Election Issues Through the Lens of National Geographic Photographers

Immigration, the environment and U.S foreign policy: We asked our photographers to reflect on some of the issues that divided the country this election season.

Many of the key issues of the recent election cycle are topics that National Geographic has been covering for years: the environment, climate change, immigration, race, poverty, women’s rights.

During the months our photographers are on assignment for these stories, they become deeply immersed and invested in the lives and places they photograph. Stephanie Sinclair’s name is synonymous with her work on empowering women and girls; Ruddy Roye’s with re-humanizing images of black Americans.

We asked some National Geographic photographers to reflect on stories they recently covered for the magazine that also were topics that divided the country and helped shape the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. These are their personal beliefs and opinions; they do not represent the views of National Geographic.

Brian Skerry

The premise for an upcoming National Geographic story was to use this centennial anniversary year of the National Park Service to look to future efforts at protecting U.S. underwater habitats. Having spent the majority of my life photographing nature, I have been blessed to see extraordinary wildlife and awe-inspiring places. But I have also seen, within my own lifetime, devastating environmental damage, the decline of species, and a planet changing rapidly due to human-induced climate change.

Despite the seriousness of these threats to our biosphere, I remain optimistic about our future because I believe we are at a moment in history when we understand the problems and have solutions at hand. Assuming we act prudently, we can curb the decline and restore ecosystems.

Rising sea temperatures are killing coral reefs and kelp forests and feeding powerful storms. Yet we know that marine-protected areas create resilience and serve as barriers to destructive weather. To realize this potential, it is vital that leaders understand the complexity of the problems and possess the will to move forward with continued protection.

The ocean is not too big to fail. These precious places could easily be lost, and few would even realize it. My hope is that we all look to the future, as our fellow Americans did more than a hundred years ago, and take the action necessary to ensure a rich future for all.

Ruddy Roye

I was honored to be asked to photograph the new National Museum of African American History and Culture for the October 2016 issue of National Geographic, as it allowed me to be at the front line of history and race in America.

As a Jamaican immigrant, I have often made comparisons between how my identity as a man—a black man—was formed, and how I see black boys being raised in this country. One distinct difference is how the early introduction of my culture and the teaching of history helped to sculpt and shape my identity.

That’s not so here in America. The school curriculum does not instill pride in blackness, and I believe that difference alone is integral to how black boys see themselves within white American culture. In my walks in cities ravaged by crime, I see that most of the young black boys get their identities from the old gangsters in their communities. Sometimes those voices are the only space of pride in their lives.

Race in America is really about power: who has it, and what losing it means.

Historically, race was used as a tool to justify slavery and instill fear in the enslaved. Today the perceived upward mobility of blacks creates fear in the same group that created the social construct. To some, the election of President Obama, a black man, meant that this country was addressing slavery once and for all. It symbolized that finally black folks had power. But it also signaled to some white folks that if blacks were gaining power, then they were losing it.

Stephanie Sinclair

Growing up with two very strong female role models drove me, as a photographer, to bring a greater awareness to the deep struggles women and girls face around the world. My mother and grandmother fought hard for their rights and taught me how important education and financial independence are to personal happiness, peace, and prosperity. The 2016 election has shown us how fragile those values remain, even here in the United States.

I've photographed girls' issues in dozens of countries over the past 15 years. “Too Young to Wed” was published in National Geographic magazine in 2011, and I am currently working on another story about girls for the January 2017 issue. I continue to fight for girls’ rights through visual journalism with the support of my nonprofit organization, Too Young to Wed.

The ugly rhetoric around the U.S. election has already begun to normalize the same social dynamics we see in nations struggling with child marriage and other harmful practices toward women and girls: namely, that women are not valued outside of their bodies, have no right to a voice, and that men should be allowed to take who they want and do with them what they will. More than ever, the struggle for women’s equality is a crucial human rights issue that needs priority coverage in the U.S., as well as abroad.

