The World According to Donna Grosvenor
Donna Grosvenor took a photograph that was included on the Voyager spacecraft, that envoy to the stars—as she herself was an envoy to the cultures she photographed. She adventured as a photographer for National Geographic in the sixties. As a yoga teacher for forty years, she cultivated a flexible attitude towards perfection. She is living with cancer—and suggests one do so with humor, if possible. She'll tell you nothing is more fundamental than the importance of love.
Michael Carychao: [00:00:55] Welcome, Donna Grosvenor.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:00:58] Well, it's always been a delight because I've been speaking with you for a lot of years.
Michael Carychao: [00:01:02] I feel like our conversation has continued even in our absences.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:01:07] Oh, it has, because we have all these connections through my daughter and through your sister, who is my other daughter and lives here in Santa Fe with your beautiful mother. I have all those connections to you and your lovely wife and your boys.
Michael Carychao: [00:01:23] Can you tell us about your name?
Donna Grosvenor: [00:01:28] Well, I've never paid very much attention to heritage. I have to tell you that. But, I do know that William de Grosvenor was with William the Conqueror in 1066. And I guess the name means Fat Hunter. So I guess he was in charge of the hunting for William the Conqueror. I also have Scottish roots. My maiden name, Kerkam, was three generations in the District of Columbia, in Washington, DC.
Michael Carychao: [00:02:01] So you've been a photographer pretty much all your life. Is that right?
Donna Grosvenor: [00:02:06] I wasn't even an amateur photographer, Michael. I went to work for the Geographic after college and met my husband, Gilbert, and we started doing assignments for National Geographic together. And the Geographic photo department decided it would be a great thing if I learned how to take pictures, because I could photograph women that Gilbert couldn't even talk to. You know, this was the 1960s and there were lots of places where women were very sheltered from any publicity or advertising or magazine people. And so I was taken under the wing of the photographers at Geographic, and they taught me how to shoot. I really loved it and I got into it deeply. The head of photography, Bob Gilka, decided he would send me to the Missouri Photo Workshop, which is still going on. It's, I think, in its 70th year.
They would send top photographers from all over the country to a small town in Missouri, a different town every year and the 39 or so participants would be chosen to go to this workshop as students to learn how to do "truth in photography" shooting. There were no posing of pictures. There was no setup allowed. Of course, it's all pre-digital. Photography was very different then. They chose a town called Marshall, Missouri. I was sent there and I had to pick a story to do that was sort of representative of the town. You had to get permission from the person you wanted to shoot the story about, and then you had to get approval from all these top photographers who had come from Life and Look magazine and all these places all around the country to be the faculty at this workshop. It was a week long. I started subscribing to the Marshall, Missouri newspaper about two months before the workshop. I was, of course, petrified because I was a new photographer. I hadn't been shooting very long.
So we went to Marshall, Missouri. I remember getting up at four o'clock in the morning to line up to get my story approved, because I knew other people might be wanting to do the same story, which was on the country veterinarian, because it was a rural community. Lots of cows and pigs and horses.
I was first in line and I got approval and I started following this country vet. You couldn't set up anything, but you could shoot three rolls of film that you turned in at the end of the day and it was processed. Then you'd meet with all the faculty and the students after dinner and they would critique the photographs that had come in and whether it was furthering your story or your essay. And it was brutal. I mean, it was really brutal. But I learned a great deal and I made several new friends and I did get a couple of pictures chosen for the final exhibit. But it was really a trial by fire. But it was very educational. It was very educational.
The most important lesson is "F/8 and Be There." You have to get up early and go and you have to be there to get the photographs.
Michael Carychao: [00:05:36] What were some of the lessons that you learned from those workshops? What did the fire teach you?
Donna Grosvenor: [00:05:44] The most important lesson is "F/8 and Be There."
You have to get up early and go and you have to be there to get the photographs. This was a time when—you know, now you can reshoot everything on your phone or on your digital camera, but then you couldn't do it. If you missed it, you missed it.
So you had to really plan ahead and you really had to have to know what you were aiming for. You had to have an essay in mind. That was great training to do that. I remember following the vet, but I had to ask him first. He was quite attractive. The first thing he did was, he said, "I have to have you meet my wife."
So I had to get the approval of the vet's wife to follow him around for a week.
I had to get up at four o'clock in the morning every day to go out and vaccinate pigs and castrate horses and do all these things that I ended up having to do. It was really very, very enlightening.
I was following him around and we went one day to a cattle auction where he was the visiting vet at the cattle auction. I was walking back among the stalls, where they kept all the animals, and this piglet escaped from one of the stalls. And I, being as naive as I was, carrying my cameras on my shoulder, tried to stop this pig that was running down the aisle.
And this little piglet upended me in about five seconds and I crashed onto the concrete, my cameras falling on all sides, and I took the skin off both my knees. The vet—my vet—came and sprayed my knees with gentian violet, which I don't know if you know about it? It's purple—
Michael Carychao: [00:07:43] I don't know about it.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:07:43] —and it does not come off.
And so when I got back to the Geographic at the end of my photo workshop, Bob Gilka got on the elevator, the day I got in the elevator to go up. He didn't say anything. He just reached over and lifted up the edge of my skirt to see the gentian violet and that's all he needed to do because I found out that he was following everything I was doing at the workshop by just that one gesture.
Michael Carychao: [00:08:19] Right.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:08:19] He was the legendary head of photography at Geographic. He championed women photographers in those days. This was in the sixties and there were not many of us that were out there shooting on assignment. So that was one of my favorite stories about the Geographic, was Bob Gilka lifting up my skirt and not saying a thing.
Michael Carychao: [00:08:44] You could tell it all from that gesture.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:08:46] You really could.
