National Geographic photographer speaks on power of photography, representation in media

Annie Griffiths' speech Tuesday night concluded this year's University Lecture Series.

From the Taj Mahal to the Dead Sea, Argentina to Namibia, Annie Griffiths has traveled through six continents. And she has the pictures to prove it.

The National Geographic photographer delivered the last University Lecture of the year Tuesday night in Hendricks Chapel. Displaying her dazzling array of beautifully crafted photos on a projector, Griffiths spoke about her journey documenting the world.

Photo: Luke Rafferty
Accomplished photojournalist Annie Griffiths speaks at Hendricks Chapel Tuesday evening as the final speaker for this year's University Lectures series.

“What I really love are the stories behind the images,” Griffiths said.

Griffiths had a story to tell with each image. She recalled a trip to Namibia when she was young, carrying a Polaroid camera with her. When Griffiths saw three women and two children, she immediately took a photo of them. When she showed them the quickly developed Polaroid picture, the women fell to the ground in laughter.

It was the first time they had ever seen a photo of themselves. That’s when Griffiths realized the power of an image.

“Through that little gift, I was giving them something precious,” she said.

Griffiths, a Minnesota native, initially wanted to be a writer. During her junior year of college, she received her first camera, and enrolled in a photojournalism course.

Discovering how much she enjoyed taking photos, Griffiths became a newspaper photographer, a job that taught her the importance of self-motivation.

“In that time, you were motivated or you were gone,” Griffiths said. “One of the motivations is fear because you know you have to come back with material that is accurate.”

Her experience eventually led her to National Geographic, where she learned to see life from a different perspective. To keep her creative juices flowing, she said she read everything and talked to everyone.

“Much of the job is to pick things that have been photographed a million times and see them in a new way,” Griffiths said.

Working for National Geographic allowed her to travel the world and meet people from all types of cultures. She even took her children with her at times.

One of her favorite photographs is a picture of her son Charlie lying next to a Bedouin man in Jordan. Although the man would have been cut out to look like a stereotypical terrorist, she said, her son looked so trusting and content next to him.

“He was so caring,” Griffiths said. “It’s a culture where every adult looked out for every child. Very family-oriented.” She believed in the power of photos to change peoples’ views. “It’s a picture about the truth,” she said.

But her favorite photo subjects were Arab women. She talked about how the extreme portrayals of women in the Middle East didn’t show all sides of the picture.

“Yes, it’s a separate gender society, but it doesn’t mean they weren’t loved or weren’t happy,” she said.

That’s when Griffiths realized she wanted to focus on empowering women and girls in developing countries. She started Ripple Effect Images, a collective of photographers that documents and raises money for programs that helps women and children. The organization also focuses on the effects of climate change in those communities.

Griffiths then rattled off a list of issues that affect women in the developing world: water, education, health and entrepreneurship. She cited the statistic that for every development dollar spent, women and girls receive less than two cents.

“If you want a community or nation to value their women, you have to show that they are valuable,” Griffiths said.

She ended the lecture by pointing out that there were still untold and underrepresented stories that could have a profound effect on women.

“We have to change that. The people who have nothing give everything,” Griffiths said. “My hope is to spend the rest of my life attempting to give back a little bit.”

Matt Stedman, an undeclared freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences, wants to be a filmmaker. He said Griffiths’ talk made him realize some of the things Americans take for granted.

“It opened my eyes to what Nat Geo is all about in making people aware of what’s happening rather than just taking photo,” he said.

Griffiths’ lecture resonated with Sara Wong as well. The information management and graphic design sophomore said the photographer’s presentation felt genuine and connected well with the audience.

“It made me think of myself because I’m doing something similar,” Wong said. “I’m going with my gut, and that’s what she did.”

Live Blog Live: Photographer Annie Griffiths at Syracuse University

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