Annie Griffiths encourages people to follow their hearts to discover a niche.
By Anthony B. Botello
“As I cut my teeth on U.S. stories, I learned that if you can take a picture in your own backyard and reveal the true nature, then you’re ready to go somewhere,” National Geographic’s first woman photographer said Monday at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Annie Griffiths was the perfect grand finale of Women’s History Month at UTSA, said Harriet Romo, sociology professor and director of the UTSA Mexico Center, as she introduced Griffiths, whose presentation was titled “Changing the World, One Photograph at a Time.”
Romo said Griffiths “has been around the world except to Antarctica, and is working on how to get there.”
She credited Griffiths with working as a photographer for Life magazine, having pictures in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., writing books available on Amazon.com and preparing to receive the Heifer International award, “celebrating a person who acts as a citizen of the world representing the hungry and poor.”
Romo also praised Griffiths, saying she is following in the steps of Dorothea Lange who took photos of the poor during the Great Depression.
Griffiths said she originally wanted to be a writer, but discovered a love of photography after auditing a photography class. Because someone hadn’t shown up, the professor asked if anyone wanted that spot and she raised her hand. On a class assignment, Griffiths lay on a golf course waiting for a photo opportunity when the sprinklers came on. She was doused in icy cold water, but she got her photo. Getting on the bus back to campus, wet and muddy but happy, she immediately changed her major to photography.
Griffith also described taking pictures of three women in the desert. When she showed them the pictures, they began rolling around and laughing. Griffith realized they had never seen pictures of themselves because they did not have reflective surfaces in the desert. They did not really know what they looked like, but recognized each other’s jewelry. She felt an immediate impact that her photography could make on those around her.
Griffiths described her calling to photography in a unique way. She related a story of when she jumped out of her tent to take a picture of some horses with an excellent background and yelled out “Woo-hoo!” in excitement for her great picture, and only then noticed the cowboys who were behind her watching her.
At this point, she realized she was in her underwear and a T-shirt and had forgotten to put on her pants. Griffith said she wishes all students and faculty “find something to do that you’re so passionate about that you forget to put your pants on.”
“Photographs can communicate and make people stop and think,” Griffith said.
She showed pictures of irreversible environmental damage that held more of an impact than a written description.
“I want my pictures to be beautiful, but I also want them to be useful,” Griffiths said.
She told the students, “You’ve never been needed more. Be useful.”
Griffith first took pictures for Habitat for Humanity on the theme of “dignity of shelter,” showing people without homes in many countries and scenarios. She discovered her photos could make an impact and gain attention for certain causes.
She usually supports women’s causes, finding that “the aid organizations backing females tended to pay it forward.”
Griffiths says women invest 80 percent back into their families whereas men tend to invest only 30 to 40 percent. She also noted out of every aid dollar, women and children only see about 2 cents.
She said the No. 1 killer of women in impoverished areas is not lack of clean water or childbirth but exposure to fumes from cooking fires, a solution that can be fixed by teaching women to use stoves instead of open fires or kerosene indoors.
Griffiths founded and is the executive director of Ripple Effect Images, a nonprofit aid program in which photojournalists create awareness about the plight of poor girls and women by taking their photographs and sharing them with the world.