How women photographers have changed the way we see the world

Women photographers have taken some of the most memorable images of our time for National Geographic—from portraits of child brides in Yemen, India and elsewhere to a park ranger in Kenya bidding a tender goodbye to the last male northern white rhinoceros before the animal died.

The first time National Geographic published photographs by a woman was more than a century ago; Eliza Scidmore became a household name to readers in the early 1900s, producing 15 articles and some of the magazine’s earliest color photography, and was the first woman elected to the National Geographic Society’s board.

As Jodi Cobb, who photographed her first story for us in 1975, eloquently put it: “Every woman who has photographed for National Geographic has left her mark on the magazine and the world in some way. That’s the power of photography: those marks are indelible, etched in our retinas and memories.”

For Women’s History Month, National Geographic asked some of our women photographers to share their thoughts on the work of other women storytellers they admire.

Sarah Leen was a photographer for almost 20 years before becoming a photo editor and eventually National Geographic’s first female director of photography. She admires photojournalist Lynsey Addario’s superhuman perseverance. “Lynsey does not take no for an answer. She stays longer, gets dirtier, sleeps less and never stops when on assignment… She cares very deeply for the people she photographs, especially the women and girls. And she stares fear and tragedy right in the face and will risk her own safety to get the story no matter how many times you beg her, Please be careful! No matter what she has seen and endured she has yet to lose her faith in humanity.”

Cobb, who has photographed more than 30 stories for National Geographic, says the recent “heart-searing” images from Ukraine by Addario, are more proof of someone “who risks her own life again and again for evidence of the brutality and heartlessness of war. Many people can find the courage to do something once. But what extraordinary bravery it takes to do it relentlessly, returning to face the danger time after time. You must have the conviction that your work will make a difference and that you actually can change the world.”

Leen also singled out Lynn Johnson for the compassion that shines through in her work. “Her power comes from her need to truly understand what she sees. She is a deep thinker… She puts her entire heart and soul into creating images to help us see and understand.”

“This for me is a very emotional image. The choice to not show the face of Chief Sisk as smoke lifts from her pipe speaks very strongly about how the loss of a language is the loss of self,” says Leen. “Without any words, I feel grief for something I will never have the privilege to know.”

Amy Toensing, who has contributed to National Geographic for two decades, also draws inspiration from Johnson. “I was knocked over by the humanity she brought to her work and her connection and sensitivity to the people she was photographing… Beyond Lynn’s work, I instantly had someone—a woman—I could work and aspire to emulate.”

Maggie Steber, who has worked in some 70 countries around the globe, has a gift for capturing images—such as the portrait this story leads with—that are, “a stunning mixture of beauty and tragedy, soft and violent… heart-wrenching and unforgettable,” says Cobb. “We can instantly conjure it in our mind. We don’t need to see it again to feel its impact.

“This portrait of Katie with her parents Robb and Alesia can bring me to tears, and always reminds me of the complicated ways in which pain, commitment, and love are woven together in the human experience,” Nichole Sobecki, a photojournalist and filmmaker based in Nairobi, Kenya, says of Steber’s work. In the Story of a Face, Sobecki says Steber’s images “radiate light, yet that luminosity seems to come from a deep awareness of the darkness just beyond.”

Sobecki added that Steber’s willingness to turn the camera indirectly on herself with projects such as the one below “takes a lot of courage to look inwards, and open up the basement and attic doors within ourselves, but it can be a profound teacher.”

Karla Gachet, born in Quito, Ecuador and based in Los Angeles, California, says she admires many women photographers including those who paved the way for the new generation but words shared by Steber during a workshop years ago have stuck: ‘If you want to be a good photographer read a lot, watch a lot of movies, travel… don’t just look at photos. To be a good photographer you need to be an interesting human being.’

“I think that comes across in her photography and her personality,” Gachet says. “Her work on the Secret Garden of Lily LaPalma, [a collection of images intended to reveal personal hidden emotions]  was so original, and it pushed her own boundaries.”

Steber struggled to name just one woman photographer whose work she admires: It’s “like asking which of your sisters you love the most…There are so many.” Forced to pick one, she describes the images by Evgenia Arbugaeva as “soulful and painterly.”

