For the past year, Overheard has explored the journeys of photographers and scientists who are focusing a new lens on history. National Geographic presents In Conversation, a special podcast episode featuring explorer Tara Roberts, computer scientist Gloria Washington, and photographer Ruddy Roye. Through their dynamic work across maritime archeology, artificial intelligence, and photojournalism, they’re determined to reimagine Black history.
We begin with National Geographic Explorer and Storytelling Fellow Tara Roberts, who talks to Overheard’s Amy Briggs about documenting the efforts of Black scuba divers and archaeologists in their search for the lost wrecks of ships that carried enslaved Africans to the Americas.
We’ll also hear from computer scientist Gloria Washington of Howard University. She speaks with guest host Brian Gutierrez about her work developing “emotional” artificial intelligence.
And finally National Geographic Storytelling Fellow Ruddy Roye traces his photographic journey with Overheard’s Peter Gwin—and turns his lens on the racial and civil conflicts that defined 2020.
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC STORYTELLING FELLOW TARA ROBERTS
DEBRA ADAMS SIMMONS (HOST): I’m Debra Adams Simmons, executive editor for history and culture at National Geographic.You’re listening to In Conversation: a special episode exploring Black history and culture.
AMY BRIGGS (HOST): Hey, Debra. Welcome to Overheard.
ADAMS SIMMONS: Thanks, Amy. It’s fun to be here with you, crashing the podcast. I’m excited to share some of the great interviews that you, Peter, and the team have done during the past year.
BRIGGS: Yeah, I’m so glad that you’ve taken the time to be here, so thank you for that. So who are we highlighting as part of this special episode?
ADAMS SIMMONS: Well, we went back in your archives, and actually in most cases into your raw tape, and pulled out interviews that you had with explorer Tara Roberts, computer scientist Gloria Washington, and photographer Ruddy Roye—so today we’ll be hearing from all three of them.
Through their dynamic work across maritime archeology, artificial intelligence, and photojournalism, they’re determined to reframe Black history and culture.
BRIGGS: I was in awe of Tara. It was amazing to hear about the path that she’s taken through life, and the amazing journey she had, you know, finding Diving with a Purpose, and her mission to reframe the story of Africans in the Americas.
ADAMS SIMMONS: Great. So let’s begin with National Geographic Storytelling Fellow Tara Roberts and her conversation with you, Amy, from this past fall. Tara is documenting the efforts of Black scuba divers and archaeologists to find the lost wrecks of ships that carried enslaved people from Africa to the Americas. This is really critical work, and we are excited to hear what she has to say.
More after this.
TARA ROBERTS (STORYTELLING FELLOW): I was talking to my mom before this call, and my mother's a huge, like—she's so concerned with the history of our family, and she's the one in the family who's, you know, doing the family tree and trying to trace our roots back. And my family is able to trace back to my great—it's my great-great-grandfather, so my grandfather's grandparents. But that's as far back as we can go.
And we do have pictures of them, which is great, and I actually remember seeing my great-grandfather's name and my great-grandmother's name listed on a ledger for a plantation in North Carolina. I was using ancestry.com, and my cousin had done some research and we saw my great-great-grandfather and grandmother's names and that’s just like, oh, that hit you in so many places, but that's as far as we can go back.
I know nothing else. So, looking at this history past these shores, it opens up something for me. It gives me access into a part of my past that I didn't have before. And that's exciting to me. Like slavery is not the start of our story. But according to the history books, it is. That's where everything starts, and there is this misunderstanding of Africa. I don't even know what’s actually meant by the word “Africa.” Like it's this huge place with 52—or don't quote me on that—is it 52 or 54 countries? It's a lot of countries with really distinct and different traditions and legacies and cultures, but it all gets mashed together into this one thing. I think that this—this access that the shipwrecks give us opens up an opportunity to distinguish, to deepen, to further understand who I am and where I come from—and to do that outside of a frame that I've been given as a Black American in this country.
BRIGGS: So how has your work recreated that frame for you? Where would you put the beginning?
ROBERTS: Well, not there.
BRIGGS: I think that's clear.
ROBERTS: I mean, I think it's opened up far more questions. So I'll say this, I also did ancestry.com for my, to see where my DNA is traced from, and quite a bit of it is traced from West Africa.
But when you look at where the migratory patterns are, it's like some of my ancestry comes from the Bantu people who were throughout southern Africa as well. So when I go to Mozambique, like is it possible that maybe some of my ancestry is there as well? I don't know. But maybe. So I feel like I have way more questions and more places to look, more places to think, and that feels really exciting to me.
