• February 12, 2016

Love in 7 Portraits

Jessie Wender

Each Valentine’s Day I ask photographers to share one of their photographs that they feel captures love. And every year I am rewarded with powerful examples of how love can be seen and felt in a still image. This Valentine’s Day seven National Geographic photographers shared images of love in its many forms—familial love, romantic love, companionship, and love in the face of hatred. These images and their stories show that love can be found anywhere—from the most conflict-ridden places on Earth to the warmth and safety of a bed in the smallest of towns—captured in a single frame. —Jessie Wender, senior photo editor

Picture of two girls playing with cat
Valentine Cat, 2011
Photograph by Evgenia Arbugaeva
Tatiana and her older sister Olga are very close and are often partners in crime, going on adventures and long walks on the Russian tundra. They used to live in one room, their beds next to each other, and sometimes, before going to sleep in the dark, they would share their love secrets and who had a crush on who at school. The year this image was taken was the last year Olga was home in the tiny Arctic town of Tiksi. She graduated school and went to college in St. Petersburg. During the first year Olga was away, the girls spoke on the phone every single day. This was a time when everything was new and strange both for Olga in St. Petersburg and for Tatiana, who had just fallen in love for the first time.

Of course, relationships change between siblings at different stages of life. Perhaps for Tatiana and Olga it had more to do with age than distance. When I met them they were still kids—running around the tundra, building houses from snow, and telling each other secrets at night. Now Tatiana is about to graduate from high school and is making serious decisions about college and her future profession. Olga is graduating from college in a big city and is at a crossroads on her career path. Their relationship is different today, but sisterly love only grows stronger, and it remains a source of support for both of them. —Evgenia Arbugaeva

Picture of woman sitting in congo
South Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 2014
Photograph by Michael Christopher Brown
“Make love not war.” A beautiful proposal of love to oppose war, as an opposite of war, as a solution that may heal and prevent war. But sometimes love seems to cause conflict as much as it prevents it—each side has their loved ones and they fight for their own, their beliefs, their tribe and country. Terrible things may then happen because of this love: People may be killed, lives may be ruined, populations displaced and communities destroyed. But still it seems war cannot destroy love.

This woman was raped during one of the myriad conflicts inside the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where conflicts of ever changing names and causes have and continue to affect tens of millions of people. Rape is an act of violence, an opposite of love, a weapon of war. But if war cannot ultimately destroy love, then neither can rape.

After photographing many rape victims in Congo over the past several years, I’ve often asked if their idea of love is then changed. Do they understand it as well, in the same way, or does love become something foreign to them? Something not as pure? Or does love begin to mean something much more, something more precious, more necessary and life sustaining? —Michael Christopher Brown

Picture of family embracing
From the series “Inventing My Father,” 2013
Photograph by Diana Markosian
These are my parents. They met in university in Armenia. My mother had just turned 21. When I think of love, I don’t necessarily think of them together. They split long before I was born. I was later separated from my father and grew up not knowing anything about their relationship. At the age of 23, I decided to travel to Armenia to find him. As I got to know my father, he began to unveil a distant past. He took me to the spot where he and my mother first met. I could already picture the magnificent lace dress she wore. It is odd to see images of them together. They look so happy. So in love. Perhaps it’s the sort of love I always wish I could have witnessed between them. In a strange way, seeing this image made my parents human to me. I think as a child you don’t necessarily think of your parents as people. They’re grown-ups who seem to have the world figured out. But here I see two people, my age, in love. —Diana Markosian
Picture of two women embracing
D & O, 2014
Photograph by Robin Hammond
“D” and “O,” from Saint Petersburg, Russia, were beaten because they dared to walk hand in hand down a street near their home. “After the attack, I felt even more strongly how dear D is to me and how scary the thought that I could lose her,” O wrote. “The worst thing that I felt was an absolute inability to protect the one I loved—or even myself. Yes, now I look back on the street and look at every passing male as a possible source of danger. But every time, now, when I’m in the street, when I take her by the hand, I do it consciously, it is my choice. ‘D, hold my hand, this is my reward for your courage.’”

Meeting D and O and hearing their story touched me deeply. Like many other stories for my project “Where Love Is Illegal,” harrowing accounts often ended with beautiful illustrations of the strength of love and the power of choosing.

