In 2016, Mona Chalabi, the data editor at The Guardian, collaborated with photographer and filmmaker Mae Ryan—now a show developer and producer at The New York Times—to create “Vagina Dispatches.” The four-part series explored the physical, social, and sometimes political dynamics that surround women’s bodies, and has received more than a million views and an Emmy nomination.
In one episode, Mona swims laps with 90-year-old Danish Olympian Greta Anderson, who talks about fainting in the pool at the 1948 Olympics during the 400-meter freestyle finals after getting an injection that promised to delay her period. It’s these moments that capture what Chalabi and Ryan set out to create: a documentary that talks candidly about about one of the most important and least discussed parts of women’s anatomy.
Chalabi and Ryan point out that only 13 states across the country require medically accurate sex education, and in a British study, only half of 26-to-35-year-old women could accurately label the different parts of their own vulvas.
For The Atlantic’s series “On The Shoulders of Giants,” I spoke to Chalabi and Ryan about how collaboration can become mentorship, being vulnerable enough to make your best work, and the importance of being candid. The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.