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National Geographic Young Explorers Bio and Q+A

Explorers Bio
Amanda Rivkin

Young Explorers Grants, Expeditions Council Grant

Birthplace: Chicago, Illinois
Current City: Baku, Azerbaijan

What did you want to be when you were growing up?
When I was very small, maybe seven years old, I told my godmother I wanted to be a crane, and when she asked what kind of crane, I said an operating crane like on a construction site. As a teenager, I thought I would be a writer, which is what led me to go to the college I eventually went to, Sarah Lawrence College, although I waited until the last possible moment of my senior year to take a writing class, because the curriculum itself was designed for writers, with no exams and independent research projects to complement the work in every course. This is what led me to journalism school, where I discovered by wonderful accident my true passion, photography.

How did you get started in your field of work?
I was studying print journalism at Columbia University when I enrolled in a short course mainly for writers who would be asked to take an occasional picture for their publications. I do not think I ever put down a camera after that.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to photography?
There are a ton of ups and downs in photojournalism and life generally, and the pay, especially when you are starting out, is often meager, but the strangest things keep me going. I remember being at the Visa Pour L’image photojournalism festival in Perpignan, France, for the first time this year and there is one café where everyone goes to drink in the evening, Café de la Poste, and often this group includes some of the world’s finest conflict photographers. This café is in a square named after one of the bloodiest battles in history, certainly in Europe: Place de la Verdun, where 300,000 men lost their lives in a senseless war of attrition that lasted 11 months in 1916, during the Great War, the war to end all wars. I wonder how many people at Café de la Poste know this history and so for me such small examples of an ironic and ephemeral value continuously serve to remind me of the value of photography. Even if we allow ourselves as humans and nations to make the same mistakes, we should at least have a record and knowledge so that if we look the other way on lessons of the past, it is our decision and something we or others can return to later to study and grow from. I have come to see photography maybe in the vein of ancient epics, for a good photo is crafted like poetry.

What’s a normal day like for you?
A normal day is hard to define! I love shooting news photography. I love the adrenalin of racing someplace, the competition of trying to make the best picture and file before the other photographers. But I also love the quieter assignments and projects that allow for a longer time to meditate on a certain topic and gather research and that work far more as a choose-your-own-adventure, within the confines of the selected story of course! If I can, I start the day with a shower and a cup of coffee or tea, but if I am someplace strange or rural where this is not possible, then I go without. If I can, I like to read or research late into the night.

Do you have a hero?
I have so many people I consider inspirational but the word “hero” scares people, especially the living and particularly me I think! When I was younger, it was the work of poets and musicians that inspired me greatly, singers and songwriters like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs and the poetry of Federico García Lorca, Arthur Rimbaud, and Charles Baudelaire.

In photography, I am drawn to people who have produced work over a long period of time that I think has an almost epic depth to it: Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, Gilles Peress, James Nachtwey, Lynsey Addario, but I feel like I am not naming every one!

Politically I am drawn to those individuals whose ambitions were revealed over the course of a long, moral struggle but who personally never sought power, men like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Adam Michnik, a former student agitator, later imprisoned by the communists in Poland who created and remains editor to this day of the first free and independent newspaper after the transition in 1989, Gazeta Wyborcza.

What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
My favorite experience to date in the field was on my National Geographic Young Explorers Grant when I had a peculiar dream come true of visiting and photographing Azerbaijan’s offshore oil fields in the Caspian, where the earliest oil discoveries were made in the 19th century and where oil is still pumped to this day. Having grown up during the very twilight years of the Soviet Union in America, it felt like the very definition of forbidden. The most challenging moments for me always come with keeping my composure to work when I am confronted with something that is just egregiously wrong. Sometimes I can hold it together long enough to get home and other times I end up crying alongside the people I am photographing.

What are your other passions?
I love cooking and literature, theater, and art.

What do you do in your free time?
What free time? Most of my free time is spent reading and researching but also looking at creative works in other fields like literature, theater, and art to inspire my own.

At Five Years Old, BTC Pipeline Moves Oil, Culture,” National Geographic News (June 8, 2011).