Early in her career as a globe-trotting photographer for National Geographic, Annie Griffiths witnessed the profound impact of climate change on women and girls in developing countries. They were the ones who went in search of water. They nursed the sick as diseases spread. And when climate disasters hit, it was the women who stayed behind to see their children and parents to safety, often at their own peril.
Born and raised in Minneapolis and a graduate of the University of Minnesota, Griffiths said she had a clear understanding of right and wrong. To do nothing to help these women would be wrong, Griffiths said, so she founded Ripple Effect Images. The nonprofit collective of award-winning photographers, writers and filmmakers documents the programs that are empowering women and girls throughout the developing world, especially as they deal with the devastating effects of climate change.
On International Women’s Day, Griffiths shines a light on solutions for women and girls in developing countries.
“Half of the planet has been relatively disenfranchised, and there cannot be success when half the population of the world feels this way,” Griffiths said. “Women and girls in the developing world are the single best investment we can make in our shared future.”
Griffiths, 63, tells us how she’s not only creating beautiful photographs, but useful photographs, and how her Midwestern upbringing armed her with the empathy to seek change.
Q: You have said your life’s journey is understanding who women are. First of all, why women?
A: It all happened because I have worked in about 150 countries, and from the very first assignment abroad, I was lucky enough to be in communities of women and saw how magnificent they are. It was upsetting to me to see how inaccurately they are portrayed. In the developing world, they are mostly thought of as kind of pathetic victims … but they should really be seen as survivors. They are smart and funny and resourceful and incredibly hardworking. They are the ones that keep the communities surviving in the developing world.
Q: Is that what propelled you to start Ripple Effect Images?
A: I felt upset on their behalf, and then I also was keenly aware that the programs that helped them with the obstacles they face are so much more effective than the programs that are aimed at men. Studies show that women’s programs contribute to their communities at three times the rate that men’s programs do, yet only 2 percent of every aid dollar goes to women and girls. That is a really foolish way to invest.
So in 2011, I called some of my girlfriends who are some of the best photographers in the world. I said, “We know when we’re out in the wider world that women work together to get things done, so what if we work together?” Since then, we’ve created 26 films for organizations, and we now have an archive of 20,000 images.
Our goal is to help these aid organizations change the Western view of who these women are and what they’re capable of.
Q: Ripple Effect Images has created an archive of imagery that can be freely accessed by aid organizations. Why is that important?
A: One of the things I’m proudest of is our model with the archive. All of our aid beneficiaries get access to our archives, not just for their programs, but for all programs, because I believe that great ideas should be shared. I firmly believe that if our aid partners can launch their programs successfully and then revisit the archives to see solutions to other things that women need, it’s going to lift more boats. They’re going to learn from each other.
Q: Why are photographs important in effecting change?
A: It’s not just that it’s a photograph. The importance is that it’s a compelling photograph. Compelling photographs humanize big problems in a way that charts and graphs and statistics cannot. So many aid organizations are hardworking, wonderful organizations, but they don’t have compelling photographs that show their work, much less compelling videos. They haven’t created a budget for it, which means they can’t raise more money and more attention. That’s what we can provide.
Q: Where did your interest in photographing women begin?
A: I was deeply inspired by my mother, who had such an adventurous spirit and was so competent. She could bake a soufflé or drill a well. She was one of those women who just had this core spirit of curiosity and competence. When I started traveling, the first pivotal moment for me was my first trip outside of the U.S. I was in Namibia and I was in the company of women who lived in the desert, had experienced seven years of drought, and yet they were keeping their kids alive and they had this extraordinary hopeful spirit. I was like, “Woah, these girls are amazing.” They are not to be pitied. If we can help them a little bit, they’ll do the rest.
Q: What are some of the key issues affecting women globally that Ripple Effect Images is shining a light on?
A: Almost nobody knows that the single biggest killer of women and children under age 5 is the smoke from cooking fires. It kills over 4 million people annually. More than four times as many as malaria, yet we never hear about it, and it’s preventable if we give them access to clean cook stoves.
Another thing that few people seem to know is that 70 percent of those who die in any climate disaster are women. It’s because they are carrying a bigger load. Whether it’s a tsunami or a drought, the women are the ones who are often trying to save their kids and often their parents. It’s just a fact that men take off in pursuit of work but women are left to bring everybody through, and in that process they die.
Q: Why does lack of access to water hit women particularly hard?
A: Women and girls are the ones who have to walk and walk and walk to get water, and it takes a tremendous toll on them. We’ve covered programs where women and girls are walking 11 hours a day to get really crummy water. If someone gives them a little engineering know-how and a little cement, they [can build a sand dam]. Suddenly they can completely change their lives, free up that time and the girls get to go to school.
We covered a program where an aid organization came in and drilled a deep enough well, then set up solar panels to move the water to schools and clinics for gardens. Now these communities have healthy children through the drought season for the first time ever because they can grow food.
Q: How did your Midwestern upbringing prepare you for this work?
A: In so many ways. You don’t even realize it until you’re out of Minnesota, but in Minnesota, you are raised with a real clear understanding of right and wrong, of social responsibility.
Q: You have written books, were among the first female photographers for National Geographic, you have pictures in the Smithsonian, you’ve won many awards. What is your greatest career achievement?
A: To have the privilege of understanding something and being treated so kindly by women all over the world, and then to help people understand them better means that my photographs are useful, not just beautiful. I want my work to be useful.