As an award-winning photographer and former editor in chief of National Geographic magazine, Chris Johns has photographed throughout the world, capturing intimate and powerful images of wildlife, people, and places. Here, he shares insight into his 1999 National Geographic magazine assignment in Botswana.
The foundation of every meaningful relationship in life is trust. This photograph illustrates the trust that developed over time between a mother cheetah and me. She wasn’t afraid of me and I wasn’t afraid of her. When she killed an impala, she pulled it right next to my vehicle, which was parked under the shade of an acacia tree. While my vehicle didn’t intimidate her, other predators, such as lions and hyenas, weren’t comfortable coming in close to us. She seemed to know that. The tree also provided relief from the intense heat and helped block the view from circling vultures. If they started to move in, other predators would know there was a fresh kill they could take away from the cheetahs.
Slowly and quietly, on the backside of the Land Rover, I climbed onto the roof rack. I carefully stood up with a Nikon F5—loaded with Kodachrome 64 film and a 20mm lens—and began making photos as the mother cheetah constantly scanned the horizon looking for threats to her cubs. I shot at 1/60th of a second so I could maximize depth of field with an aperture of roughly f/11. I had a warming filter over the lens so that the reflection of the green grass and the green tree wouldn’t turn the soft, lovely shade light too green. Ignoring me, the cheetahs quickly finished their noontime meal and trotted off for a cool drink in the Okavango Delta. I was left with a photograph and a memory that reminded me of the value of trust.
Photographed with a Nikon F5, 20mm lens, and Kodachrome 64 film.