A community of optimists hosted by Melinda French Gates

Katie Jett Walls is a documentary photographer based in Washington DC. In addition to taking amazing photographs for families and lots of everyday interesting things that cross her path, Katie also produces documentary projects that explore the effects of systemic challenges on individuals and groups.

Katie’s projects have taken her to Puerto Rico, to document communities hardest hit by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and to Queens, NY, following an HIV+ veteran navigating the city’s health services and eviction protections. In 2019, she began a long-term exploration of the “Black Belt” in the US South and the legacy of white supremacy in that region and in herself.

Katie’s work has crossed the boundary between documentary and fine art, as both her family and documentary work have been shown in juried gallery exhibitions throughout the United States.

In 2018, Katie launched Confluence Magazine, to highlight the documentary projects of diverse and emerging visual storytellers, and connect them with gatekeepers in media and publishing. Katie also does freelance photo editing for other publications. It has been said that “Photographs teach us how to read photographs.” It’s true that students of photography learn what makes a meaningful image by looking at the images already made. Given this recursive tendency, it’s vital that we actively enlarge the field of photography to include the voices of more diverse storytellers and more varied stories. Making this happen requires curiosity, willingness to explore a fresh photographic “language”, and a certain delight in pushing boundaries in the pursuit of work created by photographers of color, female and female-identifying, globally diverse and expansive in subject matter. These goals are guideposts in Katie’s own photography and in her photo editing work.

Katie is a mom to a precocious second grader and wife to an adventurous computer nerd. She began her photography journey when, at age 26, she inherited her grandfather’s old Minolta SRT201 film camera, and ran away to photography school. When she’s not looking at, writing about, or talking about photography, she might be found camping, perfecting her sourdough techniques, or hiding out with a moody British crime novel.


What inspires you to do the work you do?

Curiosity is often a starting point for me, and a deep desire to connect. Connecting with the world and people around us wasn’t a part of my upbringing, so as an adult I’ve had a thirst to engage deeply, understand and really see. The camera is such a powerful gateway to seeing things for yourself, and for helping others to see too. I’m inspired by the power of photography to change how people see others. James Baldwin said, “The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even but a millimeter the way people look at reality, then you can change it.”

What are you most proud of?

My tenacity. In spite of not having a formal education, I’ve enjoyed deeply satisfying and useful jobs even before my photography career, and once I began to work in photography, found both my voice and the confidence to pursue the work I wanted to do in spite of obstacles that I find in my way. I’ve constructed my education as I go, and have been a lifelong learner.

On Sunday afternoons, you can find me...

Planning the week out in my bullet journal - from the dinners we’ll eat and my son’s schedule to the next steps in my main projects for the week and month. Short and long term goals. My whole life is in there. I might also be reading, and probably wondering if it’s five o’clock yet because a gin and tonic seems like a great idea.

Please share a favorite quote.

“I never lose. I either win, or I learn.” — Nelson Mandela