Michael Carychao: [00:08:48] When you're going around on those trips with the veterinarian and you're looking for pictures, what pictures pop out? What images were you looking for?
Donna Grosvenor: [00:08:57] You had to have a sense of what his life was like, what his daily life was like. He started very early and he would go out and he would wear a vest that had syringes and all sorts of things in the pockets, a multi-pocketed vest. He would pull out the syringe and give them a vaccination.
Then he would pull out the knife and cut off the testicles of the pigs and he even gelded a horse while I was there. Those were his sort of typical days. I had pictures of him at the end, walking home with his dog following behind him. It was to give a picture of what his life was like, on a daily basis. But you didn't know from one day to the next what he was going to be doing.
I remember one time we were going to somebody's farm and there was a fence to climb over. The farmer, who was there with us, reached over to help me get over the fence. My veterinarian said, "She doesn't need your help. She can handle herself." That was a nice indication that he figured I was okay and I could do my job. The first thing you learn as a woman photographer is: you better carry your own equipment. You don't ask the guys to carry your cameras. Ever.
The first thing you learn as a woman photographer is: you better carry your own equipment. You don't ask the guys to carry your cameras. Ever.
Michael Carychao: [00:10:25] It's hard to put yourself back into the sixties.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:10:31] It's really hard. The thing is that photography was so different. It was so different. When you went out on assignment, the cheapest commodity was your film, because there was no digital and there was no instant processing. We had to find a pilot—when we were in remote places, in Asia—we'd have to find a Pan-Am pilot who was willing to take our film from us and deliver it to the Geographic.
And then we had photo editors at Geographic who would see the processed film and let us know, by cable or long distance phone call, that we'd gotten the pictures for whatever event it was. We were photographing in tropical places. You had to find a way to keep your film cool, because it could be ruined.
We had to wait days to find out if we got the pictures we were taking. And most of those things were one-shot deals, like the Perahera in Sri Lanka, which was a hundred decorated elephants parading in the streets for this festival. You either got the pictures or you didn't. You were either in the right spot or you weren't.
It was very challenging.
Michael Carychao: [00:11:55] What's it like to shoot blind like that? Do you feel like you're taking pictures differently now that it's a digital age?
Donna Grosvenor: [00:12:02] Oh, sure. Because everybody's doing it now, and it's instant results; but then, you had no idea. So film was your cheapest commodity. We shot a lot of film.
Michael Carychao: [00:12:15] Is there anything that was an advantage to not having the instant feedback of the picture?
Donna Grosvenor: [00:12:25] I would say it kept you on your toes. It definitely kept us on alert. You have to remember that a lot of the places were very exotic places. People were not traveling everywhere. If you were going to Sri Lanka when it was called Ceylon, nobody had been there taking color pictures for 30 years.
They had a new government that was coming in, a democratic government after the communist government. So they were eager to have us be there. We had access that we probably would never have had without that. Of course, Geographic got access because we were nonpolitical. That gave you access in places you couldn't have gotten into. It was very exciting and stressful all at the same time. I actually had been to a couple of places in the North of Bali where they hadn't seen white women. It was just a different world, Michael. It was thrilling for me. I loved every minute of it.
We were doing these assignments together that, if I knew how to take pictures, I could photograph women where there were still many places where women were protected from strangers, and particularly men.
I could photograph women where there were still many places where women were protected from strangers, and particularly men.
Michael Carychao: [00:13:53] What did you see? What did you get access to in the lives of women that otherwise wouldn't have been seen?
Donna Grosvenor: [00:14:02] Everything. Because women's lives are pretty much alike, even in places where they have fewer rights and fewer privileges in the sixties. All the same demands were on women: to have the children and to bear the children and to raise the children. We all had common interests and that was very, very helpful. It gave me access.
Where there was a language barrier, body language always helps. There was a lot of curiosity and it was a very amazing time because so many of the places that I went had not been photographed or done. The first thing we did was to go on the Nile on the boat called the Yankee with Exy and Irving Johnson who sailed their boat on the Nile for a story for Geographic.
We joined that trip and sailed the Nile and this was just at the time when the Aswan Dam was being built. All these villages along the Nile were being evacuated because the water was going to flood them all. We got to walk in these villages that were deserted. The only thing they had to leave behind were their dogs. There were all these wild dogs running around in these villages that were going to be flooded. Signs of their domestic life were everywhere. But there were no people.
Signs of their domestic life were everywhere. But there were no people.
Michael Carychao: [00:15:45] Right.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:15:46] Nobody. As we were sailing the Nile, it was just at the time when they were talking about relocating the temple of Abu Simbel—you know, Ramsey the Second and Nefertari—their temple in Nubia on the Nile was going to be flooded like so many famous temples.
They were just starting to discuss how to disassemble Abu Simbel and rebuild it on a higher ground so that it would survive. It was part of the precursor to a lot of temple-saving all over the world because it worked so well.
I got hoisted off the bowsprit of the Yankee at the feet of Abu Simbel. It was quite an amazing experience. That was in 1964-5.
And then we went to Africa with the Leakey family after that and had wonderful experiences with Louis and Mary Leakey and Richard Leakey, who is now the sort of the older generation of that family. He's still alive and has fought against the ivory trade and all those things—and had his plane blown up.
These were the days when, in Nairobi, the streets were all dirt roads still. And two minutes outside of Nairobi, you were in country that had wild game in it. The new Stanley Hotel—literally there was a dirt driveway up to the door. Ten years later I went back; I wouldn't have known where I was.
I got hoisted off the bowsprit of the Yankee at the feet of Abu Simbel.
Michael Carychao: [00:17:39] You really got to see this transformation.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:17:42] I really did. If you've ever seen Out of Africa, the film, I got to see it just about those days—a little bit later. It was still a wild place and it has become much more urbanized, but it was still wild with their roads right up to the door of the new Stanley Hotel.
