The Unbound Collection by Hyatt and SkiftX present The Freedom to be Extraordinary content series, which explores how breaking free from convention can lead to extraordinary success. These conversations will reveal how leading innovators and entrepreneurs approach creativity and how they’re embracing the freedom to be extraordinary.
From a young age, Annie Griffiths could never grasp the notion that women were less capable than men. Whether it was her male family members claiming an activity “wasn’t for girls” or being barred from a paper route because of her gender, Griffiths says she couldn’t help but defy gender stereotypes. “From a very young age, I saw this double standard that angered me. I also saw the toll that fear took on creativity and curiosity, and I rebelled against it,” she says.
In her junior year of college, Griffiths discovered her love of storytelling through photography and began pursuing a career in photojournalism after graduation. After being out of school for just two years, the job of a lifetime came knocking. National Geographic hired Griffiths to be one of the magazine’s first female photographers in an effort to diversify their team of mostly white male photographers. But it wasn’t long before she was faced with another gender stereotype, this time being viewed as a fragile woman in need of protection.
Griffiths says early on in her career, her boss was concerned with sending her to remote areas of the world, fearing her safety as a woman — a misconception she worked quickly to correct. “I had to have very sincere conversations and say, ‘Look. I can’t be the girl photographer. I have to be a photographer here. That’s the only way that there won’t be a double-standard for the men,’” she recalls. “My boss listened to me, swallowed hard, and let me do the things I needed to do.”
While Griffiths faced a number of obstacles as a female photographer, she admits that more often than not, being a woman has come in handy throughout her 30 year career. “The majority of photographers are men, and certainly back then, almost all photographers were men, so I had the girls all to myself,” says Griffiths. “We’re just simply less threatening. When your goal is to become invisible so that you can document real things, the less threatening you are, the quicker you can get to that place of trust with people.”
In her three decades at National Geographic, Griffiths’ work has taken her to 150 countries around the globe. Her travels uncovered experiences that were similar to her own. The contributions women made to societies around the world were being discounted by men and even the organizations trying to help them. “I had observed that women were a great investment for aid support because they pay it forward to their communities at three times the rate that men do, yet the vast majority of aid money goes to men,” says Griffiths. “It became a real mission of mine to help the world understand that if you really want a bigger bang for your buck, you should invest in women and girls.”
Five and a half years ago, she and a group of female colleagues created the non-profit organization Ripple Effect Images to do just that. Griffiths and her team of photographers cover underreported stories related to women around the globe on six areas including economic empowerment, education and training, energy security, food security and nutrition, health security, and water and sanitation — stories she says the media often fails to focus on. “The media at large tends to report on poor women and girls on a one-note matter like they’re tragic victims,” Griffiths says. “We don’t see them that way at all. Women are often victimized, but they’re actually resourceful, smart, and funny. They’re survivors. They just want to lift themselves and their families up and deserve a little bit of help to do that.”
Ripple Effect Images’ skilled photographers and videographers document these stories and then provide organizations with footage to help them raise awareness for their specific causes. A prime example of this has been the organization’s work with a program in Northern Uganda. After struggling to get adequate funding around a disease that was crippling a rural village, Ripple Effect Images created an animated video for the organization to share with villagers. After presenting the same video to donors, Griffiths says the organization was able to raise $4.7 million to save the program.
In the past five years, Ripple Effect Images has successfully raised over $8 million for aid partners — including Solar Sister, Rwanda Girls’ Initiative, and Chintan — across 15 countries, capturing 28 films and 20,000 images. “Whenever you start something, you have to prove the model. The model here is really being proved beyond our wildest hopes,” she says.
When the photojournalist isn’t snapping photos for National Geographic or working on her nonprofit, Griffiths enjoys being a student of travel. “I think it’s an essential part of education. I speak to universities, and I just tell them, ‘If you guys have the opportunity to study abroad, do it, and try to take that opportunity to get out of your comfort zone,’” she says. “Go someplace where you’re going to have to really navigate language and customs, and you will find yourself laughing and growing at an incredible rate because you’re out of the bubble that you’ve grown up in. Once you’re out of the bubble, you stay out of the bubble.”
In many ways, Griffiths’ outlook on travel reflects her photography style. “I really believe that educating people helps them to get a perspective and become better global citizens,” she says. “I would describe my style as documentary. It’s very intimate. I’m very committed to humanizing situations and bringing cultures together, helping them recognize common challenges and common joys.”
Griffiths will no doubt go down in the history books as a trailblazer for women in her field. And while the photojournalist remains proud of the walls she’s torn down during her career, she hopes people view the importance of diversity well beyond the workforce. “I think diversity is enormously important everywhere because [it offers] perspective and challenge[s] ideas, all of those things are how you get to the truth,” say Griffiths. “It’s like the streams flowing together to make the river. They’re all important, and that’s what ends up making life sustainable.”