Gator Nation News

The Accidental Nat Geo Star

Dr. Nina Mayer Ritchie and her husband, Dr. Eric Ritchie, are both double Gators with a shared love of photography. “I got to share my creative passion with the love of my life,” says Nina, who is one of three finalists in National Geographic’s “Next Great Storyteller” competition.

A reservation doctor – and photography contest finalist – finds joy and healing in nature.

A medical doctor in Chinle, Ariz., the geographic center of the Navajo Nation, Gator Doctor Nina Mayer Ritchie (BS ’04, MD ’08) considers herself an “extreme amateur” when it comes to photography.

“I’ve never taken a photography class,” she said in a recent interview. “Everything has been self-taught, from reading my camera manuals to looking up stuff online.”

So when National Geographic and Mazda kicked off an Instagram contest in October 2019 to search for Nat Geo’s “Next Great Storyteller,” Mayer Ritchie submitted five of her best nature photographs and forgot about it, figuring she had as much as a snowball’s chance in the Arizona desert.

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I think that [nature photography] was almost a reaction formation to how stressful and demanding the work and medicine are. … When I wasn’t in the hospital, I was trying to reconnect to that little girl who loved nature and being outside.

— Dr. Nina Mayer Ritchie —

Then came the call in January 2020: Of the thousands of photographers who had submitted work, Mayer Ritchie had been chosen as one of the three winners. The judges were wowed by her dramatic photos of colorful canyons, a lightning storm and a bear catching salmon midstream.

“It was surreal,” she laughed. “I’ve never won anything before.”

Her own mother refused to believe it at first, Mayer Ritchie said. “She was like, ‘Are you sure this is Nat Geo? Maybe it’s a scam. You didn’t give them your social security number, did you?’”

Things happened fast after that.

Bidding goodbye to her husband, fellow Gator Doctor Eric Ritchie (BS ’04, MD ’08), and their sons Henry, 5, and James, 3, she was flown a couple of weeks later to Los Angeles. There, she and the other two Instagram winners competed in three on-location photography challenges, or “Quests,” as Nat Geo calls them, visually interpreting three themes: Master Craftsman (Takumi), Unique Reflections and Uplifted.

Their evolution as visual storytellers was documented by three separate film crews, with photography mentors from Nat Geo and Mazda guiding the gifted amateurs. The winner will receive a professional assignment from Nat Geo Travel.

The resulting 44-minute competition reality show, “Assignment: Inspiration,” airs on the National Geographic Channel September 17. Not even Mayer has seen it yet, so she doesn’t know if any scenes of her wearing her Gators baseball cap – which she brought with her to Los Angeles – made it to the final cuts.

“I’m waiting to see the sneak peek, just like everyone else,” she said.

Born and raised in Tarpon Springs, Mayer Ritchie grew up loving nature and idolizing primatologist Jane Goodall. After two years at a local community college, she transferred to UF and met Eric in a peer study group for Dr. Marta Wayne’s genetics class. As aspiring physicians, Nina and Eric earned their bachelor’s degrees in 2004 and went to UF medical school together, before heading to Boston for their residency training in pediatrics and internal medicine.

They jointly took up photography as a creative outlet during their residencies, she said.

“I think that it was almost a reaction formation to how stressful and demanding the work and medicine are,” explained Mayer Ritchie. “Residency for us was 80 hours a week, taking ‘Call’ every third to fourth night, working most weekends. When I wasn’t in the hospital, I was trying to reconnect to that little girl who loved nature and being outside.”

Photography soon grew into a “shared passion,” said Mayer Ritchie.

A June 2009 trip to the Grand Canyon with Nina’s father sparked the couple’s love of the Southwest and eventually led to their decision to provide medical care to underserved populations through the Indian Health Service (IHS). In Chinle, Eric is the chief medical officer of the IHS hospital, and Nina works as a public health doctor with the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health.

The couple “splurged” on their first professional single lens reflex camera before moving to the Navajo Nation in 2012. Photographing on hikes was easy when the children were small and portable, but once they became active toddlers, Eric offered to stay home and watch them while Nina photographed on her own.

Her husband’s unwavering support has been “incredible,” she said, all the way back to the days when they would stand together on a mesa and talk about how to best position the tripod to capture a view.

“I owe a lot of where I am now to having that ‘partner in crime’ with me, that I could bounce ideas off and learn with,” said Meyer Ritchie. “I got to share my creative passion with the love of my life. That has augmented how important photography is to me now.”

Despite being singled out by National Geographic, Mayer Ritchie admitted she still has a lot to learn about her chosen art form. She even can laugh at her mishaps.

“What’s so funny is that during the competition, when that video of me came out on YouTube, I found out that apparently I am holding my camera wrong, not like a professional photographer,” she said. “I’m supposed to have my left hand underneath my lens to support it and make it more stable. I hold it on the side. I googled it later.

“That was pointed out by someone in the comments section [of the YouTube video], and I didn’t take offense,” she says. “I mean, it’s so funny!”

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Tune in September 17, 2020, on the National Geographic Channel, to view along with 225 million U.S. fans and followers to see Nina Mayer Ritchie compete in “Assignment: Inspiration.”

Visit Nat Geo’s Assignment: Inspiration page to learn about the Instagram contest, see Mayer Ritchie’s photos and view videos of her photographic process: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/mazda/

Follow Mayer Ritchie on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ninamayerritchie/