchers.

"It comes down to talking to the general public. Photography can be one of those ways to do that—to cut through the jargon and show people what you're doing. If you're really going to compete in the world of research today, there has to be a public component. You have to be able to make not just your fellow researchers understand what you're talking about, you have to make the public understand," Richardson said.

The alliance of photography and research became a powerful component in Richardson's work with agroecologist Jerry Glover. The two collaborated to capture the scale and texture of Glover's method of growing tallgrasses in "root-tubes" (made from PVC pipes) while he was working at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.

"The alliance means that we both benefit and it's a very powerful tool because he's got his feet in another world and he's my conduit to information and perspective. I really need that. I give him the ability to reach out to people in the public and his research starts showing up in museums and galleries. His profile is different than someone who never gets out of the lab," Richardson said.

Just as Richardson has teamed up with Glover, he encourages students to do the same. His message to students being a valuable one: "You're on a major university campus full of researchers in different kinds of fields. If you want to take pictures you have the biggest single shopping cart available to you that you're going to have available for a long time."

Richardson's seminar was co-hosted by the Department of Civil, Environmental and Construction Engineering and the Climate Science Center and sponsored by the College of Education.