At National Geographic Museum’s ‘Women of Vision’ exhibition, photos that grip you

Visitors stepping into the new “Women of Vision: National Geographic Photographers on Assignment” exhibition at the National Geographic Museum are compelled to do just two things: stop and stare.

Although they might want to move closer to take in the photographic detail and marvel at a world they’ve probably never seen, perhaps finding themselves imagining what the photographer felt when she clicked open her shutter.

There are large, sweeping points to the exhibition of 99 photos by 11 award-winning photojournalists. It is a celebration of diversity, artistry, muscularity and voice.

But primarily, it simply holds viewers transfixed.

“Women of Vision,” which is kicking off a three-year, multi-city tour, comes as the National Geographic marks its 125th anniversary and includes prominent names such as Lynsey Addario, Jodi Cobb, Stephanie Sinclair and Maggie Steber. It marks the first exhibition of female photographers among National Geographic’s 60 or so regular contributors and focuses on work that has appeared in the magazine since 2000. The photos chronicle social churn and cultural anthropology from the plains, villages, overly civilized and defiantly untamed places of the world.

“I see myself as a conduit for the animals,” says Beverly Joubert, a photographer, filmmaker and conservationist who lived in Botswana for 30 years. In an image that captures the duality of her work, a hunting lioness has jaws clamped into the neck of a newborn buffalo cub. Joubert had watched the cub’s birth a few hours before but had been following the lioness’s efforts over time as she struggled to feed her hungry cubs. The photo stares into the animals’ faces.

“I was focused on their expressions — on that lioness. That grip, which meant the success of her cubs,” she says. But it was also important to have some part of the buffalo cub, “without it being grotesque.”

In another photo, a spotted leopard peers silently and nearly hidden between dense foliage. “I didn’t need her whole body,” Joubert explains. Just the eyes, “to tell this story as creatively and effectively as possible.”

The intimacy of the shots invites connection, even anthropomorphism — speculation about what the animals might be thinking or feeling. But the skill of the photographer captures every detail in context and makes visitors, who feel as if they are watching this life cycle unfold, understand that it is a thing completely wild.

Repeatedly, as images touch you, unsettle you and draw you in, it can be tempting to attribute their power to a sixth sense, a certain feminine sensitivity. But what is more true is that National Geographic images are intimate, and intimacy is a function of time spent with a subject. The photographs attest to what these women discovered during that time, what leapt out or whispered to them or felt most important. It represents a communing that they do with their subjects, even when those subjects don’t speak.

Landscape photographer Diane Cook wants “to celebrate our connection to this place we live in, that a lot of people ignore.” Her photos — the reclamation of a 1930s Manhattan elevated rail line into hybrid green space, a pristine cliffscape, “that refuses to be conquered by humans” — are designed to frame the Earth, she says. They are designed “to take the pulse of the health of this place.” As a society, we throw away things that we ought to reimagine, Cook says.

Cook hasn’t spent a great deal of time dwelling on her role as a woman in what is often a male-dominated profession, but she says, “I think we still need to give a shout-out to the women. We still need to celebrate the power and strength of what women do, and this exhibition captures that.”

Gender “is just one factor out of so many — culture, age, economics — that affects how you perceive the world and how it perceives you,” says Senior Photo Editor Elizabeth Krist, who curated the exhibition. “All those things come to play in a very complex calculus of how people connect.”

That connection is on display, alongside the National Geographic process. In one interactive element, editors are analyzing photo composition and talking about photo selection. “Visitors are constantly asking what is our process, how we eliminate photos,” Krist says. National Geographic wanted to demystify the selection process and acknowledge the work of editors, who review tens of thousands of frames to select a dozen or so that make the magazine. The exhibition is sectioned off by photographer, and a video loop in the center allows visitors to hear them talk about how they got started, how they find stories, what it’s like to be a woman in their profession.

Steber has photographed in 62 countries and worked for more than 25 years in Haiti. For a National Geographic article on sleep, she photographed four homeless sisters asleep in their dresses after attending church services in Miami. Although the story wasn’t about race or poverty, Steber calls it “a mission of mine to always use photography to look at the diversity of people,” to give them voice and present them in their own light. For a story on dementia, the magazine used photos she had taken of her mother, Madje Steber, whose decline she’d photographed for eight years before her death.

“It was an homage to my mother, plus it gave a powerful end to that story,” she says. “I know what this is about firsthand.”

That feeling of firsthand experience is among the greatest things photography can do, Steber says. “We can change people’s minds and change our minds about each other.”

Women of Vision: National Geographic Photographers on Assignment

at the National Geographic Museum, 1145 17th St. NW, through March 9.

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