Picture stories

National Geographic photographer shares experiences at AHS

By Karen Colbenson

National Geographic photographer Annie Griffiths Belt offered lessons in light and life Tuesday during a presentation at Austin High School.

Belt’s career has taken her around the world into spaces great and small, but the road that led her there wasn’t paved in advance.


With aspirations of becoming a writer, Belt, from Minneapolis, enrolled in journalism courses at the University of Minnesota. During her junior year, she fell in love with a camera, switched her major and earned a degree in photojournalism instead.

"If you don’t really know what you want to do, it’s not just OK, its really kind of great," Belt told 400 art, photography and social studies students. "A lot of paths come and go. Just be open, push a little and seize those opportunities. If I wouldn’t have been open, I wouldn’t be where I am today."

Thirty years before Belt began working for National Geographic, she landed her first job as a photographer for the Worthington Daily Globe newspaper in Worthington, Minn. — a small city 200 miles west of Austin. Since then, she has been published by LIFE and Smithsonian magazines, among other well-known national publications.

She also has received several awards from the National Press Photographers Association, the Associated Press, the National Organization for Women and the White House News Photographers Association.

Belt told students of her first assignment for National Geographic, searching for a remote tribe in Namibia, a southwestern African country. After days of searching, she came across a small group of women and children and immediately began photographing them.

Upon seeing pictures of themselves, the women collapsed in a giggling heap.

"They had never seen their own faces before," Belt said, as students gasped in surprise.

Belt gave students tips, including:


• Earning the trust of your subjects is important.

• Go behind the scenes to find "the stuff everyone else doesn’t see."

• Find a new way to do what has already been done.

"When I’m with people, I don’t want them to pose. I just want to be with them in their world," said Belt. "Allow yourself to do that, get on their level. I do a lot of crazy things to get pictures. I ride elephants and camels. I hang-glide."

Once Belt even gave herself a crew cut and dressed up as a man so she could get pictures of an all-male ceremony where women weren’t allowed.

"A lot of moments, you can’t possibly plan," said Belt. "You just have to be ready."

"When I was a little girl, I wanted to write books," she said. "I’m still into storytelling, only I do that through my pictures."

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