In theory my book project on women and photojournalism started when I began research about ten months ago. In reality, I believe it’s beginning right now 20 minutes to seven on March 13th as I write the first words of my blog. I’m sitting in the performing arts center in Calgary where National Geographic photographer Annie Griffiths is about to take the stage. Despite not yet setting eyes on Griffiths, I’ve already opened my laptop eager to put some words down before the lights dim.
Preparation, so far, for my book has been a lot of research and emailing to make the all important contacts with photojournalists working all over the globe. Yesterday had been a routine day scouring sites on the net. After arriving on a site showing the photography of Ami Vitale, I quickly shot her a note explaining the idea for my book, Intimate: Women in the World as Witnessed By Top Female Photojournalists.
A short while later I received her response: I’d be happy to speak and could also recommend a few other incredible women you might want to consider. Maggie Steber, Annie Griffiths, Lynsey Addario are wonderful women working on these themes as well. I’d heard of Maggie and had already been in touch with Lynsey who is working on her own book but Annie Griffiths hadn’t yet been on my radar. An hour after sending her a note she replied: I am actually in Calgary today…small world. (Calgary is just over an hours drive from my home town of Banff in the Rocky Mountains.) I am speaking tomorrow at the performance center here for the National Geographic Live Series. Let me know if you would like me to get a comp ticket for you.
That brings me here, to a balcony at the Jack Singer Concert Hall tapping away at my computer. I’m finally in the same building as one of the reputed photojournalists I hope will be gracing the pages of my books and I’m absolutely giddy.
A Camera, Two Kids and a Camel is the name of Griffith’s sold out talk. It’s also the title of her book , the one I just purchased in the theatre foyer. She has spent three decades working as a photojournalist and she did it, amazingly, while raising two children. In essence, she’s done exactly what I had once envisioned myself doing about twenty years ago. I thought I’d be the one, baby on back, camera in hand documenting cultures around the world. Instead, when the time came, my camera bag was put down; replaced, for all practical purposes, with a diaper bag.
Griffiths opened her talk by showing a photo of her first assignment as a student of photography, describing it as “the day I became a photographer;” explaining she was “in heaven” as she took the image of a tree bathed in light. In her book she writes, “It was the first of a lifetime of days when time stood still and I became far less important than what I saw in the camera’s viewfinder.”
I felt a pang listening to Griffiths. I have few regrets but in that darkened theatre in Calgary last night, in the very city where my photographic dreams began; as her experiences were unveiled, I was reminded of motivations long forgotten. The evening reinforced for me, the reasons for me gravitating once again to the world of photography but this time as a writer.
Griffiths’ words during her talk wondrously echoed those of my books proposal. She spoke of the tool the camera can be for communicating the resiliency of women in the world saying by doing so, “we can change the world”. She spoke of human connections and a certain “intimacy” that arises with strangers by virtue of having a camera in hand.
At one point Griffiths talked about an assignment she had in Nebraska on a family ranch. Staying as a guest, she was awakened one morning by the light, a sunrise so beautiful and luminous she grabbed her camera and tore out the door to get the shot. After hooting and hollering over the incredible image she had captured, Griffiths then noticed a line of cowboys also taking in a first in a lifetime scene – that of a National Geographic photographer shooting in nothing but her underpants. Her message, and one she also communicated to a crowd of Calgary school children yesterday afternoon: “Find something in your life that excites you so much, you run out of the house, forgetting to put on your pants.”
I awoke this morning completely charged up and figuratively speaking, completely forgot about my pants to finish this blog. I’m not yet certain how my book is going to come together but it has definitely begun. In a couple weeks time I will sit down in New York City with Paula Allen. She’s just returned from Haiti and before that the Congo. I hope to meet as many of these talented women as possible, talking to them about their work and women in the world.
Griffiths book is now on the kitchen table before me. I open it to the first page where she’s scrawled a note to my daughters. Reading it makes me smile:
Sadie and Jemima,
See the World!,
When I board that plane at months end, my daughters will be coming with me. Perhaps I didn’t do it the way I had planned over the years or the way Annie Griffiths was able to do it with her kids but I’m getting it, that it’s never too late to pick up the thread of the things we are passionate about. So thanks Annie – for that comp ticket last night but even more for standing in front of me, representing a life well lived and a world of possibilities.