A conversation with Katie Orlinsky ’97, to talk about her photography, the issues that matter to her, and the intersection of the two, began with only a minute of niceties before Katie declared, “I love GCS!” She went on, “Teachers at Grace were kind and sweet and really supportive. I remember that even when you were not adept at something, they wouldn’t let you believe it.” Then, an inquiry about Mr. Diveki and the confession: “I was such a bad student. Math and science were not my forte; I was always on the creative side of things. He really believed in me.” She remembered Dr. Wheeler fondly, too, and giggled at the news that his retirement didn’t quite take and he was teaching again at the high school. “I would have loved to have gone to that high school. I think everyone in my class would have loved to have had that chance.”
At 32, Katie Orlinsky has found her stride: she regularly works for the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, Al Jazeera America, La Monde, and a variety of international magazines and non-profit organizations such as Too Young to Wed
, an organization and campaign to end child marriage around the world.
After college, Katie put her political science and Latin American studies degree to practice in Mexico, working for non-profits in Chiapas and Oaxaca. “I was politically active and I always loved photography. I started taking pictures at protests as a way to be a part of history, documenting important events. I realized that I liked taking pictures better than my work.” She took up a job at the local newspaper El Noticias de Oaxaca, and taught herself as she went along. She started getting jobs taking photos for hard news, covering news in New York, natural disasters for NGOs, Central American migration and the drug war in Mexico. “At first I just wanted to be a news photographer, and to hone my skills freelancing in New York City with the goal of then covering historical major news events around the world. I was fortunate enough to become a regular freelancer for the New York Times, and I still am, I love working with the Times. But my goal was to cover international news, not New York City news, and I wanted to feel confident as a skilled journalist across all mediums so that I could tell stories in the best way possible. So I attended Columbia Journalism school as a part-time student while freelancing.
Since then, Katie has documented troubled regions from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico to Port-au-Prince, Haiti to Gaza, PalestineShe’s filmed a lucha libre star (an openly gay wrestler who competes in drag), documented dog mushing across Alaska, and captured the suspended beauty of underwater ballet in California.
“What I love about photojournalism is telling a story through my work. The job is to document the truth as a passive observer, but you do pick which story to tell.” And the stories Katie tells are complex, nuanced and irresistibly human.
While on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project to report on women and Islam in Mali, she captured bold images of women waging a quiet war against a crushing archaic Islamist rule. She writes, “Through small acts of defiance, and determined ingenuity, the women of Timbuktu stood up to the Islamists’ retrograde demands, and kept the unique spirit of their country alive…. The resilience of the country’s women, who refused to shed their colorful and brash personalities, remains a point of pride.”
Most notable is her coverage of the Mexican drug war and the project “Innocence Assassinated” about the living victims of the war, which involved dozens of trips to the region over two years. In Mexico’s infamously dangerous Ciudad Juárez, Katie’s photos for The New York Times take an unblinking look at the feminization of the drug war: the painful realities of women left to fend for themselves in a shattered economy driven by drug cartels, and the thousands of children orphaned over the last decade.
The latest frontier? Alaska. In 2013, the Red Bulletin, a publication covering extreme stories in music, culture and sports took notice of Katie’s work, and assigned her to the Yukon Quest -- a 1,000 mile dog mushing race from the Yukon in Canada to Alaska. She photographed it again this year as well as the Iditarod, another, more famous mushing race across Alaska. Just the logistics of doing her job, tending to lenses and batteries in extended subzero temperatures, was an extreme challenge. But, Katie says, “I got to see so much of Alaska. I fell in love with the landscape of that region; there is some of the most beautiful nature I’d ever seen. There is also a special quality to the light in the cold. And the types of people who choose to live in the middle of nowhere tend to be fascinating people with interesting stories.”
Working with a local writer, Katie has been digging in to the environmental issues articulated so vividly in Alaska. With a grant from the Pulitzer Centre for Crisis Reporting, her next trip will be to explore the changes in subsistence hunting in Alaska due to climate change.
Just back in New York, Katie reflected on coming home from extreme assignments. “It takes a little time. But it’s not like New York City is a boring place to live. I have found that downtime is essential for my health and my relationships, so you just push through the boring parts to get to a place to relax.”
Lately Katie has been expanding into cinematography. She says, “Making short documentaries is a natural extension of photography.” Her films are lyrical, creative storytelling with subjects ranging from ending child marriage in Guatemala, (NYTimes) to an improbably successful night club inCiudad Juarez (New Yorker) to the challenges faced by Hispanic students in the U.S. (Univision).
With awards stacking up, such as the ADC Young Guns Award (2014) , the PDN 30’s New and Emerging Photographers to Watch (2013), the POYI Emerging Vision Incentive Award (2011), the Prix Ani-PixPalace (2010) and the Coup de Couer at Visa Pour L’image (2009), Katie’s is the story to watch.
See more of Katie’s photos and films at gcschool.org/katieorlinsky