“I woke up, looked out my window and saw these amazing clouds and knew it was going to be a special sunrise. I ran outside and got these amazing sunrise photos and this horse came over and got in the shot. I looked back and saw four cowboys leaning against a truck, checking me out. It was at that point that I looked down and realized I forgot to put on pants.” ~ paraphrasing a story by Annie Griffiths.
Recently, I attended a National Geographic Live lecture by world-renowned photographer Annie Griffiths. The theme of the event was “Connect with Anyone, Anywhere” and focused primarily on documentary photography. Annie has traveled to 150 different countries and showed slides of her best photos, relating stories that were often humorous and always interesting. Although Ms. Griffiths has two children in their 20s, this was not your grandma’s vacation slideshow.
Here is series of notes and takeaways:
1. Learn to Photograph and Appreciate the Everyday Things in Your Own Culture
Born and raised in rural Minnesota, Annie got her first job out of college at a local newspaper and started shooting scenes of people and every day life in her local area. She showed some humorous and thoughtful photos taken in her early days that showed everyday things in an interesting way. One example was a car door at the school that was left open and covered in a fine layer of snow. Someone was running late for class.
2. Respect the Environment of the People You are Photographing
The other photographer at Annie’s magazine was an excellent wildlife photographer. He took her on a few photo expeditions into the wilderness and a big takeaway for her was this: they were entering the environment of the animals. It was necessary to respect the animals, to be a visitor in their world, and to think like animals, in order to get good shots.
Annie says this is key to people photography also. Don’t judge the people you are shooting. Simply be with them and respect their environment.
3. Don’t Be Shy
“Have you ever taken a photo with a telephoto lens from across the street of someone and when you got home you were disappointed in it?” She asked. She says that in general, people are flattered to be photographed. If you are shy about taking their photo, concerned about interrupting their day or worried about being rude, that you are projecting your own feelings on to them. You are being too shy, she said.
There are universal hand signals and gestures for DON’T TAKE MY PHOTO!, she said. She gestured a person blocking their face, turning away and flipping the bird. Don’t be shy, don’t be sneaky, she said.
Ms. Griffiths said she’d rather pantomime and make gestures in communicating with people than have an interpreter. She prefers to embed in the lives of her subjects, get to know them.
4. You Can Have Kids and Travel
About ten years into her career, Ms. Griffiths had two children. This did not slow her down. She took the kids with her, traveling the world and doing her job. One of her kids went to 13 countries before she was born, she said.
5. The Middle East is her Favorite Region
Ms. Griffiths went on a little rant about the Middle East. It is a safe place with some of the nicest people on Earth she told us, and warned us not to let the actions of the radicals on the fringe unduly influence us. We wouldn’t want to be judged by the likes of Timothy McViegh, she said.
In a field dominated by men, she was one of the first women photographers to work for National Geographic and being a woman was a huge asset in the Middle East. In the Arab world, it is a gender separate society. The men work and socialize in public while the women gather and work in the homes. Being a woman she was able to photograph an unseen part of the culture and make strong relationships with Arab women.
She told a story about asking permission from a male Muslim leader to photograph the breaking of the fast for Ramadan at the Dome on the Rock in Jerusalem. She was denied several times. She made friends with the leader’s wife and on the morning of the sunrise service, there was a knock at her door. “Dress modestly and bring just one camera,” said a young girl. They snuck her into the mosque and she was allowed to take photos that had never been taken before.
6. Photography Can Be Used For Positive Change
Recently, Ms. Griffiths created an organization called Ripple Effect Images. An excerpt from their webpage:
Ripple Effect Images is a team of journalists dedicated to documenting the plight of poor women and girls around the world, and highlighting the programs that are helping to empower them, especially as they deal with the devastating effects of climate change. Working closely with scientists and NGOs to identify both the needs and the innovative programs that are helping women and girls, Ripple Effect journalists make strategic trips to document these programs.
At the end of the presentation, she showed images captured as part of the charity project and talked about the ways that their photos have helped change the lives of the women. These powerful images have brought awareness to women’s issues and highlighted their struggles, but not in an exploitive way. Take a look at the photos here and you will see that they are positive and thought-provoking, not showing misery or helplessness.
One touching photo showed a Somali woman and her child asleep on the floor at a refugee camp. Ms. Griffiths said it was one of the toughest days of her life, that she saw so much misery and sadness that she felt hopeless, like she wasn’t able to help. A few years later she was in the United States at a charity organization and saw the photo on the wall. It had been plucked from a calendar. She asked why they chose to put that photo on the wall. The office worker explained that the lady in the photo, along with her children and husband, were granted asylum and were working locally. She felt a huge sense of satisfaction that her work had indirectly helped these people escape their situation and make a better life.
Are you familiar with Annie Griffiths’ work?
Links For Annie Griffiths’ Photography