National Geographic, the magazine that showcases the world’s best photography, is recognizing the women behind many of those images with a landmark exhibit, “Women of Vision,” that opened Thursday in Washington.
Each of the 11 female photojournalists, selected for the extraordinary breadth and depth of their storytelling, has a space in the National Geographic Museum for her unique view, covering everything from Texas teenagers struggling with identity to child brides in Yemen to the indigenous Sami people, reindeer herders of Scandinavia.
The exhibit will be in Washington through March 9. It then begins a three-year, five-city tour, with the first stop March 29 at the Mint Museum in Charlotte. The entire exhibition is sponsored by PNC Financial Group.
The exhibit of 100 photographs, part of the magazine’s 125th anniversary celebration, opened to overflow crowds. At least part of the reaction, officials said, was due to tourists looking for alternatives to the shuttered Smithsonian museums, closed because of the partial government shutdown.
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During an evening program in the National Geographic Society’s auditorium, all 11 photographers discussed their work in a session led by NBC News reporter Ann Curry.
“This is a rare moment,” Curry said in the auditorium before 400 people with the photographers seated on couches. “This exhibition was a surprise discovery when they started looking at all the photographs for the 125th anniversary. They discovered that many of the most powerful photographs of the last decade were photographed by women.”
Kathryn Keane, the vice president of National Geographic Exhibitions, said: “Each photographer has a distinct eye. In reviewing photos for the magazine’s 125th anniversary, we were struck by how many of the photographs were done by women photojournalists. They have all captured the world in a unique way.”
Weston Andress, the PNC regional president for western Carolina, said in an interview that the bank’s support for the arts was part of its connection to the communities it served, especially female customers.
“It’s definitely a fit for PNC,” he said.
Amy Toensing, one of the featured shooters, sat beneath a photograph of herself in the 19-foot square filled with her work and talked about some of the striking images.
Her photo “Women on Jersey Shore” pictures a group of older women splashing around the water, having a wonderful time.
“Why were people so obsessed with the Jersey Shore?” Toensing said she wondered when she got the assignment, which was years before the reality show of the same name. Invited to swim with the women, with whom she became friendly, Toensing said, “That swim was where I got it – why they loved the Jersey Shore. I rely a lot on my subjects to tell the story.”
Waiting and gaining the trust of their subjects can take days, months or even longer, and Keane said that women had a special ability to connect with other women, especially in societies in the Middle East, where there’s limited contact between men and women who aren’t related.
“I spend a lot of time getting to know my subjects,” Toensing said. “My hope is to have that show high in my imagery.”
Kitra Cahana, at 25 one of the younger photographers in the show, left home at 16 to begin her photographic career. By 21 she had an internship at National Geographic that took her to the mountains of Venezuela to shoot a religious cult. She spent weeks among them and captured their annual sacred rituals, including a man jumping through fire, an image that’s alarming and somehow transcendent, since the viewer knows he lives.
In Texas, Cahana had the assignment of being “embedded” in a loud and vibrant public high school, a world away from her conservative Jewish upbringing, to learn about how the teenage brain works.
“As a photojournalist, this is what we do. We embed ourselves in the lives of people with vastly different cultures, vastly different value systems,” she said, sitting among her photographs. “What I’m looking for is an intimate relationship with the subject so I can be there when the intimate thing happens. It requires being part of the landscape.”