National Writers Series Hosts Photojournalist Paola Gianturco

The National Writers Series presents Grandmother Power, a conversation with photojournalist Paola Gianturco, Saturday, September 17 at the Milliken Auditorium. Included in the evening is a photo exhibit of Gianturco’s work and a 6 p.m. event reception with complimentary wine, beverages and appetizers for all ticket holders and Museum Members.

Gianturco has been interviewed on the Oprah Winfrey Show, CNN, NPR, Voice of America, and spoke in a 2014 TED talk in Dubai. Her photos have been exhibited around the world, including Traverse City in 2010-11. Her new photos will be displayed at the Dennos Museum.

For tickets, call 231.995.1573 or go to MyNorthTickets.com. National Writers Series Friends and Museum Members get $5 off!

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The Power to Change Lives Begins with Wisdom

“Grandmothers look around at our troubled world and are so horrified that it is inevitable that they are motivated to make the world better for their grandchildren.”

At the age of 55, Paola Gianturco took a break from a lucrative career with the world’s largest ad agency to interview and photograph women in developing countries. Her original plan was to take off just one year, but her journey stretched into 55 countries, 22 years and the publication of bestselling photo books.

Grandmother Power, her latest, captures the tales of activist grandmothers making the world a more hopeful place. There are grandmas in India mastering solar engineering in order to light up remote villages. Grandmas in Argentina putting books into children’s hands. And a grandmother group in Guatemala running a hotline and parenting classes.

Gianturco said that growing up during World War II and learning of Hitler’s attempt to annihilate the Jews imbued her with a deep sense of social justice. Now at age 77, Gianturco has turned her attention to a powerful generation of grandmas—younger, healthier and willing to create change. “Today’s grandmother has nothing to do with that little old lady sitting in the rocking chair,” she said.

Gianturco talked recently with Anne Stanton of the National Writers Series about her work:

Your five photo books all explore social justice themes. Which is your favorite?

It’s always my most recent book. The whole sequence of the last 20 years has been an effort to get better every single time, to write more evocatively, to take better photographs, to dare to take on subjects that I shied away from early on.

Shy away from? How so?

In Grandmother Power, the book and the photo exhibit, there are stories about grandmothers in Senegal who are working to stop female genital mutilation. That’s a subject I had not dared approach. Also in the book and the exhibit is a story of women in the Philippines who sued Japan for using them during World War II. The whole arena of sex trafficking and comfort women was not one that I ventured into before.

I’ve learned many things. My overarching lesson on grandmother power was the assumptions and stereotypes about grandmothers are woefully out of date. Grandmothers look around at our troubled world and are so horrified that it is inevitable that they are motivated to make the world better for their grandchildren.

Grandmothers today are not represented by little old ladies in rocking chairs knitting or tatting. Today’s grandmother is much younger. The average age of a new grandmother is 47. It’s amazing. If you had a baby when you were 22 and she had a baby at 22, you’d be a grandmother at 44. The average, first-time grandmother is 47 and that demographic cluster between 47 and 64 is the boomers. So first of all, there are more grandmothers on the planet than there have ever been. It used to be people died before they were 30. For a long time, for many thousands of years.

Now grandmothers are healthier than they have ever been in the global West. So we are healthier, we are younger and many of these grandmothers, even those who are my age, 77 as of last month, grew up in the 60s. We know how to change the world because we did. So today’s grandmother has nothing to do with that little old lady in the rocking chair.

Tell me about your thought process 22 years ago, when you decided to leave for a job for a year—or so you thought.

I had decided to use that year doing only what I loved most and what I wanted to learn next. And what I loved most was photography, which I’d been doing since I was eight. My father put a camera in my hand when I was a child. I wasn’t a professional, but I loved it and I loved traveling. I most wanted to learn about women in the developing world. This was the mid-1990s, the year of the Beijing conference, and I heard that women in the developing world were earning money to send their children to school. While the men were given the social prerogative of buying whatever they wanted to — bicycles, radios or whatever. I thought the women were heroic for earning money and sending their children to school. I wanted to meet them.

And then you decided not go back to your corporate job.

