Picture This: Geographic's Africa Cover

The special issue includes an aerial photo that captures seemingly endless rows of graves in a cemetery in South Africa, where AIDS has taken a heavy toll.
The special issue includes an aerial photo that captures seemingly endless rows of graves in a cemetery in South Africa, where AIDS has taken a heavy toll. (By J. Michael Fay -- Copyright 2005, National Geographic Magazine)
By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 18, 2005

If you could pick one photograph that tells the story of Africa, what would that one photo show?

Would it try to capture the origin of humanity, wildlife, famine, despair, genocide? Would it try to juxtapose sorrow and political corruption, incredible wealth against incredible poverty, birth against death by AIDS, the ugliness of war or the simple beauty of a land called the first and last place on Earth?

If you had the job to decide -- if you were leading National Geographic magazine, famed for its photographs -- what single shot could capture the complexity of that continent, tell its history and its future?

The new editor of Geographic decided it couldn't be done in one photograph, and so for the first time since 1959, the magazine has a cover with no picture.

Instead, the September cover is simply a white background with the word "Africa" in brown ink, followed by a statement: "Whatever you thought, think again."

And in another Geographic rarity, the editor decided to dedicate the entire issue to one topic. Only a handful of issues have been on a single subject in the magazine's 117-year history.

National Geographic Magazine
Chris Johns, the magazine's new editor in chief, spent 17 of his 30 years as a photographer covering Africa. He said his goal with the issue was to highlight the complexity of the continent, its stories of renewal and ingenuity as told by Africans, stories that would serve as a balance to the daunting headlines of disease, poverty, war and extinction.

"Africa is not just a place; it's a million places. It's a million voices," Johns said in an interview yesterday. "We felt no one photograph could capture the mystery, the diversity and the surprise of Africa as it moves forward. Our issue is a very forward look at Africa."

Johns took over as editor in January, and the September issue is the first produced completely under his leadership. The magazine's team of editors wanted to be provocative, he said.

"This is our coming-out party to some degree," he said. "I could say, 'Africa: Whatever you think, think again.' That could be applied to National Geographic. We could say, 'Whatever you think, think again.' "

Johns said he wants to make the magazine, which he estimates is read each month by 44 million people throughout the world, a must read. "We want you to find stories that are relevant, [that] you can apply directly to your life. Surprising, in-depth, contextual stories that help us make good decisions about the future."

This issue focuses on Africa "because Africa is one of the most hopeful continents in the world. It is a continent with a bright future and a great tradition of storytelling." Johns said he believes Africa has the potential to fix itself and serve as a model for sustainable development.

Johns put together a team of writers and photographers who traveled the length of the continent, covering stories about the environment, oil, culture, wildlife and AIDS. They returned with thousands of images and stories.

The issue includes a tale from biologist J. Michael Fay of the Wildlife Conservation Society, who set out with writer David Quammen and photographer George Steinmetz to trace the "Human Footprint" and document the impact of humans on African land. They spent six months flying over Africa, covering 21 countries and taking more than 100,000 photographs to document the changes in the ecosystem. Their Cessna 182 was equipped with a camera that shot high-resolution photos every 20 seconds. They captured the sprawling grave sites of AIDS victims in South Africa, slums in Nairobi, hippos thirsty for water in Tanzania, a herd of lechwe in Zambia. They documented the disappearance of wildlife and discovered that little remains of wild Africa.

"Degradation is a continuum," Fay said at a news conference yesterday. "In virtually every ecosystem we visited, humans have colonized the landscape. Very few places are wild. The places to find wildlife are in protected areas. This is a good indicator of how deeply human species has penetrated the continent."

One of the first photographs in the issue shows an elephant walking right through the lobby of a lodge in Zambia. The lodge had recently been remodeled, blocking the elephants' traditional path to a favored mango tree. The remodeling didn't stop the elephants for long; they just lumbered through the lobby, the most direct path to the tree.

"Though the image is whimsical at first glance, it points to a profound issue: Both elephants and people have laid routes across Africa, many of them crisscrossing one another," the caption says. "Now it's up to us humans to figure out how to coexist in these shared spaces."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company