Four weeks ago, on a beautiful summer’s day on the shore of a lake in New Zealand, I reached out my hand to my bride and read to her my wedding vows, the origin of which only she knew: “Aude, take my hand as a sign of my commitment to return the love you have shown me, to support you as you’ve supported me—through sickness and health, wealth and poverty, doubt and success, I choose you.” Robin Hammond

Picture of cowboys in grass
Sutherland, Peninsula Antonio Varas, Chilean Patagonia, 2014
Photograph by Tomás Munita
When I spent several weeks in Patagonia with cowboys hunting feral livestock and horses I saw so much disturbing suffering among the hunted animals. But the roughness of men with their prey was somehow balanced with moments of exquisite silence and tenderness between the men and their dogs—loyal friends and often the only companions at their isolated posts for months. Their tough expressions twisted unexpectedly into softness and love when they were close, like in this moment.

I felt this paradox in Patagonia, itself—its incredible beauty and extreme harshness. This duality is well contained and represented in the gauchos’ tranquil personalities, a mirror of the landscape and their connection to it. —Tomás Munita

Picture of an elderly woman's hands
My Grandmother’s Hands, 2003
Photograph by Erika Larsen
Time passes so quickly. I can’t remember the exact date I took this picture, but I know that I should. It was taken at the home of my grandmother in Arizona, and it was one of the last photographs I took of her before she died. She was already well into her 90s, and I knew the photographs I took during that time would be my final memories of her—how she looked, what she wore, the light that emanated from her.

I watched her when she sat in her room and listened to the radio, when she would pick weeds in the garden outside, and at the kitchen table where she played solitaire.

This image was made after she had finished gardening in the early evening. The ambient light was almost gone but she still seemed to glow, her hands in particular. In one single moment her hands seem to reveal to me an entire lifetime of memories that were the sum of her whole life, the lives before her, and those to come. I saw my father, myself, and my child yet to be born. She gave me all the emotions one can have in a lifetime, originating and culminating in love. —Erika Larsen

Picture of couple under blanket
Sami & Lior, 2013
Photograph by Kitra Cahana
Romantic relationships between Israelis and Palestinians are taboo, dangerous, and rare. I began filming Sami, a West Bank Palestinian, and Lior, an Israeli-Yeminite Jew, while working on a broader project on Israeli-Palestinian love stories, with fellow photographer/filmmaker Ed Ou. They live with their six children in a one-bedroom apartment that Sammy built. Late at night, once the children have fallen asleep, the couple stays up talking and watching movies. Then, before falling asleep, Lior switches to a channel that broadcasts Muslim prayers. This is to protect her children and husband as they sleep. In the morning, before the rest of the family wakes up, Lior reads Jewish prayers, also to protect them. “Islam and Judaism—the Quran and the Torah—are basically the same thing,” she says. “In our house we have both the Quran and the Torah. Both of these books were given by God.” —Kitra Cahana

To experience more inspiring photographs and stories of love, read “Picturing Love: The Stories Behind 8 Indelible Images.”

There are 45 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Pritam Kr
    February 19, 2016

    Love can not be restricted within a country or religion, Love does not know any boundary

    February 17, 2016

    Nice pictures. Articles here depicted very beautifully. Love is above religion.

  3. Marcos G.
    February 16, 2016

    Lovely, gutsy article NatGeo, thank you, really enjoyed it. I’m going to take the subscription from Don and resubscribe.

    We need more tolerance in our world and Editors that promote it are heros.

  4. R. Pabon
    February 15, 2016

    It’s pictures and stories like these that renews my faith in humanity. It’s not the new paradigms of behavior that worry me, but the old ones that scare me the most. There is so much intolerance and hatred spewing not only from our politicians, religious leaders, and even from the common man that sometimes you wonder if then end of civilization really is near. We must remember that simply reaching across and getting to know a stranger, we find out that they aren’t that different from ourselves. I am a catholic who loves his God and believes in Jesus’ greatest teaching. That the greatest sacrament is love. He didn’t say it was rejecting the non-Christian, or gay/lesbian woman, or any other sin. To the men and woman that reject these pictures I will pray that our God opens your eyes and heals your heart. PS: If your an equal opportunity hating atheist. Well change God to universe and I’ll pray for you too.

  5. Chris
    February 15, 2016

    Powerful visual poetry. Makes me feel inspired to remove obstacles in my own quest for happiness

  6. Sam
    February 15, 2016

    One of the worst things to happen to civilization is the ability for us to share our opinions so openly. Especially those of us with tiny, narrow minds.

    This articles is both enlightening and beautiful. The world is amazing. Take it in. Our time here is so short.

    Nicholas Sparks does not write National Geographic. Love is not about white Christians and the roses that they bought from Walgreens.