When I first went there in '64. '63, I guess.
I wasn't doing the story on the Leakey family, other photographers were doing it. We were there having a trip to meet them and familiarize ourselves. We became very close with Richard at that point and have stayed close with him and our daughter, your friend, Lexie stayed with the family. She named her daughter Samira, which is the name of Richard's daughter—one of his daughters. And they became friends. So that was a lovely connection that was maintained over the years.
The first stories we did were the Nile and Africa with the Leaky's, but we also did a story on Monaco in 1963 and then in Copenhagen in 1964. I remember going to a spa in Copenhagen where they made all the women's strip and jump in this cold pool. Hanging on a rope and jumping in a cold pool. That was a whole new experience me.
I remember going to a spa in Copenhagen where they made all the women's strip and jump in this cold pool.
Then after that we did a story on Sri Lanka, which was still called Ceylon in 1966. No one had done color photographs of it. They had a new westward-leaning prime minister, Dudley Senanayake. And so we had absolute access to the whole country and it is the most beautiful, spectacular place.
There were events like the Perahera with a hundred decorated elephants. I remember once they put me on the back of an elephant and that elephant wanted to go in the water and there was nothing I could do to keep it from going in the water. And the mahouts had to come and help him get out of the water, but I was wet to the hips before they turned him around. That was really exciting.
Michael Carychao: [00:20:15] When you're on assignment like this, do you go back to the States in between?
Donna Grosvenor: [00:20:19] No. It's usually a month or two. A month or two full-tilt. And of course in those days there was no way to buy anything you needed that you didn't have with you from film to personal effects to anything. If you hadn't brought it, you weren't going to get it.
If you hadn't brought it, you weren't going to get it.
Michael Carychao: [00:20:39] What did your travel kit look like? What were some of the essential items?
Donna Grosvenor: [00:20:43] Well, you had to be absolutely sure if you needed any medications, which I didn't then. You had to have that with you. You had to be sure all your camera equipment and film were there. That was the most important thing. And you had to have very wearable, washable clothing and very little of it.
You went lean and mean.
You went lean and mean. Now, you had an extra pair of shoes, for working. That was always critical. And, you had to know— mean, we did a lot of research before we went on these trips. So we knew what the temperatures were likely to be. We knew what altitudes it was going to be, and we prepared accordingly.
Michael Carychao: [00:21:24] So what does this research look like? Are you at National Geographic? Do they have a Research facility?
Donna Grosvenor: [00:21:30] Oh, sure they do. We have researchers who will help you look up stuff and there's a library and there's all of that. They were doing research and we knew what the big events were going to be. You know, you have to do a lot of homework before you go so that you know if there's going to be a Perahera, if there's going to be a festival, if there's going to be whatever it is in the country that's pivotal for their culture. You have to know what that is and how to manage it and what you're going to need to photograph it.
Michael Carychao: [00:22:04] How did your subjects feel about being photographed?
Donna Grosvenor: [00:22:08] Well, you always have to ask permission. That's sometimes easy and sometimes not. You don't want to sneak-photograph people when you're visiting their culture. And usually we have a driver or a guide. One of the first lessons we learned was don't drive on the local roads and streets if you don't know what you're doing. And so we had a driver who could also be a translator. That was very helpful. We always had very, very wonderful people who helped us.
Michael Carychao: [00:22:43] It sounds like such an adventure.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:22:46] It was. I mean, when we first arrived in Sri Lanka we went to an American embassy party the first night just to introduce ourselves and say we were there.
And at that party, we met at local couple who ran what they call Quickshaws, which was the taxi company in Colombo, in Sri Lanka, in Ceylon. And they invited us to come and live at their house instead of living in a hotel. It made all the difference for us. We lived in their house for two months. They introduced us to all sorts of things and exposed us and told us how to research lots of things. They were very well informed about their culture and their history. The one thing that we learned very quickly was that, in Sri Lanka, the food, the curry, can be extremely hot.
This wife and husband ate completely different temperature foods at their table. She took it five times as hot as he did. And so they got separate dishes and she would always warn me which dishes I would probably not want to taste. There was a pasta dish called string hoppers that they served with almost every meal.
And she would say, take a healthy portion of string hoppers before you eat this dish or that dish. So I got an education on many levels from living in a home in Sri Lanka. They became friends and came to visit us in Washington. It was a great connection.
Michael Carychao: [00:24:26] It almost sounds like you're an ambassador between cultures.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:24:30] Well, you are. You absolutely are. And if you do it well, you'll be invited back. And if you don't do it well, you won't. You really won't. There was always that element to it, that ambassadorial element, and that courtesy for the culture; that you offer great courtesy for the culture. And that you know what's forbidden. You don't eat with your left hand—my husband, Gilbert and I, we're both left-handed and in many Asian cultures, that's the dirty hand. If you reach for food with that hand at the communal table, nobody else will eat. You have to know those things before you go or you screw up.
Michael Carychao: [00:25:21] Were there any things that your research didn't prepare you for, that you were surprised at in the field?
Donna Grosvenor: [00:25:26] The universality of womanhood was reinforced for me everywhere I went. If you could connect with the women—we all had mutual connection points and it was not so foreign. It really wasn't. I don't know if that was true for Gilbert with the men, but it certainly was true with the women.
The next assignment was actually Bali. We went to Bali. I was really doing a lot of photography then, in that story. That was 1969 and nobody had been to Bali. Of course now, every other day, there are twenty trips to Bali. A man named Covarrubius has written a book about Bali, twenty years before, and said it was on its way to its demise.
When we got there, that was not true. But now I think it is true. Everybody goes to Bali. And when I was there in '69, there was nobody on the beaches. They had these magnificent beaches and nobody was on them because their demons lived in the sea and so only the fishermen went in the sea.
