Michael “Nick” Nichols, 52, National Geographic photographer. Here’s the entire interview: Nick Nichols, uncut. As told to Kalee Thompson
Talent is a given, but it has to be said that everything else counts for about 99 percent of success. I mean, you’ve got to have the talent, but then you’ve got to be able to sell yourself, you have to be focused, you have to be able to take rejections, you have to deal with cultures, deal with places. You have to be able to sleep anywhere, eat anything, and not be afraid of disease.
You need to be exploited. You have to work hard for somebody else for low pay early in your career. That’s how you learn. I got my start with a guy named Charles Moore, who’s a famous Civil Rights photographer. He did the pictures of the German shepherds attacking people in Birmingham, Alabama, and Martin Luther King being arrested. He’s just got an incredible body of work about the Civil Rights movement. He’s from the same little town as I am in Alabama, and when I was in college there, I knew his pictures, but I didn’t know who he was – I didn’t know he was from that town.
Anyway, word got out that this famous Life magazine photographer was coming back and he was going to come over to the school to visit, and I latched on to Charles like a puppy dog that decides it’s going to adopt you.
He said, “Well, don’t go to graduate school, come out to San Francisco and be my assistant.” When I got out of school I got in my car and drove out across the country and went to his house. I only assisted him for a few months because he introduced me to the people that made my career take off. I learned more in a few weeks working for him than I had learned all through school. You can just learn so much so fast.
But you’re getting exploited while you’re doing it. These two guys who just went to Africa with me, Nathan and Frederic,
they worked on my farm for four months at $10 an hour beforehand. That’s not nothing, but Nathan is a qualified carpenter and he could have made $20 an hour. I just said, “Look, that’s the way it is. If you want to do it, OK.” And what I was trying to see out of that was what kind of teamwork they’d have and if they would be too competitive with each other, because they both want to be photographers at National Geographic. I don’t get assistants to load my cameras; they’ve got to have skills like changing tires, and eating bad food, and climbing in trees. It’s not like assisting a fashion photographer; my assistants have to have a lot of wilderness skills.
As he was leaving my office the first time we met, Nathan said, “I would swim through lava to work for you.” And I thought, that’s exactly what I wanted to hear. He wasn’t saying, I love you, I love your work. Instead, it was, I’d love to work for you. So he put it in the right context. And when he and Frederic did work for me, the guys worked 16 hours a day and didn’t care about themselves, about their own work or personal lives. And that’s what I expect. Because that’s what I did for Charles Moore in that certain period.
There are lots of ways that being exploited can add up to learning a lot about outdoor photography. For example, if you’re a boating guide on the Grand Canyon, that’s not being a photographer on the Grand Canyon, but it gives you access. One of the best photography books that ever came out of the canyon was by John Balustein, who was a dory boatman. Well, he was a photographer who wasn’t making a living so he ran the river for maybe six years and made these great pictures.