• October 10, 2013

Conversation With Elizabeth Krist and Kathryn Keane

Alexa Keefe

Conversations is an ongoing series where photographers, editors, and curators talk about concepts in photography as well as recent projects.

Today, we bring together two of the forces behind the new exhibition “Women of Vision: National Geographic Photographers on Assignment“—Kathryn Keane, National Geographic’s vice president of exhibitions, who conceived the idea, and National Geographic magazine senior photo editor Elizabeth Krist, who curated it—to discuss the dedication of the women behind the lens.

For this portrait of Masuda Mohamadi, Steber photographed her lying next to childhood photos of herself and her father. These images remind Masuda of peaceful times in Afghanistan. She was a child in 1979 when the family fled the Soviet invasion and settled in the United States. Masuda and her father returned in 2002 to help rebuild their shattered nation.
“War Letters,” National Geographic, November 2005
Photograph by Maggie Steber
To view full caption, mouse over image or click to enlarge.

KATHRYN KEANE: We had the wonderful occasion of the 125th anniversary of National Geographic magazine in October of this year, so we decided a year ago that we wanted to do a big photography project. And as we were going through the many stories of the last decade that had made a real difference and moved the dial, we were amazed at how many of them were done by women photojournalists.

We said, Why don’t we do a story about that? Why don’t we do a story about these women themselves? Photojournalism has traditionally been a bit of a man’s world, maybe particularly here at National Geographic because we do so much exploration, and for 125 years we’ve been sending people to very dangerous places and extreme places.

The fact that there are these women who are now taking the lead on some of these stories—that seemed like a good basis for a project like this, so I immediately reached out to Elizabeth Krist, my colleague and a senior photo editor from the magazine, and I said, What do you think of this idea? She agreed to curate the project and it kind of grew from there.

The Sami, an indigenous people who live in the far reaches of Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia, are by tradition nomadic reindeer herders. Today about 10 percent follow herds. The reindeer's proximity to Gaup shows how much time he spends with his herd, which would become wilder without human presence. As he watches the animals, he is yoiking, chanting a throaty, traditional Sami song evoking his wife, Ingrid.
“Sami: The People Who Walk With Reindeer,”
National Geographic, November 2011
Photograph by Erika Larsen
To view full caption, mouse over image or click to enlarge.

ELIZABETH KRIST: I was so excited to be able to work on it. When you were talking about how National Geographic is at the forefront of exploration and how we send people into all these dangerous, risky places, I was struck by how many of the women who are in this exhibition have also worked in those kinds of conditions.

Lynsey [Addario] and Stephanie [Sinclair] and Maggie [Steber] have worked in conflict zones. Lynn [Johnson] is shooting where there are pandemics. Beverly [Joubert]’s facing wild animals. Erika [Larsen] is working in subzero temperatures, and Jodi [Cobb]’s going around to all these illegal slavery sites.

I think it’s impressive and I think it sends a great message to young girls too, that women can do this kind of work, and maybe they’ll be inspired to want to come and work for National Geographic. So I think that’s one reason that I’m excited about the exhibition and the book.

KATHRYN: Yeah, me too. For me it’s been fascinating getting to know these women and what drives them, what inspires them. I agree with Elizabeth, at the core of all of this is trying to inspire that next generation of journalists to stay curious because we need people to go into these careers.

It’s not easy, and maybe it’s getting harder and harder every day to bring back these kinds of stories, but if we can inspire young girls and boys to want to go into these fields, then we’ve done our job.

Cahana first heard about the "secret" fight club while at a bus stop with two high school students. At least once a month, teenage boys gathered in the backyard of Bryan Campbell, at far left, to wrestle and box. Cahana recalls, "There were about nine students. Two would go up against each other and I kind of danced around them taking pictures." The boys often used phones to record their contests, posting the videos to a private Facebook group so more friends could admire their prowess. The fights delivered both the kind of excitement and social rewards that teens are wired to seek.
“Beautiful Teenage Brains,” National Geographic, October 2011
Photograph by Kitra Cahana
To view full caption, mouse over image or click to enlarge.