They had these magnificent beaches and nobody was on them because their demons lived in the sea and so only the fishermen went in the sea.
Michael Carychao: [00:26:26] And bravely.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:26:30] That's completely changed. And now everybody goes to Bali. I don't know, I haven't been. I never wanted to go back after all that started because I felt like I got to see the original. I feel very blessed that I got to see all these places before it was so easy.
Michael Carychao: [00:27:00] What did you see there that is not really there to be seen anymore?
In Bali, everything was a work of art.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:27:06] In Bali, everything was a work of art: your placemat for your dining table, which was usually a woven piece of some sort of leaf or branch. Everything was considered an art form. It was really an amazing shift in awareness to see that, to see a culture where everything was considered an act of beauty.
Michael Carychao: [00:27:38] Now I'm thinking of your living spaces and I've seen a number of your living spaces and they are always works of art. You look around everywhere and you can feel the collection of beauty. Is that something that started with your exposure to these cultures?
Donna Grosvenor: [00:27:54] I hope so. It certainly began my exploration of what women in the world considered beautiful. Their jewelry and their clothing I always considered to be wearable art. I have collected quite a bit of it on my travels because—and I wear it all the time because I love wearing their aesthetic.
Michael Carychao: [00:28:21] You really are a gallery.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:28:24] I do love that. And I think that was accentuated with every trip.
Michael Carychao: [00:28:30] Tell us for a moment about your approach to jewelry and clothing, because it really is magnificent. I've never seen anyone dress with the magnanimity that you can pull off.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:28:41] I always thought of it as women's aesthetic. You wear what you think is beautiful and you honor what you think is beautiful and not only the craftsmanship, but the fact of putting those things together as they did, the pieces. I always figured I was wearing the aesthetic of another culture—with pride. I also thought they were very beautiful. So it affected me deeply, always.
I was wearing the aesthetic of another culture—with pride.
Michael Carychao: [00:29:15] In these early trips were there things that you were already collecting?
Donna Grosvenor: [00:29:18] I would look for things that caught my eye: fabrics and pieces of design, actually. It was more design than it was anything else. Sometimes I would bring home things that I converted into jewelry to wear. Artifacts. For instance, there's a piece that I have, that's a woman's piece from the Island of Flores in Indonesia, and it has symbols of women's tribal affiliations on it. I had a friend of mine, who's a jeweler in Santa Fe, one of my closest friends, make it into a necklace for me. And so I wear that all the time and it's a really beautiful piece of silver, but it wasn't originally done as a necklace. It was just an artifact and I had it made into it. So there's a lot of that that I've done.
Michael Carychao: [00:30:13] Santa Fe is wonderful for jewelry.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:30:15] It's a multicultural place. At least it was. It's hard to walk the streets during COVID, because it's all so closed down and—
Michael Carychao: [00:30:24] Yeah, it's heartbreaking.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:30:25] I mean, we're all going through it. Change is inevitable.
I think it's hardest on the kids. I suffer for them not being able to see their friends. I mean, not being able to be in classrooms together. My grandkids are: Samira is every other week in class, and Wyatt goes every week, but it's a small group with the same teacher, which is probably okay.
But it limits their exposure. To other avenues of friendship.
Michael Carychao: [00:31:01] Yeah. My kids are all on Zoom, very distant.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:31:04] Yeah, yeah. I think it's toughest on the really little kids who don't get to see the facial expressions that are so indicated in language and communication. These kids see faces with masks on them all the time.
Michael Carychao: [00:31:22] I mean, potentially what that does is accentuate the eyes, but that seems a little poetic to me. I think that really you're right.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:31:30] They're missing a lot of markers for cultural exposure and for communication and bonding.
They're missing a lot of markers for cultural exposure and for communication and bonding.
Michael Carychao: [00:31:40] The screen world is very thin.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:31:42] Well, I have been so grateful for high tech in the time of COVID because it makes me able to visit with my grandchildren who are the greatest gift of my life, by the way. They have kept me joyful and full of laughter and I can help them break little rules, have secrets with them and feel like I've—
Michael Carychao: [00:32:00] That's what grandmas are for.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:32:05] Yeah, that's what we're for. And it's just so wonderful. I mean, that has been this amazing gift to my life.
Michael Carychao: [00:32:15] Will you tell me about the kids in these very different cultures that you were exploring?
Donna Grosvenor: [00:32:21] I didn't have that much exposure to the children. There were villages where children had never seen a white woman and they wanted to touch my skin and they would follow me, but I never had that much exposure. In most of the cultures that were exotic then, family was very tight and there were lots of aunties and uncles and other members who participated in the raising of the kids. It was very communal. It's the way a lot of early cultures have lived that I think is the right way. I think it's the best way. So that if something happens to your real parents, you have aunts and uncles who take over the role immediately. I think it was a much wiser way to live. And I think our isolation is one of our saddest aspects of life now. It's also alienating and it creates things like Q Anon, because it's anonymous and it's impersonal and you can get away with deceptions and lies and have lots of people believe them.
Michael Carychao: [00:33:39] Right, stuff you could never get away with face to face. So let's follow you on your travels some more.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:33:43] Where do you want to go?
Michael Carychao: [00:33:44] I want to to go everywhere.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:33:50] So you'd go home to Washington and write the stories and see how the photographs were being laid out and you'd put your assignment together in between, and then you'd go out again. So it was usually a couple of months in the field and then home to put it together. Then you go out again for another four or five months. Most of the time we did. I would say we got to pick and we could come up with stories and suggest them, too.
Michael Carychao: [00:34:23] What was it about the early sixties that opened up the world to photography?
