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Behind the Lens with Annie Griffiths

Annie Griffiths, a pioneering photographer who’s worked in nearly 150 countries, spent two weeks in southern Africa to capture how Forevermark is making a difference through its commitment to responsible sourcing. Read on for her impressions, as told to AFAR.

I love that the two projects Forevermark has focused on in Botswana and South Africa are completely different and yet both very important.

First, they set up preserves for some of the most vulnerable wildlife by purchasing and managing enormous tracks of land. Known as The Diamond Route, this necklace of preserves stretches from South Africa to Botswana. I traveled along this corridor and, along the way, spotted everything from rhinos to pangolins—one of the most endangered species, poached for its scales, which are considered an aphrodisiac.

When you’re on a preserve it’s different than when you’re at a park because there’s so little human pressure on the animals. They’re really wild; they’re not sensitized to vehicles, so I got to see things I’ve never seen before.

It was fabulous to witness a healthy rhino population and new rhinos being born into a safe environment. We saw prides of lions, meerkats, which are adorable, and 18 giraffe across a saltpan, which could have been a scene from a thousand years ago. One night, we watched 50 elephants come down to drink. There’s also extraordinary bird life and some of the most amazing, gigantic trees. Such a variety of species are living in concert with each other in such a healthy way.
Forevermark brings local school groups in to these preserves, and the kids were clearly so excited. It’s so important to build a bridge to the local community. In an area where dangerous animals exist, kids can grow up afraid, but when you take them into a safe environment to observe how magnificent they are, then there’s a pride in living in a place that has these treasures—it prevents poaching and encourages preservation.

The second project is near and dear to my heart because Forevermark has set a goal of women’s empowerment; they’re trying very hard to employ as many women as possible and get close to a gender balance. 

Forevermark is very conscious of the fact that they don’t want to leave a community without other livelihood skills when mines are depleted. So they have programs that teach women to drive, which can open up a zillion jobs. They’re also empowering women farmers and small business owners. One woman we met has a silkscreening enterprise; another is a fantastic wildlife manager helping with a preserve; and another drives an enormous mining truck.

In South Africa, a geologist started employing deaf women in the diamond sorting facility, which calls for excellent eyesight. She had the empathy to realize there are lots of things these women can do despite not being able to hear.

To go into communities and hunker down and be with these real people, it’s my favorite thing in life. It’s the majority of what I do. In fact, I think part of the reason Forevermark wanted to work with me is that I’m the director of Ripple Effect Images, a nonprofit collective of photographers who document women in the developing world. Women pay forward any opportunity they get, and you see that empowerment in their body language and faces.

When travelers go to see wildlife, it’s so important that they also take the time to meet some of the people. Some of those things are arranged on trips, but they can feel like a performance. Ask your guide if you can spend a day with locals in a more natural way. It can be life changing; you realize that we’re more alike than we are different and that the personal connection is precious.

Besides, if you want compelling, intimate images, you have to spend time with people. You’re a guest in their world, and you need to look people in the eye and sit with them on the floor of a kitchen. Once you extend yourself sincerely, the payback from the other side is amazingly sincere and just delicious.

 After my trip with Forevermark, I feel so grateful that diamonds can do so much good in the world. We think of diamonds as possessions of the wealthy, but the good that’s happening in those countries is important.

 Created in partnership with Forevermark.