Randy Olson

There are six great aquifers in the world. In North America our great aquifer is the Ogallala—it stretches from South Dakota to the Texas Panhandle. Twenty percent of our food and 40 percent of our beef rely on the aquifer. It’s unfortunate that we’ve pumped the equivalent of two Lake Eries out, setting the stage for a new desert in the Texas Panhandle and southern Kansas in the immediate future.

The aquifer recharges at different rates. Nebraska wins the water lottery; it is the only place you can see Ogallala water at the surface. The Ogallala takes a long time to recharge in Texas, where there are the most wells, the least regulation, the hottest temperatures (even before climate change), and the slowest recharge. Entire communities in this area are already running out of water.

Scarcity of water, fragile infrastructure, small dust bowls, the family farm crisis, Big Ag, and global urbanization leave some behind with few options. Small towns are disintegrating around their residents. There is rampant meth and opioid addiction in some of these places. If your hot water heater breaks, there isn’t anyone in your entire county that can fix it.

I am from the Midwest, and the pain rural folks have gone through showed up this election. I saw this frustration firsthand working on the Ogallala aquifer story that ran in the August 2016 issue of National Geographic, but I never thought the level of frustration of these communities would manifest itself in this way.

Erika Larsen

I spent several days with Red Warrior Camp, one of the camps supporting the larger Sacred Stone camp who are in prayer and protest to the Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota. I wanted to create a series of portraits and collect voices for National Geographic, which I hoped would help explain the sorrow and destruction caused by the Dakota Access pipeline.

In reality, the overriding sentiment is that this resistance is bigger than this pipeline. These actions, prayers, and gatherings are the culmination of centuries of injustices that have occurred on North American soil and throughout the world. Indigenous people consider themselves the first environmentalists and that they have always been interpreters and protectors of Mother Earth. Consequently, in the aftermath of colonization that included forced removal from homelands and near extermination of language, many interpreters had fallen asleep.

However, the breaking of the Earth to lay the pipeline near the Standing Rock Reservation and the desecration of sacred burial sites in the process seems to have caused the quake that has awoken the sleeping giant, and protectors are becoming louder and stronger than ever.

“As far as I know, indigenous people have never come together on a scale this large before, and that is significant,” said Krystal Rain Two Bulls, one of the women and protectors at Red Warrior Camp. “What also makes this significant is we were all summoned here by the water, and to us, water is life. When we pray or take direct action, we do it with intention for those that came before us and for protecting and preserving our future for the next seven generations.”

Dominic Bracco II

The weather is the same—it’s hot as hell on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. I guess that sort of makes the people the same. We all listen to rancheros when we drink, and we all eat flour tortillas for breakfast.

I’ve always felt at home working on the border. Sometimes the Mexican side is even easier than south Texas, where I grew up. On both sides, people just want to work, go home, and take care of their families. Folks will pull over to give you a jump-start when your car breaks down. It’s old-school that way.

It’s hard not to take the results of this election personally. I fear that the rifts that separate these communities will become more than just physical.

Kitra Cahana

This past spring, while on assignment for National Geographic’s upcoming issue on gender, I had the privilege of photographing this year’s graduating class from the Dorothy M. Wallace COPE Center, a high school in Miami, Florida, that caters solely to teen mothers.

Walking through the school’s halls, attending prom and the girls’ graduation ceremony, I was humbled to see what can be achieved when we give young girls the power and support to believe in their own futures.

Reflecting on the election, I’m reminded that true power oftentimes comes from below. It comes from people like the principal of the school, Annette Burks-Grice, whom I watched in awe as she greeted her students daily with kindness, dignity, and empathy. I looked at the school and I thought, Our world and our country need more of this. I looked at the principal and her staff and I thought, Our world and our country need more of you. What I found there was a culture of love and support that we can all learn from, a culture of love and support that we all deserve.