Donna Grosvenor: [00:34:29] I think it was just that there were still a lot of places. I mean, in terms of the Geographic anyway, there were still places that people had not been to, that very few people had visited. You had the chance to present these places—whether that was a good thing or a bad thing in retrospect, making people want to go in hordes and numbers. There were still places that were reachable and exotic that nobody had seen. That was thrilling. It was so exciting to go to these places and know that very few people had ever been—western culture anyway.
You had the chance to present these places—whether that was a good thing or a bad thing in retrospect, making people want to go in hordes and numbers.
Michael Carychao: [00:35:11] And, it gets to go through your eyes.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:35:13] Yeah. And you got to present it. That was thrilling for me.
We went to Siberia when Russia was still very closed up, but they want a Geographic to do a book for them and they gave permission. We got to go on a reconnoitering trip to Russia, to the Soviet Union, but it was a time when you did not talk in the car with your driver about anything political. You never wanted to compromise them because they could lose their job if you did.
That was really an interesting experience to be there where you had to be so careful about everything you said and did. One night there was someone coming into—this was in Leningrad—coming there to town, some dignitary or some government person, and all of a sudden, in our room, at our door, arrived these KGB guys.
They had to come in and sit in our room because we had a balcony that looked out on the street where this dignitary was going to pass and they came into our room and stayed there for a couple of hours. We had nothing to say about it. We could not have told them to go. That was challenging.
We would go driving around to visit places and they would already have reservations for us at the hotels where we stopped—where we hadn't made a reservation, if you know what I mean. They knew ahead where we were going to be. It was very unnerving.
Michael Carychao: [00:37:02] But then you managed to get out into Siberia and what's it like out there?
Donna Grosvenor: [00:37:07] We went on the Trans-Siberian. It was amazing. I got to see a wooly mammoth that had been pulled out of the—
Michael Carychao: [00:37:15] Wow.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:37:15] —ice and was in a refrigerated cage.
Michael Carychao: [00:37:20] What does a wooly mammoth look like?
Donna Grosvenor: [00:37:23] He looks like a really huge elephant.Very furry. And that was all intact because he'd been frozen. I loved Russia. I would have spent more time in Russia. I loved the Russians, but it was a very tricky time. I remember one night, we all—we were there with Dean Conger and his wife, a photographer, and his wife who was going to do this Russia book for geographic—and so one night we decided to take a cable car up to this restaurant outside of Moscow, and we took the cable car up.
When we finished dinner, we decided we might want to walk down instead of taking the cable car. So we started walking down this hill from the restaurant and all of a sudden we heard this dog growling and barking. And it was dark. We had no idea where this dog was. We were walking down this hill and we kept hearing this dog get louder and louder. All of a sudden he was pulled back on a neck chain. So he was on a sliding chain that was going across this hill we were walking down. We had to figure out a way to get past the dog on the chain.
So we did decoys. Gilbert went one direction and lured the dog and we jumped over the chain and then he would come back. It was just scary. We had no idea if we were going to be shot or put in prison. Anyway, it was not a very good idea, but we lived through it.
Michael Carychao: [00:39:11] So you get out into Siberia and the people start to thin out and so what's living there?
Donna Grosvenor: [00:39:20] I mean, there are big communities you know? Novosibirsk is the big science community in Siberia. And then we went to a lumbering camp in Siberia. So there were lots of people living there with their four-ply windows. Four layers of glass; I'll never forget that, for the winters.
You really had to drink vodka with everybody, unless you said you were an alcoholic.
It was a very rough culture in those days in the late sixties. And lots of vodka being consumed. You really had to drink vodka with everybody, unless you said you were an alcoholic. Being a non-drinker, I either had to claim I was an alcoholic, so I didn't have to drink the vodka, or I had to drink the vodka. It was a tough choice. I would have a sip, but I wouldn't indulge, like most of the people were forced to do. It was tricky because there's all this hospitality thing, you know, that you have to honor your host.
Michael Carychao: [00:40:22] Do you feel like at this point you're getting more and more used to arriving in a new culture more and more able to pick up the customs and the habits and the manner?
Donna Grosvenor: [00:40:33] More every day. And thank God we are here. I am so grateful to have food and shelter and a place to be and friends I can communicate with, because I think so many people are suffering so much.
Michael Carychao: [00:40:56] Yeah. There are a lot of things we haven't figured out about how to live together well.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:41:01] No, we haven't.
Michael Carychao: [00:41:01] Is there any lesson from that time of travel for you in what we could do?
Donna Grosvenor: [00:41:08] You know, if you had ever told me there would be a whole group of people who believe that alien lizard people are running the government and killing children and babies, and people are believing it, I would have said, "You're crazy. Nobody who's in Congress is going to say things like that."
Right? But it's true. And so it's an absolutely baffling time for me to look at that and to hear that and to think that there are really people out there, lots of people believing these things. How does that happen? How did those lies get perpetrated and believed? I don't know. It's terrifying.
Michael Carychao: [00:41:57] It's terrifying and a mystery.
Michael Carychao: [00:42:00] One of the things that we need to do is find a way to stay connected with each other and not further isolate.
One of the things that we need to do is find a way to stay connected with each other and not further isolate.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:42:07] And not further isolate because that's what perpetrates a lot of it. I know it does. I did teach yoga for forty years, which certainly has helped me zen a lot of this.
Michael Carychao: [00:42:21] Do you remember when you first picked up yoga? Were you exposed to it in the East?
Donna Grosvenor: [00:42:22] I was exposed to it in India years before on one of our trips. And I came home to Annapolis to try and find a teacher and I couldn't find a yoga teacher. Finally my friend, Marilyn Colborne in Annapolis, we wanted to teach seniors because we thought that would be such a great thing for them to have.
And we started teaching, but we first went to the Himalayan Institute in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, and took classes with Rodney Yee and Patricia Walden. And Patricia Walden was particularly interested in our teaching seniors at that time, because I don't think many people were doing it. I loved Rodney because he always believed that forward, backward, downward, and sidewards our directions not distances.
