Conversation with Annie Griffiths, National Geographic Photographer

September 20, 2023

Annie Griffiths, Midwest native, National Geographic photographer, and founder of the nonprofit organization, Ripple Effect Images, will be the first of three speakers to launch the Fox Cities P.A.C.’s new Viewpoint Speaker Series. When I spoke with Annie, she informed me that she had just returned from leading an expedition in Greenland and was about to leave for Turkey. In our conversation, we discussed her work with National Geographic, what she has learned from her travels and experiences, and what audiences can expect for her upcoming speaker event, Through the Lens: Creating a Ripple on November 14, 2023.

With a rich and varied career as a National Geographic photographer, Annie has been able to share some of her stories with many different audiences. Annie has presented at the United Nations, The Skoll World Forum, Microsoft and more, and has been name by the World Presidents Association as one of the “Best of the Best Speakers.” You may have even seen her on The Today Show and Good Morning America or heard her on National Public Radio. She has also received awards from the National Press Photographers Association, the Associated Press, the National Organization of Women, as well as the White House News Photographers Association.

Currently living in Virginia, just outside of Washington D.C., Annie is happy to be returning to her Midwest roots. Growing up and living in Minneapolis for many years, Annie majored in photojournalism at the University of Minnesota. Annie always felt drawn and connected to the arts but didn’t discover her passion for photography until she was in her junior year in college. “I was a late bloomer,” she joked. “But I had always been a storyteller and had always loved writing and telling stories. I took a photojournalism class during my junior year and fell in love with it. Two weeks later, I changed my major.” While the department was small, Annie appreciated being able to learn about the history of photography and taking her storytelling skills to the next level through a camera lens.

At the age of 25, Annie became the youngest person – as well as one of the first females – to work for National Geographic. “I got started with National Geographic through a series of very fortunate events that happened when I was too young,” Annie said with a laugh. National Geographic’s Director of Photography at that time, Bob Gilka, was the one who gave Annie a chance. “Bob had always looked for young and new talent,” Annie shared. “At that time, he was also coming to the realization that he was covering the world with predominantly white, American men. He recognized that wasn’t good enough, so he worked on diversifying his team, and I was one of the beneficiaries of that.” She added, “When you get an opportunity very young, the price you pay is fear. For the first decade, I was just trying not to screw up.” Annie was grateful for the opportunity and the more she experienced, the more she learned and grew, becoming surer of herself along the way.

As you gain confidence, and I think this is true in any profession, you realize you can do more, that you have a perspective, knowledge or a platform that allows you to do more about the things you’ve learned.
Annie Griffiths – National Geographic photographer

Photography is one of many art forms that people are able to connect with emotionally. Photographers are able to share an idea and capture emotions with color and composition, eliciting a response from viewers. For Annie, she hopes to leave the people she works with grateful that she was there. “I need to have a personal investment of sincerity that people who I’m photographing can see,” Annie commented. “I reach for accuracy, making sure that I am portraying things in an accurate way. One of the great privileges as one of the first female photographers, I know about stories and have access to them that men don’t know about or have access to, as they do about things that I wouldn’t know about. That’s the glory of diversity; you have people who know things that are important and have the ability to cover it.”

Having worked on every continent and visited more than 100 countries, Annie has seen a great deal of the world. “There’s a huge and wonderful diversity in the natural world in different parts of the world,” Annie commented. “I am always blown away by the earth’s majesty and the cultural experience.” Through her travels, Annie enjoyed the opportunity to form great relationships with many people across the world. Annie, accompanied by her family, spent five years in the Middle East working on stories. They are still in contact with their friends over there. “As a family, that’s where our deepest memories are,” Annie reflected. “We met wonderful people in Jordan and Syria. The kids got to ride camels and donkeys and climb rocks. They were in this loving Arabic community where every adult is looking out for every kid; it was profound.”

In addition to National Geographic, Annie also began working with various aid organizations that were shining a light on solutions for women in the developing world. Annie remarked, “As my career went on, I became more interested in the experiences of different cultures across the globe, especially women in the developing world.” This led her to start a nonprofit, Ripple Effect Images, which is devoted to sharing stories of aid organizations that are helping women solve their own problems. Ripple Effect Images is led by mostly women who are photographers, writers and filmmakers who document programs and provide the compelling evidence of the work that is being done and needs to be done to nonprofits, including fundraising. With their efforts, Ripple Effect Images has helped aid organizations raise more than $10 million for women and children.

“My biggest goal in all of that is try to help change the way that westerners view women in the developing world,” Annie shared. “There is tragedy in the world and there are obstacles, but these women are fantastic, smart, resourceful, fun and incredibly strong, and that is rarely seen and depicted. These women do not want to be pitied. Pity isn’t helpful, but investment is. People will invest when they see that these women can handle it. They are leaders in their communities, and for climate resilience and mitigation; they just need a few tools to maximize what they are capable of doing.”

Women are the best investment we can make in our shared future. When we show how valuable women are, they begin to be valued. That sounds so simple, but it is huge.
Annie Griffiths – National Geographic photographer

Travel is a great way to build up self-confidence and independence, as well as view the world through new and informed perspectives. Annie said, “I encourage people to travel, especially young people, to get out of the bubble that they may be in. if you have the opportunity to study abroad, go somewhere where you can get out of your comfort zone and experience things that will change you and give you confidence. Navigating new foods and transportation and learning new languages gives you a confidence that you wouldn’t have inside your bubble. Travel is one of the best ways to cast out fear and open up to new possibilities.”

Annie has opened up about her photography experiences through a few books that she has written. In our conversation, she mentioned Substack, a writer’s forum, as a useful place to read and publish a variety of written work. Annie herself has used the platform herself, having launched her new book, “You’re Not That Nice” in June 2023. This book allows Annie to speak woman to woman in a light-hearted and humorous way, encouraging women to stop trying to be perfect and just have some fun. Annie is also currently working on a memoir, chronically many fascinating adventures and experiences that she’s had.

Working on her memoir, Annie is enjoying revisiting memories of her experiences that have been on the back burner. “It’s fun to realize the crazy things I did, especially as a young photographer,” Annie said. “Sometimes the memories come back vividly, but in your day-to-day life, you don’t think about it. One of the things I enjoy about my job is that I never stop learning, I never have a dull lunch because there’s so much to understand about people. It’s fun to look back on it and remember people.” While writing, Annie remembered this farmer that she had met in northern England. “He was just the sweetest man. His kids and grandkids were going to take over the farm. I spent these precious few days with him and saw how the farming community gathered around and lifted him up. Even now, I wonder how he is doing.” That farmer is just one of the many people that Annie has had the opportunity to positively impact through her work.

I hope to leave a body of work that helps a little bit, that makes a difference on an individual basis and creates a broader understanding. The travel I have done has given me a unique perspective and being able to share that I hope will lead to deeper understanding and empathy.
Annie Griffiths – National Geographic photographer

In anticipation for her November 14, 2023 visit to your Fox Cities P.A.C., Annie hopes to connect with the audience by sharing stories of cultures and experiences from around the world. “I hope to demystify what I do and have audiences see that I was them,” Annie said. “I was a Minnesota kid who went to a cabin in Wisconsin and had no idea what was out there. It is very joyful for me to come back and share it and encourage other people to see and do things. But if they can’t, I hope they can enjoy hearing some of the things that I have learned.”

Written by Philomena Dorobek, Brand Storyteller
Fox Cities Performing Arts Center