    Close your mouth and open your eyes.

  7. Lizzie
    February 14, 2016

    Seeing some comments about why some of the pictures that were chosen depicted sexual orientation and religion, I wanted to respectfully state my opinion here too.

    I feel like it was necessary to choose these relationships! Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that straight people and people from the same religion can’t or don’t love each other for reals! No matter our sexual orientation, nationality, religion etc we all are capable of feeling the same type of love, an equal type of love if I may say, so I find this route of thought a little misleading.
    But, it takes more guts to admit your love when it is categorized as abnormal by your society, than admit your love for someone society considers suitable.
    For example, for me it’s easy to go out and walk with my boyfriend while holding hands. But for two girls or two guys, to go out and do the same thing might not only cause negative criticism towards them, but even violence! So it takes more courage to show your love for a person that is forbidden to love, than be with someone that fits society’s criteria. This also forces the people involved to seek their true feelings, leaving no space for fake sparkles.

    So, it’s not the amount of love that makes these photographs special, it’s probably the amount of courage that makes them more emotionally charged. It’s the limits we place to a feeling that supposedly is unlimited! Of course all this in my opinion!
    And we also missed another point, that love exists between two lovers, yes, but also between two siblings, parents and kids, a pet and an owner, everywhere! I’m sure one of the other pictures covered at least one type of the love we all feel for someone, so why focus on those that don’t?

  8. Joanna
    February 14, 2016

    The pictures pulled me in — curious to catch a closer glimpse of moments in other people’s lives that maybe in some way connected to my life despite the thousands of miles that separate us. The varying bonds all shared the common denominator of respect, and served to remind me how simply met the basic tenets of peace can be if only respect toward one another was awarded the importance that it deserves: in our perceptions; in our viewpoints; in our acceptance of our own imperfections to temper the impulse to judge one another whether due to conditioning, our own unresolved pain, deep-seated need to feed the caverns of our own insecurities and/or whatever other circumstance or human condition that rules our hearts and minds. So long as the truth has been shared, we can either choose to “love” unconditionally or unravel what is captured piece-by-piece until we, well, arrive at ourselves. Obviously I found this study inspiring. Thank you all.

  9. Sooz
    February 14, 2016

    Wow…I’m shocked at the amount of mean spirited comments by spewed by people who have just looked at beautiful depictions of love.

  10. Joel Hopkins
    February 14, 2016

    Love is the universe with all diversified creation in it. It starts from infinite and ends to infinite. The limitlessness of the universe supreme power, (no matter what name each philosophy/religion/ideology chose) can not be incarcerated by the blind minded Humans who suffer narrow vision and resist to open their heart and mind to everything. Sun shares her light and warm equally, regardless who you are and where you are. That’s unconditional love. Practice and learn the pure love from a toddler, or a dog.

  11. Kevin
    February 14, 2016

    Such beautiful messages behind each photo, even if the images are not always immediately beautiful. It’s easy for us all to imagine love as being only what we experience ourselves so this group of alternative views should enable us all to broaden our outlooks and become more accepting and loving in our own lives. Sad that a few (thankfully only a minority) can’t see it that way.

  12. Chinyere Nwankudu
    February 14, 2016

    Absolutely beautiful. Refreshingly thought-provoking.

  13. Nada
    February 14, 2016

    I really enjoyed the pictures and stories. And to all those people complaining about no Christians in the story. How do you know ,I saw several pictures where the people could have been Christians, just because it didn’t bring it up didn’t mean they weren’t ! Do you ask every body you meet what their faith is right off the bat? There are Christians all over the world, including the middle east you know.

  14. kenneth vogelsberg
    February 14, 2016

    Amazing work!!!!!!!!!!1

  15. William Tearington
    February 14, 2016

    I think the images are beautiful. I’m a lifetime Republican and find it hard to believe that some people can find evil where there is only a beauty. What a sad life they must have.

  16. Paul Madsen
    February 14, 2016

    I am troubled by the negative comments on your photos. Sometimes it takes scenes like these to spur us to take action to turn scenes like these into happier ones.

  17. Valerie
    February 14, 2016

    Wonderful story. Agree that its always so amazing how people who are small minded always think they have the most common views. One of the reasons why this magazine is so read is because it goes ALL OVER the Globe to report stories which it introduces to the readers. The world just doesn’t revolve around the views in our immediate vicinity. National Geographic – Please continue on!!!

