One of Nat Geo’s first female photographers captured stories others ignored

It was 1978 when Annie Griffiths, at the age of 25, landed a job at National Geographic.

She was one of the first women to be hired as a photographer by the magazine, and also the youngest. At that time, she had never been outside of the United States, but quickly found herself thrust into the fast-paced world of international photojournalism, often working in several different countries for a single project — and, eventually, with two kids in tow.

Now, some 40 years and 150 countries later, you would still have a hard time finding Griffiths without her passport and camera in hand. Digital Trends caught up with her last year at the annual Adobe MAX conference, where she had been one of three keynote speakers. As she outlined in her presentation, her professional journey began with the simple goal of making beautiful photographs, but she soon discovered a deeper passion as a humanitarian. She began working with aid organizations and later founded her own nonprofit, Ripple Effect Images, to use photography to empower women in the developing world, a mission she continues to this day.

“It was really starting to become my DNA,” she said in the keynote, “to work with these great women and to tell unreported stories. It’s just unbelievable how few  stories are told about women.”

Griffiths’ work focuses on uncovering often dire, but solvable, problems. These include the need for better education for girls in poor countries and the huge, but underreported, issue of household air pollution. Caused by burning wood, coal, or other solid fuels for warmth and cooking, household air pollution is the biggest killer of women and young children in the world — more than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.

You can watch the full, 25-minute presentation above. Our post-keynote interview with Griffiths follows, which has been edited for clarity and length.

DT: In your presentation, you talked about being intimidated and apprehensive when you started at National Geographic. How did you get through that?

Annie Griffiths: It took a long time. It really took about ten years before I didn’t feel like a fraud.

Oh, so I’m not the only one who feels that way?

No, you’re not! And that’s part of it, too: Coming to realize that your colleagues, even the ones you think are just so together and cool, are just sweating bullets — a lot — and when you start confiding in each other, that’s when you go, “Okay, it’s not just me.”

Were there any specific challenges to being one of a small handful of women in the industry at that time?

I was very fortunate in that I was never harassed by bosses or staff or anyone. I didn’t encounter any of that stuff. You know, I think part of it was that Mr. [Robert] Gilka, who led the photo department, would have none of that. He was a man with very strong code of behavior ethics.

The only obstacle among colleagues and bosses was that they felt protective of me. So it was well intended, but it was an impediment, nonetheless. Mr. Gilka was very nervous about sending women overseas. He was paternal. I remember [Nat Geo photographer] Jodi Cobb and I had to say, “That’s not going to work, Bob. We gotta just be photographers, not girl photographers.”

Do you think National Geographic was ahead of the curve in terms of supporting women photographers?

I don’t know, because there weren’t many women photographers. But I do think — and it doesn’t matter what the business is — if it doesn’t come down from the top, all kinds of crap goes down. Against women, against minorities. So it really comes down to leadership, and we had that at Geographic.

Was there a project you worked on that was particularly impactful to you on a personal level?

[At Ripple Effect Images] we worked with this little school in India. There was this man who grew up in this part of India where girls never got an education — they were basically, you know, mules. He moved to Canada where he made his fortune and, fortunately for the world, had daughters. And he thought, “Man, if my daughters were growing up there instead of Canada, what would their lives be like?”

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Annie Griffiths/Ripple Effects

So he went back and built this beautiful school for girls — and nobody would come. Because why should they? The girls were working, they were needed at home. So he set up this wonderful scheme — and this is what I love, I love innovation — so he said, “When your girl first comes to school, we’ll plant a tree in her name. And for every day she spends in school, we’ll put” — tiny, like 10 rupees — “in a bank account for her, and if she graduates she gets it all.” And that instantly takes care of dowries or further education.

Griffiths’ work focuses on uncovering often dire, but solvable, problems.

And then, of course, people start sending the girls. And once they got there, they didn’t just get an education, they got two great meals each day. They were treated with respect. And medical care. They started with 42 girls, and now they have 1,200, with 2,000 on a waiting list.

