Griffiths captures ‘survivor’ women to spotlight aid work

Matt Burkhartt | Staff Photographer Annie Griffiths, National Geographic photographer and founder of Ripple Effect Images, shows a selection of her photos at the morning lecture Tuesday in the Amphitheater.

On her last visit to Chautauqua, Annie Griffiths, the first woman photographer for National Geographic, made a life-changing decision. That summer, she recounted in her morning lecture at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday in the Amphitheater, she decided to found Ripple Effect Images, a non-profit organization that sends top photographers and videographers to document the work of aid programs that help impoverished women and girls. Their images and videos help these organizations fundraise and spread awareness.

The lecture was the second in Week Eight’s theme of “Chautauqua’s Global Public Square.”

As a photojournalist, Griffiths has documented women’s issues on six continents. Recalling her first trip abroad to Namibia at age 25 with National Geographic, she realized that as a woman, she had more access to women’s lives than did her male colleagues. And what she discovered, she said, was that women’s issues are not given adequate coverage in most journalism.

“What I have seen and what I know is usually not represented in our media,” she said.

In an age of 24/7 news, breaking news events and “drivel” take precedence over depth, understanding and empathy, she said.

“The key to empathy is understanding, and with empathy, we can get rid of so much fear if we know, if we understand, if we truly see our fellow human beings as just as relevant and human and invested in their lives as we all are,” she said.

Having documented life in nearly 150 countries, Griffiths has concluded that “women and girls are the best investment the world can make in our shared future.”

While great strides have been made in the representation of women’s issues, Griffiths said, many major problems are still neglected. For example, most people are aware that the effects of climate change put polar bears at risk. But few are aware that 70 percent of people who die in any climate disaster are women. As already-dry areas become deserts, women are responsible for traveling farther for water, walking as long as 11 hours per day in parts of Kenya.

When diseases spread, women and girls are often the ones who nurse the sick, placing their health at higher risk. And when tsunamis hit countries such as Indonesia, women can be found saving their parents and children as well as themselves.

And while many people are aware of “hot-button” issues such as female genital mutilation and sex trafficking, Griffiths said most people do not know that 10,000 women and children die every day from toxic smoke inhalation from cooking fires.

Globally, women are allocated fewer resources than men, Griffiths said. Women and girls comprise almost 80 percent of the agricultural workforce worldwide but own less than 1 percent of the land. Development efforts do not adequately address such inequalities, she said: For every development dollar spent, less than two cents go to women and girls. Yet, when women and girls earn income, she said, they reinvest 90 percent of it in their families — compared to just 30 or 40 percent for men.

Educating girls yields huge benefits, Griffiths said, citing that when girls receive seven years of education, they marry four years later, at age 17, rather than 13. They then have 2.2 fewer children and send their children to school.

As both a photojournalist and an activist, Griffiths seeks to bring her subjects close to the viewer, whether they live on opposite sides of the globe or opposite sides of the street.

“I look for those kinds of moments that help remind us that these are human beings,” she said. “We have to go beyond headlines, we have to go beyond breaking news so that we can be thoughtful.”

Griffiths showed Ripple Effect photos of aid efforts the world over, ranging from well construction in Kenya to livestock donation in Benin, midwifery training in Vietnam to microfinance in India.

A common theme to the projects? As soon as mothers can pull their families out of desperate poverty, they are able and motivated to send their daughters to school. Griffiths worked to capture the feeling and vibrance of every scene, telling a story about each woman’s struggles and triumphs.

“If my pictures can be useful as well as beautiful, what’s better than that?” she said, encouraging the audience to use their own talents to work for social justice. “If you can connect the dots from what you’re good at to where the need is, I cannot tell you how much richer your life will get.”