ELIZABETH: Sometimes when people ask why are we doing an exhibition that focuses on women, I feel, well, gender is just one element in the whole chemistry of what makes up a person. When you look at someone’s cultural background, you look at their economic upbringing, you look at their age—all of those things contribute in the same way that gender contributes. But I do think that women are more likely to concentrate on issues that really matter to women, whether it’s maternal mortality or sexual assault or child brides. And so I do feel that it’s important to keep the numbers up of women who are actually going out in the field and covering these kinds of issues.

KATHRYN: Agreed.

In this image 11-year-old Turki Ahmed flies a kite amid the rubble of Sadah, a northern antigovernment stronghold near Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia. His 10-year-old cousin Afnan Hussein scampers behind him. For Sinclair this image illustrates the amazing reserves of human resilience and endurance that can be found even in dire situations
“Yemen: Days of Reckoning,”
National Geographic, September 2012
Photograph by Stephanie Sinclair
To view full caption, mouse over image or click to enlarge.

KATHRYN: I think the biggest thing that I learned about this group of women [photographers]—and they’re all quite different, I think I should say that up front—is that strangely they do have sort of similar stories, some of them, in the way they got their start.

Many of them worked for their hometown newspapers; many of them were the only women photographers working in the newsroom. Many of them had sort of different reasons for getting into it, but once they got into the field of photography, they had sort of similar experiences, but then their personal interests drew them back out into different directions.

And I knew they were brave because I saw their work and I saw where they were and I saw the difficult content that they had to cover and I know how time consuming it is to get these stories for National Geographic, especially. But I was reminded in interviewing them and getting to know them how truly brave they really are. A lot of times these women had no resources; they had very little support and yet they were driven to get the stories that they get.

And, in many instances the National Geographic stories grew out of the personal work of a lot of these women and their passion for a certain subject.

In the summer months during buffalo calving season, this lioness saw an opportunity for an easy kill and took it. "It is never easy to sit and wait for the lions to attack another animal," says Joubert. "The only way I can protect myself is with the lens. The lens diffuses the emotion until you stop taking the image. Then you watch the moment again and have respect for the life. Instead of celebrating I say 'I got that shot.' That is the only way I have managed to release those tragic moments we witness over and over in the field."
“Killer Pride,” National Geographic, September 2006
Photograph by Beverly Joubert
To view full caption, mouse over image or click to enlarge.

KATHRYN: We had to agree on who to include [in the Women of Vision project] and, you know, 11 is a lot. But I think both Elizabeth and I felt that there was nobody on this list that we could leave out in doing justice to this project.

ELIZABETH: We looked at who was most active over the last decade, or a little longer. We also were looking for diversity in terms of subject matter and what they covered.

KATHRYN: I was sort of fascinated with Kitra [Cahana] when I met her at the National Geographic photography seminar in 2011, fascinated by the work she did on the teenage brain story which I thought was one of our great stories of the last decade.

ELIZABETH: I agree. I agree.

The High Line winds its way roughly a mile and a half from its southern terminus at Gansevoort Street, shown here, to 34th Street on Manhattan's lower west side. The steel structure once brought freight cars to factories and warehouses but now supports an urban oasis." Landscape isn't a geologic process that happened in the past. We have a human connection to it and that's what we want to show in our pictures," says Cook. "Saving an old structure but also incorporating an environmental element into it, those are the kinds of dialogues we want to start with our pictures."
“Miracle Above Manhattan,” National Geographic, April 2011
Photograph by Diane Cook and Len Jenshel
To view full caption, mouse over image or click to enlarge.

KATHRYN: What a story to illustrate right—how do you illustrate a story about the science of the teenage brain?—and she just did a terrific job on that. So I was interested in the next generation. I was interested in the experiences of some of our more veteran photographers, like Jodi and Lynn and Maggie, and juxtaposed with the younger photographers who are coming along and the similarities and differences between the two.

But in the end it didn’t really matter, right? They all sort of had the same passion and reasons for doing what they do.

ELIZABETH: Mm-hmm. And dedication.

KATHRYN: And dedication.

Women carry handmade bricks while male family members stoke the kiln fires. Beholden to business operators for money borrowed to cover things like medical expenses or funerals, debt traps poor families in captive labor, often for generations. Many of the world's millions of debt slaves live in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. Cobb strongly believes in making photographs that are beautiful and yet convey sensitive issues in a way that "does not re-victimize the victims but gives them a human face. You want people to be drawn in and start to care about the issue."
“21st Century Slaves,” National Geographic, September 2003
Photograph by Jodi Cobb
To view full caption, mouse over image or click to enlarge.

