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TEDxBigSky 2021 Speaker Lineup: Louise Johns

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The theme for the 2021 Big Sky Ideas Festival this year is “Awakening.” The event will focus on the Awakening process that the country has gone through in 2020. OUTLAW PARTNERS GRAPHIC

By Gabrielle Gasser EBS STAFF

Louise is a documentary photographer with a master’s degree in Environmental Science Journalism from the University of Montana. A National Geographic Explorer, her work examines the relationships between people, places and animals, with a particular focus on rural, agricultural and indigenous communities. Johns began documenting the landscapes and people of the American West in 2010 while working as a horse wrangler in Montana’s Centennial Valley. 

Her work has appeared in a variety of outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nature Conservancy, Patagonia, and High Country News. In addition to her photojournalism work, Louise has taught photography courses to underserved youth, worked internationally as a photography instructor for National Geographic Student Expeditions, and taught photojournalism at the University of Montana. She lives in Montana, where she pursues stories that help her better understand the place she calls home. 

Louise Johns

Explore Big Sky: What does the theme “Awakening” mean to you?

Louise Johns: “When I think of awakening, I think of how our hearts are connected and how that can wake us up to the world around us, especially the natural world. Are we seeing the world in a more analytical way or are we feeling our way through the world with our hearts and putting that at the forefront of our relationships with each other, with place, and with the nonhuman world? There is much room for us to awaken to our sense of home: the care and responsibility we have toward the communities we live in and the places we live, including the spaces that include wildness. The times that I’ve felt the most awakened would be when I’ve dropped into my heart space and am acting and responding to the world from that place. Awakening could mean creating a different path of communicating and that is cultivated through empathy and compassion. That’s the way I try to approach my work as well: with deep respect and empathy for the people, and places that I’m working with on telling a story.”

EBS: How did you become a National Geographic Explorer?

LJ: “I grew up in Virginia and my father was a National Geographic photographer for my whole life. He started off in newspapers and then worked for National Geographic, so as long as I’ve been alive he’s worked for Nat Geo. He went over to the editorial side in the early 2000s and he eventually became the editor of the magazine and was editor for about 10 years. My whole childhood I was surrounded by some of the best photographers in the world, so just being part of the National Geographic family was how I grew up. My family also traveled with him quite a bit, mostly in southern Africa. I didn’t decide I would become a photographer until I went to college at the University of Montana … in 2010 as an undergrad and thought I wanted to do something in journalism. I took some classes in the journalism school my first year and at first didn’t take to journalism very well. I quickly decided that reporting was not the job for me. I didn’t want to be part of this news cycle reporting hard news. But before I changed majors, I took a photojournalism class sort of on a whim. … I found the camera as a way to communicate with the world. That class taught me the nuts and bolts of how to tell a story with a camera and I fell in love with it. That was my sophomore year in college and since then it’s been my life’s work. I finished undergraduate, and then I worked as an assistant for a few years with a National Geographic photographer named Erika Larsen. I then went back to graduate school in 2018 to pursue my master’s degree in Environmental Science Journalism, which I just finished in May 2020.” 

EBS: What does your photojournalism work mean to you?

LJ: “The issues I’m interested in covering usually have something to do with people’s connection and relationship with the land and with the wild and human-animal bonds. That comes from what I’ve always been drawn to as a person, from my childhood growing up with horses and my journey. We lived in South Africa several times as my dad was working there when I was a child and most of his work revolved around wildlife. I’ve always had a real affinity for wildlife, animals and big open landscapes. When I moved to Montana 11 years ago now, and worked on a ranch in the Centennial Valley, I found a palpable sense of home. I also documented my life as I was living there, so the camera has in a way helped me find myself.”

EBS: What do you hope attendees of TEDxBigSky will take away from your talk?LJ: “I want people to come away with an understanding of different approaches to storytelling and how much stories can affect people’s lives. I mean that for both the people I photograph and for the people who see my stories, and not just my stories but good stories in general. Photographs are a very powerful medium of communication—a universal language—they transcend words and the spoken language. No matter where one comes from, a photograph has the potential to move someone emotionally. We have a responsibility as photojournalists and photographers to really honor the power of it and honor the people and places we are telling stories about. Through this deep honor and respect, I hope to contribute to bettering our society in some way through my work.”

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