This Thanksgiving, we asked eight National Geographic photographers to share images they are grateful for. We wanted to see photographs that they were thankful for having taken, thankful for the access granted to them, or thankful for what they were able to document. From David Doubilet’s image of a parrotfish engaging a school of Galápagos grunts to Amy Toensing’s portrait of a young Syrian refugee, these images remind us of the strength of courage, renewal, and connection.
Pictures will always have many interpretations through the eye of the viewer. I am always surprised at the range of feelings that people express about this image of a lone parrotfish engaging a school of Galápagos grunts in the Galápagos Islands. People have commented over time that they see love, hate, unity, defiance, depression, loneliness, sadness, diversity, acceptance, and hope. I am personally drawn to this one single moment in the ocean because the lone parrotfish speaks to me in simple but powerful black-and-white elements about the clarity of courage and character.
I’ve worked with a lot of kids like Anwar the last few years as the number of refugees on our planet climbs to the highest number ever recorded, according to the UN. There is 12-year-old Claude, who ran through the night to escape a deadly raid on his village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and then walked for days to get to Kenya. During the escape he was separated from his mother in the darkness and has not seen her since. Last month I was part of a team teaching photography to 18 refugee kids from 10 different countries who have been resettled in the United States. During the workshop they reported on each other’s journeys to get to the United States. Like Anwar and Claude, their stories were horrifying and heartbreaking, a litany of terror and grief: escaping death by hiding in jungles for days with no food, bombings, torture, family members taken or killed. They came from Asia, Africa, the Middle East; Christians, Muslims. They were all so different and yet they connected deeply through their stories and hope for a better life here in the United States. My colleagues and I were lucky to witness this and I am thankful these kids are now my neighbors.
Thirty years after the disaster, the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear accident are both visible like scars and invisible like air. I went to the Zone of Alienation to portray the relics of the disaster and the long-term effects of this nuclear catastrophe. What surprised me the most was the power and persistence of nature in the face of devastation. When I came to Pripyat, my guide and I were the only people in a town that once used to be inhabited by 40,000. In the absence of humans, the wilderness has overcome the concrete and the forests have reclaimed the streets. Walking in the empty city square of Pripyat, I saw wolf and deer footprints in the virgin snow and I felt privileged to be there and witness the Earth’s ability to thrive with life not long after annihilation. Chernobyl for me epitomizes the promise and paradox of power, in reference to the dangers of nuclear energy and nature’s amazing ability to survive and regenerate.
I had the honor of meeting Marine Sgt. Shurvon Phillip and his extraordinary mother, Gail Ulerie, in Ohio more than eight years ago while working on my book, War Is Personal. Shurvon had been grievously wounded in Iraq in 2005 when a bomb went off under his Humvee. Doctors cautioned his mother that he would remain unresponsive and need to be institutionalized for the remainder of his life, but Gail brought him home. After long years of sleeping every night beside Shurvon, of accompanying him to physical and occupational therapy sessions, of involving him in every aspect of family life, Gail would prove the doctors wrong.
The message that Shurvon had finally succumbed to his injuries had been left on my home phone machine about two weeks ago. I’d missed it. "I’m so sorry," was all I could think to say to Gail when she took my call. "You should have seen him at the service," Gail replied. "He was as handsome as he was before all this happened."
When I think of what I’m thankful for my mind goes this this little guy. Introducing Hastaram, the pint-size, lion-hearted reason for the National Geographic project, "The Last Honey Hunter." Years ago, my friend Ben Ayers was in the remote village of Sadhi and responded to a mother having severe complications giving birth. Tragically, the mother didn't survive, but little Hastaram did, and Ben's place was cemented as a part of the community. Seven years later, he brought us on an expedition back to Sadhi on assignment with National Geographic, and Hastaram emerged out of the woodwork and stuck to Ben like a magnet. Without a mother, and with a father who is mostly absent, Hastaram goes from house to house, where the community takes turns feeding him.
During our time in Sadhi, we became a temporary family for him—or at least a very interesting distraction. Of all the kids in the village, his heart felt the most wild and free, and he inspired us all to be a bit more so ourselves. Who knows what the future holds for him. Perhaps in another decade, he will have the dream, and will scale from jungle cliffs and carry on the honey-hunting tradition. We can only hope he hangs onto his wild brilliance as he grows up. The world needs kids like him and such symbols of hope.
This image was taken in East Africa when on assignment for The World We Want, a Swedish foundation. The project documented the impact of smart investments in communities by philanthropists. The water pump, or moneymaker as the locals call it, has transformed the lives of thousands of people, allowing them to irrigate their land in an effective way, improving crop yields and improving the economy of the local farmers. Families who used to operate on the poverty line now have acres of land under their management and can sell their excess produce. Their children go to school and they have built proper, secure homes. Most of all, the earnings and security that the water pumps bring to the people reinforce their personal dignity. We have to be so thankful that organizations who support local investment and sustainability exist to make the lives of other people better. Smart philanthropy has the power to transform lives.
Harp seal pups are born on the sea ice covering the Gulf of St. Lawrence in late February. It is an amazing pulse of life that depends entirely on ice. A warming sea produces weak ice platforms, thick enough to attract females to birth upon but not thick enough to withstand storms. I have witnessed the early breakup and struggling death of 95 percent [of the] harp seal pups in the gulf. It was the gut-wrenching effect [of] climate change in my face, and I left the gulf with a lump in my throat and a heavy heart. David Doubilet and I return each year that conditions allow to document these beautiful, vulnerable creatures that have become the face of climate change for us. I am thankful to have encountered a creature that penetrates my soul, sometimes keeping me awake at night and aware of how my actions affect the planet.
I often find myself alone on the road, away from the familiar, searching for a place to call home. Perhaps it’s a place I am going and have never been before. A few years back, I was in Central Asia, hitchhiking from village to village through Tajikistan on my way to Afghanistan. At the border, I met a man who helped me cross overland. As we made our way through the mountains, I found myself in a different world. The landscape was pristine. He introduced me to a family, who took me in. That evening, I watched as the women worked together to prepare dinner. It reminded me so much of my childhood: quietly sitting in the corner of my grandmother’s home in Armenia, watching her prepare dolma for our family. It made me feel at home, more than I had felt in a long time. It’s this feeling of belonging that I am searching for — whether it’s in the people I meet or the places I travel to. It’s a feeling of just being in a situation, which softens me, and reminds me why we are all here.
Jessie Wender is a senior photo editor for National Geographic magazine. You can follow her on Instagram.