ep. 71 - Dewitt Jones


Dewitt Jones is one of America's top professional photographers with a career stretching over twenty years. As a motion picture director, he had two films nominated for Academy Awards (Climb - Best Live Action Short Film and John Muir's High Sierra - Best Short Subject Documentary) before he was thirty.

Twenty years as a freelance photographer for National Geographic earned him a reputation as a world class photojournalist.

Turning to advertising, Jones rose to the forefront of corporate creative marketing photographing national advertising campaigns for Dewar's Scotch, Canon, and United Airlines.

He has published nine books, graduated cum laude from Dartmouth College at Dartmouth University with a B.A. in Drama and holds a Masters Degree in film making from UCLA.


ep. 71 - Dewitt Jones

Gail Davis: Today's guest on GDA Podcast is Dewitt Jones. Dewitt is one of America's top professional photographers. 20 years as a freelancer for National Geographic shooting stories all over the globe has earned [00:01:00] him a reputation as world class photo journalist.

As a motion picture director, he had two documentary films nominated for Academy Awards before he was 30. His work is well known to the corporate world as well, in advertising campaigns for clients like Dewar's Scotch, Cannon, and United Airlines.

I'm thrilled to have Dewitt as our guest on today's episode of GDA Podcast. Welcome, Dewitt.

Kyle Davis: Hey Dewitt.

Dewitt Jones: Very nice to be here.

Kyle Davis: [00:01:30] Well I'm glad that we could bring you on. For those wondering, this is I think what, Mom, your final episode from the great state of Oklahoma?

Gail Davis: Yes it is the final remote episode. Today though it's very exciting because Dewitt is all the [inaudible 00:01:46]. Are you in Hawaii today, Dewitt?

Dewitt Jones: Nope, I'm not. I'm in Lake Tahoe today.

Gail Davis: Okay.

Kyle Davis: Oh rough.

Gail Davis: So we- Tahoe, Dallas, and Oklahoma, what a nice [inaudible 00:01:58].

Kyle Davis: We are loving it.

Gail Davis: You know, Dewitt, [00:02:00] I was thinking as I was preparing for this, I've had the privilege of being in your audience many times. And, you know, one of the powerful aspects when you speak to an audience are the images of your amazing photography and how they help tell the story. And I know today we don't have that visual component. So I thought I might take a moment as an audience member to share with the listeners what I've seen happen [00:02:30] in a typical presentation.

Dewitt has these incredible quality, high resolution, beautiful, beautiful photographs, and as he tells a story, he will advance and have just the perfect image that supports that point that he's making in the story. And I always notice these oohs and ahhs of folks that are sitting in the audience. And it's a shame we don't have that today so we'll have to really [00:03:00] use our imagination.

But one of the stories that I always remember, and Dewitt, it's been a few years so feel free to correct me if I've got it wrong, but I remember you talking about, I think you were in India, but I know you were going over a hill and you were looking at a valley of lilies. And you made the comment that you just- it was so vast and you wanted to take a picture of that. And you did and it was just this beautiful image, but then you thought to yourself, " [00:03:30] Gosh, what would happen if I laid down in the lilies and took a photograph?" And it's so different. And when that photo comes up, you know, again, you hear this audible sound from the audience.

So I just wanted to share that for people who may not have been in your audience that typically that's a big part of it and with that, I would just like to lead into how did you pull out these great messages that you deliver in your keynotes, [00:04:00] and at what point did you see, "Gosh, you know these photographs tell I story that I can share from the stage?"

Dewitt Jones: Well, you know, they tell a story that I could share from the stage, but they also tell a story that goes into people at a very different level than just hearing words. Um, they're much more expansive. They touch us in emotional ways. And I didn't have this [00:04:30] in the beginning, but I've come to understand or believe that a keynote speech tells people things they already know in a way they'll do them tomorrow.