“There is an elegance to her work. Time and again I go back to her photographs for inspiration,” Steber says. “She finds beauty wherever she goes, a kind of soft, quiet beauty that can make a few apples wrapped in a newspaper stunning.”

Rena Effendi, an Azerbaijani photographer whose work focuses on the environment, post-conflict society, and social disparity, says that Arbugaeva’s photographs “transcend reality transporting me to a different realm, that of magic and fairy tales about remote and secluded places. I am fascinated with the lonesome and enigmatic characters in her stories, be it a butterfly catcher in Indonesia or a weatherman in the Arctic.”

“Her photographs are deeply intimate,” Effendi says. “It’s as though she sits quietly in the room observing, almost reading her protagonists’ thoughts.”

Bethany Mollenkof, a documentary photographer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles, says Stephanie Mei-Ling “brings such a calm, thoughtful presence to her portraits it makes the viewer pause and absorb the work.”

“Stephanie creates these images that feel like artifacts, important nuanced images that we can learn from for years to come,” says Mollenkof.

“One woman who continually proves that she will redefine all limitation of possibilities is Hannah Reyes Morales,” says Erika Larsen, a photographer and multidisciplinary storyteller known for her essays, which document cultures that maintain close ties with nature.  “She is sensitive, determined, inquisitive, intelligent, fearless, and truly will not be type casted or defined…Her images will continue to help transform the mirror of humanity.”

“Her story, Living Lullabies, is so powerful to me in its ability to remind us that we are all at some point children who can close our eyes and dream.”

“Every image she creates oozes with a certain care and tenderness that is the epitome of empathy,” says Kholood Eid, a documentary photographer and filmmaker based in New York. “She handles every scenario with the utmost care that leaves you in awe of how much she values those in front of her lens.”

Lujan Agusti says photographer Karla Gachet, who worked on a project on Diversity in America, stands out in the Latina photography community. “She is a great reference, for her work, and for making us feel that it was possible to reach places that have always seemed impossible,” says Agusti, a documentary photographer and visual storyteller based in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. “When Karla talks about this photo [of a mother and her newborn baby], she connects it to her experience as a mother….She finds wonderful and poetic ways to portray realities that are sometimes cruel, but that exist and need to be told.”

Kiana Hayeri, an Iranian-Canadian photographer who has lived in Afghanistan for years, says she has always looked up to Andrea Bruce. “Her work has always been beautiful, thoughtful, sensitive and respectful towards her subjects….The one photograph that has always stayed with me is her photo from Syria [below]…The lighting and pose made the photo very biblical.”

Photographer Jennifer Hayes points to Bruce’s ongoing study of democracy in America as a source of inspiration. “Andrea uses every pixel to reveal how similar we are despite our differences…… drawing on our connectedness not the cultural divide,” Hayes says. “She is investing in humanity.”

Yagazie Emezi, a Nigerian artist and self-taught photojournalist based in Lagos, Nigeria, says that Daniella Zalcman’s vision “has its foundation in kindness and generosity, which leads everything else she does… She moves at a very intentional pace, but gently at the same time.”

“When I see these images, I am reminded of how layered our experiences are, and how much exists beneath the surface,” Reyes Morales says. “This image also subverts our familiarity with symbols, which, instead of confirming stereotypes, invites us to ask questions about this man and his experiences. I still can’t decide if this man frames these symbols, or if he’s hidden by it.”

National Geographic photographer, writer, and filmmaker Ami Vitale says, “It is impossible to name one person since so many of these women have inspired me… Maggie Steber, Lynn Johnson, Melissa Farlow, Annie Griffiths, Jodi Cobb, Jennifer Hayes, Lynsey Addario, Stephanie Sinclair, Andrea Bruce and so many of the next generation of storytellers are women who I admire.”

“The thing that they all have in common is empathy and compassion,” Vitale says. “While their work is sublime, the thing I love most about these women is their commitment not only to take powerful pictures but to use their platform to do more to create real change in the world. Their images and they too bring hope and light to this world and are a constant source of inspiration.”

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