The following is a conversation between Annie Griffiths, Executive Director of Ripple Effect Images, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: My next guest was one of the first female photographers for National Geographic and has been to some 150 countries during her remarkable career, taking photographs that humanize all kinds of situations and cultures. She is also the Executive Director of a nonprofit organization called Ripple Effect Images, a collection of photographs that document the programs that empower women and girls across the developing world. She is Annie Griffiths. Good evening, Annie, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Annie: Good evening!
Denver: Your love affair with photography really didn’t begin until college. How did you get the bug?
Annie: Right! I was a late bloomer. I think it came from the fact that my parents, when I was growing up, my parents always had National Geographic and Life Magazine, and I was intrigued with photographs, but it never occurred to me that I could make a career out of that. I pursued writing. I actually audited a class to learn how to use a camera better, and somebody didn’t show up the first day. The professor gave me the spot! So it was really like falling in love because two weeks later, I changed my major. I was gobsmacked.
Denver: It took instantly.
Annie: It took instantly. Yes.
Denver: What was it like being one of the first female photographers down at National Geographic? This was around 1978. Were there concerns about sending a young woman to far-flung places around the globe?
Annie: Well, yes, there were… and well-intentioned concerns. The biggest thing I recall is being terrified because I was not only one of the first women, but I was by far the youngest photographer there. And I was, in fact, being mentored by the great director of photography, Bob Gilka, who recognized that he needed to diversify his team. He was covering the globe with just a bunch of white guys. And so, a number of us were given a leap into the big magazine world because of Bob’s interest in grooming a greater variety of photographers.
Denver: You’ve said that it was actually a bit of an advantage being a woman working in this world.
Annie: Oh, huge advantage!
Denver: What were some of those advantages?
Annie: Well, I think that the most important element of photographing people is trust and earning their trust. And women just tend to be less…
Denver: More trustworthy, actually.
Annie: Yes. Probably more trustworthy, but less threatening. And people tend to be less on guard. Also, when I eventually had my kids, the fact that I was a mother was also kind of an equalizer. It showed me as a real human being, not just as this aberration who arrived from who knows where and was taking pictures. So, I’ve always thought it was a huge advantage.
The other advantage that I still love is that I was able to be with the women and therefore understand the underreported stories that rule their lives. And that is priceless. I could go where no man could go.
Denver: So you’re actually covering stories that had never been covered.
Annie: Absolutely! Yes. Still am.
Denver: That’s a pretty big advantage. I’ve so enjoyed looking at your work, and I truly appreciate it. I just wondered how you go about choosing the subject and telling the story… and maybe how that’s evolved since you first started back in 1978.
Annie: Well, yes. I think your radar improves. You get a sense of something is going to work or it’s not going to work. I think as you mature in any craft, you kind of see ahead and anticipate things better. It’s a good thing because when we’re young, we have so much energy. We can just go and go and go. And as time goes on, you sort of listen better on a number of levels. And that’s also part of trusting your gut so that you get to the subject more quickly.
Denver: What’s it like to be a guest, particularly a guest with a camera in your hand, in someone else’s culture?
Annie: It’s just wonderful. The camera is the best passport you can have. I am very careful to go low profile. I don’t have a camera bag or a vest or any of that stuff.
Denver: You try to blend in.
Annie: I try to blend in and, again, try to be as unthreatening as possible. But when I’m with people, especially if I’m in their home, when there isn’t a picture happening, I help them cook. I play with their kids. In fact, I remember one time—a really funny story—I was photographing in North Dakota and it was this family who has a complicated story, but really lovely. The mom was so busy, and she had the kids in the tub. So I went in and was watching the kids so she could get something done, and I had a towel over my shoulder. And then she came back and the doorbell rang, and she was with the kids and she said, “Can you get that?” And I had this towel over my shoulder, and I opened the door, and there’s a photographer from the local newspaper, and he said, “Excuse me. I heard there’s a National Geographic photographer…” And I put my sudsy hand out and said, “Hi. Nice to meet you.”
Denver: That is funny. You know, Annie. We kind of look at you as a photographer, but you’re really a photojournalist. And like any other journalist, you sometimes have to dig and push to get a story. Give us an example where that tenacity and perseverance really paid off.
Annie: Daily. I think it’s the process of calculating in a short amount of time whether this person understands and can help you, or whether you need to go around that person, especially for permissions and access and all those things.
And so, I remember one time I wanted to photograph the resurfacing of Jodrell Bank in England because it was turned up toward the sky, and it was enormous. I went through the proper channels, and this very proper English woman, when I asked about photographing it, she said, “My dear, not even the Queen can go to Jodrell Bank,” and I went, “Okay. Well, thank you very much.” And then I just called back to Geographic and talked to our science editor, and I said, “Okay. Who do you know at Jodrell Bank?” And I was in.