KATHRYN: We wanted to tell stories and we wanted those stories to complement each other and we also wanted to basically take you on a trip around the world through the eyes of these women. That’s what I think that was sort of in Elizabeth’s brain when she was sort of curating this, and she did a brilliant job. Obviously there were stories that we didn’t include but it’s a nice selection of the great assignment work of the last decade.

ELIZABETH: I think so too.

KATHRYN: You know, in my business, and all museums I think would admit to this—if they don’t admit to it they’re lying—but ideas for projects do tend to be cyclical. I mean, every ten years, you revisit ancient Rome or you do a project on Egypt. These are subjects that new generations of people are going to be curious about. And fortunately there are always new discoveries going on.

I think, with photography, it’s the same way. Every ten years, to look back on a decade’s worth of work, it’s a good thing to do, if for no other reason than to just remind ourselves of the importance of the work that we do and the unique nature of our content. So yes, I think we’ll do this again.

At a ceremony marking the start of spring a woman kneels in front of a fire at the "mother tree," a pine tree near the village of Selenge Aymag. This ceremony takes place each spring and is said to be the time when the spirits descend from the heavens to communicate through shamans. During this time novices surround the tree and try to call the spirits to them for the first time. "Shamanism opposes rational definition," Drake says. "It is otherworldly, mystical, and inexplicable." In addition to the attendant challenges of making an image of the ethereal, Drake had to contend with fears about the interference of photography and restrictions from shaman. In some cases she was told to photograph at her own risk, in others she was allowed to photograph only before and after the ritual.
“Shamans: Masters of Ecstasy,”
National Geographic, December 2012
Photograph by Carolyn Drake
To view full caption, mouse over image or click to enlarge.

ELIZABETH: I would love to think that in ten years there will be no reason to have an exhibition concentrating only on women in the same way that most people don’t think about putting together exhibitions on men photographers. [Chuckles.]

But I will have to wait and see. I sort of fear that in ten years, my daughter’s generation is still going to be wondering why there are still more men being hired, more men out there producing these kinds of stories that we tell.

But I hope I’m wrong. I hope that it’s much more equalized and that there isn’t that kind of a need.


KATHRYN: One of my questions for Elizabeth would be about the editing process. In any given assignment you can get thousands and thousands and thousands of photographs, and only a few appear or are selected to illustrate a story. I don’t think people understand how difficult that is. How does that work?

Return to Zambia, National Geographic, September 2005, Shiwa, Zambia
“Return to Zambia,” National Geographic, September 2005
Photograph by Lynn Johnson
To view full caption, mouse over image or click to enlarge.

ELIZABETH: By the time we actually start looking at pictures, we’re so immersed in the story that we have a deep understanding of the research and the themes that we have to convey to the readers. So that by the time I start looking at all the images—you know, just flashing across my computer screen—my brain is going to a much more subliminal level.

I’m just looking for the perfect convergence of light and composition more than anything, because I trust that the photographer has already honed the subjects by what she’s shot. And then I just go through and pull whatever speaks to me at a really deep, visceral level. Then I go through on a second round and get that down more by the actual content and the storytelling and what is really required to construct a visual narrative for a reader who might not know anything about the story.

So for every picture, I’m looking for a convergence of information, some sort of revelation, something I didn’t know. The other element that the picture has to hit is some kind of visual impact—something that’s so striking, whether it is the light or the composition—something that’s really graphic that just hits me so hard at a gut level that it jumps out.

ELIZABETH: One of the things I realized that made my job ten million times easier is that I was just building on all of the effort that the individual story editors had put in with the photographers. Each photo editor for a story might look at 30,000, even 50,000 frames, and [then get] it down to the 20 or 25 that get published.

And we did look at outtakes. We looked at a lot of images that were shown to the editor and never ended up being published in the layout. It was always fun to conspire with the photographers and try to find one or two images that maybe their editor didn’t like or that never made it into even the final show for the editor and try to sneak one or two of those in too.

