The Digital Journalist
One Night, One Photo

by Mark Allen Johnson

It was supposed to be a relaxing Friday evening in San Francisco. I had just been picked up by my date in her car and we were on our way. This date was a long time coming; we must have rescheduled it three or four times. I had just finished a two-month project in California's Central Valley during the dead of summer where the temperature was reaching 105-plus degrees daily. The story was on methamphetamine production in the Central Valley, which is one of the main meth producers in the nation. I had countless 20-plus-hour days chasing Department of Justice narcotics agents up and down the valley corridor pursuing dangerous Mexican drug cartel rings that produce the majority of this meth. I was extremely pleased that Newsweek had picked up the story, putting me on assignment for a handful of days, and I was ready to celebrate.

June 30, 2005; Fresno, Calif., USA: An officer in the Fresno Meth Task Force secures a man at gunpoint during an early morning raid on a suspected meth lab site.

Mark Allen Johnson/ZUMA Press
As my date and I drove down the street my phone rang. My date looked at me and said, "You are not going to answer it, are you?" I recognized the number as Newsweek and answered the phone. On the other end was the Newsweek "Nation" photo editor asking if I had a minute to talk. I motioned to my date to pull over so I could get out of the car and have some privacy for the conversation.

Newsweek said that they needed a potential cover photo to go with the meth epidemic story, something that would have more of a personal feeling to it, possibly a person using meth. As they discussed the sensitivity of the image with me and the need for it to be spontaneous, not planned or set up, my date could be seen through the car window frowning at me and waving her hands around in disappointment. After a 15-20-minute conversation we agreed on a guarantee based on my attempt to get the photograph. I returned to my now frantic date, and climbed into the car as she scolded me. I tried to relay the good news but she kept on complaining, so I gave up and asked her to take me home.

I ran upstairs, grabbed my camera bag and headed out the door as the sun was setting on a warm San Francisco evening. I knew I had my work cut out for me.

May 14, 2005; Delhi, Calif., USA; Officers in the High Intensity Drug Traffic Area (HIDTA) Central Valley Meth Task Force wear chemical suits to sift through the lab waste dumped in an orchard by meth producers.

Mark Allen Johnson/ZUMA Press
I am the type of guy who lives and dies with the job. I live by the motto "Always be better than you were yesterday." I was considering these thoughts as I walked down the street thinking to myself, "there is no option except success in finding this photo." I remembered a conversation that I had with Scott McKiernan, the founder of my picture agency, ZUMA. Scott said, "Mark, your greatest strength as a photographer is also your greatest weakness. This confidence and relentless attitude for success will either make you or break you in your career. Editors will love your drive and passion but they will also worry if you can give them what they want, not what you want." Keeping this advice at the forefront of my thoughts, I was dead set on making Newsweek happy.

Newsweek cover, August 8, 2005

Mark Allen Johnson/ZUMA Press
What a night! It wasn't enough that I already expect so much from myself, but now one of the world's most respected news magazines was expecting me to succeed. In my mind, it was a "make it or break it" moment. I didn't sleep that night. I walked the streets of San Francisco for over 24 hours straight. I finally stumbled upon some hookers that I had met before. Knowing their history of drug abuse, I followed them from place to place until we finally settled in an apartment with a male friend of theirs. I spent almost 12 hours with this guy at one point, watching him sleep for about four hours. He awoke, walked to the bathroom, came out with a glass pipe and lit up right in front of me! I raced to pull out my camera. Click. One frame.

Who would have thought, all this pressure riding on one frame, one photograph? Who could have known that this photograph, months later, would grace the covers of Newsweek (US), Newsweek (Arabic), and a handful of other magazines worldwide! I have painfully learned as a photojournalist that hard work and great images don't always make big news or big money. I firmly believe it is the passion and the experience that makes it all worth the effort. Now months later, my meth story has reached across the globe and all of my hard work has paid off ten-fold this time. I have to say, paying the bills is nice.

© Mark Allen Johnson

Mark Allen Johnson is an award-winning ZUMA Press contract photographer. Mark began shooting professionally four years ago. During this short time he has become a well-respected photographer worldwide. His enthusiasm for the profession is matched with equally high-energy images. Whether it's Fortune 500 executive portraits or scenes of a drug deal gone bad, Mark's stories and images have broad international appeal that a diverse list of clients ranging from Newsweek and Vibe to Penthouse appreciate and respect.

Visit Mark's Web site at

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