So I don't have an answer yet about, like, completely what specifically has shifted for me or how I see things differently, but I just—it feels like there's an expanse now that wasn't there before, like it was a wall and it was a closed door and it was a sad wall that you just didn't want to be a part of, you didn't want to touch it. But now there's like an open expanse and there's like there's sadness in the expanse and there's some pain, but there's a lot more.
BRIGGS: It's almost like in your particular instance, you know, that wall started at that ledger and North Carolina, you know, that's where it stopped. And then you have—in my mind, I'm just seeing, like, the wrecks almost coming out of the water and, like, flooding that wall away, you know?
ROBERTS: Oh, I love that. That's a beautiful image. I love that.
BRIGGS: Because that's washing away all of that inability to access that—you know, they felt unknowable. But like you can get more of your, you know, get more of your feet wet in the story. I'm not going to stay in the water metaphor anymore, but I'm sorry—I'm crying a little bit. This is just so moving.
So what do you think needs to happen for more of these, you know, of the wrecks to be found and identified?
ROBERTS: Yeah, it's a great question. Yeah, I mean, I guess there's an obvious answer—more divers or more funding, more opportunities to participate in the work— but I actually think I'll back up from that and I'll say I think really what's necessary and then all kinds of things lead from that. But I think what's necessary is recognition that this history matters. More people understanding that there is a bigger narrative to be told, that this work is important, and that it matters for a huge part of the U.S. population. And also that this story is not just a Black people story, like this is part of all of our history—and that there is not a focused effort to to like discover it is insane.
I was thinking the other day about how many stories and how much work was done or devoted to documenting the Titanic—like there's so many stories about the Titanic. And there are stories from cultures all around the world, like it's a story that has captured people's imaginations, and it's a great story, like it's a tragic story, it's a moving story. Like that story was important. So how does this story get that kind of weight, where then resources are dedicated to it? You know, again, it could be like 650,000 people whose lives were lost.
There's this really interesting moment in time right now where things that have been hidden in the shadows are coming out, like people are seeing things that they hadn't seen before. And there's an openness to engage with these things, and I think that there's an openness to engage with history in a way that has not been possible before. So what do I think needs to happen to move this work forward is more of that: more people realizing that this is so important. And when that happens, like all the levers change; then there are all sorts of creative ways to approach this, and more technology can be used to find wrecks. More work can be done to track down where the ships are, where they might be, and what their histories are. More divers can get trained. Like then a lot can happen, but there has to be a will to find this history, and a will to tell the story differently. So that's what we need to move forward.
ADAMS SIMMONS: That’s National Geographic Storytelling Fellow Tara Roberts speaking with Overheard’s Amy Briggs.
BRIGGS: It was such an incredible conversation, and I’m so excited that we got to feature more of it than we did in her episode.
ADAMS SIMMONS: And Tara will be posting updates about her travels on Instagram and Facebook. You can find those @storiesfromthedepths.
You can also find out more about Diving With a Purpose by listening to our Overheard podcast episode “The Search for History’s Lost Slave Ships.”
COMPUTER SCIENTIST GLORIA WASHINGTON
BRIGGS: So Debra, who do we have next?
ADAMS SIMMONS: Next, we bring you a conversation between computer scientist Gloria Washington and Brian Gutierrez, guest host of Overheard.
Gloria Washington runs the Affective Biometrics Labs at Howard University in Washington, D.C. She’s an expert on emotional artificial intelligence.
BRIGGS: I’m going to have to take notes on this part, because I’m not—I don’t even know anything about natural emotional intelligence.
ADAMS SIMMONS: Well, let’s listen.
BRIAN GUTIERREZ (HOST): So, Gloria, the first thing we usually start with is a quick introduction. You know, could you please introduce yourself? Who are you and what do you do?
GLORIA WASHINGTON (COMPUTER SCIENTIST): Yeah. So I'm Gloria Washington, and I run the Affective Biometrics Lab at Howard University.
GUTIERREZ: And that's affective with an “A.”
WASHINGTON: Yes, it means emotional. In my lab, we look at facial expressions, we look at ears, we look at physiological information, like heart rate, heart rate variability—that tells us all kinds of information about a person's emotional state. And we can make inferences and conclusions if this information is fed into AI to tell us if a person is frustrated, happy, sad, neutral, disgusted. But it helps us tune, and actually create software systems that think more smartly about the human.
GUTIERREZ: What does it mean for artificial intelligence to be emotional? Like those are not two adjectives I would put together in normal speech. What does that mean?
WASHINGTON: Yeah, so when you get into making any type of software, we often forget that the software is supposed to serve the human and not the other way around.