If I said, "There's more than one right answer," or "Don't be afraid to make mistakes," you'd go, "Yeah. I know that. I got it." Would you do it tomorrow? No, because it would be flat and kind of boring and you've already heard it a thousand times.

But if I show that to you [00:05:00] in the lily field and I say that what perspective we have makes a huge difference in terms of what we see, and I show you a nice, but relatively uninteresting picture of the lily field, and then I show you one that there is that audible gasp and people will never forgot that image, I've just shown you what I'm talking about in a way that is way more powerful than if I [00:05:30] didn't have the visual, especially cause [crosstalk 00:05:34]. Go ahead.

Gail Davis: Yeah, it's that thing that a picture's worth a thousand words.

Dewitt Jones: Right, and if you add the right words to the picture, then they're worth even more than that. So, if I just showed you the picture, you'd go, "Oh the guy's a good photographer." But If I'm drilling home a message that I want you to do and feel motivated enough to do tomorrow and the next day when you offer [00:06:00] your client more than one right answer or a different perspective, and you remember that because you remember the image.

You already know the lesson.

Gail Davis: Yeah.

Dewitt Jones: If I was preening you, I would be giving your brand new information that you've never heard of before. But I'm not. I'm motivating you to do things that you probably know how to do. You've probably heard them before, but if I can make it so you're on your feet at the end of my talk and motivated [00:06:30] to go out and celebrate what's right with the world and see the world with new eyes, then I've really done something.

That's my job as a keynoter. I give a much more inspirational speech than a motivational speech. I want you to be inspired from the inside, and I didn't know how powerful those visuals could be until I started doing this. I've had people come up to me, [00:07:00] and they'll say, "You know I saw you. No, I don't even remember where I was. I was in a room with no windows and I don't know who I was working for, and I don't even remember what state we were in, but you told the story of your daughter in the hammock," and-

Gail Davis: Yes, I love that.

Dewitt Jones: And they remember it and then they repeat the whole story. And it's ten years ago that they saw me. And it's really incredible how those images both lock into somebody's mind and how [00:07:30] powerful they are when they bring them back.

Gail Davis: Can you tell our listeners about the photograph of your daughter because I can see that image crystal clear right now?

Dewitt Jones: Well, I was in a campground in Zion National Park. My daughter was all wound up in this little hammock. I grabbed a snapshot of her. It was poorly exposed. It was a lousy moment. It's really quite [00:08:00] an awful picture, but I stayed with it and I tried to say, "What am I falling in love with in this picture? What am I celebrating?" And laying out the concept that by celebrating what's right, we find the energy to fix what's wrong, I then moved to another picture that is really quite beautiful of my daughter lying in the hammock. And then I eventually say, "Like [00:08:30] Michelangelo, I saw an angel in the stone and carved to set it free." And at that point I go to just a shot of her face with the lines of the hammock in front of it, and there is an audible gasp in the room.

Gail Davis: Yep.

Dewitt Jones: You know? It's everybody's daughter and they know that moment where they have so brought out a vision by celebrating what's right with it rather than starting, as we so often do, by just griping about what's wrong with [00:09:00] it. And that image of my daughter gets really embedded deeply inside you.

Gail Davis: Yes.

Dewitt Jones: The other thing is, you know, if I walked into a predominately male corporation and I said, "You know what? We're going to turn off the lights and feel our feelings," I could clear the room in about three minutes, you know? They would dive for the exit.

Kyle Davis: Three? I think it would be about a minute and a half.

Dewitt Jones: Okay, minute and a half, right? And [00:09:30] yet if I walk in there and say, "Hey guys, I'm going to show you some pictures, so I'm going to turn the lights down," and I've told the audiovisual group that I want every light out in there. I want it to be as dark as a theater. I don't want you to be able to see the person next to you because I want you and that image and my voice to be the only thing that you're listening to and dealing with.

