Nat Geo’s female photojournalists capture and share visions of the world

December 4, 2013 at 6:00 PM EDT
The National Geographic Society's "Women of Vision" exhibition showcases the work of 11 female photographers and shares the stories behind the captivating images of war, poverty and culture they captured. Jeffrey Brown interviews some of the featured photojournalists about their work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is it like and what does it take to capture the world with a camera?

Jeffrey Brown has our look at a group of women of vision.

JEFFREY BROWN: Two boys chasing a kite through the rubble of an anti-government stronghold near Yemen’s border, a herder in Norway chanting while tending his reindeer, a full moon hanging above the highway to Mount St. Helen’s, three of the 100 photographs depicting cultures far-flung and close to home in an exhibition titled “Women of Vision: National Geographic Photographers on Assignment,” part of the Society’s 125th anniversary celebration.

It showcases 11 women, from veterans of the magazine to several who’ve completed just a few projects. One of the best known is 39-year-old Lynsey Addario, a Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent who’s covered conflicts from Iraq and Afghanistan to Darfur and the Congo for “National Geographic” and The New York Times.

LYNSEY ADDARIO, photojournalist: I go in because I think that the story has to be told. Like any journalist who dedicates their life to covering conflict, I feel very strongly that these stories need to be seen by the American public.

JEFFREY BROWN: Part of that coverage, capturing the daily life that somehow goes on amid violence.

LYNSEY ADDARIO: That fascinates me. As sort of someone who is in the middle of the place, I want to bring a different perspective to the person outside and let them see, yes, there are daily car bombs, there are people dying, but, at the same time, there is peace going on and there is daily life continuing.

JEFFREY BROWN: And is there always a moment when you know you have got it somehow?

LYNSEY ADDARIO: There’s an initial moment where I’m in sheer panic, where I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to tell a story. And then, as I become more familiar with it, I understand what I think the poignant moments are and what the most important moments are.

And, generally, I get to a point where I feel comfortable. And I’m never satisfied, but I at least feel like I have a good grasp on how to tell that story.

JEFFREY BROWN: In her 14 assignments for “National Geographic,” 43-year-old Amy ton-sing has focused on individuals and small communities around the globe, Puerto Rico, the Jersey Shore, Australia’s aborigines.

AMY TOENSING, photojournalist: My job is to tell stories about humanity. And in order to tell stories, you have to know your subject. And everything goes back to honoring my subject.

JEFFREY BROWN: Toensing researches her subjects through current events and history, but also through novels.

AMY TOENSING: Because novels speak on a very visceral level. They speak on a more sort of emotional, lyrical level. And I think that’s how photography works as well. So when I’m about to go in the field someplace, I love to read novels about a place. That can really help kind of get my mind going about what’s going to work for the visual translation of telling the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: In 2008, she was assigned to look at the impact of climate change and drought at the Murray-Darling Basin in Southeastern Australia, her way in, find a local farm family and look through their eyes.

AMY TOENSING: I slept in a room in their house for probably about a week. And, in this picture, I’m along for the ride. And so I’m like, all right, chasing pigs, I’m with you.


AMY TOENSING: And then there’s a picture. And, really, that picture is — obviously, it’s not about pigs, but it’s…

JEFFREY BROWN: And it’s not necessarily about drought either, right, I mean, if I just look at the photograph.

AMY TOENSING: No. It’s not about drought. It’s about people.

JEFFREY BROWN: At 26, Kitra Cahana is the youngest of the photographers in this exhibition. Her first feature assignment for the magazine was about the teenage brain and behavior. In an Austin, Texas, high school, she found a girl’s face reflected in the mirror of her parents’ truck, girls getting their tongues pierced, boys taking video of a boxing match to post on Facebook.

At the time, Cahana was just 4 years older than some of subjects she spent months getting to know.

Were you talking photos all the way through? When do you start?

KITRA CAHANA, photojournalist: You start as soon as you develop a relationship with someone and they let you in, into their lives. Slowly, over the course of the assignment, I didn’t have to go to classes anymore or sit in the lunchroom, because someone would text me and say, we’re skipping school today. Do you want to come? Or, we’re going to this party. Do you want to come?

And it was really about having the time to slowly uncover, not the secret lives, but the personal lives of teenagers.

JEFFREY BROWN: I asked Cahana, amid this exhibition of women photographers, how being a woman impacts her work.

KITRA CAHANA: I’m seen less of a threat. And they will think, oh, that’s — that’s the face of sort of a quiet, kind person, not the face of “National Geographic,” like, the media.

JEFFREY BROWN: Lynsey Addario told us she’s had an advantage as a woman working in the segregated society of the Muslim world, where she could see and capture a home life largely off-limits to her male counterparts.

Addario was kidnapped in 2004 in Iraq, and then again in 2011 in Libya, where she and three male colleagues at The New York Times were held captive by pro-Gadhafi forces for six days before being released. Some Times readers were outraged at the paper.

How could The New York Times — I’m quoting what you were reading.


JEFFREY BROWN: How could The New York Times let a woman go to a war zone? And you wrote that you found that grossly offensive.

LYNSEY ADDARIO: I did find it really offensive. I still find it offensive today, because I think that this is my life. And I have very set reasons for doing what I do.

And I think that if I want to dedicate my life to covering war, that’s my prerogative. Why should my gender affect what I do? If I’m capable of doing the same job as a man, why should it matter if I’m a woman?

JEFFREY BROWN: This showcase of women photographers is in Washington through March, and then at venues across the country for the next three years.