Vedika Singhania speaks to the trailblazer Annie Griffiths about her love for traveling and her determination to bring women to the forefront, right where they belong.
For all her life, Annie Griffiths thought that her preferred way of storytelling was through writing. “I was in a journalism class in my first year of college, at the University of Minnesota. I had recently acquired a camera and decided that I’d take a class to learn how to use it. Two weeks later, I changed my major!” Those two weeks exposed her to what the camera could achieve, and she was thrilled to see her photographs come to life, before her eyes. Since that moment, Annie has spent four decades photographing across the world.
Her maiden assignment for National Geographic took Griffiths into the deep, sprawling desert of Namibia. The first sighting of the nomadic tribe, whom she was there to document, comprised of three women and two children. She immediately pulled out her Polaroid camera, took a few pictures of them and handed out the prints. As the women saw the photographs develop before their eyes, they started rolling on the ground, pointing at each other and laughing. They were euphoric. “I could tell without understanding a single syllable of their language that these women had never seen their own faces before!” she said.
She was 25-years-old when she was sent to Namibia. Annie had recently joined National Geographic and was one of the few women photographers in the magazine, and one of the youngest as well. The magazine’s then photo editor, the legendary Bob Gilka, had hired her from the Worthington Daily Globe in Minnesota, where she had been working for two years as a photojournalist, after graduating. “I think that Mr. Gilka actively took interest in my career because he wanted to diversify the team. He might not have done that if I had been one amongst a million men. Here I was at National Geographic, working in three to four countries on a project.”
From a very young age, Annie was adamant on defying the gender stereotype. Early in her career as a photojournalist, her boss would express concern over sending her to remote areas. She was seen as a fragile woman in need of protection. But she took it upon herself to eliminate such double standards. She told her boss that she had to be viewed as a photographer, rather than a woman photographer. “My boss listened to me, swallowed hard, and let me do the things I needed to do.”
Griffiths imputes her resilience to her mother. “She understood just the right amount of wrong”. From a young age, her mother had an affinity towards flying. What added to her enthusiasm was the fact that she was born on the day that Charles Lindbergh flew over the Atlantic. She felt that it was her birthright to fly. However, she was rejected by Pan American World Airways, after she applied for the position of a flight attendant. The reason offered to her was that she wore glasses, which could cause potential safety problems. “So my mother, in a wonderful way that women do of maneuvering around any problem, became a pilot,” Griffiths exclaimed. “That’s the role model I had.”
Over the course of 35 years, being a woman opened a lot of doorways for Annie. She spent about five years in the Middle East, for an assignment. Being a female photojournalist was a huge advantage here, as it gave her a kind of access to the women residing there, which was something that her male colleagues could never imagine doing. “A majority of photographers are men, and back then, almost all photographers were men. So I had the girls all to myself,” she said. “We’re just simply less threatening. When your goal is to become invisible so that you can document real things, the less threatening you are, the quicker you can get to that place of trust with people.”
“What I love most is when I am sitting in a hut and the people there have forgotten about me. They go back to their regular life, and I get to witness this. That is the favourite thing about my job. I suddenly disappear into a different culture and I am somehow accepted and forgotten. That’s when the real pictures come. That’s when intimate moments play out. And, I get to be there. That’s what I live for.”
Using her camera as her passport, Annie has crisscrossed the globe and travelled to over 150 countries. Before Lily, her first child, was born, she had already travelled to 13 countries! Even after the birth of her children, Annie continued to travel with them. It helped her see the world in a new light. “No matter how weird I looked to people of other cultures, as soon as they got to know that I was a mother, a special bond was formed.” One other discovery Griffiths made during these trips was that diapers made for excellent packing material. “Long after Lily and Charlie grew up, I continued to use the diapers. They fit around my camera like gloves,” she added with a chuckle.
As she continued to travel overseas, one of things that she was constantly drawn to was the state of women. “Women are often victimised, but they’re actually resourceful, smart, and funny. They’re survivors. They just want to lift themselves and their families up, and deserve a little bit of help to do that. If you tell them once that beans are healthier than corn for their family, they will listen and make it a practice.” Annie wanted to make a difference. So she, along with the celebrated photojournalists—Lynn Johnson and Ami Vitale, as well as cinematographer, Michael Davie, founded Ripple Effect Images, a non-profit organization. “Now, I have a full-time unpaid job and a full-time paid job,” she said. Her team of photographers and videomakers donate compelling storytelling material to aid groups catering to women and children, who come from challenging circumstances. These visuals have enabled them to raise over 10 million dollars for its 24 aid organisations, including four NGOs in India—Chintan, Barefoot College, Pardada Pardadi and Jai Bhagirathi. In 2016, 14 dollars were reportedly raised for every dollar that was invested in Ripple Effect’s storytelling. “People who have nothing, give everything. And I have been a recipient of that. Believe me, they have never heard of National Geographic. I am just a human being. I am just another woman, and I am determined to give back to them,” she said.
“The roadblocks are often the biggest opportunities. We are documenting the problem, but no one is documenting the solutions.”
Despite having the option to check into hotels, Annie prefers to live with the community she is photographing, and the intimacy that she develops with them, clearly reflect in her work. She is extremely committed to humanizing situations and bringing cultures together. The outlook she has as a global citizen, helps her recognize common challenges and common joys. Griffiths’ photographs are powerful and bustling with energy. Today, when women photographers are still underrepresented, her book, A Camera, Two Kids, and a Camel, is a testimony to the fact that not just women, but mothers too, can have a full-fledged occupation.
Her illustrious career has established the fact that hardwork and time are the key ingredients that talent can’t do without. She mentions that to be successful, one needs to continue working on stories, even if they are the ones that they don’t want to tell, and bring excellence to it. “You have to be proactive, or be in a group that is. You grow up and realise that the only people looking at your byline are your parents and that it’s the work that’s most important,” she said.
Annie Griffiths joined National Geographic as one of their first female photographers in 1978. She has received awards from the National Press Photographers Association, the Associated Press, the National Organization of Women, The University of Minnesota and the White House News Photographers Association.
This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Better Photography.