It doesn’t help to yell and scream. I just don’t believe in that way of approaching things. But you simply pivot and don’t give up.
… the keyword is still. It’s still photography, and it helps people to pause…when there’s a still image, it invites you to spend a little time with it, and you see things that would go by too quickly in a moving image.
…it allows for greater contemplation, greater understanding if people take the time to look at it. And that’s, of course, the job – is to make the images compelling enough that people will stop, and even come back and look at it again.
Denver: What do you think the place of still photography is in today’s world of streaming video and YouTube? And where can it be used effectively?
Annie: Well, I think the keyword is still. It’s still photography, and it helps people to pause. A video is terrific – and I love videos – it goes by, and you kind of take the big picture. But when there’s a still image, it invites you to spend a little time with it, and you see things that would go by too quickly in a moving image.
So I think it allows for greater contemplation, greater understanding if people take the time to look at it. And that’s of course the job – is to make the images compelling enough that people will stop, and even come back and look at it again.
Denver: It may be difficult to judge your own work, but would you say there is anything distinctive about your photographs that somebody else might take a look at them and say, “Hmm. I think that’s an Annie Griffiths.”?
Annie: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s maybe just warmth, I guess. There’s a lot of warmth in my pictures because I genuinely have warm encounters with people.
I think there’s way too much portrayal of these women as helpless and hopeless, and that’s just not accurate. They’re survivors. Sometimes they’re victimized, but they have absolutely no interest in being treated like victims. They are the best investment we can make in our shared future.
Denver: Well, you are dedicated to telling the stories of women and girls who are living in some of the most challenging and difficult circumstances in all corners of the earth. What do you think are some of the false narratives that we hear about these women and girls?
Annie: That they’re pathetic victims. I mean, I think there’s way too much portrayal of these women as helpless and hopeless, and that’s just not accurate. They’re survivors. Sometimes they’re victimized, but they have absolutely no interest in being treated like victims. They are the best investment we can make in our shared future. There’s a tremendous amount of evidence for that that shows that any support given to a woman will pay back at three times the rate as the development support that goes to men. Personally, I think there’s a lot of biology in it– that women and men as genders are different, and they look at the world differently. Men tend to be kingdom builders and territorial. Women tend to be more social and juggle multiple responsibilities.
So that’s why I named my nonprofit Ripple Effect Images because the ripple effect with women is as soon as you help one woman, she’s going to help her kids and her parents and her girlfriends and the community and the province and the state and the country. It just continues on, and that to me is so important for the world to understand. These are champions. They’re smart. They’re funny. They’re resourceful. Incredibly hardworking. And you just don’t see that narrative very often.
Denver: You’re absolutely right. I think there’s a line that says “Educate a man, you educate a person. Educate a woman, you educate a community,” and it goes from there.
Well, under this overall banner of focusing on women and girls, you’re really particularly interested in the disproportionate impact that climate change is having on them. How is climate change showing up, first of all? And what has that impact been on these women and girls?
Annie: It’s enormous. Climate hits hardest on the vulnerable edge of society, always. And people really assume, I think, that climate affects men and women equally, but it doesn’t. Because the women in many, many societies are responsible for finding water. The women are the majority of the farmers in Asia and Africa. They’re responsible not just for themselves, but for their kids.
And the other thing is when the land becomes unlivable, either because it falls into the sea, or you simply cannot survive on it because of drought and desertification, women are the last to leave. The men often leave early in pursuit of survival, of work and all of that, and the women follow when things become really desperate. And so they’re just carrying a bigger load because they’re walking for miles with their kids, their parents, the elderly. And it’s a fact that 70% of those who die in any climate disaster are women.
Denver: That’s an extraordinary fact.
Annie: It is! And it should light a fire under us.
…household air pollution kills 4.3 million people a year, and yet most people don’t know about it. It kills more people than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.
Denver: Speaking of fires, one of the most underreported stories that I know that you’re passionate about is raising awareness about household pollution. What is that? And what is the impact of it?
Annie: The impact is absolutely stunning. What it is caused by is heating and cooking and lighting indoors with fuels that are often toxic like kerosene and that create a tremendous amount of smoke. And when women and children are exposed to this for hours and hours every day, it takes an incredible toll on their bodies. So household air pollution kills 4.3 million people a year, and yet most people don’t know about it. It kills more people than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.
Denver: Yes. It’s an astronomical number. In fact, I was seeing the story the other day about obesity around the world. It kills more people than obesity.
Annie: Oh, yes. And the thing that I get so angry about and I’m advocating for – it’s preventable! It’s completely preventable. And if the health organizations and the engineers and the environmental groups could work together, it’s completely fixable. If you throw a rock into a group of people and ask: “What’s the biggest killer of women and children in the world?” You’ll rarely get the correct—
Denver: You’ll be throwing a lot of rocks before you get the right answer.