  18. Sharon
    February 14, 2016

    Thank you for this compelling story and thank you for not repeating the routine stories that are easily available for other magazine. You are and will always be the Magazine that is bold, and confident. You NEVER disappoint in either your stories and never your photography or trip. Which is why your magazine is one of the only which readers keep for years. Please stay BOLD.

  19. Don S.
    February 14, 2016

    I’m repulsed by what I see and read as to what you call Love! I’ll cancel my subscription and never get it again. The Social changes you accept are my not acceptable to me. You have corrupted the basic foundation of Love and marriage as well as has the liberal left in this country. Someday this corrupt mentality will pay the price. Gods law is the law to live by!!

  20. Jerry
    February 14, 2016

    While not surprised, I am too often reminded of mans small mindedness. Sad that our visions of life are so narrow.

  21. Suzanne Wilson
    February 14, 2016

    Absolutely beautiful pictures and the stories that went with them. Had tears in my eyes after finishing them. Thank you National Geographic for a wonderful insight into the different kinds of love.

  22. candymk
    February 14, 2016


  23. Cliff
    February 14, 2016

    So, you won’t publish my submitted comment because it was critical of your social agenda. The result is cancellation of my subscription and also those of my children. I’m sure there will be others who feel as I do.

  24. Cliff
    February 14, 2016

    I agree with Aleks’ comments. Has NG become an activist for homosexuality and the left-wing agenda/politics? Please reverse your direction and back to your roots…..

  25. T
    February 14, 2016

    Beautiful stories behind the photos. Am especially interested in Michael Christopher Brown’s piece, and curious as to what responses he received to his questions for those victims he covered.

  26. Mathy
    February 14, 2016

    M’y ha des start to ressemble the grandmother’s hands but I have no grandchildren to photograph them…..

  27. Jerry
    February 14, 2016

    How sweet! Without love and all it brings to us, we are nothing.

  28. Marilyn Hazelton
    February 14, 2016

    Thank you for these wonderful portraits and reflections by the photographers. Yhis essay expands the experience of what is often a shallow holiday.

  29. Scarlett
    February 14, 2016

    Stunning photos, mostly. Found the stories intriguing, bringing more life & emotion to the images.

  30. Lauren
    February 14, 2016

    This is absolutely beautiful. I am glad I get to see this wonderful pictures of all kinds of love being depicted.

  31. Sebouh
    February 14, 2016

    Hawkeye: what made you wake up on the wrong side of the bed?

    Just because they are not typical “Western” love portraits you cannot appreciate them? Disappointing. Tell me, what would your perfect love portrait entail; where is your love?

  32. Nolan Foss
    February 14, 2016

    I found all the photos & stories very moving. Sometimes we forget just how compelling still photos can be. thanks you for this display.

  33. Memorymaker
    February 14, 2016

    Love normally means happiness. I don’t see any happiness other than the picture of the two girls with the kitten.

  34. Mike
    February 14, 2016

    Hawkeye (great SN btw) I was thinking much the same when I first started reading. But then changed my mind. This does not reflect what I was thinking from the Title–but I guess it does work after reading the text.

  35. Inge Johnsson
    February 14, 2016

    Very nice images and compelling stories

  36. Ronnie
    February 14, 2016

    Expected more depth & emotion from NatGeo. More beauty …

  37. randy
    February 14, 2016

    All that variety, all that love. Well done.

  38. Ashley
    February 14, 2016

    Beautiful and inspiring.

  39. Janvi
    February 14, 2016

    Valentine Cat is a beautiful picture.

  40. Aleks
    February 14, 2016

    Regarding National Geographic’s “Valentines Article”…

    You never put a photograph of the love of a Christian.. just mentioned the torah and koran and two gays. The gays were the main photo.

    National Geographic should show what is for everyone not just a percentage and push us to agree.

    Love is in every human..but this post seems more to display their sexual orientation and religion and get viewers to= that as love. Its not love. So why show only a select. 

    Very Disappointed National Geographic. A lot of people are disappointed and let down.

  41. Sonya Donson
    February 14, 2016

    I loved the pictures. Very intimate. Thank you for sharing such beautiful moments in time where love is felt and seen differently through each others eyes. Lovely.

  42. jackie
    February 14, 2016

    Beautiful pictures…wonderful representations of love.

  43. Danelile
    February 13, 2016


  44. Maria Brasil
    February 13, 2016

    Beautiful pictures! Congrats!

  45. Hawkeye
    February 13, 2016

    Disappointing. National Geographic should be capable of doing much better with portraying different pictures and stories representing love.

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