Now it its fifth year, the National Geographic All Roads photography program is bringing accomplished work by photographers from around the world to a wider audience than ever before. The photography program, part of the larger All Roads Film Project, supports four photographers each year who are documenting their own indigenous or minority communities and pushes western editors to consider native photographers in lieu of “parachuting in” outside photographers.

This year’s All Roads photographers — Alejandro Chaskielberg from Argentina, Rena Effendi from Azerbaijan, Khaled Hasan from Bangladesh, and Farzana Wahidy from Afghanistan — traveled to the U.S. to be part of the All Roads Film Festival from October 2 to 5 in Washington, D.C. During the festival, their images were displayed outside the National Geographic headquarters while the festival’s films were screened inside the building. This year the photographs will stay on display for an extra month in order to coincide with the D.C.’s inaugural FotoWeek city-wide festival November 15 to 22. The All Roads photography exhibition will also be shown at the Santa Fe Film Festival and Photo Plus Expo in New York City, where organizer and National Geographic fellow Chris Rainier will give a keynote presentation about the program.

National Geographic has also produced a two-hour documentary about the first five years of the photography and film program, which will air on its television channel this year. With the quality of work supported by the program now at a very high level, the documentary and additional events are sure to advance the program’s further goal of increasing audiences for the work.

Although the All Roads photographers were awarded top-notch products from sponsors including Olympus, Lowepro, LiveBooks, PNY, Kingston, Western Digital, Manfrotto, Adobe, and Imaginomics, the most valuable item they walked away with was less tangible. Over two days of seminars, the four emerging photographers learned about every aspect of the western photo industries from top professionals, many of which are also on the program’s advisory board. Andy Patrick, CEO of LiveBooks (which provides free websites for the honorees) explained how to use online tools to reach large audiences; consultant Mary Virginia Swanson talked about marketing and licensing images; Tina Ahrens, a New York-based photo editor for GEO magazine, outlined what photo editors look for from photographers; and Reid Callanan, director of the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, offered pointers on how to continue to develop their creative talents — and offered all of the photographers a free workshop at Santa Fe.

While in the Unites States for the D.C. festival and one in Los Angeles just before, the All Roads photographers were also given the opportunity to meet with photo editors from many top publications. In D.C. they were introduced to National Geographic and National Geographic staffers who perused their work and gave them pointers; these meetings were proved to be anything but lip service earlier this year when 2006 honoree Newsha Tavakolian landed National Geographic Magazine’s August cover story, Persia: Ancient Soul of Iran. After the festival the honorees traveled to New York, where the program’s organizers helped them set up interviews with editors at papers, magazines, and galleries.

The D.C. festival also provided the All Roads photographers a chance to share their work with a wider audience during a symposium at the National Geographic headquarters. Chaskielberg’s images are the least conventionally documentary, but his thoughtful presentation removed any doubt that may have lingered in viewers’ minds. To document immigrant and islander communities in the Buenos Aires Tigre Delta, he recreates scenes at night and photographs them using moonlight and light painting techniques he perfected as a film director of photography and commercial photographer. “I think of my images as stills from movies,” explained Chaskielberg, 30. Working with a 4×5 camera at night, he is forced to wait for hours for the moon to rise in the perfect place and his subjects are forced to hold their poses for minutes during the long exposures. “I like that the bodies take up the inflexibility of a still moment,” he said.

Although the images that earned Rena Effendi, 30, a place among this year’s honorees displayed a masterful understanding of color, she presented an equally accomplished black-and-white series, titled Pipe Dreams, which will be published as a book in 2009. A chronicle of the lives lived around the pipeline that carries oil from her hometown of Baku, Azerbaijan, to a port in Turkey, the project draws stark contrast between the conflict and destitution that reins around the pipe carrying $100 million worth of oil every day.

The final two photographers were trained in schools started by National Geographic Fellows and supporters of the All Roads program, Reza and Shahidul Alam. Hasan, 27, received an advanced diploma in photojournalism from Pathshala: The South Asian Institute of Photography, founded by Alam and turning out award-winning photographers at an impressive rate — another student, Munem Wasif, was given the young reporter’s award at this year’s Visa pour l’Image festival. Hasan’s Living Stone: A Community Losing Its Living Environment documents Bangladesh’s Jaflong community, which lives largely by collecting gravel from the Piyain River.

Wahidy, 24, was first trained in photography at AINA Photojournalism Institute, founded by Reza in Kabul, and she is now in the photojournalism program at Loyalist College in Belleville, Ontario. Although Wahidy has overcome tremendous obstacles to work as a photojournalist in a country that forces to keep women silent and invisible, she also reminded the audience that being an Afghan woman granted her access to a world that few outsiders can photograph. Her project “Afghan Women” deals with difficult realities including self-immolation, child betrothals, and domestic abuse, yet she also strives to highlight the strength and joy that persists within the country’s cloistered women’s communities.

At a Q&A with the photographers after their presentations, the honorees discussed the fact that, although they are dedicated to documenting their own communities, most of them are also interested in documenting other communities near and far. Ecuadorian photographer and All Roads advisory board member Pablo Corral Vega, who gave a touching presentation along with the All Roads photographers, addressed this seeming contradiction with his usual eloquence: “If you know who where you come from, you can go around the world and share those things that you’ve learned.”