Annie: You’ll be throwing a lot of rocks.
Denver: They call it “hut lung,” right?
Annie: Well, they shouldn’t. The medical term from many, many years ago was hut lung. And right there, you can see that’s a very dismissive term. It happens in a little hut someplace. But there are reasons for that also. I’ve really done a deep dive into this topic. I worked with this wonderful doctor, Dr. Colby, from the Mayo Clinic, and he helped me discover that all of the studies that were done and have been done have been occupational. Nobody went home to see what was happening.
Denver: So typical.
Annie: Yes. They were in the mines, and they were in industrial situations measuring impact, but it just didn’t occur to anybody to go home.
…the way it works is that we look for and vet programs– aid programs– that we think are having a great impact… are sustainable, and that are really giving women a chance to change their lives.
Denver: You mentioned this a moment ago, about a group of other female photojournalists, along with yourself, several years ago started a nonprofit organization called Ripple Effect Images. Tell us about it and how it works.
Annie: Oh, it’s just wonderful! I got to a point…I was very interested in the environment, and I was very interested in stories of women in the developing world. I realized that there were a tremendous number of underreported stories. So I had this idea of working together with other women photographers so that we could have a bigger impact. And that’s what we’ve learned from women around the world: They survive because they work together. So I called my girlfriends who are some of the best photographers in the world, and they all said “yes” and we started Ripple Effect Images.
So the way it works is that we look for and vet programs– aid programs– that we think are having a great impact… are sustainable, and that are really giving women a chance to change their lives. And then we choose them very strategically, and I send in a still photographer and a videographer to cover their programs. And we create for them a film, and they have a set of images from some of the best photographers in the world. And it works because it humanizes their work. They use the materials at fundraisers, on their website, and in printed materials. And in just five years, we got reports back from our aid organizations that they’ve made over $10 million using those images.
Denver: Oh, that’s fantastic! Congratulations on that!
Annie: Yes. Thank you! Yes, it really is making a little dent in the problems, so we’re very excited about moving forward.
Denver: Give us an example of one of those organizations and the work that they’ve done.
Annie: One organization that we covered was BRAC – huge organization. They were working in Northern Uganda with a program where women and girls had no escape from abusive situations, and they also had very little access to education. So they created safe house schools for kids to come to, but the program was sort of on the brink of going away because of funding limitations. So we covered the program; we created a film, and they took it to a corporation and got $4 million, not only to save the program but to expand it to some other countries. So what that means for all these women and girls who don’t have any place to go is huge. It’s really huge.
Denver: It sure is. You know, we have a lot of people in the nonprofit sector who listen to the show. So what advice would you have for them as they look to create awareness of their work? What should they keep in mind to help create impact when they’re taking a picture? What are some of the mistakes that they may be making?
Annie: We started Ripple because it became clear to me in working with aid organizations that they often just did not know how to tell their own story, much less make it compelling. And so a lot of websites of really fine nonprofits are populated with images that somebody, any warm body with a cell phone will take, and it literarily is the project, and it literarily may be the woman, but it doesn’t touch anyone’s heart. I think what happens is that very understandably, aid organizations are so focused on the work that they sometimes forget that unless they can spread the work to donors and to the population in general, they’re losing out on a huge opportunity to fundraise, and certainly to raise awareness.
So investing or having a line item in your budget that is for marketing – we don’t think we market and we don’t think we sell, but we all do. So having that be a part of understanding that if we can invest in this, and it’s not cheap, but if you work with the right people, it doesn’t have to be mind-blowingly expensive either. And then you’ve got a tool that you can use to raise a tremendous amount of funding and also to re-energize donors where they say “Wow! Look at her! Look at the…” You see it in women’s faces and their body language. When we do a video for example, we never narrate over it. We let the women tell their own stories.
Annie: And there’s a reason for it, even if you have to have subtitles, because you see it in her posture, in her eyes, in her laughter. You see the intelligence. You see the hope. You see all these core components of empowerment.
Denver: You bring people in.
Annie: Oh, absolutely!
Denver: Where the narrator will just be reporting, here you have to go visit it yourself. So that’s a really wonderful strategy.
Annie: But it also says…you know, I remember years ago somebody was saying that “We want to give women a voice,” and this really interesting guy from Bangladesh said, “They have a voice. You don’t need to give them a voice. You just need to give them a megaphone.”
Denver: Yes, give them a megaphone. Absolutely! They know what to say.
Annie: Yes. Exactly!
…every real experience you give your children, they grow in confidence, and they grow in perspective.
Denver: That’s great. Well, if you were ever to give up photography, Annie, you certainly could go into travel. In fact, you could call it the Annie Griffiths Guide, and you could be the successor to the Arthur Frommer Guide.