KATHRYN: Very sneaky.

ELIZABETH: [Laughing.] It was fun.

Baghdad After the Storm, National Geographic, July 2011 Baghdad, Iraq

“Baghdad After the Storm,” National Geographic, July 2011
Photograph by Lynsey Addario
To view full caption, mouse over image or click to enlarge.

KATHRYN: I think one of the things that surprised me the most in doing this project was coming to understand what’s involved in one of these assignments, how much time it takes. I think each of the photographers referenced this multiple times to me.

For National Geographic, they really have the luxury of time, and they can spend the time that it takes to get the pictures, which is really rare today. [Like] Erika Larson spending four or five years on that Sami story and learning the language and embedding herself in the community and getting people to trust her. It’s just not an in-and-out kind of thing to get a story like that.

They each had a similar story to that, the amount of time that they had to dedicate and the fact that they were appreciative of National Geographic for giving them that time to get it right.

ELIZABETH: It’s really true. I hope that if there’s one thing that comes out of all the attention that photography is receiving during our 125th anniversary it’s that people realize that one of the reasons that we’re such a fortress for photojournalism is because we’re still willing to dedicate the time and the money to these stories. I think that’s why there are so many photographers who want to work for us, because there are very few other places in the world where a publication would be willing to give a photographer eight weeks, ten weeks. It’s very unusual and I really hope with all my heart that it’s one aspect of National Geographic that never changes.

KATHRYN: I don’t think I can outdo that. [Laughter.] That’s pretty much the last word from Elizabeth Krist.

This conversation was recorded on October 4, 2013.

Women of Vision: National Geographic Photographers on Assignment,” a traveling exhibition that celebrates the work of 11 women photojournalists, opens at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., on October 10. Join us at 7:30 pm EST for a live discussion with the photographers, moderated by Ann Curry.

There are 32 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. leslie
    March 15, 2015

    I viewed the exhibit yesterday in West Palm. It was very rich and inspiring. My mind is still turning with all of the stories that the photos so brilliantly brought to life. Coincidentally, Stephanie Sinclair was at the show with her family. Seeing one of the photogs in person made it a more real and special experience. The exhibit was well attended even though there didn’t seem to be much advertising for it. I was lucky to find out about it from a young relative in Portland OR. My enthusiastic thanks to all of the photographers and to the two women in the interview. Awesome job!

  2. Joey
    October 29, 2013

    Genuinely breathtaking, powerful photos. Wow!

  3. Ilham
    October 25, 2013

    Thanks for the whole group of National Geographic . The pictures are fantastic !

  4. Marylyn Motherbear Scott
    October 21, 2013

    Great photos. Insiteful and artistically beautiful.

  5. Julie Brokken
    October 21, 2013

    YES! Profound. Beautiful. And when NG follows up in another ten years I hold that some of the women photographers featured will be even more diverse in race and cultural background. So many strong and powerful voices rising as the female and feminine aspects grow in strength as we make a positive difference here on our beloved and precious planet. I am so inspired! Blessings to all and infinite grace.

  6. Frank
    October 21, 2013

    21st century slaves: I see the first comment about this. I think of it differently, but the the main point of this photo is to raise awareness of the situation, which it has. I don’t know all the circumstances surrounding the work these men and women do, and whether they can walk away from the job or are basically trapped, either legally or by custom or by their own dire economic situation. Either way, the photo is a starting point in the discussion.

  7. Yolanda L.G.
    October 21, 2013

    I have grew up with National Geographic and is so wonderful the work that makes , and i just want to thank Nationona Geographic for this, is a way to create us awareness of world´s problems and how a lot of women suffer. I´m really sad how in the 21th century there are still slavery and so many people is suffering.

  8. Roya
    October 21, 2013

    They are beautiful pictures. Brings different emotions in humans. Shows that all beings try to match the conditions. Life is like an endless fight, because always there is hope.

  9. mayuresh dugade
    October 21, 2013

    beautiful pics

  10. H.D.Gamini siripala
    October 21, 2013

    Real examples for the definition of Photography.