And so, they're having a very private experience as you would have in a motion picture theater where you've [00:10:00] forgotten everybody that's around you and you're just in the movie. And that becomes very powerful. It's not something where you can, you know, you're also working on your laptop and there's lights on in the room. And if you get bored with the speaker, you can look at a lot of other things. I'm not giving you any of those choices. I'm giving you my voice and the still image.

And when people say, "Well, we'd like to put you up on I-Mag at the same time," I say, "no, don't do that." Then they'll watch me [00:10:30] moving around. I don't want them to watch me. I want them to watch this iconic image that they're going to remember for the next 20 years with a story that I plant. I didn't know how powerful that would be when I started doing it, but it turns out to be extremely powerful.

Gail Davis: I agree. I'd like to go back. How did you get into photography and then, as you share that, how did you get the gig with National Geographic because I'm sure many, many [00:11:00] photographers desire that that never have the opportunity?

Dewitt Jones: Well, when I was a junior in college, some friends of mine had this crazy idea that they would go behind the Iron Curtain and paddle in canoes from Germany all the way to the Black Sea through a lot of Eastern European countries. And they got permission to do it and they asked Geographic if they'd like to fund it and [00:11:30] Geographic said no. And they said, "Well we're going to do it anyways, so could you just send along a little film?" And the two guys that took the pictures, eventually that was a very successful article in the Geographic.

I was not asked on that trip. I knew about it when it was happening. They already had it filled. But the next year I got with two of those guys, and in my senior year at Dartmouth we decided that we would try and do the same kind of an expedition and paddle 1100 [00:12:00] miles up the coast of Japan in kayaks. It was something that was done in those days, sort of a people to people expedition, where you were showing the country you were in a different view of Americans than they were normally used to seeing.

Somebody else was taking the still photography, so I decided I would make a movie out of it. And I had been accepted into Harvard Business School and I withdrew my acceptance and applied [00:12:30] to UCLA film school to learn how to make movies, and called my Dad and told him that that was what I was doing. And I've never heard such a deafening silence in my life. My father said, "You're doing what?"

But I did that. I went out to UCLA. I made that my Masters project. I got it funded by the Geographic. And while I was doing the movie, I also met all the people there in the still department. And two years later they hired me [00:13:00] to do my first still assignment on the conservationist John Muir. And that started a 20 year relationship shooting for them. So, and this is really absurd when I look back on it, but my first published photographs were in the National Geographic. I obviously had some talent. I obviously knew what I was doing. I was a quick learner. But it was incredible and then they send me out all over the world to take still pictures.

Kyle Davis: [crosstalk 00:13:32] [00:13:30] Yeah, not a bad break.

Dewitt Jones: Not a bad break.

Kyle Davis: No, I mean I probably would have said some words for you about not going to HBS, but that's just me.

Dewitt Jones: Well, my father said a few, but he supported me and let me go to UCLA film school so-

Kyle Davis: But there's nothing wrong with UCLA either. I have a friend of mine who's at law school there. So, we had this kind of conversation prior to going to record, but [00:14:00] when you're, you know, whether you're shooting for yourself and your own pleasure or you're shooting on assignment for whether it be for National Geographic or somebody else, what kind of goes into the composition of the shot? How do you get the picture? What are you going for or does some of this just fall in your lap? How does the magic so happen?

Dewitt Jones: Well, I grew up in photojournalism, [00:14:30] so everything I did for the Geographic tells a story, but actually every picture tells a story. And what you have to do is figure out what that story is very quickly, be able to say, you know, whether it's the story of the rider on the pole coming out of the shoot in a rodeo or whether it's just a tree against the skyline, what is the essence of this story and how do I enhance [00:15:00] that and get rid of everything else? That's the basic idea in any picture. I don't want anything in there that distracts you from the essence of the story. So I have to be very good at figuring that out, and part of it may be a story of a person. Part of it might be the story of light or the story of line or angle or a thousand other things. But I have [00:15:30] to know what that is, and then I use all of my technique and technology to enhance that and get ride of everything else.

