Who we are is what we spend our life doing

An oropendula bird at its unique hanging nest on a palm in the Cofan village of Chandia Nae, in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

I remember standing in the bright midday, hiding between a giant tin roof and an open concrete slab, sweating profusely into the humid air. My assistant Citlali and I were taking a moment of downtime on assignment for National Geographic, in a Indigenous village in the Amazon basin, where we were on the barest edge of reception to the world outside the rainforest.

As I paced, swiping on my phone to the metallic slinky sounds of oropendula birds, an email came in from Kaitlin Yarnall, Director of Storytelling at National Geographic. I was surprised enough to pull my mind away from the forest, where I’d been for the past month. I was to receive the Eliza Scidmore award, a gargantuan honor from National Geographic, whose past winners include Lynsey Addario, Erika Larsen, and Lynn Johnson. They are all heroines of mine, whose works I have spent my entire photographic life drawing divine influence from. Thus I was immediately dumbfounded and at once struck by strange despair- why on earth would I deserve an award like this?

My gut reaction was a self-denial of sorts. I had only just published my first feature story for National Geographic, while my inspirations had been known for their lifetimes of achievement.

I stewed under that hot tin roof for some time, then finally thought perhaps I would confide in Citlali and get out of my own head.

Citlali was a brilliant therapist. A few days earlier I had been talking with her about impostor syndrome, the idea that we don’t see ourselves the way we see our heroes. It’s an unconscious bias that we can only get away from through acknowledgement and healthy belief in our own value.

She turned that idea back on me, obviously, and I had to admit, given my long interest in cognitive psychology, that there was some possibility she was right. I was feeling like an impostor.

So I did a second, more detailed mental review of my creative life. It made me remember that while I’ve shot just a single magazine feature story, I’ve done six other stories for National Geographic. Making those stories required working for months in extreme environments from the Arctic to the Amazon, and I returning with stories that laid bare the lives of people in remote communities; I’ve been telling stories from a different perspective than the historical norm in journalism. Even so, there’s a battle in my moral consciousness that reminds me this is just routine work for a committed photojournalist.

Thinking on it now I can see that my discomfort with receiving the Eliza Scidmore award is to some extent conflating awards with egotism. But that’s an association just in my head. It’s just as easy to redefine:

An award is an acknowledgement of trust– that someone trusts you enough to keep doing work that they value.

People say work is just a living, but it’s more personal for me. My work heals me, connects me with my ancestry and with the land. Like many artists, I don’t just choose to do my work. I am compelled to it. Documentary photography has made me broader and deeper as a human being, and what a gift that is.

It will surprise nobody who knows me that I am happiest when I am with a subsistence community fishing, or making photos on the land. While some say that journalists make measurable differences in peoples’ lives, I know quite clearly that I always get the better end of the deal– my spirit is made whole when I have the privilege of photographing and living in these remote communities on the land. I suppose I’m giving away this open secret within the art world.

The greatest thing– the only thing – to sustain an artist, is the work itself.

Ultimately, our values should guide what we do with accolades. Especially as I get older, my values point me to the creation of a greater good in peoples’ lives. Accolades are a way to keep doing the work that I feel is important, while championing the values of the people who have trusted me to take their pictures.

Tom Cook and Jose Barreiro harvest Mohawk white corn at the family’s homestead in Akwesasne, NY. From the story, ‘We are Here: Native Sovereignty’ in National Geographic, July 2022

But, I hear you say, what is this abstract ‘greater good’? One real-world idea for the Eliza Scidmore award ceremony (at National Geographic headquarters during the weeklong Storytelling Summit), was to bring an elder from one of my recent stories to speak. The Mohawk community possesses an amazing spoken ceremony (or technology, if you prefer) known as the Thanksgiving Address. It’s a long recitation and expression of gratitude to the natural world and to all the other beings in life; this includes animals and plants, ancestors, and next generations.

My elder of choice, Tom Cook of the Akwesasne Mohawk, can’t make the summit, as he’s due to be in Hawaii, and I can’t blame him. But he did put me up to a different idea, which I won’t spoil because you may experience it at the Storytelling Summit in just a few weeks. But if you’re curious, let’s say that it’s a way to decolonize a conference that can be, at times, buried in the egos of famous creatives.

At last, I hope that, if you’re reading this, you might come away just one idea that I’ve paraphrased from writer Annie Dillard.

Who we are, is what we spend our life doing.

Annie Dillard

If you’re a creative, then the greatest gift is to be able to do creative work and have it leave behind a greater good.