  11. Kathy
    October 20, 2013


  12. Ameen Al ali
    October 20, 2013

    More beautiful images are wonderful stories, paintings super beauty

  13. Malcolm
    October 20, 2013

    Absolutely stunning; some of the titling is a bit askew “Slaves”, people working to feed families are not slaves, but conditions could be better.
    keep the good work up, they are a credit to the photographers and the magazine.

  14. Gini
    October 20, 2013

    My window to the world since I was a little girl. These are fabulous & educational at the same time. I work with teens who think slavery was a long time ago in America, who have no idea of the enormity of the world they live in. Thank you.

  15. Irene Richer
    October 20, 2013

    Inspiring and frightful. thank you so much to bring these to my attention on my computer.

    October 20, 2013

    Could you please give details of the camera, lens, focal length and aperture setting in NGM when the photographs are published. There is software such as Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5 which give these details from any DSLR automatically and it will not be tedious to publish.

  17. Judith
    October 20, 2013

    Your photos require one to explore, to stop, and look deeper into the subject of the composition. I like the diversity of your choices.

  18. Amir Ahmd
    October 20, 2013

    I have tears in my eyes when I watched Baghdad after the storm we thought the best futurebut terrorism is prevalent so far

  19. Ramasamt Sadhu
    October 20, 2013

    Fantastc Captures

  20. Nkosi
    October 20, 2013

    To see such a beautiful and magnificent photos i really appreciate a lot thank for your good work that you show the hole world.

    October 20, 2013

    These are some wonderful documentations.

  22. Janice bower
    October 20, 2013

    To al the Nat.Geo.photographers..bravo! But a special thanks to the ladies…you are the ones who inspire me to photograph not only what I see, but especially when it hits the emotions. Thank you and please continue to delight,and suprise us with your wonderful talents.

  23. Bipul
    October 20, 2013

    loved the photos.simply great

  24. Kim Schachte
    October 19, 2013

    I have just stumbled upon PROOF and the photos are incredible. This reminds me both of my own childhood with National Geograhic and my desire for my children to feel like citizens of the world through reading about global issues but especially connecting through photography. Thank you for that.

  25. Gayle A Brandt
    October 17, 2013

    Excellent! Awesome photos telling stories of people around the world by Women. Nice tribute to the women contributors of Nat Geo

  26. saul eduardo renteria garcia
    October 11, 2013

    excelentes imagenes gracias.

  27. Saskia Bunge
    October 11, 2013

    I’m glad I found this page. PROOF is great. “The reason we’re such a fortress for photojournalism is because we’re still willing to dedicate the time and the money to these stories.” – true

  28. Rüdiger Seidel
    October 11, 2013

    Seeing pictures concerning social problems I wonder whether an global unconditional income for everybody could protect the poor from getting poorer and the rich from feeling more insecure.

  29. sandra
    October 11, 2013

    o conceito de trabalho escravo contemporâneo não é apenas o trabalho forçado que envolve restrições à liberdade do trabalhador, mas também é considerado como trabalho escravo àquele em que o trabalhador é obrigado a prestar um serviço, sem receber um pagamento ou recebem um valor insuficiente para suas necessidades e onde as relações de trabalho costumam ser ilegais. Diante destas condições, as pessoas não conseguem se desvincular do trabalho e ficam muitas vezes reféns do empregador por conta de empréstimos ou pagamento de alimentação e moradia. A maioria é forçada a trabalhar para quitar dívidas, o que acaba não conseguindo nunca.

  30. Jaclyn Shanley
    October 10, 2013

    Creating and exhibiting these photos are what drives people to do more, appreciate, and indirectly experience the daily lives of other people, animals and places. It takes them outside of our own little world and into a place outside of the day to day.. to see whats “normal” in other places. I love Nat Geo and the people behind its success are unbelievable role models for me as a student. The anniversary issue was absolutely stunning. Congratulations to both of you 🙂

  31. isabelino juvenal garcia gradin
    October 10, 2013


  32. Vilkesh
    October 10, 2013

    On “21st century slaves” by Jodi Cobb… I disagree with the title because it Make no sense to me they are not slaves they are labour workers trying to feed their family members. Its their bad luck that they have to do such a hard work for livelihood. So why don’t you go to third world nations n pictures them n them prove that this is modern day slaves… Where they are forced to do what human nature won’t permit to do. Sorry but i am totally against ur title……..

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