National Geographic, the magazine that showcases the world’s best photography, is recognizing the women behind many of those images with a landmark exhibit, “Women of Vision,” that opened Thursday.
Each of the 11 female photojournalists, selected for the extraordinary breadth and depth of their storytelling, has a space in the National Geographic Museum for her unique view, covering everything from Texas teenagers struggling with identity to child brides in Yemen to the indigenous Sami people, reindeer herders of Scandinavia.
The exhibit of 100 photographs, part of the magazine’s 125th anniversary celebration, opened to overflow crowds. At least part of the reaction, officials said, was due to tourists looking for alternatives to the shuttered Smithsonian museums, closed because of the partial government shutdown.
During an evening program in the National Geographic Society’s auditorium, all 11 photographers discussed their work in a session led by NBC News reporter Ann Curry.
The exhibit will be in Washington through March 9. It then begins a three-year, five-city tour, with the first stop March 29 at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, N.C. The entire exhibition is sponsored by PNC Financial Group.
“Each photographer has a distinct eye,” said Kathryn Keane, the vice president of National Geographic Exhibitions. “In reviewing photos for the magazine’s 125th anniversary, we were struck by how many of the photographs were done by women photojournalists. They have all captured the world in a unique way.”
Weston Andress, the PNC regional president for western Carolina, said in an interview that the bank’s support for the arts was part of its connection to the communities it served, especially female customers.
“It’s definitely a fit for PNC,” he said.
Amy Toensing, one of the featured shooters, sat beneath a photograph of herself in the 19-foot square filled with her work and talked about some of the striking images.
Her photo “Women on Jersey Shore” pictures a group of older women splashing around the water, having a wonderful time.
“Why were people so obsessed with the Jersey shore?” Toensing said she wondered when she got the assignment, which was years before the reality show of the same name. Invited to swim with the women, with whom she became friendly, Toensing said, “That swim was where I got it – why they loved the Jersey shore. I rely a lot on my subjects to tell the story.”
In a photo from the other side of the world, she captured another sensation: the stress of a years-long drought on a family in the Australian Outback. A pretty young girl is pulling her blond hair back from her face, her eyes scrunched as the sand stings her eyes. In the mirror of the pickup, her father is pulling her brother out of the back, and everywhere there is a brown vastness.
“I wanted to put a human face on the drought,” said Toensing, who took the shot from inside the truck. “I was along, literally and figuratively, for the ride.”
Waiting and gaining the trust of their subjects can take days, months or even more, and Keane said that women had a special ability to connect with other women, especially in societies such as in the Middle East, where there’s limited contact between men and women who aren’t related.
“I spend a lot of time getting to know my subjects,” Toensing said. “My hope is to have that show high in my imagery.”
Kitra Cahana, at 25 one of the younger photographers in the show, left home at 16 to begin her photographic career. By 21 she had an internship at National Geographic that took her to the mountains of Venezuela to shoot a religious cult. She spent weeks among them and captured their annual sacred rituals, including a man jumping through fire, an image that’s alarming and somehow transcendent, since the viewer knows he lives.
In Texas, Cahana had the assignment of being “embedded” in a loud and vibrant public high school, a world away from her conservative Jewish upbringing, to learn about how the teenage brain works.
“As a photojournalist, this is what we do. We embed ourselves in the lives of people with vastly different cultures, vastly different value systems,” she said, sitting among her photographs. “What I’m looking for is an intimate relationship with the subject so I can be there when the intimate thing happens. It requires being part of the landscape.”
Cahana went to class in the Austin high school and after 10 weeks was accepted as “NGeo photo girl.” Her picture of two girls getting their tongues pierced depicts a rite of passage and a sign of acceptance in teen society.
“It takes being a tabula rasa” – a blank slate – she said of taking photographs, “without a judgment or value system.”
Her experience has stayed with her. “A lot of the world’s history was made by teenagers,” she said.
Asked where she lives, Cahana said, “I don’t live anywhere.” She has her backpack, sleeping bag, laptop and camera, always ready for the next – as she puts it – adventure.
Erika Larsen, another photographer, spent several years getting to know the Sami people of Northern Europe, above the Arctic Circle in Norway and Sweden. In the process, Larsen, who’s of Norwegian descent, learned the language of the Sami and came to appreciate their handling of the reindeer on the tundra that’s their livelihood.
“I worked as a housekeeper for one family so I was able to take photographs,” Larsen said.
She sat in front of one of her enlarged photographs, of a charming teenage girl, Ella-Li, with white-blond hair and blue eyes, wearing a plaid scarf that’s emblematic of the Sami.
“There is a light and dark sense of the Sami,” Larsen said. “She represented the lighter side.”
Her goal in her photojournalism: “I look for the more silent time that can be created.”
The photographers want their images to speak for themselves, and they range from Diane Cook’s haunting landscapes to Beverly Joubert’s gasp-inducing close-ups of leopards to Jodi Cobb’s groundbreaking work documenting 21st-century slavery.