And sometimes that can lead to frustration. It can lead to, you know, whole groups of people having a horrible disposition about using technology. And so my area is interested in understanding: How do we make these interactions with computers more positive? How do we make them more happy? And how do we use the emotional information that you can gather from a human to actually make our software applications better?
GUTIERREZ: I wonder if we could zoom out for a minute and ask some like general AI questions.
GUTIERREZ: You know, artificial intelligence kind of means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. How do you define artificial intelligence? What makes that computer intelligent?
WASHINGTON: Well, so I think my definition is probably a little bit different from the traditional computer scientist. So I think of artificial intelligence as a helper.
It's a helper application that allows me to triage and present information in a unique and easily digestible way so that I can do my job better, whatever that job is. Some traditional computer scientists would go almost to a micro level where they talk about the actual deep-learning algorithms, where you get down to the connections in their neural network. But me, I like to keep it higher level, because I truly think it is. When we think of artificial intelligence, we think that the machine should be a helper to us, not take over our job. It should only supplement, triage, recommend. And then we, the human, can act on in a more intelligent way to actually go about our day.
GUTIERREZ: So I was wondering if you could kind of like talk me through your day as a data scientist, and what are kind of like some of the sounds you might hear as you're doing your job?
WASHINGTON: As a data scientist at Howard, I work with a lot of undergraduate students, and they see things totally different from the way that I see things. So it's a lot of questions, and it's a lot of, well, Why is this technique producing this kind of data? I think it's flawed. And a lot of young people now care about issues that are important to them, like feminism, criminal justice, police justice, Black Lives Matter, stuff like that. And they want to work on those kind of problems. So the questions that they would have is, well, Why aren’t I seeing any kind of technologies that are catered towards me and why aren't, you know, these kind of things important? So I'm fielding a lot of questions like that from my undergraduate research students.
I have about 15 that I work with, and at least my philosophy is, if they're interested in learning more, why not expose them as early as possible to it, even if they don't know all of the intricacies behind the scenes. But they're learning. And so when they're learning, they're asking me those kind of questions—of why did it even take, you know, for George Floyd for people to start to care or, you know, and then that feeds into technology.
I would ask them a question. Well, you’re a computer scientist, what would you do? What technology would you build or what company would you start to be able to address that problem in your community?
GUTIERREZ: You seem like a really like fight-fire-with-fire kind of woman. Like, we have these issues with AI technology, we're going to build our own AI to counteract it in these ways.
WASHINGTON: Well, I think it's important—and I recognize this now when I see how dependent I am on certain things and I'm like—if we think about how many barbershops there are, why can we have 50 million barbershops, but one AI technique, built by one company? No! there should be 50 million AI techniques, and the piece of the pie is large, and we can contribute to that. So I want students to know that you can get a piece of that pie yourself, and do not be afraid to get it.
GUTIERREZ: Why is diversity in AI important?
WASHINGTON: Diversity in AI is important because I think sometimes we are trapped in our own heads and trapped in the problems that are important to us as humans. And we may not recognize a problem from a different perspective. So having diverse people at the table or who are actually coding the algorithms behind the scenes will expose the flaws that may come up with the algorithm.
GUTIERREZ: How do you know if a data set is diverse? You know, my impression is that there's like millions and millions of images. You know, maybe I could look at maybe a hundred images in a day. But how do you know if there's an issue?
WASHINGTON: Well, for me—I did a post-doc in this, and I had no choice but to look at these databases of millions of images, where my entire day was looking through these databases to determine how diverse they were. But what I had to do was search through these databases.
How many—and they usually tell you how many men, how many women, how many Black people, white people. But then it kind of ends there. It doesn't even talk about ethnicity, like within the individuals. Because when you think about it, a lot of the college students fill out a form. And this form information—and it's just like, what's your age, what's your race, that kind of thing, gender. And so I had no choice but to look through most of these databases. And there are millions of images.
So there needs to be people behind the scenes that can actually say, hey, you know, let's retune our system or retrain our system to get a better model based off of this database because it has this many men or this many women, and it's more diverse than the average database that we would get just starting now.
GUTIERREZ: I think this is also a really cool opportunity to let people know about research that's being done by Black AI researchers. I wonder if you could tell me what are some of the recent innovations that have been happening in that space—what are some of the new ideas that are being designed by Black researchers that people should know about?
WASHINGTON: I would say Black AI specialists are starting to work in areas that are important to their communities. So there are apps now that will find you a barber shop, but it finds you a barber shop based off of your input, and it learns from you if you go to that actual barber shop. So we're starting to think of problems that are specific to our community, like I can't find this hair product or I can’t find stuff for me, or I have diabetes and I have a specific health application that is only, you know, for African Americans—like there are products that are being developed for our specific community.
