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America’s Homai Vyarawalla

delhi Updated: Feb 06, 2011 00:00 IST
Paramita Ghosh
Paramita Ghosh
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Wisdom from an expert: to do the work of the National Geographic, it helps if you look like somebody’s mother. And Annie Griffiths, America’s Homai Vyarawalla, or, at least, one of the first ladies at the Geographic, ‘styled’ herself accordingly, shooting people and cultures all over the world with empathy, a language understood between perfect strangers.

In Pakistan, she was the white American in loose baggies; in Namibia, she de-sexed herself with tight plaits; in the Middle East, she disarmed her Arab guides with unusual baggage — her two children, Lily and Charlie, and a camera-gear padded with diapers.

On her first India trip, taken to further the work for her NGO, Ripple Effect Images, dedicated to documenting the condition of women as they deal with climate change, Griffiths talks of how good photographs can be made “if you are not ashamed to be silly and can tell people their daughters are beautiful, their dress is pretty and the food is good…” In India, she has covered a lot of ground — shooting the students of the Barefoot College in Tilonia, Rajasthan, the embroidery workers of SEWA, Ahmedabad, and self-help groups in the Sunderbans.

Griffiths who shoots with a Nikon, began her career in a local daily in America’s bread basket, Minnesota, more than 30 years ago. In 1978, while in her 20s, with absolutely zero planning, she picked up a phone when it rang at her office.

“The National Geographic (NG) needed a picture of a storm that had caused damaged to the crops… I was ready”. A year later, that assignment gave her the courage to send them a portfolio. And this time, it was perfect timing. The magazine was expanding and looking for diversity in perspectives. They were taking in women as photographers.

A NG job is every photographer’s dream — photographers are its real stars and visuals and text actually get equal space. How did she pick up the ropes? “Once you are there,” says Griffiths, “no one’s teaching, but you are learning…but it’s high pressure, and not for everyone.”

Work has taken her all over the world — in T.E. Lawrence’s footsteps in Arabia; to cover the three faiths during prayer-time in Jerusalem; in Pakistan’s villages; to Namibia during drought and apartheid — and her children too. “My daughter travelled in 13 countries before she was born,” she revealed over a podium at a lecture tour in Delhi.

For a woman who wanted to be a writer, Griffiths has also framed her time as a working mother. Her children accompanied her — at times with nannies — on the job; her book, A Camera two kids and a Camel is a moving photo-memoir of her “portable family.”

As American/journalist, she, however rues the negativity that has been visited post 9’11, on the Arabs, a people, she admires, and hopes that her photographs correct the picture. “At a Bedouin wedding during a storm they shielded my son… while travelling with the Bedouin police each of my three guards came up to me and said ‘you are our mother’… they gave me the best camel, the warmest blanket, the first cup of tea…If you tell an Arab ‘hello’, they say come for tea, if you stay for tea, you have to stay for lunch and then dinner,” she says.

Meal invitations have, at times, led to rare photographs, for example, in Jerusalem, a place where there are lots of restrictions for a lot of things. “”You can’t shoot on Fridays, you can’t shoot on Sundays, you can’t shoot the military…” Griffiths wanted to shoot the women at prayer at the Al Aqsa mosque. Could she? Of course she couldn’t. So she stayed on for dinner and chopped vegetables with the Grand Mufti’s wife. “In the morning, he had said no, at night, his wife said yes,’’ she says with a laugh. She got her shots.

Moral of the story: A good camera helps, but it isn’t everything.