And what they also did is they employed their mothers. They had little craft workshops, and they hired them to do things around the school. So they just simply lifted women. And the truth that I believe is, if you want a culture to value women, you gotta show how valuable they are. It’s just a shift in thinking that comes from observing it and seeing it. But starting those things out is really hard.

What power does photography have to shift people’s thinking in that way? Why do we need imagery in addition to the story itself?

I think we need all of it. We need the research, and we need the charts and graphs. But if you’re talking about touching the human heart, the quickest way to that is to make them care about somebody and see somebody as an individual, not “them.” It’s just human nature.

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Annie Griffiths/Ripple Effects

Can you talk more about your work covering household air pollution? I didn’t know about that at all.

Nobody does! It’s the most underreported story I’ve ever found in my life. So we’ve been working on it for two years and we really have beautiful, powerful coverage. So now it’s just getting that out there broadly so that people know. Because it’s solvable. But it’s only solvable by people like Melinda Gates. You know, people who are the right fit, they care about children, they care about women, they care about health. So, eventually, it will get there. But all you can do is the best you can do, and present it and hope people start getting pissed off.

“All we hear is, ‘poor them, poor them.’ Not, ‘Wait a minute, we need to give these gals a little help.’”

So my aunt in rural Nebraska knows about female genital mutilation, but not what’s the biggest killer of poor women and children? That’s obscene. They’re all important issues, but it’s like all we hear is, “poor them, poor them.” Not, “Wait a minute, we need to give these gals a little help.”

It’s just that reactionary news cycle that we have bought into. Unless it’s breaking news or it’s a tragedy — or it’s a little bit prurient — it’s not going to get covered.

How do you feel about the state of photojournalism today? What advice would you offer to somebody just starting out?

I’m very sad about the decline in print journalism, I’m very sad about it. And then, of course, because of those changes, there are fewer real jobs. [In the past] if you wanted to have a semi-normal life, you wanted to be a photojournalist, you would get a job at a newspaper. You know, you got a 40-hour week, you got a salary; it was very doable and interesting.

But a lot of those jobs are gone, and that makes me sad. And I have a lot of friends who have been laid off also at National Geographic. We’ve been downsized tremendously, and there hasn’t been a staff photographer at Geographic since, like, 1990. It’s all like the industry is, it’s all individual contract work.

The other thing that’s happened is the length of time has shrunk. It used to be that you if had two or three assignments a year, you were golden. Now, with two or three assignments a year, you can’t live on that. And you can’t get two or three a year. That part’s a bummer.

But, there’s also never been so many different kinds of jobs in photography, and certainly never been as may platforms to get great work seen. But I think what has kept me safe, and I still have a very successful career, is diversifying. My colleagues who said, “I just want to work for Nat Geo for the rest of my life,” ended up in a world of hurt.

Or, I think [millennials] are finding it in, you know, needing to know how to shoot video. And also edit. And just all those things. Which I always did, because I think a big part of it is, I really wanted to have a family. And I didn’t know how that was going to work out. So I had to make sure first that I could pivot if, say, I get a kid who’s got special needs and I can’t travel — because [my kids] went all over the world with me.

Can you talk more about traveling with your kids?

[My daughter] Lily was actually in 13 countries before she was born. And I just didn’t mention it at the office! Because they weren’t asking the guys about their daycare arrangements, so I just packed my kids and a babysitter and covered all their expenses.

I kept track of all the numbers… what the contract was, what the expense account was budgeted at, how many pages it was scheduled to run. All those numbers, I just kept them, kind of knowing that I was going to be paving the way for other women — and guys, too. But for five years, [National Geographic] had no idea that the gang was coming along.

As it turned out, I was the least expensive photographer they had, because I never stayed in hotels. And every story was successful beyond the page rate planned.

So when it did come up — through a series of unfortunate events — I took out [the numbers I had saved], waited until I was very calm, and went and told [my bosses] that I had had no idea what a great deal I had been for all these years. And I asked for the biggest raise I’ve asked for in my life — and I got it.