Aaron Huey

One hope I have for national parks under the new administration is in the voice of the people to fight against the expansion of oil and gas interests on lands owned and preserved for the enjoyment of all citizens. Yet I fear that many of our carefully crafted protections and safeguards put into place are about to be stripped away.

Having photographed Denali for the national parks series, I saw firsthand the intense battle over who "owns" our wild places, as well as the debate over who should get to reap the benefits. Would it be big businesses taking in resources for profit, or the American public taking in its untouched beauty? In a world more crowded and despoiled every year, these protected lands are our last true refuge.

My hope is that the American people will raise their voices together to protect our last sacred places.

Lynn Johnson

The basis of photographing anyone is trust. Trust is, in fact, the foundation of any human relationship. This is a quality deeply challenged by this election. After the election, I received a text from one of the young transgender women I documented for an upcoming story in National Geographic on gender identity. She expressed concern that this particular community may now be even more marginalized and at risk. Clearly we are a nation divided, a nation not listening to each other. The question is, do people on the gender-questioning spectrum in America now have to fear increased violence of overt personal attacks? Fear, violence, and ignorance of another’s life experience are intertwined. We don't know each other because we can't see each other. Photography can change that.

Moises Saman

In war there is sometimes a fine line between victim and perpetrator. I have tried to understand the ambiguous nature of these roles by questioning simple narratives of good versus evil while working in the Middle East.

While on my last assignment for National Geographic, I was reminded that even a sinister and barbaric enemy such as ISIS needs to be understood. Its existence is partly rooted in a real set of grievances from people who were marginalized and left behind, just as the region was beginning to experience a historical transformation propelled by foreign intervention.

I think the war against ISIS, if it can be won, will be won in the ideological arena rather than on the battlefield. If it hopes to prevail, the United States needs to offer a compelling counter-narrative that is inclusive, respectful, and sensitive toward the people most affected by ongoing civil wars in the Middle East. It is difficult to predict where we go from here, other than that it is going to be a strange and long trip.

Robin Hammond

I began photographing human rights issues because I believe photography holds the power to break down barriers that divide us and humanize abstract concepts of suffering and abuse. I have shot five stories for National Geographic. Most recently, I documented immigrant communities in Europe for “The New Europeans,” which appeared in the October 2016 issue.

The parents of Ghazal (pictured center) hope she is too young to have been scarred by the trauma of the war she was born into. Fardous, a teacher, and Yasser, a veterinarian, fled Raqqa, the Islamic State capital in Syria, with next to nothing, except their daughter and hope that the West would welcome them. We have to wonder: What kind of world will she now grow up in?

This may have been an American election, but the repercussions are global. And while one cannot predict the future, we know that our world, and Ghazal’s, changed this month. Now, people different from “us” are seen as a threat—and this is echoed in Europe. In the countries where I photographed “The New Europeans” for National Geographic—Germany, France, Sweden, and in my home, the United Kingdom—the expectation of greater freedoms and the optimistic evolution of greater openness have been replaced with fearful isolationism and angry intolerance. What future is there for Ghazal and her parents in this environment? They escaped fear, bringing with them nothing but hope—something I feel is in rapid decline right now.

David Guttenfelder

For 20 years I lived outside of my native U.S. As a stranger in a strange land, I explored and tried to make sense of the world around me through photography. Since moving back home in 2014, I've often felt the same: an outsider wandering with a camera, trying to find my way.

I've found much to cherish in my country. There is much that should be shunned too. I like to photograph small living artifacts and the otherwise overlooked mundane things that help explain who we are: a bullet-riddled road sign, a sterile office window with a post-it note heart, or a roadside motel Bible on the bedspread.

When I photographed a tray of decorated strawberries in rural Iowa on the Fourth of July, it was to say something about our American sugary diet and ubiquitous patriotism. But it was for another reason too. My sister and nieces made those strawberries. It was familiar to me, they are my family, and I was home.

Produced by Elijah Walker, Jehan Jillani, Jennifer Samuel, and Jessie Wender

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