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Behind The Lens With Prizewinning 'Women Of Vision'

If you are at all interested in travel or photography, then you probably know National Geographic for the stunning images that take you around the world, introducing you to remarkable cultures and people. Over the past decade, some of the most powerful images in the magazine — and the stories behind them — have been captured by female photojournalists. National Geographic Museum is honoring 11 of these women in a new exhibition called "Women of Vision: National Geographic Photographers on Assignment." It covers issues ranging from the impact of war to child brides to breathtaking landscapes and wildlife.

Two of the celebrated photojournalists speak with Tell Me More's Michel Martin about the dangers and advantages of being a woman in the field, and the stories behind some of their most popular images.

Lynsey Addario is a Pulitzer Prize winner and a former MacArthur Fellow. She's known for documenting human rights issues and the plight of women and families in conflict zones. She was kidnapped twice on assignment.

On gradually becoming a war photographer

I knew that my interest lied in international stories. I was interested in how women were living under the Taliban, for example. So it was really the story that brought me to these places, and if they happen to be in a war zone, then so be it. Or if injustices against women or hardships were a byproduct of war — or many years of war — then that's what I was interested in covering. That went on for several years, and I ended up covering the fall of the Taliban and then the war in Iraq. And at some point, people started calling me a war photographer. And it was very confusing to me because I actually didn't ever think of myself as that.

Since Sept. 11, many of the wars of our generation are in the Muslim world. So as a woman, I have access to 50 percent of the population that my male colleagues don't.

On "saving" two Afghan women while shooting her Veiled Rebellion project

I saw these two women standing on the side of the mountain. ... I said, you know, that's strange. Because usually along with women you find a man, because women technically should not be out of the house without a male guardian. And so we stopped the car, and my translator Dr. Zeba and I ran up the mountain, and we got to the women, and she said, "What's going on?" And she said, "Well, this woman, Noor Nisa, is pregnant. And she's just gone into labor. And her water has just broken." And she was standing with her mother. And her husband's first wife had died in childbirth. He was so determined to not have her die in childbirth that he rented a car and was driving her to the hospital, and their car broke down. So I said to Dr. Zeba, "Go find the husband." And she brought the husband back. And we asked his permission top take them all to the hospital. And they got in the car and we drove them to the hospital, and she delivered safely.

On showing and not showing graphic images

I covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for years. And every time I would send a photo of a dead American soldier, it pretty much almost never made it into print. If people really saw what was happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, then they might be marching in the streets to end wars. But you know, I think that no one ever sees because we're not allowed to see, and we're not allowed to publish what we do see. So it's quite difficult.

Kitra Cahana is one of National Geographic's youngest photographers. She's known for doing a popular feature on the teen brain. She was just a teen herself when her work made the front page of The New York Times.

On making The Times for her early work in Gaza

I found an internship at the local newspaper there. During the course of that year, they started to let me go on the backs of the motorcycles with the photographers and kind of following them on assignments. It was also the year of the Israeli disengagement from Gaza. I ended up going to the settlements in Gush Katif, in Gaza, and living there for about two months, photographing that international story. My image ended up on the front page of The New York Times. So that was really this jump-start into the world of photojournalism.

On her teen brain exhibition

The intimacy that you see in those images is just the intimacy of the relationships that I create. There's always gonna be a power and balance because the camera is in my hands, and ultimately I shape the story. But I don't think that I go out and create false relationships with subjects. I think it takes open questions — questions that don't presume what's going on.

This experience being embedded in high school again just a couple years after being a teenager myself, it was vastly different from my own high school experience. I was raised in a Jewish religious community. I went to a high school where in 10th grade one of the forefront questions on my mind was whether to wear skirts or pants, or whether I was going to be observant of shomer negiah, this concept where women shouldn't touch men until they're married, like even handshaking. So going to a public high school in Texas was very different.

On how gender affects her work

Being a woman impacts the work that I do insofar as it doesn't really say anything about me, but it says a lot more about the societies and the cultures and the people that I'm photographing. Whether I have access — a lot of the time, I feel like people underestimate my capacities, and that aids me in the field. I'm not perceived as as big of a threat. In other situations, that does become a hindrance to me that I'm not given access to certain environments. I once had a fixer who kind of went behind my back and called up one of my editors to say, "This story should not be covered by this little girl."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Amy Ta
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