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National Geographic Explorers Journal: Explorer of the Week – Amanda Rivkin

In Rustavi, Georgia in January 2012. Photograph by Temo Bardzimashvili

Explorer of the Week: Amanda Rivkin
Posted by Amy Bucci of NG Staff in Explorers Journal on August 14, 2012

This week we are featuring Amanda Rivkin, a photographer who decided to focus her lens on Azerbaijan’s offshore oil fields in the Caspian. Using funds from her Young Explorer grant, she followed the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline’s 1,100-mile route, which skirts five conflict zones in three countries representing believers of both Islam and Christianity. Rivkin’s photos reveal her passion and keen sense of storytelling. As she tells us, “I have come to see photography maybe in the vein of ancient epics, for a good photo is crafted like poetry.” In one National Geographic staff favorite, Rivkin captured a man reclining in a crude oil bath at a spa near Baku. Rivkin’s attention to detail, her knowledge about her subjects, and her unique vision will certainly continue to push her into the spotlight.

What project are you working on now?
I am transitioning from two long-term projects on the role of women in Azerbaijan and the story of the family of a murdered journalist, Rafiq Tagi. I am moving to Istanbul at the end of August after nearly a year in Baku, Azerbaijan, with a Fulbright grant. In Turkey, I have several projects I hope to get underway both in Turkey and the broader region, and one story in particular connects the legacy of the war in Iraq with the American veterans who served there and a much larger global problem.

If you could trade places with one explorer at National Geographic, who would it be and why?
This past spring the photographer Reza was in and out of Baku a lot working on a book about Azerbaijan. It was a great pleasure to meet him, see him at work, and talk about photography, politics, and his humanitarian efforts, among other things. One story in particular, about connecting Rwandan genocide survivors by training orphans to take pictures of each other and then displaying them in a public space so their families could search for their relatives, stands out. Given the brutality of what had just occurred, one woman saw a picture of her son and fell to the floor shouting, “My God, all that’s left of him is his head!” This is not simply about the social utility of photography, but also about social justice in a sense that directly involves the community and does not simply involve telling someone’s story to the world. I don’t know if I would trade places with anyone, Reza included, but I do admire him and his efforts and his ever calm demeanor.

What do you think National Geographic explorers will be exploring in a hundred years?
A few things stand out, perhaps because they are major issues that result from basic factors of life on our planet: namely war, famine, inequality, energy, culture, and humanity’s curiosity about life on this planet and space exploration, as well as technological development and evolution. In many ways, these are the same things that explorers are examining now. But if you look at the pages of National Geographic a century ago, the stories have changed, the ways of telling them have as well, but the root curiosity driving us to examine life have only improved, but changed little, with education and technological evolution.

What’s the biggest surprise you’ve discovered in your work or in the field?
I’m constantly amazed in the field, but surprise is usually the result of misplaced idealism or an unwillingness to consider consequences, intended or unintended. With that in mind, I suppose the greatest surprise was the result of not foreseeing the worst, and consequently was inherently negative. I had my camera stolen by a colleague covering Barack Obama’s inauguration in the U.S. Capitol. While I was shocked and annoyed, luckily it was insured and the camera was nicked from the 200-400mm lens it was attached to, which was worth much more. I had to file a police report for insurance to cover the loss and when the Capitol Police classified it as felony theft, my dad joked that it was the first felony to occur in front of the new American president. It really was not funny at the time though, just irritating and very much an unwanted surprise.

Have you ever been lost? How did you get found?
I wanted to be a writer for the longest time, since I was a teenager really, and then when I was 22, I found photography. I am lucky to have discovered my passion so early and to have been able to pursue it with such support from my family, friends, colleagues, and editors. I am really lucky.

What one item do you always have with you?
My camera

What are you reading?
Right now I am reading a dense academic text I bought in Istanbul last year on Islam in the Soviet Union from the Bolshevik era to Perestroika, basically the entire Soviet period. I just borrowed a book from an oil worker friend here that provides some insight into that very much male-dominated culture that reminds me a bit of the memoirs of conflict photographers, without the moralistic or overtly tragic aspects. Before that I read The Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy by Barrington Moore. I get very involved in the stories I do and the places I live to the extent that there is no escape and even my leisure reading is to enlighten my work.

What is your favorite food?
My favorite foods are sushi and steak. I have absolutely no sweet tooth, and my mother was a chef who only allowed for one processed item in our house growing up because it was her favorite: potato chips. Nothing is better than fresh fish and fresh meat. I had my first steak the other night since I moved to Azerbaijan, a ribeye, at a German restaurant called Paul’s and about midway through, I knew what I wanted to order for dessert, a second steak, this time a filet. It was amazing and I ate every last bit of it. Finding really quality sushi is harder but there are a few places that try quite hard and do a very nice job, but it is ridiculously expensive here. Food and books are my biggest indulgences.

What are you listening to?
I almost always have the BBC World Service on.

If you were to meet your eight-year-old self, what would you say?
Probably what my parents said to me: “Don’t let school get in the way of an education, and do what you love to do and the rest will follow.”

If you won the lottery, what would you buy? Where would you travel?
I would love to do the Mongol Rally, an annual race from London to Ulan Bator, that is as much about reaching the destination as it is about the journey. I would also probably endow a few academic chairs in the history department at my college in areas I find neglected but critical like East European studies and provide scholarships for refugees in my hometown, Chicago, to attend non-religious primary and secondary schools that would otherwise be beyond their reach. I admire the work Melinda Gates is doing for reproductive healthcare in the developing world, and could imagine making a hefty donation to that or the Marie Stopes foundation that is one of the oldest and most active in this area. And I would probably eat a big steak and a lot of sushi.

If you were a baseball player, and you came up to bat, what song would be played as your “signature song”?
These days M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls.” I have long wanted to do a story on drifting, an amazing form of drag racing popular in the Gulf states, and that video is really great.

See M.I.A. perform “Bad Girls”:

Do you have a hidden talent?
I am a very good cook, not as good as my mother who worked for the Four Seasons for a decade and paid her way through college cooking for wealthy people, but I am still quite good. My mom can go to a restaurant and tell you everything in the dish and if she can find the ingredients, she will make the exact same dish—only better.

What is your favorite National Geographic photo?
So many, so tough to say! Steve McCurry’s Afghan girl is a memorable and global classic. I also love Stephanie Sinclair’s work on child marriage and remember well so many of the images Reza took that were published before I became a photographer but had a subscription to the magazine as a teenager. Really there is no one favorite but so many amazing images!

What is your favorite National Geographic magazine or news article?
This is much easier. I remember with the millennium a feature National Geographic did on the most global cities on the planet over the last two millennium featuring New York City, Cordoba, Spain and Alexandria, Egypt. It was so good I remember it years later.

If you were to bring back one species of animal that has gone extinct, what would it be?
I think I would want to bring back several dead languages like Latin and Aramaic and Breton. Not a species, but rather ways of communicating with each other. Dinosaurs would be cool too, but I don’t think that’s an animal. A friend told me about a creation museum in Kentucky that tries to debunk hundreds of years of science and evolution in favor of the God-created-the-world-in-seven-days biblical theory and said that absurdly they put a saddle on the dinosaur on display to show that man has long been the dominant species on Earth.