PHOTOGRAPHS BY BETHANY MOLLENKOF
PHOTOGRAPHS BY BETHANY MOLLENKOF
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'To grow a life in such dark times felt powerful'

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By Whitney Johnson, Director of Visual and Immersive Experiences

Three months before the coronavirus swept the globe, photographer Bethany Mollenkof found out she was pregnant for the first time.

She had covered Black women in the South who had struggled with the knowledge of high maternal mortality rates. She would be stuck in her Los Angeles home under lockdown during the remainder of her pregnancy, separated from her husband during medical appointments, and unable to find information about her situation.

“COVID-19 pushed me to document my own experience as a Black pregnant woman living through extraordinary circumstances,” Bethany says in her equally extraordinary photo and text account.

For the first time in her life, as her belly swelled, she began taking self-portraits (above).

I know that you don’t have to have been pregnant (or have gone through it two times, like me) to find Bethany’s work clear-eyed and luminous. She tells me the response from readers has floored her. “I have been overwhelmed with how many people the work has resonated with and happily surprised with the range of people who have engaged.”

Here are a few more selections from her story, and responses to our questions.

Ultrasound: “I never thought I would be sentimental about being pregnant, but I became intensely protective and tender as my child grew. We decided to name her months before her birth as a way to actualize her existence for our families who could not visit. Every ultrasound confirmed her growth and health despite my fears brought on by the pandemic."

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Clarity: “There is a gravity that comes with bringing a life into the world and being a parent. The pandemic made that all the more clear,” said Brittany’s husband, Gabriel Gooley. The image above, says the photographer, was one of her favorites in the project. “I will always love the image of my husband with my belly,” she tells us, “because of the intimacy and tenderness and how it captures the fleeting nature of pregnancy."

Seeking solace: “I spent a lot of time on the phone with my mom (above left) talking about breastfeeding and motherhood. These calls were always bittersweet as I had imagined experiencing these moments in person,” Brittany tells us. Above right, in water: “With the extrajudicial killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, I felt deep despair about how America treats Black people. Being in water helped take the weight off my mind and allowed me to connect with my body. To grow a life in such dark times of death felt powerful."

The maternal line: “My mother’s favorite flower is a lily and growing up we had lily motifs around our home. Seeing them made me feel close to her. Throughout my pregnancy I spent a lot of time thinking about the experiences women share. I thought about women throughout history, women who have survived wars, slavery, pandemics, miscarriages. Giving birth connected me in a deeper way to my own maternal line and all the women who have come before me.”

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Today in a minute

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Helping with hunger: The World Food Programme, which is fighting a surge in hunger caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic, today won the Nobel Peace Prize. Nat Geo for years has covered the efforts of the U.N. agency and other NGO’s, including in cases where starvation has been used as a weapon in war. Photographer Matteo Bastianelli created this image (above) from a hospital in Yemen where babies are treated for malnutrition. Yemen, torn by civil strife and attacks by Saudi Arabia, depends on humanitarian organizations to help care for an estimated 1.8 million acutely malnourished children under age five. Subscribers can read more here.

Awards season: Before the movie Hidden Figures, few Americans knew that Katherine Johnson’s mathematical calculations helped America’s first astronauts in space. The late mathematician was among those honored last night by the National Geographic Society for contributions to science, discovery, exploration, and the environment. Other honorees included Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, photographer Erika Larsen, and Free Solo documentary filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. See the full list of awardees here. Note: We’ll have more on NASA’s legendary Katherine Johnson in our Monday newsletter.

A bit of history: You can find a 1970s Polaroid SX-70 Land Camera for $100 or $200. But it wouldn’t be the camera that Andy Warhol used to capture celebrities during The Me Decade. That camera, bequeathed to Interview magazine co-founder John Wilcock in the mid-1980s, was sold earlier this week at auction for $13,750, PetaPixel reports. “Warhol was almost never without a camera,” says Nigel Russel of Heritage Auctions. “It’s an iconic piece of photographic and art history.”

Enough of the guys: The National Portrait Gallery, home to profiles of the presidents, will be putting America’s first ladies on center stage. “Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States,” an exhibition opening at the Washington, D.C., museum next month, will be the largest display of first lady portraiture outside the White House. The exhibition also will include a video installation of images taken by Annie Leibovitz, the New York Times reports.

Helping out: The nonprofit International Center for Journalists helps journalists worldwide produce news that leads to better governments, societies, and lives. This week, we donated for auction 20 of our photographs, some of them used in our new book, America the Beautiful: A Story in Photographs. The donation brought nearly $15,000 for the ICFJ’s important efforts, the organization’s senior vice president, Sharon Moshavi, tells us.

Your Instagram of the day

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On sacred ground: No project or assignment happens alone, says photographer Sarah Stacke. While working in North Carolina on a story about the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians (EBCI) and reclamation of stolen lands, Sheena Brings Plenty was Sarah’s guide, fixer, grip, and friend. Sheena has lived in Cherokee, North Carolina, for 12 years, and her husband is the longtime photographer for the Cherokee One Feather newspaper. (Pictured above, Sarah and Sheena test the light and scout a spot before a portrait of a Cherokee leader at Kituwah, a sacred Cherokee site.)

The big takeaway

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The dividing line: On one side of Talent Avenue, wooden homes with picket fences sat untouched. On the other side, destruction from a wildfire on September 8 had burned through—and wrecked half of the Oregon town. “This is the dividing line,” says Sandy Spelliscy, Talent’s city manager, turning her car onto the road separating the lucky from the unlucky. Spelliscy tells Nat Geo’s Nina Strochlic that Talent, known for its tomatoes and a renowned Shakespeare festival, has lost 40 percent of its land and 1,000 structures, (Above, photographer Diana Markosian captures the extensiveness of the damage.)

Related: Driven from home by the wildfires, restarting life in a roadside motel

In a few words

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On Mondays, Debra Adams Simmons covers the latest in history. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Victoria Jaggard on science, George Stone on travel, and Rachael Bale on animal and wildlife news.

The last glimpse

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Examining Mexico: Most of the May 1914 issue of National Geographic was devoted to Mexico, and Shirley C. Hulse took many of the photographs. Our senior photo archivist, Sara Manco, was struck by this image of a girl named Peggy and a horse called Rosey. “I love the daring nature of this kid jumping a horse over a ditch,” Manco says. The original caption says “Peggy loved to jump Rosey over anything in the way of ditches or arroyos that he could be made to tackle.”

See: 30 fascinating vintage photographs from our archives

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, and Jen Tse selected the photographs. Kimberly Pecoraro and Gretchen Ortega helped produce this, and Amanda Williams-Bryant, Rita Spinks, Alec Egamov, and Jeremy Brandt-Vorel also contributed this week. Have an idea or a link? We’d love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . Thanks for reading, and have a good weekend!