I loved Rodney because he always believed that forward, backward, downward, and sidewards are directions not distances.
That was basically the way I wanted to teach yoga: that it's not how deep your bend is or how perfect the arch of your back is, but it's the intention of doing it. It always has an appeal and I always had full classes, but I came from a place where we were the only game in town, my partner and I in Annapolis.
And there were forty yoga teachers in Santa Fe—but nobody was teaching seniors. I happened to meet a wonderful guy named Michael Hopp who had the same philosophy that I had. We taught together around Santa Fe until he started the Yoga Center and I taught there and then Michael tragically died very young but I've kept on teaching for another thirty years here.
My approach to yoga was really that it's: whatever your body is ready to do, it will do, and you can't push it. You can learn these postures, but you don't have to do them as deeply as the guys who are teaching it on TV, you know? I modified a lot of postures for seniors. I did a lot of postures from the legs-up-the-wall position.
It was really great for older students to see a person who was also a senior doing the teaching, not some twenty-three-year-old with the perfect body, you know? So that really helped. I just always had wonderful, loyal students. They stayed with me and I kept teaching right up until I was diagnosed with cancer.
I found my tumor lying in my Tuesday yoga class. I reached down and said, "Well, that feels weird." And the next day I went to my doctor and he sent me for a CAT scan. Three days later, I was in Salt Lake with Lexi. She had lined up a whole medical team for me and I started my first chemo, which I always swore I wouldn't do.
But then I decided I would like to have as much time with my children and grandchildren as I could. So I did it. I did three chemos before surgery, and then I had this massive surgery where they took everything out that I could spare, including my spleen. Then I had three chemos after the surgery.
Then I came home—it's over a year ago now—from Salt Lake and I was hoping that it wouldn't reoccur, but it did. So I'm living with cancer now.
Fortunately, I have no pain and I'm just: every day is an adventure. I'm grateful for every day that I have. I had several friends who had had cancer and I thought I knew what they'd been through. I had no idea, Michael. No idea. And I apologize to all of them for thinking I knew. My heart was in the right place, but I really didn't know.
I had several friends who had had cancer and I thought I knew what they'd been through. I had no idea.
Michael Carychao: [00:46:38] Can you express now something that you've learned about it?
Donna Grosvenor: [00:46:42] Yeah. I've learned that as scary as it might be, there is no point in moping around. You might as well enjoy to the fullest everything that's left and make it easy for people to talk about it with you. I find people are so nervous about cancer. They don't know what to ask you. They don't know what to say.
So if you make it funny it really helps people, if you make a joke of it. I remember I was at Lexi's and her nanny, who I became very close to, named Juju. I picked up a piece of sweetener—Splenda—to put in my ice tea. And she said, "You know, that stuff will give you cancer." And we got laughing so hard that I use that as sort of the format for everything from then on: that you have to be able to laugh about it.
You have to be able to laugh about it.
So that's what I've done—I've tried to do, anyway. The other thing I've learned is that it's really fun to give away stuff while everybody's still alive and happy. And so the kids came out and I gave them clothing and jewelry and all the fun things and told them all the stories about the artifacts from all over the world.
It was just the most joyful ten days to have that with them. I had written it all down in a notebook, and that was helpful too, but it was so much fun; because it's not going to be fun for them after I'm gone, you know, they're going to be sad. So that's what I recommend. Give it all away before you go.
Give it all away before you go.
Because it's a most joyful thing to do. Then you can enjoy the sharing of it.
I had one friend who called me recently and she was describing who she was talking to, to somebody who was in the room with her. And she said, "My friend's dying of cancer." I said, "No, Barbara. I am not dying of cancer. I am living with cancer." And that's a huge difference. It's a huge difference.
I am not dying of cancer. I am living with cancer.
And it is. Of course I do know that not having pain is one of the key elements. I don't know how well I'd be doing it if I was in constant pain, but I'm not. I am so grateful for every day, every day that I have. And, you know, I didn't have children, Michael, for ten years. I was so grateful that I got them.
Michael Carychao: [00:49:19] A lot of your friends were having families and you were having these adventures.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:49:23] They all had families. But all my friends had ten-year-olds.
Michael Carychao: [00:49:26] And that unusual.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:49:28] It was unusual. It was a little bit isolating for me because nobody else had toddlers, you know, they all had ten-year-olds. So in that sense, it was a little bit: you're on your own. But I also was much more experienced and I'd had all these wonderful travel adventures, so I wasn't feeling like I'd given up anything to have children, or that I'd been deprived of anything. Just the contrary: I had had my career. After I had kids, I started doing children's books, which I still could travel for short times. Go for a week and come back. That worked really well.
Michael Carychao: [00:50:00] To Assateague, wasn't that one of the spots?
Donna Grosvenor: [00:50:05] Yeah, exactly. I did children's books on the Wild Ponies and on a few: Baby Animals and Pandas.
I did those which had manageable travel times of about a week or so, or ten days. That was great. I could do that. Then I went digital. I've helped Chris, my partner of 41 years, with his books. He's a writer. I did photography for his books over the years, which was really fun.
Michael Carychao: [00:51:00] Chris is amazing. Chris White.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:51:05] I mean, we had a great time, doing a lot of the same things that I did with Geographic, you know, but meeting the women and getting to know them and helping sort of cement his position with their husbands and stuff. That was really effective, especially in places like Maine, where the communities are fairly tight, you know. They don't often open up to everybody.
You have to prove your worth and prove that you're sincere about what you're doing.
You have to prove your worth and prove that you're sincere about what you're doing. That made it easier. Because we went to communities which were tight little communities: Maine and Montana to do the glaciers. So that's always been fun.
