New NatGeo Exhibit Explores 100 Years of Women in Photos

Women carry jerry cans filled with water through desert plains in Kenya © 2009 Lynn Johnson

In the 100 years, since women won the right to vote in the U.S., they’ve steadily fought for greater equality and representation all over the world. Today, they are politicians, scientists, CEOs, elite athletes, human rights advocates … you get the idea. They are resilient and they are strong. In an inspirational photo exhibition opening Oct. 22 at National Geographic in DC, this exploration of beauty, strength, joy and love is on full display. “Women: A Century of Change,” shines a powerful light on female experiences from all around the globe, showing how the depictions of women in photography have evolved over the past nine decades.

The exhibit is meant to honor “groundbreaking women everywhere who’ve made it possible to say, definitively, that the future is female.”

Not only should you expect to see outstanding photography pulled from National Geographic’s collections, but also included in this exhibit are “Portraits of Power.” These are 24 portraits and biographies of iconic activists, luminaries, politicians, and celebrities, such as Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Jane Goodall and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — who were interviewed for the book by National Geographic magazine’s first female editor-in-chief, Susan Goldberg. 

The photographers featured in the exhibition include: Lynn Johnson, Amy Toensing, Lynsey Addario, Jodi Cobb, Evgenia Arbugaeva, Katie Orlinsky, Stephanie Sinclair, Charlie Hamilton James, Robin Hammond, Kitra Cahana, Aaron Huey, Brent Stirton, Maggie Steber, Erika Larsen, Ami Vitale, John Stanmeyer, Cory Richard, David Doubilet, Hannah Reyes Morales and David Alan Harvey.

You can learn more about the exhibit, here.

WOMEN: A Century of Change

When: October 22 – Spring 2020
Where: National Geographic Museum, 1145 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC

A 24-year-old project manager poses on a smoke break outside the African Artists' Foundation in Lagos, Nigeria © 2014 Robin Hammond
Dancers take to the streets during Brazil’s annual Carnival parade © 2009 David Alan Harvey
On the steps of the West Virginia State Capitol, a woman gets her head shaved symbolic of mountaintop removal and the many people who are sick or dying as the result © 2012 Ami Vitale.
The U.S. synchronized swimming team practices in Indianapolis © 2015 David Bowman

A Conversation with Katie Orlinsky

Katie Orlinsky, one of the photographers featured in the WOMEN exhibition, first took an interest in photography when she was still in college, where she would take pictures at protests. She got into it from an activist standpoint, imagining herself going into the nonprofit world post-graduation due to her passion for taking on social issues. However, after earning a masters in journalism at Columbia, she soon discovered that she didn’t enjoy office life and that photography was where she truly excelled.

At the time, she was living in Mexico working her first job as a photographer for a local newspaper there. The 2006 conflict in Oaxaca had just broken out and it was her first time photographing what she considered to be a serious news story. Katie realized that she could make a difference as a photographer in the areas that she cared about most. She knew then that photography was her calling and that she wanted to do this with her life. 

Her work has highlighted social issues, climate change, unique subcultures, wildlife, and sports. She has received multiple awards, ranging from the Art Director’s Club, PDN30 and Pictures of the Year International. She was named the Paris Match Female Photojournalist of the Year in 2016 and has been featured in National Geographic, the New York Times, the New Yorker and Smithsonian.

Aliy Zirkle, one of the most beloved dog mushers in Alaska, during the 2015 Iditarod © Katie Orlinksy

Kelsey Dobler: There’s a shot of yours of musher, Aliy Zirkle, and her dog sledding team taken from a bird’s eye view. Can you tell us what the motivation was to choose that particular angle from up on a bridge for that photo?

Katie Orlinsky: You’re in very, very small communities in the middle winter it can be as cold as -50 so there can be a lot of challenges. You only have a little bit of time when these teams come through the checkpoint so sometimes it can be hard to make a different picture. You always have to be on the lookout for opportunities to make a different type of picture and luckily this town had a bridge and I sort of staked out Ailey Zirkle on that bridge. I wanted to get a really good picture of her whole team. It’s sort of just knowing how it works to take these kinds of dog mushing pictures as you can’t always necessarily get every dog in the photo. Aliy is a really beloved musher. She’s an amazing athlete and an incredible person. She’s a real hero and role model in Alaska. I really wanted to make sure that I got a great picture of her.

Dobler: You can’t really tell in that photograph, from that height and distance, if Aliy Zirkle is a man or a woman. Why didn’t you decide to highlight the qualities that might accentuate her gender? 

Orlinsky: I think that’s something that’s so captivating and interesting about this sport — is that it is a coed sport. Women are top athletes in this sport just like men. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female when you’re out there and competing in this sport. It just matters how prepared you are and if you’re good at making a fire, if your dogs love you, and if you have the will and determination to stay out there. It’s not a sport like basketball where anything like height matters. Gender isn’t super relevant. To me, gender is relevant because as an outsider, as someone who’s not directly involved in this sport, I found it to be really incredible to see so many women competing in it. I hadn’t expected that. For folks out there, they get kind of frustrated at times that people focus on female mushers because they just want to focus on being mushers. They don’t want to be focused on as being the best women musher. They just want to be the best musher. I think it’s also important to respect that and not put too much emphasis on cues that make the musher into a man or women because in a lot of ways it’s doesn’t matter. 

Dobler: Is your focus on women in your photographs intentional and how do you choose who you are going to photograph?

Orlinsky: I photographed women in Nepal. I photographed women in Mali. I did a big project about women in Mexico. For one, it’s for [capturing] under-reported stories. There are so many more women photographers that can go out there and get these perspectives but it’s also just what interested me and also who I connected with. I happen to get along really well with women. Meeting these groups and becoming friends, as well, made it really fun working with all-female groups. And then out with the dog mushing, I never intended to make it another women athlete story but I think people are drawn to each other. I went out there and saw these women my age doing things I’ve never even heard of and they were excited about me being a photographer, so finding the subject that I focused on became natural. 

Dobler: What has it been like being a female photographer? Are there any positives or negatives to being a woman in this field? 

Orlinsky: As a photographer in the field, there are definitely a lot of advantages to being a woman. Sort of obvious ones like photographing women and children at home and not being seen as much as a threat. That being said, there are a lot of dangers that women face working in the field that aren’t necessarily quite the same for men. Especially as a young photographer. When you’re freelancing and you don’t have a big budget and you don’t have a big magazine behind you, female photographers don’t really have the options of just crashing on the floor of whoever they meet. They need money for hotels and things like that to stay safe. There’s definitely some hindering that went on in the industry. I think when I was coming up in it, where there was a lot of people who had to do work on spec work at the beginning of their careers. They had to create it first and then get it published later and there are a lot of obstacles to that being a woman.

In the industry, there’s just obstacles. This country is still patriarchal in so many ways. Pretty much every industry has issues with gender bias and sexual harassment. I think it might have taken a few more years in my generation for young women and their photos to get seen and get taken seriously by editors, whereas editors would get much more excited about some young guy. But if you were a woman, I think it took longer for you to get taken seriously. You had to be a bit older. Also, women didn’t really use to have mentors. Women are really supportive of each other, though. So many of my best friends are female photographers and we’ve been so supportive of each other from the very beginning and I can’t imagine other generations aren’t similar. The more of us there are, the more mentoring there will be. Seems like we’re on a really good track.

Kelsey Dobler is a communications intern at Focus on the Story. She is a student at Clark University in Worcester, Mass,  majoring in Media, Culture, and the Arts, with a concentration in Film. She is also currently a part of the Fall 2019 Semester Program at American University studying journalism.