To be in the right place at the right moment brought the 25 years old photographer Annie Griffiths from the local Worthington Daily Globe in her home state, Minnesota, to travel around the world for National Geographic. Since that hailstorm hitting the region and her answering the phone and being asked by one of the most prestigious magazines in the world to take some pictures of the damages provoked, time has passed. Griffiths, always concerned with environmental issues, one year ago founded Ripple Effect Images, a photojournalists’ association documenting programmes that help women of emerging nations dealing with the effects of climate change. She is also part of the National Geographic Speakers Bureau and still works for the magazine. Griffiths is the author of “A camera, two kids and a camel” (National Geographic Society, 2008).
When you started working at National Geographic you were one of the first women and the youngest in the editorial team. Did you experience any difference in treatment because of that?
No, I think it was a benefit to be a woman because the director of photography was really trying to broaden his team. He had too many American white guys and really wanted to reach out and have a more diverse group of photographers. I really felt supported.
How old were you when you started bringing your children with you?
I was 36 when my first child was born and 39 when the second one arrived and even during my pregnancy they were always with me when I was travelling. Now they are 20 and 17 years old.
Did your former husband use to come along?
He would visit us when we were travelling and once in a while we had assignments together since he is a writer at National Geographic, but most of the times he wasn’t with us.
In an interview of yours I heard you saying that “whenever I am in a culture that’s divided by gender, to me being a woman is a huge advantage”. Why?
Women’s issues are much less covered than men’s issues and when there is a gender separation there are a lot more men photographers covering male stuff but only few women photographers. Especially when I started working in the Middle East, there were very few, so to me it was an advantage to be a woman, because I could cover those things and be in a world that was much less covered than the men’s world.
So men would only cover men’s issues or how is it?
There were many things they could not cover and there were many male issues I could not cover.
What kind of things could you cover in the “women’s world” your male colleagues couldn’t?
What we cover for Geographic is really daily life and for instance I could go into the kitchen when they were cooking, I could be with them when they were just relaxing and being themselves and the same happens with guys. So it is just a comfort level of their society if you are a guest there, especially since there are many situations where women will be deeply uncomfortable if there is a man in the room and the other way around.
Now that you mention the kitchen, I read a text of yours in the National Geographic where you said that you learned a lot about women from other cultures by spending time with them in the kitchen. What kind of things have you learned that way?
In many parts of the world kitchen is where women are themselves and when you are with them you start understanding how they really feel, get to witness their sense of humour, see their personality. In any country, I believe, it’s when you have the opportunity to spend time with people in their homes that you start seeing who they are.
Could you explain to me in a few words how you managed to travel around the globe with two little children?
I very actively proposed my stories where I knew my children would be safe and comfortable rather than wait for assignments and we never stayed in hotels. I always rented a little apartment so they could be in a neighbourhood and we could have our own kitchen and I always had a baby-sitter with me. Like any other working mother while I was working she took care of them and then I’d go over. It is a different kind of job, but I think the challenges are very similar to those of other working mothers since you are both trying to do a really good job and make sure your children are a priority.
Did National Geographic pay for your expenses?
No, no, no.
Have you ever found yourself in a dangerous or uncomfortable situation while having your kids with you?
No. Working in Israel, in the Nineties, sometimes random violence just made anyone uncomfortable, you know, but I took precautions, like never ever taking them on buses, which were targeted. My wonderful babysitter at the time would track down how many miles they walked each day. One day they went over a hundred miles in Jerusalem.
Was there a specific fact or moment that made you decide to use photography to document programs helping women dealing with the effects of climate change?
When it became so clear that climate change was affecting the planet there was a lot of coverage of things like polar bears and glaciers and no one was really covering the huge toll that was taking on people, the fact that we were going to see the biggest human migration in history and that women would be the ones suffering the most from it. My two personal interests have been in the environment and in poor women’s issues, so I just felt I needed to do more to help people understand how much women are affected by climate change and how successful the programmes to help them are. You know that only two cents of every dollar of aid money go to women? That’s just wrong on every level. So I thought if people knew, if we could humanize the issue and put a human face on these women and what they are dealing with, people would help.
And is it so?
I think it’s very true. Fifteen years ago nobody had ever heard the term microfinance. Then they started doing it for women in Bangladesh and it grew and grew because women worked so hard and now in the States for instance everyone knows what microfinance is and almost all of the major aid organizations have microfinance as part of their work. And that shows that if people not only care but also understand that it actually works, they go for it. Ripple Effects works closely with the US State Department to use file material to help raise money for women’s programmes.
How does Ripple Effects exactly work?
We go to programmes that we find out through our research to be effective and cover them, but then the material is used in many different ways to encourage other programmes to do similar things. We both work with US and international organizations.
Which project are you working on at the moment?
We’re going to do coverage of a project on maternal help in India next January.
What is the goal that you would like to achieve?
We want to raise awareness of what women are dealing with because of climate change, to raise major funding for programmes that will empower them and also to change the perception that women are just victims. In fact, if they have a little opportunity, they will fight for their family and for their community. The Western world is bombarded by tragedies, which is not very helpful sometimes, and there’s a lack of coverage of what women are doing.
Why do you think there is such a lack?
Quite frankly, breaking news is easier to cover than positive, long term issues. I don’t think it’s intentional but it just happens and the consequence of not telling stories of the possibilities of empowerment is that people just won’t know.
And what goal do you want to achieve for yourself?
Exactly the same ones. I would also like to write fiction.
I am sure there are thousands of stories you have witnessed while working as a photographer, is there one you think you will never forget that you want to share with me?
A few years ago I was working in a very remote village of Pakistan and I was very touched by the women living there. I was trying to be modest so I had old pants and shirt and an ugly headscarf and they were so amused because I looked ugly to them, who were wearing colourful dresses. I have never felt uglier in my life than in the presence of these exquisite women for whom life had significantly changed since an aid organization had provided camels to help them carrying the water. Otherwise they would have spent hours and hours walking every day and now they only need to go and get it once a week.
Which advices would you give to a young photographer trying to achieve her or his goal?
I think the main thing is to get out there and do work in some place regional or volunteering for organizations that need pictures.
You mean working for free?
Yes, of course, when you are young I think it is a smart thing to do, since it gives you confidence and the skills to go forward.
Yes, I always tell young photographers to make sure they are surrounded by people they can learn from. If you are the best photographer at a newspaper, it is time to leave. When you work with people who are better than you, that’s when you grow.
You have been interviewed many times. Is there something you have always wanted to be asked and no one has?
I think there is a perception that as a woman you have to choose between a successful work and a normal life and I really hope that my life has been an example for women in all kinds of professions; if you have your priorities clear in your own mind, you are just like any other woman seeking balance. If I had given birth to a child who for some reason could not travel, I would have made other choices. I think that women need to have confidence in their strengths and that, whatever the obstacle, they can find a way around it and do great things.