Michael Carychao: [00:51:38] Well, you're irresistible.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:51:40] Well, I don't know about that, but thank you for saying so.
Michael Carychao: [00:51:44] You're so energetic and lovely. The light comes through your eyes. Have you always been that way?
Donna Grosvenor: [00:51:51] I think I have. I mean, from what people tell me anyway, when I was little. I've always loved people and I've always had high energy and sometimes I notice people crossing the street to get out of my energy field.
I have. But I've always had tremendous support. All my life, my parents, my grandparents, and the first guys at Geographic, everybody. Both my partners have always been supportive. And that is huge. That's huge because I know people whose families have not been supportive of what they chose to follow as their dreams.
And it's really tough. It's really tough. Not to have had that. I am so grateful for it. I've always had support. Even in a time when it wasn't the thing that most women were doing, I was still being supported in whatever I chose to do. That's a lot to be able to say. It is. It really is. And I appreciate—I think appreciating your life and the people that you love and the things that have been given to you is really key.
I think appreciating your life and the people that you love and the things that have been given to you is really key.
I have always been appreciative and I think that has made a difference, too.
Michael Carychao: [00:53:17] I think you're right. That that is a key to you. That is a special key to you: that when you get in the Donna sphere, when you get close to you, you feel appreciated. You, in particular, do not ignore people. You let them in and you're always very generous with your with attention.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:53:40] Well, I've always been grateful that they wanted it. That's the other side of it. You have to be—you have to want them to be in, too, you do. I think some people are much more private and they don't really want all that interaction—and I've always relished it.
Michael Carychao: [00:54:00] I'm curious about all these years of yoga, if you had any teachers along the way that helped you build your philosophy
Donna Grosvenor: [00:54:08] Oh, yeah. Originally I did a workshop with Rodney Yee and Patricia Walden. They were originals before yoga was this hot thing, you know? When yoga was new and people were finding their way with it. I just believed in what they were saying: that it wasn't how far you could stretch. It was when your body was ready to do it. That really made a difference teaching seniors. Because there was no competition. There was no competitive edge in the class—and it was a senior doing it. If I had a day when I felt stiff, I would tell them, I said, "I cheated. I didn't practice for three days and I'm paying for it." And so that made it okay for everybody to not be totally fastidious about their practice.
Michael Carychao: [00:55:09] Is there a pose that is, like, your pose? Do you have any favorites?
I want you to try to do it, but I can't do it anymore because it'll pop my hip out.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:55:16] No, not really. After I had a hip replacement, there were a couple of things that I was not allowed to do anymore. And I would tell them, I said, "I want you to try to do it, but I can't do it anymore because it'll pop my hip out." So there were all those things, the modification process that I always gave permission for. If you have certain injuries or if you have limitations because of something that is happening in your body, we can modify the postures around those limitations. You can still do a practice, but it doesn't have to be the perfect deep practice that you might've done before the injury or before this happened. That always gave me flexibility and I think it appealed to my students too.
I always ended with a poem or a meditation, and I introduced a lot of people to Mary Oliver. I would usually do a poem of hers at the end of my classes. I've always felt that it was the supreme artform of writing: lean and specific.
Michael Carychao: [00:56:27] It's just like a photographer traveling lean through the exotic countryside.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:56:31] Yeah. It's all part of the same moment. The love of those things is all connected. It's all connected. I've always felt that. You know, it sounds really simple and probably naive, but I believe everything, everything—and it's more convincing to me every day of my life—that love is the basis of everything. Loving what you do. Loving who you love. Loving your children. Loving your work. Loving your cat. Love is the essence of everything. And it sounds too simple to be true, but I really don't believe it is. I believe it's everything.
Loving what you do. Loving who you love. Loving your children. Loving your work. Loving your cat. Love is the essence of everything.
Michael Carychao: [00:57:12] So how do you love well?
Donna Grosvenor: [00:57:14] Try to curb judgment and be open and embracing of other people's thoughts and ideas. I'd have a little trouble with a couple of the people in Congress right now, but . . . No, I think you just have to leave yourself open. You really do.
Michael Carychao: [00:57:34] And that can be scary.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:57:38] Well, it can be. I have never found it really scary. But I'm sure it is scary. I mean, it can be scary. But I think you're not going to learn anything unless you're open. I was so lucky to be exposed to all that very early on in my life. I went to National Cathedral School in Washington. I was raised in Washington, DC. We had international students from all over the world. So I was exposed to all these cultural influences very early on in my life. I can remember saying to my parents, "If you didn't want me to be this flaming liberal, you shouldn't have sent me to that school!"
If you didn't want me to be this flaming liberal, you shouldn't have sent me to that school!
I had this early exposure to multicultural experiences and it really made the difference in my life. It continues to make a difference. And I'm so grateful for it. So grateful. You know, when we were at Cathedral School, we'd go to the cathedral. It was non-sectarian. But we would go to the cathedral every Friday, as a school body, and we'd hear people like Haile Selassie. They would be speaking at the cathedral for our Friday service. We had all of this wonderful exposure. That's made a real difference in my life. It really did.
Michael Carychao: [00:58:57] You really helped bring the world of color to many readers, many people.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:59:07] Well. That was really exciting. To know you were being the first to bring color photographs. Yeah, it was very exciting. I guess one of the most exciting things for me, Michael, is that I had a photograph chosen that's on the Voyager spacecraft.
I had a photograph chosen that's on the Voyager spacecraft.
Michael Carychao: [00:59:22] Amazing. Voyager is way out there now. So tell us about this photo.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:59:28] That photograph of a Balinese dancer that's on the Voyager spacecraft will last longer than our planet. This is just pretty awesome. I think.
Michael Carychao: [00:59:38] Wow.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:59:40] It really gives me great humility.