GUTIERREZ: Yeah, that makes sense, and I wonder how you sort of situate yourself in this history of African-American scientists working in the United States like the Hidden Figures? That was an awesome movie. I really enjoyed watching it. But I think they truly are hidden figures in the sense that I had no idea they existed before the movie came out. I was wondering if you could kind of, you know, put your work in the context of this history of female scientists—female African-American scientists—and what that history means to you.
WASHINGTON: When I sort of think of myself in the history of African-American computer scientists—even that are African American, not even female, when we think of it—so in the time of Hidden Figures, there were many women Black coders who were leading the thing. Whatever happened after the Black programmers or coders were phased out, diversity in computer science just plummeted.
I kind of fit in after them and kind of see myself as taking up the struggle of everything that they had at that moment that they probably couldn't voice.
Because if you even think about getting in the door of working at NASA, you probably have to be quiet about a lot. You couldn't express the particular kind of things that were most important to you. You did your job. You were a programmer. You're working behind the scene, working on these math problems. But the kind of issues that I'm focusing on are issues that I take exactly what they were doing with programming, working on mathematical issues, image processing issues, but I'm tailoring it for my community.
So I think of, like, using all the background and all of the information and struggle that they went through, but tailoring it. Now we're having the actual voice to be able to say, I want to work on the problems that are important to my community.
And when I think of from the perspective of being in emotional artificial intelligence, there are not a lot of Black women who are in this area so I'm also writing the background and all of the history in all of the problems and challenges and opportunities that she had in this emotional AI space and then tailoring it also for working on things that are important to the Black community, like hair products, Black Lives Matter. Also, another thing that I'm interested in getting into is microaggression research of how we think of of people who are microaggressed on a daily basis, of how microaggressions feed into our everyday life.
And if we have technology now that can tell us when we've accidentally offended individuals, maybe we can start to get better, and maybe we can learn in these diversity and inclusion training seminars what we have done wrong, like on a yearly basis kind of thing, and improve our speech. Like we do a lot of that now. And I put my foot in my mouth a lot. And I think of, hmm, why can't there be technology that helps me not put my foot in my mouth but makes me get better? So when I think of that kind of space of how I fit in, I'm working on novel things that are important to the Black and brown communities.
BRIGGS: I will definitely be checking that out, not only because it’s a fascinating topic but that upcoming episode is our producer Brian Gutierrez’s first time hosting, so it’s his official debut.
ADAMS SIMMONS: And finally, Amy, we bring you a conversation between National Geographic photographer and storytelling fellow Ruddy Roye and Peter Gwin, your cohost here at Overheard.
BRIGGS: So Debra, I hear you’ve worked with Ruddy before?
ADAMS SIMMONS: Ruddy Roye’s first assignment for National Geographic was to photograph people donating artifacts to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
He also did a fantastic job photographing historically Black colleges in Atlanta, and this past summer his work on the protests was really outstanding.
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC STORYTELLING FELLOW RUDDY ROYE
RUDDY ROYE (PHOTOGRAPHER): It was beautiful to me. It was beautiful to travel around the country, photographing Nat Turner's great-great-great-great-grandson and seeing a history that is not in our history books, is not told anywhere, photographing a sign that says Blackhead Signpost [Road], and knowing that this signpost was was erected to instill fear in any other people of African descent who was working in Virginia, for free, from having another insurrection. And that's why that sign was there. It said Blackhead Signpost—still in Virginia.
PETER GWIN (HOST): Wow.
ROYE: Every story that I've done for Geographic, every one—I follow that up with the race issue, which made me sit at Morehouse University and look at the next generation of our black leaders and see the pros and cons of of what it means to grow up in a country that does not feed you its history. I've learned, I've learned more from these than I think I've been able to like put into these pictures. These are actually the histories of the history that I've brought back to my to my sons, to the effect that when my son was given this assignment to write on a civil rights leader, he said to his teacher that he preferred to write about his father, because that's where he gets his history from.
GWIN: Wow, that’s powerful.
ROYE: So these stories have been more than just stories for me, they have been pages in a history that has not been written yet, because it's not a part of our curriculum and it's not in our history books.
GWIN: So I know that you teach, or you have taught, at New York University. What’s the first thing you tell a student who wants to be a photographer?
ROYE: Why do you want to photograph Black content? Why is that important to you? No, first I usually ask how many of you would like to photograph Black content? Usually the whole class. And I say...
GWIN: And this is like a mixed class of like all races?