Q: Can you talk a little bit more about the funding for your organization and how you’re undertaking these projects? A: Well, the funding is my constant nightmare because I’m the fundraiser and I have to raise the money to send the teams out to do the work. And we’ve had some wonderful foundation grants. We’ve had some angel donors. We’ve had some just small support from lots of people, some grants. It’s one of those things I am just responsible for, and it’s well worth it. And it happens, people are touched, people understand, and they’re moved and they help us. I work entirely pro bono. It’s about 60 hours a week, and that’s not sustainable — at a certain point, we’re going to have to, it’s okay for me, but nobody’s going to want my job. So we’re trying to build a little staff. We don’t need a lot of people. The photographers are amazing. And the thing that we do in addition to help the aid organization is we, all of the work stays in an archive that we then share with policy makers and people who are trying to drive policy change, both in our country and abroad. And we also believe that this should not be territorial; we want these pictures to work and work and work. We don’t want waste, and so we want all of our aid groups to be able to access this archive and be able to learn from each other, because poverty is messy and as soon as you solve one problem, as soon as people have the self esteem to know that they can do things, they might first be planting trees. You know, African women have planted more than 50 million trees, and then they want to start a school. Well, the aid organization can come to our archive and show examples of where that has happened. They may want to start some other industries or find a way to market, we want those aid organizations to be able to come to the entire pool of solutions and use those images and those stories and those films to seek support. Q: Do you have an example of a country where improving the status of women and girls has moved the country forward? A: Well, one of the ones that has been so amazing is Rwanda, which suffered as great a tragedy as I think a nation can suffer. They have moved so much beyond that and now it’s one of the countries where education for girls is mandatory. All girls must go to school. Isn’t that great? And it makes so much sense. If you disenfranchise 50 percent of your population from your economic pool — really? You know, that’s just foolish and disastrous for the country. So, Rwanda’s one, and I’ve seen some movement in India. India still has a long way to go, but I think the stories that are being carried around globally are putting tremendous pressure on Indian government to do better by women and girls. Q: Have you considered a trip to Honduras to look at poverty that is a lot closer to the United States? A: Oh yeah. We’re working in the United States, too. We’re working with migrant workers. We have worked in — I have worked in Honduras — we’ve worked in Nicaragua. We’ve worked in Peru. We’re really very global so we’re trying to address these issues in as many cultures as I can possibly raise the funds to cover. Q: The question is, there’s lots about starving children, but not much about birth control. A: You know, I’ll tell you, I think it’s not a topic that we seek out because that’s being covered by other organizations. One of the things we’re very focused on is the fact that so many girls, even if they get a chance to go to school, have to drop out as soon as they reach puberty because there’s no facilities, there’s no privacy and there’s a lot of shame involved. And there are wonderful programs providing solutions for that group of people and what they need is something they don’t need to buy, something that’s reusable and there’s some great movement there. You know, the best birth control messaging I ever saw in my life was when Mexico was having a population problem. To get around the controversy of church and emotions and stuff, they just did a sign that showed a mom and a dad and two kids, just stick figures, with the message: the small family lives better. And it was brilliant and it worked. But I’ll tell you, one of the best ways to have birth control is to educate girls, to not let them be so vulnerable to be married off as children and start having children and so that’s the number one thing we focus on. Q: Are solar ovens being used to protect the women from cooking smoke? A: Well, we have not seen a great solar cookstove in our work. We’ve seen wonderful cook stove solutions, and we’ve seen solar use for many other things but there are people experimenting with solar cookstoves — the ones we see are smoke-free and fuel efficient. And so something takes the smoke outside of a home or a hut or whatever. And much less fuel for women to have to gather. Q: In your travels, what do you think causes women to end up as second-class citizens in most impoverished countries? A: The other 50 percent of the population. I mean, just take a look at it. You just take a look at the numbers of who’s in charge, who’s in control. It’s interesting, because I have a 20-year-old son, and one day, because he knows I’m advocating for women and girls and he’s really a good guy, and one day he says to me ‘Jeez, Mom, you’d think you’d hate men!’ And I said ‘No, I don’t hate men.’ I said let’s take it out of the emotional stage and say, suppose the world was run by cats for thousands and thousands of years and cats were in charge. And they did an OK job of it, but it wasn’t so great for the dogs. And the things that were important for the dogs, if they weren’t important for the cats, didn’t happen. And the cats kind of liked having the dogs work for them and take care of things. And he got it, he said Mom, you should do a talk called men are cats, women are dogs. Q: So we’ll follow up with this one: do the men in the communities you visit welcome, understand or resist the empowerment of women? A: Well, that’s another really interesting question because it takes all forms. But I was in India with this wonderful program, and a lot of homes had been destroyed in a flash flood. This organization helped the women build their own home, and we were actually visiting a woman whose home had been built and she had a cooking stove, and as we were leaving I noticed this beautiful writing over her doorway. And thinking it was poetry or something, I said to my guide ‘What does that say?’ and the guide said, ‘Well, it’s her name. That’s the deal-breaker: We build the home, and the woman’s name goes over the doorway so its hers and she’s in charge of it.’ And I said, ‘What does her husband think?’ And she goes, ‘He got a house.’ So you can turn the tide but it’s a great question; I mean, of course anytime there’s a new thinking. We covered a wonderful school in a part of northern India where girls had nothing and never had education and this wonderful man from that area moved to Canada, made his fortune, had daughters. And he realized that, had he remained in India, his daughters would be chattel and that they would not have had an education. And so, he went back and he started a girls’ school, and he couldn’t get anyone to send their daughters. Why would they send them to school? They’re busy working and doing all this stuff. So he devised this plan where he said for every day that your daughter is in school, we will create a bank account that we will put 10 rupees in her bank account for every day that she’s there. And if she graduates, she gets it all. And they also did this symbolic thing where they planted a tree for each girl who enrolled and so you saw the tree grow. And in addition to getting an education, these little girls were in the company of other people who believed in them and they got at least one terrific meal every day and now he’s like chasing parents away, there’s so many parents who want their girls in these programs. So, it’s innovation. It’s like listening to the culture and finding a solution rather than just raging against the culture. Q: Are there examples where the increased power of women and financial resources are moving to land ownership for women? A: Yeah, sure. There’s wonderful organizations and a lot of attorneys who get involved because they want to make sure that women understand their rights. They want to advocate for land ownership and inheritance and all those things. You know, we had that in our country — that women couldn’t inherit their husband’s property when he died. Well, that’s a fact in much of the world. So, yeah, there are wonderful programs to help them secure land ownership. Q: A question from Twitter: have you been prohibited from photographing women by religious authorities? A: Sometimes. I have to go around religious authorities. You know, I learned in Israel that ‘no’ is the beginning of the argument. But I also believe, and I learned it from my mom, you do it in an intelligent way and not in a raucous way. That’s what works for me anyway. Q: Have you considered covering women and girls now crossing our border illegally? A: Yeah, we have considered it. We are going to work this year with migrant workers in the central valley, with programs for women and girls. It’s interesting: The very nature of our work means that we don’t cover breaking news and it gets covered so much. What we’re looking for is the reality on the ground and the positive things that are being done to improve that reality so its too early, this recent huge migration of children is a huge dilemma and so sad and is being covered a ton so we’re more interested in the under-reported stories. Q: A number of questions that go to the organizations that you’re working with that are the aid organizations, looking for more specificity of who those are but also what’s your research process. How do you distinguish between good and effective organizations and those that aren’t quite as good and effective? A: Well fortunately, there are wonderful ratings systems like Charity Navigator that give you the facts on different organizations so we can double check things. First, I’m looking for innovation and I’m looking for innovation that we haven’t already covered because I want to have as broad of a bank of solutions as possible. And then because I have to raise all the funding, I have to work very strategically. So, if we’re going to do coverage of Africa we’ll probably do at least two, maybe three countries and we’ll cover four maybe five aid organizations and the photographers are so talented and they work so fast. You know, they really do this on a shoestring and the work is extraordinary. So, what was the question? Q: Looking for more specificity about the organizations you work with and how you go about choosing them? A: Well, we worked with TIST in Kenya, and with the film we made with them they were able to expand to two more countries with their tree-planting program. In Peru, we worked with CARE and Heifer on some programs that were aimed at agriculture and cooking stoves. We’ve worked with some little ones, Perdatta Perdatti was the school, where they came up with this incentive of 10 rupees a day. With the waste pickers, we worked with this wonderful organization called Chintan. We’ve worked with Church World Service on a bunch of, they have a lot of programs that are working with women and girls and you know, I’m so