Armed with thoughtful gifts, a shawl for the lady and a pretty dress for her daughter, she went visiting the humble home of her gracious hostess, the owner of a small food business in a poor neighbourhood of Canning, a town in 24 Parganas district in West Bengal. There, she sat on the floor beside the mother-daughter duo and their handful of goats, and exchanged life stories like old friends.
Annie Griffiths may be one of the first women photographers to work for National Geographic, she may have visited a mind-boggling 125 countries during her over-three-decade-long career, she may have co-authored coffee-table books on her life and travels, and she may be running a non-profit that documents the condition of women across the globe, but even today, when she comes across a woman who has persevered to build an existence from scratch, she is awe-struck and inspired.
Women from Israel, women from Pakistan, women from Mexico, women from Cambodia; women survivors of war, genocide, famine, natural disasters – Griffiths has interacted, lived and experienced life with everyone she has photographed. Just like her recent maiden visit to India, where she met her new friend. “Photography is not simply about walking into someone’s home and taking a picture. I try to earn the right to tell their story. I like to sit down on the floor with them, spend time with them, laugh with them, be with them in their quieter moments and then find a photo that gives a human face to the story that I am trying to tell, so that people can care,” she says.
Making people care and making them sit up and take notice of the exemplary women in their midst, who despite carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders are fighting tooth-and-nail for their dignity and their environment – that’s what Griffiths’ camera is focusing on these days.
Through her non-profit, Ripple Effects, she and her talented team that includes four other award-winning women photographers besides writers and a documentary filmmaker, are dedicated to documenting the condition of women as they deal with climate change and enable aid organisations to raise funds to help them. They have covered Kenya, Jordan and Bangladesh. Now they are training their lens on India.
Griffiths believes that good pictures can be taken only “if you are not afraid to be silly.” Be it the women of Egypt, who “overcame gender barriers and took to the streets to participate in the protests” to oust authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak, or the woman she met in Canning, Griffiths knows that there is nothing that women can’t accomplish if they put their minds to it and are given some support.
“Be it any country or culture, women do not want to be victims, they don’t want to be pitied. They want a little bit of help and then they can make things work for them. When you give a woman a little bit of something that builds her self confidence, she spreads this feeling to other women, she spreads it to her daughters. So the numbers are extraordinary in women being a better investment,” she says.
Of course, when it comes to seeing woman power in action, there is no place like India. Be it as local leaders – especially at the panchayat level – or as part of self help groups, women have successfully demonstrated how problems like lack of employment, health facilities or education can be solved. So, with her nifty Nikon in hand, Griffiths jetted across the length and breadth of the country, meeting up with the students of the Barefoot College in Tilonia in Ajmer, Rajasthan, to check out their solar projects, women of self-help groups in Kolkata and the Sunderbans in West Bengal that are fighting difficulties borne out of climate change, and the embroidery workers of the iconic SEWA in Ahmedabad, Gujarat.
Incidentally, Griffiths understands the predicament most mothers go through when it comes to choosing what’s best for their children and hoping they are happy with those choices. But things have worked out for the best for this mother-of-two, who used to pack her camera gear bag with diapers when her small children travelled with her on assignments, as a working mom who was always on the move. There were tough times as well but she is quick to dismiss them by saying that the challenges she faced were mostly the same as those of any household with working parents.
Work has taken Griffiths and her children everywhere – from the conservative Arab world to wild and beautiful Africa to colourful Asia – but her fondest memories are those of the years spent in the Middle East, particularly Israel, where her kids practically grew up.
Today, while her children are doing their own thing, this tall and very fit photographer continues to take pictures – of those in need – with the hope that her images give a human face to suffering and will help people around the world understand each other better. Says Griffiths, “There’s this wonderful saying that ‘you can’t hate a culture once you’ve known an individual’. I think photography can ensure that instantly.”
THE WIDE ANGLE VIEW ON ANNIE
Did you know that Annie Griffiths
a) Had no real inkling to photography till she took a course at the University of Minnesota as a junior in college.
b) Her first camera was a Cannon FTb, a 35-mm single lens reflex she bought herself.
c) Her break with National Geographic was entirely by chance – “they needed a picture of a hailstorm in Minnesota and I was there”. A year later, in 1978, she became the youngest photographer on the team.
d) Her very first book of photography was by Edward Steichen, an American photographer. “It was gift I got even before I took my first photography class. It’s old and worn out but I will never part with it.”
e) From the Brazilian social documentary photographer, Sebastiao Salgado, whose work she greatly admires, she has learnt “how photos can be useful and beautiful”.
f) The women photographers on her team – India-based, Lynsey Addario, Lynn Johnson, Ami Vitale and Alison Wright are the women she admires the most.