ROYE: It's usually 80 percent, 90 percent white, of a class of 13 kids, two to four Black kids. So I usually go, why? Why? What makes you think that you're qualified? And they look at me like. And so I'd say, do you know who Emmett Till is? Do you know who Ida B. Wells is? Do you know what Jim Crow did?
And I would tell these stories because I wanted them to get to the place where—I was assigned to do a story covering the Gangster Disciples in Chicago and the Black Disciples in Chicago. And at the end of the assignment, Time magazine asks me, Why is it that when we send you to go do a story about gangsters, you didn't bring back gangsters?
And I would say because I didn't see any gangster.
I said I saw fathers, brothers, nephews, you know, sons, cousins.
But if the gangsters turn up, I would photograph them. But in that space, I see humans. And I said, the only way you can get to that space is if you understand the history that has dictated how these people live their lives. If you can understand that, you see the story differently.
I did a workshop with an editor in New York. And while I'm in there, some—a girl from Lithuania was asked why she wanted to be a part of the workshop, and she said, because I want to photograph the ghettos of Beds...the ghettos of Brownsville. And we go, “ghettos of Brownsville?” She say yes, I want to go to the ghettos of Brownsville. And the next day, so that was—and I lost it. But the next day she went to Brownsville, and all she came back with was crack vials and people who were smoking crack. And I never went back to the workshop. I couldn't. Because for me, it was not my job to tell her that what she's doing is the stereotypical story. And I did not see the editor doing it. So in Jamaica, we say: You don't go to a man's house and criticize him—you leave. That’s what I did.
GWIN: One of the things about your photography that I’m so struck by is that you’re especially known for your portraits. Your portraits have this gravity to them—it feels like I’m passing by a planet like Jupiter that has this really strong gravity and it pulls me into the picture. And how do you create that? What is it that you do to create a picture that pulls a reader in like that?
ROYE: If there's a thing because, you know, I also believe that—and this is gonna sound corny, but there's everything in life, whether it's, whichever—it's on the yin or the yang. There's a spiritual element to everything. It's how you use it. For instance, there's certain words I don't use. I don't use the word like, I'm going to photograph “my subject.” I don't use that word because I believe that it creates hierarchy.
I also when I'm going to do a story or I'm going to photograph a portrait, I like to find a space where I can connect even before I start taking pictures. And that connection is like—I don't know if you saw Avatar. Is it Avatar, the James Cameron film, where they would pull their hair and touch each other? And that's how they join. Your job, I think, is to find a way to join with that person, so that they can give you something that's deeper than the superficial. And my—the one way that I find that gets to that place is when they know that you understand. And whether it is giving them the story that you have been through this before, or you have seen it photographed it. You kind of have an idea of where we are. And never, never pretending to, like, to fully understand, but leaving space so that they fill in the gaps for you. And it is in that space—them filling the gaps—that the authenticity comes out. But it's always joining spirits. It's always for me. Never feeling like I've coming here to take something. But I'm coming there to give you something in order to get something. There's always an exchange.
ADAMS SIMMONS: You can follow Ruddy Roye on instagram @ruddyroye and learn more about his project When Living Is a Protest by listening to the Overheard episode “Can You Hear the Reggae in My Photographs?”
BRIGGS: It’s been so great hearing from these amazing explorers, scientists, and photographers. Having their perspective and insight on all these different issues has just been eye-opening.
ADAMS SIMMONS: Also be sure to visit our Race in America hub at natgeo.com where we chronicle the human journey of racial, ethnic, and religious groups across the United States.
BRIGGS: There you'll find our story exploring the history of Black military service and the impact on families.
ADAMS SIMMONS: Plus we revisit historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUS) while exploring the risk many face to keep their doors open.
And for subscribers, check out National Geographic magazine’s story about how Ruddy’s Jamaican roots ignited his passion for social justice.
BRIGGS: That’s in the show notes, right there in your podcast app.
ADAMS SIMMONS: In Conversation at National Geographic is produced by Davar Ardalan, executive producer of audio, together with sound designer and engineer Hansdale Hsu. Musical composition comes from Scott Dudley, Corey English and Martarius Hersey of push.audio.
BRIGGS: Special thanks to Overheard’s Carla Wills, Eli Chen, Peter Gwin, Brian Gutierrez, Laura Sim, Jacob Pinter, and Nat Geo’s Drew Jones.
Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.
Our copy editor is Amy Kolczak.
ADAMS SIMMONS: The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funds the work of National Geographic Explorer Tara Roberts and National Explorer and Photographer Ruddy Roye.
This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.
Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.
Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director.
I’m your host, Debra Adams Simmons.
BRIGGS: And I’m Amy Briggs, see you next time!