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U of M Alumni Association: A Guest in Their World

Annie Griffiths Belt, a National Geographic Society photographer, recounts through stories and pictures three decades of traveling to nearly 100 countries, often with her two children in tow.FROM THE U OF M ALUMNI ASSOCIATION 


NOTE: See bottom for a gallery of images from A Camera, Two Kids and a Camel

“I believe it’s far better to look like someone’s mother than a photographer,” writes Annie Griffiths Belt (B.A. ’76) in her new book A Camera, Two Kids and a Camel, published this May. Belt, a National Geographic Society photographer, recounts through stories and pictures three decades of traveling to nearly 100 countries, often with her two children in tow.

In fact, most of the first 10 years of Lily’s and Charlie’s lives were spent traversing the globe with their mother when she was on assignment. While their classmates in the United States were reading textbooks about other continents, the Belt kids were off exploring them.

Traveling with kids was sometimes a logistical challenge, Belt says (even when her husband, Don, an international correspondent for National Geographic, was along). But most often her children were her passports, helping her to gain entry into people’s homes, hearts, and lives to make her award-winning photographs.

Of late Belt has focused on making photographs that are what she calls useful as well as beautiful, shooting for nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity and World Church Service. She recently spoke about her work for
Minnesota magazine.

Early on when I became a photographer, it was really important to me not to focus on children. I was one of the first female photographers at National Geographic, and I remember a female colleague of mine saying, “Sometimes I think they just expect us to take cute little pink pictures. As a young photographer, I said to myself, “OK, I have to make sure I do not do that.”

But in the last 10 years, I have consciously made a decision to do photography for aid organizations that help women and children. That’s where the greatest need is, that’s where the greatest results can happen.

I try very much to come across as a human being, not as a journalist. The way I work with people is I just try to be a guest in their world. I want to do everything in my power to help them just see me asanother person. And that’s not always easy to do. I’m towering over some of these women, I’m white, I’m usually dressed in a way that’s very odd to them, and I’m alone, unchaperoned. There are so many things about me that could make it difficult for them to accept me. So I do everything I can to help them see that I’m another woman, I’m another, I’m no better.

In most situations, as an American, I’m kind of a curiosity or like an exotic creature. Kids are especially that way when they find out. They’ll look at me like, “Really? You’re one of those?” Our country’s greatest export is entertainment. So, all over the world, people hear about America and see American stuff, see television’s views of what America is. I remember one time when I was in a Bedouin ommunity and somehow the word spread that a real, live American was in the village. A little boy came over and looked at me and said, “American?” And I said yes. And he said, “You know Muhammad Ali?!” I thought, he has no idea what America is, but he knows that Muhammad Ali is from America and so he figures we’d know each other. These kids live in a place where they really don’t have an opportunity to learn—in a formal way—very much about the rest of the world.

I feel the full gamut of emotions when I’m shooting, I don’t try to be objective emotionally. I try to be objective in the storytelling to make sure that I don’t take sides, especially in the Middle East. But in terms of being with people, I just jump in with both feet. I don’t know how to be objective. I hope that in those situations that I’m humanizing everybody, which to me is objective. We’re all human.

That picture of the little boy brushing his teeth: He’s an earthquake survivor in Balakot. That’s ground zero for the earthquake that hit Pakistan, and the entire city was just pancaked flat. What was touching to me about that photograph and that situation was despite the fact that his whole family was living in a tent village and they’d lost everything, he was still someone’s little boy who was sent off to brush his teeth before bed. There’s a poignancy in that, and I see that poignancy a lot. I’m touched by the fact that other people love their children as deeply as I do. It’s easy to think that no one could possibly love their kids as much as you love your own, but of course they do.

I think I’ve always had a real sense of justice, and I’ve always been uncomfortable around people who are judgmental or exclusive. Somehow I really have always had an open heart. And, of course, as you get older you get better at listening and not seeing things quite as black and white. Plus, it’s just a fact that the more you’re in the world the more you “get it.”

When you travel—and not just travel to look at people and look at things—but travel and get to know people and spend time with them, it’s pretty hard to dislike or hate somebody you know. I guess the opportunity to travel has allowed me to open my heart even more.

Image Gallery: Images from Annie Griffiths Belt’s book A Camera, Two Kids and a Camel: My Journey in Photographs