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
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“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 BrownThese 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“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
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 MunitaTime 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 LarsenRomantic 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.”