Behind The Lens With Prizewinning 'Women Of Vision' : The Picture Show Pulitzer Prize winner Lynsey Addario has spent more than 10 years as a war photographer. Kitra Cahana was just a teenager when her photography made the front page of The New York Times. They talk about their craft and being featured in National Geographic Museum's "Women of Vision" exhibition.
NPR logo

Behind The Lens With Prizewinning 'Women Of Vision'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Behind The Lens With Prizewinning 'Women Of Vision'

Behind The Lens With Prizewinning 'Women Of Vision'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, I have some ideas about what pundits and politicians can learn from the movies and which ones I'd put on their list. That's in my Can I Just Tell You essay, and it's in just a few minutes. First, though, if you are at all interested in travel or photography, then you probably know National Geographic for the stunning images that take you around the world, introducing us to remarkable cultures and people. But you might not know that, over the past decade, some of the most powerful images in the magazine and the stories behind them have been captured by women photojournalists. National Geographic Museum is honoring 11 of these women in a new exhibition called "Women of Vision: National Geographic Photographers on Assignment." It covers subjects as wide-ranging as war, child brides, breathtaking landscapes and wildlife.

Today, we're going to meet two of the celebrated photojournalists. Lynsey Addario is a Pulitzer Prize winner, a former MacArthur fellow. She's known for documenting human rights issues and women and families in conflict zones. Kitra Cahana is one of National Geographic's youngest photographers. She's known for her popular feature on the teen brain among others. She was just a teen herself, barely, when her work made the front page of The New York Times. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

KITRA CAHANA: Thank you.

LYNSEY ADDARIO: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: So you know I want to know how you each got started in this. So, Lynsey, why don't you start? How'd you get started?

ADDARIO: So I got my first camera when I was about 12 years old. My father gave me my first camera. I read a lot of Ansel Adams books and sort of how-to photograph books. I never took any classes. And when I was 21, right after I graduated University of Wisconsin, I wanted to learn Spanish and move abroad. And so I went to Argentina, and I went in to the local newspaper. I have no idea what possessed me to do so. But I went in and I said, I want a job. And there were two men who worked in the photo department. And...

MARTIN: Just like that?


MARTIN: I should try that.

ADDARIO: Just like that.

MARTIN: I don't know why I didn't think of that. Why didn't I think of that?

ADDARIO: I was very bold. And I remember they were chain smoking cigarettes and they sort of looked at me and then looked back at their cigarette and just said, are you crazy, you have no experience and who are you? Go learn Spanish better and come back. So I went and I learned Spanish and I went back and I said, I still want a job. And they started giving me these fake assignments, sort of sending me around Buenos Aires, and I'd always come back with a photo. Finally, they said, look, Madonna is filming "Evita" at the Casa Rosada. If you can sneak onto the set and get a picture of Madonna, we will give you work for the rest of the year.

So I went to the set, and I had no idea what to expect 'cause I wasn't really a photographer. I just had my little Nikon with a 50 millimeter lens, and there were bouncers, and I said, hi, you have to let me in. And he was like, well, are you press? Where's your press pass? And I said, no, but if you let me in, I'm going to be famous one day, I promise. The guy just looked at me like you're insane. And I was like, look, let me explain to you - and I told him the whole situation and he was like, all right, basically, you're so pathetic I'm going to let you in. So when I got in, there was a press riser and it was full of all these big beefy men with giant telescopic lenses. And I climbed up on the riser, and I put my camera to my eye, and I realized that we were, like, a half a kilometer from Madonna, and she was this teeny-weeny blip in my lens finder. I just stood there sort of crestfallen.

And this guy tapped me on the shoulder, and he's like, hey, kid, give me your camera. And I was like, what do you mean, give me your camera? And so - and he looked and he's like, just take the lens off your camera. And he put my camera back onto his, like, Hubble telescope, and there was Madonna, like, clear center in my frame. And I took the picture and I went back to the newsroom, and I had the front page of the paper and since then I've been shooting.

MARTIN: Kitra, I'm so sorry to make you follow that story.


MARTIN: Well, what about you?

CAHANA: My first encounter with photography was also initiated by my father and at a young age. So he would say, for a month, I want you to go out and photograph just joy or just compassion, with this idea that if I took a photograph and sort of overlaid a narrative that spoke to joy or compassion, those would be qualities that would become part of my essence. I moved to Israel for a year. I was 16 years old. And I found an internship at the local newspaper there.

During the course of that year, they started to let me go on the backs of the motorcycles with the photographers and kind of following them on assignments. It was also the year of the Israeli disengagement from Gaza. I ended up going to the settlements in Gush Katif in Gaza and living there for about two months, photographing that international story. My image ended up on the front page of The New York Times. So that was really this jumpstart into the world of photojournalism.

MARTIN: Lynsey, you've been kidnapped twice. I think many people understand that the job of a photojournalist can be quite dangerous. How did you decide that that was the work that you wanted to do?

ADDARIO: I knew that my interest lied in international stories. I was interested in how women were living under the Taliban, for example. So it was really the story that brought me to these places, and if they happen to be in a war zone, well, so be it. Or if injustices against women or hardships were a byproduct of war or many years of war, then that's was what I was interested in covering. That went on for several years, and I ended up covering the fall of the Taliban and then the war on Iraq, and at some point, people started calling me a war photographer. And it was very confusing to me because I actually didn't ever think of myself as that. Since September 11, many of the wars of our generation are in - are in the Muslim world, and so, as a woman, I have access to 50 percent of the population that my male colleagues don't.