And I always start by what's right in the story. You know, what am I falling in love with? What made me turn my head in the first place? And then the rest of it is fairly easy. When I can get a lock on that, I can say, "Well I need a telephoto lens or I need a wide angle lens or I need a slow shutter speed or I need a strobe," or [00:16:00] all the other technology that falls to it. I can break that out if I'm teaching for all the steps, but I've done it long enough that it just happens. I walk down the street, something literally turns my head. I go, "Oh man, look at that," right? And then I'm already starting to say what lens, what focus, what shutter speed, what F stop? Do I need anything else? Where do I want to stand? All of those things [00:16:30] immediately start coming into my mind and being answered.

But it would be the same thing actually that I would do if I'm writing a story for the platform. You know, what's the story and how do I tell it in the cleanest possible way so that the audience isn't distracted by any word or body movement, is enhanced by my gestures and my tone so that I can get them to feel the same thing that I feel [00:17:00] when I first heard the story or when I'm looking at something that I want to make a photographic image out of.

Kyle Davis: You mentioned-

Gail Davis: You know, Dewitt-

Kyle Davis: I'm sorry.

Gail Davis: Go ahead, Kyle.

Kyle Davis: You mention technology and I know that for like some people- When you're in Brooklyn and you talk to some of those cool hipster kids, they're always like, "Oh I only shoot on film. I don't do digital stuff." So I guess my question is, it sounds to me like you've really embraced technology and kind of how it can enhance a photograph, whether you're [00:17:30] doing an elongated shutter speed or if you're deploying a strobe or something else like that. But what have you seen just generally the shifts in the photography or cinematographic industry with regards to going from film to digital to now people having the 15 megapixel iPhone in their pocket?

Dewitt Jones: Um, you know, the business has collapsed because of that. The business of being a photographer is much, much harder [00:18:00] now than it was 25 years ago. The joy of being a photographer has skyrocketed. I mean people are- The technology to get pictures has become much simpler, which has made many more people think they're photographers because, you know, and we're using billions of more images to communicate, all of which I think is great. I don't really care what the medium [00:18:30] is. The medium is chosen for the end product, you know. If I want to make a mural that's 60 feet long and 40 feet high, I'm probably going to go back and shoot it on a 8 by 10 camera or 5 by 7 camera.

But every day, what do I shoot with? I shoot with my iPhone because it's the world's greatest visual sketchpad, you know. You can practice and play and make your eye much, much better with the iPhone. [00:19:00] Does that mean I don't still have what I call my big boy cameras? Of course I do, but I'll use whatever medium is out there. And in fact the only class that I teach during the year is an iPhone class 'cause I'm fascinated by getting people to realize what they can do with that phone and how they- They can make some great pictures, but they can really enhance the way they see the world.

Kyle Davis: [00:19:30] I will say, and I think my Mom will say this for me as well, that I am a prolific iPhone photo taker, much to the chagrin of my brother, who thinks it's annoying.

Dewitt Jones: But there is some amazing work being done on it, on the iPhone. And being able to shoot and actually do the post processing right there, I mean on the phone, and putting it up on your Facebook page. You know, [00:20:00] every night- I post ever day on Facebook or every night actually. And by the following morning I've shared it with more people, more people have seen my image that I put up on a given day than have seen all of my one man shows in my life. That's ridiculous, but very cool.

Kyle Davis: That's amazing. Yeah, I like the idea. The only reason that I bring it up is I find so often that people kind of like constrict themselves to one form or medium [00:20:30] or another. But like something as simple as an iPhone, I mean it's not earth shattering. But it provides you with an opportunity to have something that's readily available to just capture a moment and then talk about it later.

Dewitt Jones: Well, the line is, "The best camera is the one you have with you." Right?

Kyle Davis: Right.

Dewitt Jones: If it's in your car or back in your house, it's not a camera. It's a piece of metal or plastic and glass. That's what it is. [00:21:00] It's only a camera when you're holding it.

Kyle Davis: Right.

Dewitt Jones: So, I just took a two week trip. I went to Orlando and New Orleans and New York and Colorado and all I took was my iPhone. And I got some fantastic pictures with it.

Kyle Davis: Well now I'm gonna have to take this class.

Gail Davis: Earlier in the podcast I was asking you if you were in Hawaii or Tahoe, [00:21:30] and I know you live a portion of the year in Hawaii. I'm curious what drew you to the islands, and I'd also love it if you'd talk about the way you customize the presentation there. It really brings in the essence of Hawaii.

Dewitt Jones: Sure. My wife and I had gone to Hawaii many times. We were wind surfers at that point in our life, and hat's some of the best wind surfing in the world. And so, we'd gone there, mostly to Maui, and [00:22:00] I loved it but I never really thought of living there. I didn't know how I'd make a living there, and I also- It was already pretty built up for me. I was living on the coast in Marin County and it was beautiful. You know, it just hadn't really drawn me.

But then a friend of mine asked me to come to the island of Molokai. And two things happened. One, we all go to [00:22:30] places where we just feel like we've been there before. Some of them we expect and we get there and they feel that way. And some of them we don't expect at all and they just hit us when we get there. And Molokai was like that. I got off the plane from Maui, which was beautiful. I stepped on the ground in Molokai and I went, "I'm home." And I looked at my wife and she said, "I feel the same way." And we didn't even know what we were talking about. We're standing on the tarmac at the airport. But that's how strong we felt about the place. And then we found [00:23:00] that Molokai has 7,000 people. It doesn't have a stop light yet. It doesn't have a building over two stories. It doesn't have an escalator. It doesn't have an elevator. It's very, very rural and yet it's eight miles from Maui and 30 miles from Oahu.

So you are like stepping back in time about 75 years, except that you didn't come there on a three masted schooner. You came there on a plane, and your cell [00:23:30] phone worked, and your wifi worked, and you could do business any place in the world, and yet you could live in this very rural, tropical island. And it was amazing. And it took me awhile to arrange my life so that I could life there. Also, probably on the island of Molokai, only 15 percent are White. The rest are mixed or Hawaiian, about 60 percent Hawaiian. So you're living in a foreign culture, [00:24:00] but you're living in the United States. And having traveled all over the world for the Geographic, I liked that a great deal. And I really liked the Hawaiian culture.

So, to answer the second part of your question, one of the things that I didn't quite realize when we moved there was that there was a huge number of corporate meetings that come to Hawaii. And that was thrilling for me because there aren't many keynoters that live there. [00:24:30] And not only that, but as I learned more and more about the Hawaiian culture, I wanted to come up with a show that expressed that to the people that came to these meetings. And so I put together a show that uses the girls from the local hula troupe, the local Hulu [Halau 00:24:53] in the show. And there's a line in Hawaiian called "ʻaʻa i ka hula", which means [00:25:00] there to dance. And that could have been right out of many motivational speeches. You know, will you dare to dance in your life? Will you engage with it? Will you try to be more than you thought you could be? And these girls from this tiny island have gone all over the world dancing.

So they come and I tell the story and they come out on stage and they dance. And everybody loves it. I usually get a standing ovation in the middle of the show, which is kind of fun. [00:25:30] And then I go back into telling some more stories. And at the end I exhort the audience to say, you know, will you dare to dance? And I said the only answer to that is yes. And of course the lights come up. The girls are there, and I do a hula with them to finish the show, which usually brings down the house. And it's really been a lot of fun.

Gail Davis: I remember years ago-

Dewitt Jones: We have actually, I remember, you know 'cause the girls get a great kick out [00:26:00] of it too. They're usually dancing to audiences of a couple hundred on Molokai. And we were at the visitor's center or the convention center in Oahu, and I walked back stage and I said that, "Just know that when you walk out there, there are about a thousand more people than there are on our island," you know? So they get something out of it.