impressed with the work they do on the ground by working with local organizations. We’ve worked with so many, little teeny ones and big ones. We’ve worked with BRAC both in Bangladesh and Uganda. Water Aid, Esperanza in South America, El Proviron in South America. So we try to. We’re trying to just make sure the big organizations know about the little organizations that are doing great stuff and the little organizations know what the big guys are doing and that everybody is learning from each other. Q: Another question from Twitter: Women who are making good progress with education and business — do you think they will move into government? A: Absolutely. Absolutely. They already are. Q: What role does religion play in keeping women impoverished? A: Well, in some places it plays an enormous role. Religion can be used as a weapon in any country. It certainly has been used as a weapon in our own country. But I must say that’s usually extremists, and most people aren’t extremists. Most people are moderates, most people have common sense and they want their children’s lives to be at least as good as their own and hopefully better. We share core needs and I try to focus on the masses, the moderates, and not on the extremists because there is so much focus on the extremists and the extremists do such harm. Q: Let’s switch gears a little bit. Do you remember taking your first photograph? A: Well, my first published photograph was of a hockey game. Not memorable, but I did get my name on it in the paper. So yeah, I do remember that. I remember the photograph I took that made me decide to be a photographer and that was for a class not for a publication. Q: How often do you stage your images? How many do you take in a day? A: Well, you know, as a journalist, other than like a portrait, our responsibility is not to stage the images and not to alter them later on. And each photographer, I mean there’s many days where I don’t shoot a single picture and there are other days where I’m just burning through film. No two days are alike and no two photographers are alike. So some people are big, huge shooters and some people shoot more kind of editing in the camera. That’s the artistic side. It’s very individual. Q: And which one of those are you? A: I tend to edit in the camera more. I’m not a huge shooter. The camera’s always up but I’m kind of doing the dance with whatever is happening in front of me. Q: The questioner quotes Susan Sontag supposedly saying “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed.” Do you ever feel conflicted about taking one’s image? Do you ask for consent? And then she identifies herself as a young and curious photographer. A: Well, I’m glad you’re curious because that’s at the core of every journalist on earth — that curiosity. I rarely ask permission, especially if moments are happening. But afterwards, I go up to people and if I can I try to explain what I’m doing. What I try to do is become a sort of chameleon in the scene and just be with people and if they look at me, that’s the thing, when we travel and stuff we think oh, maybe they won’t want me to take their picture, maybe they’ll get mad at me or maybe they’re shy or maybe I’m intruding. And really, all you’re doing is feeling shy yourself and we put it on other people. In the world, there are very clear indications of don’t take my picture. You know, there’s this, there’s this, there’s this, there’s all of it. And the truth is, OK, let me poll this audience. How many of you have ever had your photograph in a newspaper, a magazine, on television? Hands, hands, how many? Did you hate it? Or did you get five copies for your mom? And the truth is, most people are like that. It’s so rare for them to have anyone pay attention to them or show an interest in them. And so the worst thing you can do is take the picture and then hide. But if you smile and if I’m photographing something — let’s say I’m photographing you guys and you’re sharing an ice cream cone and you’re in love and you’re so cute and so I’m shooting away and then you look up, I look at you like yep, I’m taking your picture. And you might be embarrassed for a second, but I’m like, ‘Oh, so cute.’ It’s a way to be non-threatening. I mean, that’s the goal is to win the trust of people and to be non-threatening. But it’s also earning it. I mean, if you’re on vacation and you’re going to walk down the street and shoot with a telephoto lens from across the street, you’re not going to get very good pictures and you’re not going to understand. You’re not going to bring empathy to the picture. But if you cross that street and you sit and talk with the person for awhile, you may be on a journey to a wonderful, wonderful photograph and certainly a better memory. Q: And finally, we have a number of folks who put questions up here about how might we learn more about Ripple Effect Images — people who are eager to support Ripple Effect Images. Is there a website people can go to? A: There is. It’s And we set out an e-blast. I know Tom Becker told me he gets it every Sunday. We send out a picture with a little story every Sunday. So if you would like your email to be part of our list and start receiving updates I’ve got this piece of paper here and if you just put your name and your email, I’ll get you on the list. And in terms of donations, of course, I’m always so grateful for that. It can happen online, on our site you’ll see, you can look at all 17 of our films and you can see all the pictures in our archive. So you just go under our programs and there will be films and photographs so you can enjoy all of that. It’s a beautiful website, actually. —Transcribed by Karly Buntich