Michael Carychao: [00:59:42] It's flying out there among the stars with Carl Sagan's mixtape.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:59:46] Yes, it is. It's right up there with Carl Sagan, which is really exciting.
Michael Carychao: [00:59:54] It's amazing. So, bring us back to that moment, if you can, when you took that picture.
Donna Grosvenor: [00:59:57] Well, I was in Bali and they were doing night dances. Balinese dancers. I just shot this photograph of this beautiful Balinese dancer. The lighting was just right. I love the photograph, but I had no idea that it would be chosen. That's a kind of an eternal moment, isn't it?
Michael Carychao: [01:00:21] It's beautiful.
Donna Grosvenor: [01:00:22] It's all about love. If you can't find that you have to go search for it. You have to search for it. You have to make it something that is a part of everything in your life. Because if it isn't, you're never going to work hard enough, or dream hard enough, or reach hard enough into whatever it is that's presented to you.
Find the good stuff. People have been shy to talk to me about cancer because they feel like they have to be so sober and down about it. And I said, "Don't be ridiculous." That would be a horrible way to spend my last days. And I have no idea. I've already lived longer than they said I would.
So if the doctor says you have five months to live, forget that. Forget that. Live your life. And live as long as you can, because it could be today when you step out your front door. You better live in the moment because you don't know whether you get another one. You really don't know.
Michael Carychao: [01:01:35] Teach us more about how you would like to see people interact with someone who has cancer.
Donna Grosvenor: [01:01:41] I'd like everybody to be lighter about it. I mean, it's a horrible diagnosis, but on the other hand, none of us knows what's going to take us out. I've had a very long, rich life. I don't think I've been cheated of anything. So whatever it takes me—something's going to take everybody.
I just don't think there's any point in moping around about it. It's a very different thing if you're in constant pain and if you have to be doped up and so far, I haven't had to take anything. And I have no pain. So I'm speaking from a place that feels fairly normal. You know what I mean?
I just think we need to be in the moment as much as we can, no matter what our diagnoses are.
I don't feel like my life has been snatched from me. I take a rest every afternoon, but I'd probably be doing that anyway at eighty-two, you know? I just think we need to be in the moment as much as we can, no matter what our diagnoses are. It was harder at the beginning when my cancer came back, you know? It made us feel like everything was first and last time. I put up our Christmas tree and felt like, maybe I'll never put it up again, our little table tree. But you get over that.
You just start feeling like: if you wake up and you feel like getting out of bed, great. It's a victory. I have my beloved partner and my beautiful children and grandchildren and friends and your sister and your mother who call me all the time. We had lunch together. All of those things are wonderful. Even in the face of all this COVID and restrictions and everything else. I'm just so grateful that I'm not wondering where my next meal is coming from and whether I'll never have a roof over my head, like so many millions of people are feeling.
So gratitude is right up there on the top of my list. I think everybody is different. Everybody faces things in a different way, but I think it's definitely gotten easier for Chris and me to look at cancer and you know what we have left in our time. He spoils me much too much, but—
Michael Carychao: [01:04:11] That sounds kind of nice.
Donna Grosvenor: [01:04:12] Yeah, it's very nice. I don't know, Michael, I'm just doing it the way it seems the right way to do it for me. It may not be the right way for everyone, but I wish that it would be as joyful for everyone as it is for me.
Because it is joyful. I mean, it sounds strange to say, but it is. I'm going out joyfully and whenever that is—and nobody knows. I mean, nobody knows.
Michael Carychao: [01:04:40] Nobody knows. And we all have the same diagnosis.
Donna Grosvenor: [01:04:43] Absolutely. We're all going to die. Yeah. It's out there waiting for everybody. But how we do it and when we do it is, is anybody's guess. I've learned that and it's a little scary at first. When the cancer comes back and you're feeling so good and you're having such high energy, and then you get this funny little pain again at the place where it started, like a stitch in my side.
Then you go and have a CAT scan and: oops, it's back. But it's back very mildly. Who knows where it will take me. And when. Anyway, I'm grateful. And I just love having this conversation with you.
Michael Carychao: [01:05:35] It's so fun to travel across your life and just sample some of these amazing experiences.
Donna Grosvenor: [01:05:44] Well, I was just so grateful. I'm so grateful that I got to do a lot of these things. Gilbert is trying to finish a book about the early days in the Geographic and how we felt about all these things. We've talked a lot about it: how exciting it was and how different it is now for travelers. Traveling used to be an exotic adventure; now it's a pain in the butt.
It is. We still got our luggage searched in all these places, but it was pretty exotic places. There were places where we had the land at three o'clock in the morning because otherwise the tarmac was melted from the heat.
Michael Carychao: [01:06:31] Wow.
Donna Grosvenor: [01:06:33] I love it that Gilbert and I are still close and talk all the time. And commiserate on stuff and how it's changed and—
Michael Carychao: [01:06:41] It's one of the great gifts that you can give, because you can see decades.
Donna Grosvenor: [01:06:46] Well, yeah, that's the advantage of getting to eighty-two.
Michael Carychao: [01:06:50] You talk about isolation. A lot of the people who are aging in our society have been isolated and a lot of that wisdom and perspective is—
Donna Grosvenor: [01:07:00] Is gone. I think these podcasts of yours are wonderful idea. People recording their histories. It's such a great thing do.
Michael Carychao: [01:07:15] Oh, I mean, I love you.
Donna Grosvenor: [01:07:21] I love you, too. Always have. Those were amazing things that we did. and I loved every minute of it. Every minute.
Thanks for joining us and exploring the world according to Donna Grosvenor, for show notes and links to recommendations that came up in conversation. Visit TheWorldAccording.to/DonnaGrosvenor. This is your host, Michael Carychao. Wishing your world the very best.