Gail Davis: I remember years ago when I had another life before I started this company 18 years ago and I worked at EDS and I managed [00:26:30] their large corporate events. And we had you and I'll never forget sitting in the chairman's office describing that I was bringing in a photographer, "Yeah he used to work for National Geographic and he's gonna talk about the extraordinary vision and what's right with the world. Oh, and by the way, he's going to bring this hula dancers and they're going to dance [inaudible 00:26:48] presentation." And he is just looking at me, scratching his head, going, "If I hadn't heard some of your ridiculous ideas before and seen 'em work, I would be wanting to know what the heck you're talking about."

But I remember it was [00:27:00] just perfect. I mean it is so perfect for an event in Hawaii. You've really pulled the essence out. I loved Hawaii too, and I loved when you're a part of a program there and you really tap into that and bring that culture. I love that.

Dewitt Jones: I do too, and people are just stunned by how beautiful Hawaii is and, you know, the weather. I mean my wife says it's like living in amniotic fluid. You [00:27:30] know, you're just happy all the time. And when I try to tell people that my house in Hawaii does not have heat and it does not have air conditioning, and they go, "That can't be true!" And I go, "It is true." You know? It's true. The temperature is so consistent that I don't need heat and I don't need air conditioning.

Gail Davis: Oh man, that's beautiful.

Dewitt Jones: Pretty amazing.

Gail Davis: [00:28:00] Well, that's awesome. Kyle, do you have anything else? I just loved reconnecting with Dewitt.

Kyle Davis: No, I mean I find it really interesting that you went from one temperate climate in the Muir woods along, you know, Northern California all the way to Hawaii. And when I lived in San Francisco, I didn't have an air conditioner either. So that's-

Dewitt Jones: Right 'cause you were freezing all the time. Yeah.

Kyle Davis: I was freezing, yeah, until the Pineapple Express ones came in and the next thing you know, [00:28:30] I'm getting covered in rain for the first time ever.

Dewitt Jones: Absolutely.

Kyle Davis: In a long time, yeah. I mean, I just love- I think the thing that could make the conversation so much better. And not saying that this is a bad conversation or anything else like that, but what makes the keynote really good is definitely the visual component. And like we could talk till we're blue in the face and one of us passes out, but I think people really just have to, really kind of have to understand kind of how [00:29:00] someone who like yourself can have just a shift in perspective if you go from just taking what would be a traditional standard photo in a daisy field, like we were talking about earlier, versus getting on the ground and laying in there and just shifting the perspective on how you look at something, it would be beneficial. 'Cause the visual representation is hugely important.

Dewitt Jones: It is. And, as I said, I didn't know how strong these single [00:29:30] visual images can be, especially when they're connected with words. Very different than if I have a show of just photography, you know. You don't know when you walk around and look at it what I was thinking or there's no higher purpose to it. It's just they're beautiful images and I do that well. But I like it even better when I can tell a story that is going to help somebody in how they live and link something that will help them [00:30:00] to those images so that it is really powerful and it really stays with them.

Kyle Davis: Well I think that is a good place for us to wrap up. Thank you, Dewitt, and with that, if you'd like to book Dewitt Jones for your next event, you can do so by contacting GDA Speakers at 214-420-1999 or by going to GDAspeakers.com. If you go to GDApodcast.com, we will have a link to Dewitt's Facebook page, and do you have an Instagram account as [00:30:30] well too?

Dewitt Jones: No I haven't really gotten on Instagram, but I'm very heavily on Facebook, so-

Kyle Davis: That's totally your medium type. I think you'd like the boundaries, the square boundaries. But with that being said, we'll definitely link to his Facebook page.

Dewitt Jones: Facebook page.

Kyle Davis: On GDAPodcast.com as well as the transcripts, and we might even take a few select photos that Dewitt has allowed us to use and put them on there so that you can see it. With that being said, thank you, Dewitt.

Dewitt Jones: Okay. [00:31:00] Thank you.

Gail Davis: Thank you, Dewitt.

Kyle Davis: Thank you.