This Valentine’s Day, I asked eight National Geographic photographers to share an image they took that captured love. From a train compartment on the Trans-Siberian Railway and public showers on a beach in Rio de Janeiro to quiet morning moments back home in a familiar bedroom, here are their images of love and the stories behind them.
It’s been a quarter century since the day I spied on these girls. A long time since this moment came and went. It’s a love letter, of course. (Do I need to tell you that?) They should have been working. I am almost certain that the woman on the far left, just a vague blur in this photo, is coming to shoo them back to work, to carp at them in the way older people do, when they are resentful that the delirious love of youth will never be theirs again. The young man who wrote the letter is either very handsome or very clever—or both—and dashing, probably, in the way that Uyghur men out on the Silk Road in western China can be. (Did he say he would wait for her that night, out on the oasis street flanked for miles by tall poplar trees that tame the desert winds?) The young women are older by now. There are children. Perhaps there are grandchildren. Thousands of days (and nights) have come and gone. Perhaps they now look back on this moment of giddy love as naive and impetuous and reckless. But what other kind of love is there, that makes any sense?
I wonder if she kept the letter?—Jim Richardson
I spend much of my time photographing conflict or the effects of conflict on populations around the world. It is a space, one would think, where love would be difficult to find, but the contrary is true. Recently, when I was in the Central African Republic, I came across a young boy and his father who had been abducted by a rebel group. They managed to escape, but many were killed. We picked up the boy and his father and took them home to their village the following day. The instant his family and neighbors saw him was incredible. His mother took him by the hand and with tears pouring down her face, led him to their home. She sat him down and in the most tender way, she kissed him. He was alive, when everyone thought he had been killed. The love shown that day was the most important moment I experienced in my two years covering that conflict.—Marcus Bleasdale
I was in Italy looking for love. On assignment for a National Geographic story that sought to scientifically explain it and its three stages—lust, romantic obsession, and long-term attachment—I roamed the streets searching for photographs to interpret that soul-searing, primal swamp of desire that rearranges our brains and our lives. I nearly walked by the solitary woman in the cafe reading a newspaper. But something about the white ruffle of her skirt and the deep tan of her leg attracted me, and I made a couple of frames and walked on. I didn’t think the picture had anything to do with my assignment. But when I got home and looked closer, I noticed the headline on what was actually a greeting card: Ai Lov You. In the end, I found that searching for an image of love is very much like searching for love itself: The harder you look, the harder it is to find. But when you least expect it, it sneaks right up on you.—Jodi Cobb
Andres, who has been my partner for over ten years, doesn’t particularly like being photographed. When I point a camera at him, his natural response is to cover his face or make a grimace that tells me to stop. I wake up early, often a couple hours before him. This may sound a bit unloving, but I sometimes go in to nudge him awake, wanting some attention. And sometimes, seeing the morning light pouring onto him, I can’t resist turning on the camera of my iPhone. This might be an underhanded way to wake him up—it’s the click of the camera that rouses him, not
me—but also, these moments are my only opportunity to take his picture in a way that feels natural. I have a whole series of pictures of Andres asleep in the morning. Love is a complicated thing. I see the pictures as an expression of love, but also of the selfishness in love.—Carolyn Drake
“I have to be strong for my siblings. I am their mother and father. My stomach hurts often for the pain they feel. I just do my best to create a world in this one room where they can play and feel happy.” —Abdi, age 17
There are four million refugees in Africa and over 50 percent are children. The most vulnerable include orphans and unaccompanied minors like Abdi (center) and his siblings. When Abdi was a young teenager he and his five siblings were left alone when their mother died in a refugee camp in Kenya. For years, Abdi was their sole caretaker, “their mother and father,” in extraordinarily difficult and dangerous conditions. This photo was taken when I was working with RefugePoint in Nairobi soon after Abdi and his siblings found out they would be resettled in the United States. For me, this love is worth knowing and celebrating. I was amazed to witness it. It’s not shiny or heart fluttering—it’s difficult, beautiful, brave work.—Amy Toensing
Years ago on assignment for National Geographic magazine, I traveled eastward on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, traversing the Ural Mountains. It was a time when U.S.-Russian relations were improving and Westerners were welcomed with open arms. The passengers on the train had been informed about my mission to photograph on the train and had been asked for their support. After a couple of days most passengers, many of them long-distance travelers like me, were quite used to the sight of me with my cameras. A couple that occupied the compartment next to me had always given me warm smiles, but we had not found a chance to talk. One day, on my way back to my compartment, through the closed compartment door, I could see them engaged in a lovely conversation. I assumed they possibly were newlyweds in love. I signaled them to please not move. For a short while, I became the proverbial fly on the wall, silently witnessing tender, flirty moments unfold in front of my camera. When I quietly left, they barely took notice. A day later the young man was gone, and an elderly couple occupied the compartment with the young lady. Only then did I learn that the couple I had photographed had just met on the train. I did not ask more … I wanted to believe in the fleeting moments of love I had seen through my camera. But was my impression real? I will never know.—Gerd Ludwig
Love is felt, not described. Celebrating a 50th wedding anniversary could be love, yet a hug from a stranger could also be love. Love is connecting. Perhaps even a brief feeling. A symbiotic rush. The beach showers in Rio de Janeiro are democratic. All races, all body types, all ages, all together on the beach and also often together in the beach shower. Rio is a Shakespearean stage of drama in its very essence. This is what I am trying to soak up visually with my “Beach Games” project. I want people to feel things rather than see things. This photo is intended to give this feeling of love on several levels. Not to be described.—David Alan Harvey
Kilifi is an 18-month-old rhino that Kamara is currently hand-raising along with two other baby rhinos at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya. Kamara spends 12 hours every day, sometimes in pouring rain, watching over the vulnerable baby rhinos. He loves these animals and calls them his children. He is part of the reason Kenya’s black rhinos, whose population had plummeted to near extinction, are doing so well here. Much needed attention has been focused on the plight of wildlife and the conflict between heavily armed poachers and increasingly militarized wildlife rangers. But very little has been said about the indigenous communities on the front lines of the poaching wars and the incredible work they do to protect these animals. These communities hold the key to saving Africa’s great animals. On Valentine’s Day, I think about how much people are a part of nature, and how we need nature to survive.—Ami Vitale