So, let me ask you a little bit about travel. You know, one of the extraordinary things about what you have done is that you’ve taken your children, Charlie and Lily, along with you all along the way– not from the day they were born, actually, from before they were born when they were in your womb. How do you think all of that travel has shaped and informed who they are today?
Annie: Oh, it has shaped and informed them tremendously. It’s like every real experience you give your children, they grow in confidence, and they grow in perspective. Just like putting your kid on that first bus and watching them go off to school with your heart in your throat. And then they come back, and they walk off a new kid because they did it. The same thing happens when you give your kids an experience, especially a little bit outside their comfort zone.
When I speak to university students, I always say: “If you can do a study abroad, for heaven’s sakes, do it!” They didn’t have it when I was in college. And I said, “But don’t go to England. Go someplace where you can’t speak the language. Go someplace where it’s going to be a little different, but very exciting. And you’ll come back a changed person.” And I really, really believe that.
Denver: You’ve been to 150 countries. Do you have a favorite place?
Annie: Oh, no. I like so many places. I really love Jordan. I adore Italy. I love the Middle East. I used to absolutely love Syria before it’s been completely destroyed, which is so heartbreaking. What a beautiful country, beautiful people, intelligent…it’s just stunning. I’ve had a lot of fun in Australia.
Denver: What’s your favorite travel tip?
Annie: For travelling with kids?
Denver: Any trip tip.
Annie: Well, probably for adults, too. But for travelling with kids, it’s just spin it. Tell them they’re great travellers. Bribery is really helpful. Our rule as a family is when as soon as they were buckled into the next seat, they got a” good traveller reward.” It was just something to do on the plane or the train or whatever, but it became their reward because they were such good travellers. And now I’ve got two grandkids, and the oldest one, Sophia, is 6 now, and I’m already bribing her and training her to be a great traveller.
Denver: There you go. Well, some tricks never lose their lustre, do they?
Annie: And also the big, big, big one is: no fear. There’s so much fear mongering going on, and travel to most countries is safer than being in an American city. It’s just a fact. Things sound scary when they’re far away, and I think most Americans would be shocked to hear that a lot, a lot of people from other countries would be scared to come here.
Denver: Well, I think it’s unfortunate. That’s what the news media has done. Because that’s the only thing that they ever show us, so that’s why you get that impression… that everywhere around you is unsafe except in your home.
Whereas you’ve been quite the role model to your kids, you had a pretty good one yourself in your mother. Tell us about her.
Annie: Oh, she was great. I just lost Mom a couple of years ago, but she just had this elegant way of going around any problem or challenge. The funniest one to me was that she was born on the day that Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, May 20, 1927, and she was from Minnesota. So that was heady stuff. From the time she was little, she was, “Ooh, you were born on…” So she had an interest in flight, and she wanted to fly. After she finished high school, she went to the airlines to see if she could get a job as a flight attendant. They took one look at her, because she wore glasses just like all the girls in my family, and in those very sexist days, they just said, “I’m sorry. We can’t even interview you because it’s a hazard, really”
Denver: Sure. In case of an emergency or…
Annie: Or turbulence. They could go flying off your head. My mom didn’t protest. She just said, “Okay. Thank you very much,” and she left and became a pilot.
Denver: That’s great.
Annie: It’s that kind of spirit I grew up with. I remember watching my mom drill the well at our little cabin, just banging on this pipe down in the ground to get water. That’s indelible stuff.
It’s changed me incredibly. It’s given me a creative outlet for storytelling, which I’ve always loved… It’s allowed me to see the world and to look for the truth and the beauty in it. It’s touched my children’s lives. It’s made me laugh constantly at myself.
Denver: It sure is. Well, let me close with this, Annie. How has photography changed the way you look at things, the way in which you view the world, and ultimately, how did it change who you became as person?
Annie: Wow, that’s a big question. It’s changed me incredibly. It’s given me a creative outlet for storytelling, which I’ve always loved. I just thought I would do it with words, and I ended up doing it with photography. It’s allowed me to see the world and to look for the truth and the beauty in it. It’s touched my children’s lives. It’s made me laugh constantly at myself. The perspective that my kids always say when they hear somebody whining about something here, “Well, First World problems!” But it’s true. It’s true. When you witness the wider world and how resourceful people are in living their lives, you just don’t sweat the small stuff any more. You just don’t.
Denver: Well, very nicely said. Well, Annie Griffiths, photojournalist extraordinaire for National Geographic, and Executive Director of Ripple Effect Images, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. If people want to learn more about Ripple Effect Images, or go places where they can see some samples of your work, where would you send them to?
Annie: I would send them to rippleeffectimages.org. And then if they want to see my work, they can just google Annie Griffiths. I’m all over the place.
Denver: That’s what I did. It was a great pleasure, Annie, to have you on the program.
Annie: Thank you so much!
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/BusinessOfGiving