Women through Annie's lens

Wide Angle
Last Updated 19 March 2011, 13:15 IST
Women through Annie's lens

There, she sat on the floor beside the mother-daughter duo and their handful of goats, and exchanged life stories like old friends.

Her voice grows soft and eyes reflect pain and pride, as she talks about the difficult life of her new friend: “Her husband has been incapacitated for many, many years now and she has endured the pain of losing seven children, none of whom made it out of infancy largely because of extreme poverty. But she neither lost hope nor her humanity. She had nothing and yet she adopted a little orphan girl and gave her a loving home. When a local NGO decided to provide her with assistance to start a small food business, she grabbed the opportunity with both hands and saved enough money to buy a goat.

Today, things are looking up for her. Just a little help has put back the light in her eyes.”
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.

A young Pakistani girl peering from between her sisters’ bright yellow and red robes; a frail, old Bosnian woman, eyes bright with unshed tears, smiling shyly; a Rwandan genocide survivor serenely looking out into the distance tightly holding on to her two young children; a small girl proffering an empty cooking vessel even as refugee families on Myanmar/ Thailand border wait for food delivery; Muslim women praying at a cemetery in Israel... Google ‘Annie Griffiths’ and numerous images like these, telling compelling tales of women from across the world, flash in all their colourful, emotional and dramatic glory.

Women from Israel, Pakistan, Mexico, 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, “I want to tell positive stories.

There has been an exhaustion of tragic images. It is real but sometimes it is not helpful. Nobody is telling stories of women empowered, what they can do, what they are capable of. That’s what we are doing.”

Griffiths, who believes that good pictures can be taken only “if you are not afraid to be silly” is completely sold on woman power. 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 women 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.

And she is really dazzled with what she has seen. “Women here are so beautiful; it's really depressing. I've never felt uglier in my life,” she laughs, adding, “I’ve seen a great deal of tenderness with which women here handle their children. I think, for Indian women, the happiness of their children comes first; they want success for their children, but not at the cost of happiness.”

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. “When my children were little, my assignments were usually three months long and I would try as much to plan my coverages over the school holidays, but then when one is travelling for six months in a year I knew they were bound to miss a lot of school. So I worked closely with the teachers and took school work on the road,” she smiles.

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.”

Women’s Feature Service

(Published 19 March 2011, 13:13 IST)

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