National Geographic’s Annie Griffiths talks ‘using your camera for good’

Desiree Halpern | Contributing Photo Editor
Desiree Halpern | Contributing Photo Editor

This post was written by culture editor Jeanine Marie.

Photographer Annie Griffiths’ positivity is unwavering. When she spoke to the nearly-packed Henry Harding Auditorium in the Elliott School Wednesday night, she deflected any notion that her experience as an unaccompanied woman traversing the globe was anything but rewarding.

But over an hour into her presentation, sponsored by the professional foreign service sorority Delta Phi Epsilon, Griffiths, whose talk fused journalism and advocacy, revealed a moment of her career at National Geographic where even she lost hope.

In Kaukoma Refugee Camp, where about 70,000 Somalis were seeking refuge in Kenya, Griffiths said she thought, “I can’t make a dent,” as she snapped a heartbreaking photograph of a woman and her sick child.

But Griffiths knew she needed to do her job. Years later, she saw the photograph in the office of an U.S.-based aid organization. When she said the image looked familiar, Griffiths was told the woman and child were doing just fine. In fact, the woman was working at the local KFC.

“And that,” Griffiths said, “is why you can’t give up.”

Griffiths attributed her resilience to her mother, who could finagle her way around any problem “without smacking right into it.” Her mom was rejected by Pan American World Airways when she applied to be a flight attendant – simply because she wore glasses.

“Instead of getting mad, she left and became a pilot,” Griffiths said. “That’s the role model I had.”

Griffiths was one of the first female photographers for National Geographic and has traveled to more than 150 countries for her work.

For much of her career, Griffiths brought her kids to remote regions where they befriended locals and kept up their American school work. She said people fretted about her bringing them to places like the Kingdom of Jordan and so beforehand, she did a little research. She said only nine people had been murdered that year in the country, and compared the number to a “bad weekend in D.C.”

In an interview before the event, Griffiths joked that she hardly had any good photographs of her own kids. But as she scrolled through her work during the presentation, she paused at a striking picture of her young son and daughter atop a camel.

“The kids and I did a whole bunch of work in the Middle East,” she said matter-of-factly. “NatGeo wasn’t asking the [male photographers] about their daycare plans.”

She told the audience to never make decisions based on fear. She said fear is “crippling,” whether it be about switching majors or traveling to an unfamiliar part of the world.

Griffiths, who changed her major to photography as a junior in college, advised that college students pay attention to their gut, and their happiness, instead of the expectations of others’.

“Get out of your precious self,” she said.

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