There was a ping moment—it happened on the ground when I had first started to work. I was always interested in the world. My father was born in Italy and came to the U.S. So I always had my eye on what was going on in the world. When I started this book project, I didn’t know I was going to do a book. I had a ping moment in Bolivia. I had been interviewing women in a micro-credit program and I was standing in the back of a Toyota pick-up truck, leaning on the cab as the sun was going down. It was the most beautiful sunset, and I thought, “I’m happier doing this work than I’ve ever been. I’m not going back.”

Did you just fly to these various countries and show up at a village?

No, I did a year’s worth of research to identify the best stories. Remember I had this communications background that included marketing research. The research skills were in my blood. And then another year was spent doing photography, traveling to 12 countries and talking to the women. It took five years altogether to do the book.

How did you get the funding?

I do it with the Frequent Flyer miles that I acquired traveling to work with clients. I had a million miles and my husband had two more million that he gave me. So I had a fund of three million Frequent Flyer miles, which meant I could fly free and stay free at hotels that accepted airline miles. So doing these books looks very ambitious because I now have been to 62 countries, but I did the whole thing for free. It’s a wonderful advantage.

I make no money from my books – they cost very little for me to do. I give 100 percent of my royalties to nonprofit organizations that are working on the issues in the book. All of the author royalties from Grandmother Power go to a fantastic organization headquartered in Toronto, called the Steven Lewis Foundation. He was the Canadian ambassador to the United Nations — a special envoy to Africa. After he served his term he said, “I’m going to devote the rest of my life to curb the pandemic of AIDS in Africa.” He noticed, as I did, that grandmothers were taking care of AIDS orphans. Two chapters in the book and two stories in the exhibit, in Swaziland and Africa, are about grandmothers who are collaborating to care for AIDS orphans, helping them with homework and starting community gardens. The grandmothers are in a pickle; they are poor and ill-educated, and suddenly they have 10 or 12 grandchildren because all of their children have died of AIDS. That was the inspiration to do Grandmother Power and the inspiration for Steven Lewis to start Grandmothers to Grandmothers. He organized 8000 grandmothers in Canada to raise money to send to grandmother groups in 15 different African countries who are raising AIDS orphans.

Did you experience culture shock when you returned to the states?

I did when I first began doing this kind of travel. I had many questions, such as, What is poverty? What I had discovered is that the women I interviewed had such rich spiritual lives and such rich community relationships that in light of those dimensions, they were not poor at all. If one looked only at the material aspects they were in fact indigent. I spent a lot of time sitting on the floor of some woman’s hut listening to her story, in between staying at a nice hotel. I am in places that are just very, very simple, but I come back thinking to myself, “Are we the ones who are poor even with our comparatively affluent lives?”

This is your second visit here. Do you have a family connection to the area?

Yes. We first came to Onekama when I was six. Then we stayed on Crystal Lake and then we migrated north to Leelanau County, and built one of the first cottages in 1951 in the center of Sleeping Bear Bay. At the time the national park came in, my father glowered: “We don’t want gum wrappers in our backyard,” so he built the same cottage in Leland.

What kind of travel schedule do you have?

For this book, I did 15 countries in a year, a week to 10 days in each place. I’m never gone longer than a month at a time because I have a very nice husband I want to come home to. I work hard not to get sick when I’m working. Frequent flyer miles only go so far, so I need to stay healthy and eat well.

Event Information: 

  • A special appearance by Jackson Kaguri, a “CNN Hero” and founding director of the Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project in Uganda. A charismatic storyteller, his nonprofit helps thousands of Ugandan grandmothers who are raising AIDS orphans.
  • A post-event reception with beverages and both Jackson and Paola signing books.
  • A farewell gratitude dance by JoAnne O’Shea, a Canadian grandmother leader who is supporting her sister African grandmothers. 
All book proceeds from Gianturco’s book, Grandmother Power! fund grandmother groups around the world. Gianturco has appeared on Oprah, CNN, NPR, Voice of America, and in a 2014 Ted Talk in Dubai.
  • Guest host is Tony Demin, who has shot stunning photographs around the world for national magazines and advertising campaigns.
  • Tickets are $20 ($15 for National Writers Series Friends and Museum Members). Tickets available at MyNorthTickets.com.

National Writers Series Fall 2016 Schedule


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