MARTIN: Kitra, what about you? I think people will have seen your body of work about the teenage brain. I mean, and there are images that are both very familiar. There is something very profound about this fleeting time in our lives. And I'm interested in what do you think helped you get those images - the fact that you're close in age to the people you're shooting? What do you think?

CAHANA: The intimacy that you see in those images is just the intimacy of the relationships that I create. There's always going to be a power and balance because the camera is in my hand, and ultimately, I shape the story. But I don't think that I go out to create false relationships with subjects. I think it takes open questions, questions that don't presume what's going on.

MARTIN: Some of the images that will be in the exhibition - it shows off the first feature you did for National Geographic in 2011 called "Teen Brains." There are teenagers in Austin, Texas that are getting - girls getting their tongues pierced - I'm kind of assuming maybe their parents didn't know - boys wrestling, teens covered in florescent paint at a party. That whole question of what is to be shown and what is not to be shown, I'm wondering how you wrestle with that.

CAHANA: There are a lot of kind of sticky situations that came up in photographing that story. And I had a lot of conversations with my subjects, like, is this a situation that you feel comfortable with me photographing or not photographing? And more often than not, they wanted me in situations that maybe adults would not have wanted to see. I think that's part of sort of the social side of the teenage brain that is risk-taking and that kind of wants to show that side off and wants others to see. This experience, being embedded in high school again just a couple of years after being a teenager myself, it was vastly different than my own high school experience. I was raised in a Jewish religious community. I went to a high school where, in 10th grade, one of, like, the forefront questions on my mind was whether to wear skirts or pants or whether I was going to be observant of shomer negiah, this concept where women shouldn't touch men until they're married, like, even handshaking. So going into a public high school in Texas was very different.

MARTIN: I can imagine, yeah. Lynsey, what about you? I wanted to talk to you about - well, a specific photo of yours in the exhibition. It's from the 2010 feature you did for National Geographic called "Veiled Rebellion." You photographed Afghan women. There is this one photograph, the two women in blue burqas. And on the one hand, it's beautiful, but the story is actually terrible.

ADDARIO: When I was assigned this story, I had certain issues I wanted to bring into the fold because I felt they were important and representative of life for women in Afghanistan. And so maternal health was one of them. And so I spent two weeks driving around Badakhshan, which is the province where most women die in childbirth, and going to very remote villages. And on the way back I saw these two women standing on the side of the mountain. That landscape in Afghanistan, it is very sort of lunar-like and just - it's stunning. And I saw the two women I said, you know, that's strange because usually along with women, you find a man, because women technically should not be out of the house without a male guardian.

And so we stopped the car and my translator, Dr. Ziba, and I ran up the mountain, and we got to the women, and she said, what's going on? And she said, well, this woman, Noor Nisa is pregnant and she's just gone into labor and her water has just broken. And she was standing with her mother. And her husband's first wife had died in childbirth. He was so determined to not have her die in childbirth that he rented a car and was driving her to the hospital and their car broke down. So I said to Dr. Ziba, go find the husband. And she brought the husband back and we asked his permission to take them all to the hospital. And they got in the car, and we drove them to the hospital, and she delivered safely.

MARTIN: Thank you for that. T hat was a good story. But it tells you so many things. I mean, the fact that she could have died out there.

ADDARIO: Yeah, I mean, a lot of people would say, as a journalist, you're not supposed to interfere with the story...


ADDARIO: ...But I tend to believe that if you can save someone's life and they're a non-combatant, then I take them to the hospital. So call me a bad journalist.

MARTIN: But on this whole question of what is to be seen and what is not to be seen, you don't see the woman's faces. That's why women are wearing burqas,because they don't show their faces. But there's also this whole question of how much - what to show that's graphic. I mean, in this recent siege of that shopping mall...


MARTIN: You know, in Kenya. There were a lot of photojournalists who were able to get very close because this is a place they knew very well because they went there all the time.


MARTIN: On the other hand, some people were really disgusted. And they said, well, why is it are we showing these people's bodies lying here in these hallways? You wouldn't show white people like that.

ADDARIO: Yeah, I think that's a very valid point to bring up because I covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for years, and every time I would send a photo of a dead American soldier, it pretty much almost never made it into print. If people really saw what was happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, then they might be marching in the streets to end the wars. But, you know, I think that no one ever sees because we're not allowed to see, and we're not allowed to publish what we do see. So it's quite difficult.

MARTIN: How do you feel about your work being understood now to be the work of women, Kitra?

CAHANA: Being a woman impacts the work that I do in so far as it doesn't really say anything about me, but it says a lot more about the societies and the cultures and the people that I'm photographing, whether I have access. A lot of the time I feel like people underestimate my capacities and that aids me in the field. I'm not perceived as as big of a threat. In other situations, that does become a hindrance to me, when I'm not given access to certain environments or I once had a fixer who kind of went behind my back and called up one of my editors to say this story should not be covered by this little girl.

MARTIN: Send him the book. Lynsey, final thought from you?

ADDARIO: The really interesting thing about this exhibition is that you have photographers like Jodi Cobb and Lynn Johnson and Maggie Steber, who sort of paved the way for us. They really were the trailblazers of women in photojournalism, and it's really incredible to be part of such an amazing group of women - 11 women with 11 very different styles and 11 very different perspectives on life and what we all choose to focus on.

MARTIN: Lynsey Addario is a photojournalist for National Geographic, The New York Times and other publications. She's won a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship. Kitra Cahana is an award-winning documentary and fine arts photographer. They were both kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

ADDARIO: Thank you for having us.

CAHANA: Thank you.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.