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A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

5 Female Photographers Working to Change the World

Among the 60-some freelancers currently working for National Geographic magazine, about a dozen are female, but their view on the world is essential.

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Kitra Cahana

A Ritual Scorching, Venezuela, by Kitra Cahana

Kitra Cahana started taking pictures at age 12, when her father, a rabbi, would give her a theme—joy, happiness, fulfillment—to focus on for a month. One of this self-taught photographer’s images was published on the New York Times front page when she was 17—of Israeli disengagement in the West Bank—but still she found it difficult to break into National Geographic. As a photo intern in 2009, Cahana pitched 50 story ideas, and none were accepted. Two years later, however, her first story was published, and she is now one of the magazine’s youngest photographers. For this image, Cahana went to Venezuela and observed thousands of worshippers of a religion called Maria Lionza, at their annual pilgrimage in the Sorte Mountains. During the gatherings, some participants try the baile de las brasas, or dance of hot coals. Spirits are thought to prevent people from feeling the flames; this man lived. The trick to taking photos like these “is to become a tabula rasa or blank slate,” Cahana said in Women of Vision.

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Stephanie Sinclair

On Counterrorism Patrol, Yemen, by Stephanie Sinclair

Stephanie Sinclair’s career has been strongly influenced by a horrible sight first witnessed in Afghanistan in 2003: child brides setting themselves on fire after abuse or disputes with their husbands. Sinclair has since chronicled girls in marriages—some as young as 5—in Ethiopia, Nepal, Tanzania, India, Yemen, and other countries. While in Yemen, Sinclair spent a day with women in the female counterterrorism unit; women play a critical role because only they can search other females for bombs and explosives. As a photographer, Sinclair liked the contrast between the pink wall—of which one Yemeni officer said in National Geographic, “we fought for the color”—and the female lieutenant. “It’s nice to see that kind of duality and see a different side of Yemeni
women. I’ve photographed a lot of things that women around the world
have struggled with. But there are also a lot of achievements,” Sinclair said in National Geographic. She works with Too Young to Wed, a United Nations Population Fund initiative to end child marriage.

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Beverly Joubert

A Leopard Lurks, Botswana, by Beverly Joubert

Beverly Joubert is a native South African who has lived in Botswana for 30 years with Dereck, her husband and collaborator. At one point, they met a leopard cub who was only eight days old, and named her Legadema, meaning “light from the sky.” The young animal would often stay near the couple’s truck while her mother was hunting. “We felt like we were surrogate parents,” said Joubert in a TED talk. Legadema became the basis for a National Geographic magazine story as well as a 2007 documentary, Eye on the Leopard. Over a year later, the couple returned to the Okavango Delta and searched for Legadema; finally, they saw her sitting at the top of a tree. “She straight away ran down the tree and came toward us and acknowledged us, and that was remarkable. This is a truly wild animal,” Joubert told “And she acknowledged us with those beautiful amber eyes, just stared up in to our eyes. And we could see that we were still accepted into her world, which I must tell you is an incredible privilege.”

This photo of Legadema is one of Joubert’s favorites thanks to its minimalist quality. In order to shoot cats in morning light, the photographer wakes up at 4 or 4:30 a.m. “My role is to use my photography as a tool to stir emotions so that individuals take responsibility for endangered wildlife,” she said. With her husband, Joubert started the Big Cats Initiative in collaboration with National Geographic to save Africa’s wild cats. “It’s an emergency situation,” Joubert said in Women of Vision. “Africa has lost 90 to 95 percent of its leopards.”

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Amy Toensing

A Salty Swim, New Jersey, by Amy Toensing

“I can only plan 10 percent of my stories in advance. All the rest of it is serendipity. Being in the field is probably the most present I feel in my life,” said Amy Toensing in Women of Vision. This photo, of Ocean Grove summer residents Joyce Skeels and Beverley Shrenfeld, is an example of Toensing’s immersive style. Since the photographer grew up on the rocky austere Maine coast, she was at first baffled by the appeal of the Garden State’s beaches, but, as she said in The State, “the swim was where I got it—why they loved the Jersey Shore.” Toensing has been shooting for National Geographic since 1999 when she was a photo intern, and she’s traveled on assignments as far as Tonga and New Zealand. Her 2007 image of drought in the Australian outback was selected by the editors as one of the 50 best photos published by the magazine.

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Erika Larsen

An Arctic Hut, Sweden, by Erika Larsen

Erika Larsen discovered the power of photography as a child when her father, a designer for the Hubble Space Telescope, would share photos of the planets and their moons. “I remember the quality, and thinking I am holding something so close that is actually so far away. I thought photography must be magic,” Larsen said in Women of Vision. From 2008 to 2011 Larsen lived off and on in northern Scandinavia near the Arctic Circle, home to the reindeer-herding Sami people, where she worked as a beaga (a housekeeper) for a native family both to immerse herself in the culture and to gain the trust of the community. “What I really wanted to do was let them teach me. I didn’t want to come with prejudgements or ideas of how it should be,” she said in Women of Vision. Her image shows the structure of the cone-shaped tent called a lavvu, used by the Sami for smoking reindeer meat or as temporary overnight shelter while following a herd of reindeer. (Larsen’s shot of a fully built lavvu is here.) In 2011, Larsen’s work was published in National Geographic.

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About the book Women of Vision

All of these images are from the National Geographic book Women of Vision (available on and wherever books are sold; there’s also a traveling exhibition ), which showcases of its 11 female photographers. Among the 60-some freelancers currently working for the magazine, about a dozen are female. Their point of view, of course, is essential. “Women are more likely to cover issues that are important to women and to have access to these issues,” said Elizabeth Krist, senior photo editor at National Geographic and curator of the exhibit, said on

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest