The historiography of women’s photojournalistic work, while still sparse, has gained ground in the past thirty years, due to the stellar and consistent work of female photographers, academics, museum curators, and editors. The fields of photojournalism and documentary photography reflect the political, social and cultural configurations of predominant ideologies.
Our understanding of what is history-making and newsworthy has been predominately defined and captured through a patriarchal lens. We need to know and understand our own history.
This article illustrates the myriad ways in which women photographers have always been in the picture despite historically inequitable access—seeking truth, bearing witness and making invaluable contributions. We look back to reclaim history and honor the creative strategies of these women. We also look at innovative storytelling by contemporary women whose practices illustrate how seeing the world through a woman’s lens concurrently informs and transforms photojournalism and our understanding of the truth.
Witness: A Historical View
Women photographers have witnessed and chronicled our world since the camera was invented in the mid-19th century. Unlike other fine art forms, women were introduced to photography in tandem with men. In 1893, the Eastman Kodak Company targeted the use of their newly invented hand-held camera to women. Their highly successful marketing campaign featured the “Kodak Girl,” an independent camera-carrying world traveler. At the same time Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864–1952) set up her Washington D.C. studio and became the first woman press photographer in the United States. She covered the White House and published an article, “What a Woman Can Do With a Camera,” in 1897.
Journalist Elizabeth Bisland made this observation in 1890: “Women with their cameras surpass all traditions and stand as the equals of men in their newly found and now more ardently practiced art…Indeed it seems as though for six thousand years women have been nurturing a talent to which she could give no expression with paint, brush or sculpture…Our greatest painters have been men, have we not a right to expect that our most famous photographers will be women?” This quote was featured on the wall of the 2015 exhibition “Who’s Afraid of Women Photographers? 1830–1919 and 1918–1945” held jointly at Musee de L’Orangerie and Musee D’Orsay in Paris.
The exhibition highlighted women photographers’ positive impact on the outcome of the suffrage movement while acknowledging their important coverage of World War I. The catalog states; “This was the time when they covered the struggle for women’s civil rights and the events of the Great War — a time when, through various forms of social commitment, the history of photography and the history of women joined forces…By the start of the First World War, the medium had enabled women, for the first time in their history, to control their public and political image.”
Meanwhile, groundbreaking documentary work was being made in America by pioneering photojournalist Alice Austen (1866–1952). Austen chronicled her native New York City’s response to the immigrant influx for a decade beginning in the 1890s. She photographed the quarantined migrants, the medical laboratories and the equipment used to clear immigrants for entry. Austen has 150 of her photos copyrighted with the Library of Congress, many of which were exhibited in Buffalo at the Pan American Exposition in 1901.
Hilary Roberts, the Research Curator of Photography at the Britain’s Imperial War Museums, adds immensely to our historical knowledge. In A Woman’s Eye: British Women and Photography during the First World War, she introduces us to Christina Broom (1862–1939) and Olive Edis (1876–1955), professional photographers working to support their families in 1903. Broom was given an official military appointment in 1904 and is recognized as Britain’s first female press photographer. Though denied access to the battlefield, Edis received official permission to travel and documented the end of WWI in March 1919.
Val Williams, in her book, The Other Observers: Women Photographers from 1900 to the Present, notes the significant role that women photographers have consistently had: “Many women took their cameras with them when they traveled abroad to become war workers, and the intensity of this new experience resulted in photographs which firmly established women as social documentarists.” A common strategy women utilized to gain access to the front lines was by providing auxiliary health services. Elsie Knocker (1884–1978) and Mairi Chisholm (1896–1981) established a medical post in Belgium in 1914. As amateur photographers they photographed their surroundings and those of the soldiers. Roberts describes their intimate portrayal of death and destruction as “entirely unsentimental documentation.” While working as a Red Cross nurse, Florence Farmborough (1887–1978) documented the trenches, troops and the dead soldiers on the Eastern Front in 1915 Russia.
Another strategy used to enter the predominantly male field was to assume an androgynous name. Gerda Taro (nee Pohorylle, 1910–1937) initially submitted work for consideration using the spelling of her name backwards. Taro was instrumental in changing the life course of her partner, Endre Friedmann (Robert Capa), when they met as emigres in Paris in 1934. Both assumed pseudonyms and one went on to become a revered photojournalist. Author Jane Rogoyska details the transformation in Gerda Taro, Inventing Robert Capa. Her deep commitment to covering the Spanish Civil War led her to Madrid in 1936. At 26, she became the first known woman photojournalist to be killed on assignment. It remains a matter of debate whether images credited to Capa were actually
Following in Taro’s footsteps of intrepid and impassioned eyewitness coverage of conflict was the work of American photojournalist Dickey Chapelle (1919–1965). She is noted for having defied naval command to gain access to the battlefield in World War II and is credited with capturing the iconic and heralded image of the wounded at the Battle of Iwo Jima. In 1956, she was imprisoned while working in Hungary. She wrote a memoir in 1961, What’s A Woman Doing Here?. Shortly after, she dove into coverage of the Vietnam War. She was the first American female war correspondent killed reporting for the National Observer in 1965.
Women photojournalists in the late 20th century, while still a small minority, were beginning to be recognized for their contributions. The first woman to be awarded the coveted World Press Photo of the Year Award was French photographer, Françoise Demulder (1947–2008), who won the 1st Prize Singles, Spot News in 1977. She covered conflict in Vietnam, the Middle East, Cuba, Pakistan and Ethiopia. Another French photojournalist, Catherine Leroy (1944–2006), was a trained parachutist and jumped in Operation Junction City with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam in 1967. Her resulting image became a Life magazine cover and she wrote the accompanying feature article.
Journalist Elizabeth Becker, author of America’s Vietnam War: A Narrative History, wrote a 2017 New York Times article, The Women Who Covered Vietnam, in part as tribute to “what has been glossed over in the annals of conflict.” She and other female correspondents were not dispatched by “enlightened newsrooms” in 1960, but paid their own way to Saigon, including one reporter who entered a quiz show to earn her one-way fare. Becker’s article ended with a rhetorical question. “Did it make a difference having women report war? Absolutely. Considering our small numbers—a few dozen, over the course of a decade, spread across three countries—we had an outsize impact.”
Progress toward parity is incremental. Legislation addressing gender equity in the workplace has occurred in some countries, however social and cultural norms lag far behind. Women photographers’ perseverance and creativity have diligently given voice to truth through witness. Writer and historian Rebecca Solnit reflects in Hope in the Dark: “How the transformation happened is rarely remembered, in part because it’s compromising…and it recalls that power comes from the shadows and the margins, that our hope is in the dark around the edges, not the limelight of center stage.”
Photographer Daniella Zalcman, recognizing the gender disparity in photojournalism, created Women Photograph last year, a website that contains a database of women photojournalists. According to Zalcman, in an interview with the New York Times, “the issues that female photographers face are complex but include gender prejudice, hiring practices, a possible confidence gap between men and women, strains on personal lives, sexual harassment, and a general decline in the media industry.”
The photojournalism field is currently in public discourse on gender equity following the announcement of the all-male awardees for the 2018 World Press Photo’s Photo of the Year award. Out of 51 award categories, women are represented in only five of them. An examination of the constructs which perpetuate discrimination within the field of photojournalism needs further analysis. Women’s equity in this field calls for proactive measures to ensure non-discriminatory practices and protection from all forms of sexual violence. In January 2018, photographers Justin Cook and Daniel Sircar posted an open letter on PDN (Photo District News) signed by more than 410 men in the photography industry, calling for an end to sexual harassment, sexual coercion, sexual assault and abusive behavior in the industry, sending the letter to workshops, conferences, and leading organizations in photojournalism. Several professions are coming to a reckoning with their inherently discriminatory constructs. As Solnit reminds us, “We write history with our feet and with our presence and our collective voice and vision.”
Women photojournalists have been rewriting the narrative of documentary photography in a remarkable manner despite the existence of sexism. Canadian photojournalist, Rita Leistner, believes women have turned a disadvantage to an advantage, “I’ve had the door shut in my face for being female.” She states that while exclusion continues it is in less overt forms. Lack of access and funding led Leistner to illegally walk into Iraq from Turkey in 2003. In Baghdad, without military clearance, she began a visual narrative of the inpatients in Al Rashad Psychiatric Hospital. After fighting surrounded the hospital, her former disadvantage became an advantage as the staff and families gave her access and protection. Leistner was awarded the 2018 World Press Photo Digital Storytelling Award in Innovative Storytelling for From Janet With Love.
Women photographers have explored the truth and bared witness with profound effect. Photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair’s investigation of immolation uncovered the practice of forced marriage by children, some as young as five. Her decades-long project led to an international non-profit organization to protect girls’ rights and prevent child marriage. Her transmedia campaign, Too Young to Wed, has led to widespread awareness, advocacy and action.
Documentary photographer, filmmaker and journalist Sara Terry is the Founder and Artistic Director of the Aftermath Project, a grant-making, educational non-profit founded on the premise that “War is Only Half the Story.” Commenting on the value system used to define news, she notes, “The feminine point of view, which men can have, has not been prioritized. It has been marginalized and judged to not be considered a decisive factor for a feature story.” Aftermath just celebrated its 10th year, in spite of not receiving mainstream financial backing or news coverage.
A wave of women photojournalists tell their stories as insiders and challenge existing discriminatory power structures in their respective countries. Newsha Tavakolian, the youngest photographer to cover the 1999 Iranian student uprisings when she was 18 years old, is now a Magnum Associate. Her portrait series, Listen: Giving Voice to Iranian Women, gives voice to restricted Iranian women singers. Images from this series were included in a retrospective of her work at the Atlas Sztuki Art Gallery in Poland. ”For me, a woman’s voice represents a power that if you silence it, imbalances society, and makes everything deform. I let the Iranian women singers perform through my camera while the world has never heard them.”
Indian storyteller, artist and activist, Poulomi Basu, challenges taboos with her advocacy for humane conditions for women in Nepal. Her multimedia project, Ritual of Exile, exposed the harsh and dangerous reality of the ritual of Chhaupadi, which forces menstruating women to live alone in mud huts away from their families each month. Basu witnessed the declining health of a 16-year-old new mother and arranged a life-saving trip to the nearest hospital. The young mother survived and Basu’s work is seen as contributing to the 2017 legislation criminalizing this
Women are profoundly impacting photojournalism and documentary photography. No longer in the shadows, our storytelling is creating necessary change and questioning the structures of power, challenging constructs which exclude women. As British scholar and classicist, Mary Beard, proclaims in Women and Power: “If women aren’t perceived to be within the structure of power, isn’t it power itself we need to redefine?” Seeing through a woman’s lens captures an inclusive and humane truth, free from binary interpretations.
Casey Atkins currently works in the Boston area as a freelance photographer and filmmaker. She is a member of both the Boston Press Photographers Association and the National Press Photographers Association, as well on the board for the New England chapter of the American Society of Media Photographers.She is also a director of Women’s Worth, Inc., a nonprofit which provides business skills training to low-income women in Nicaragua.
Delphine Blast is a French documentary and portrait photographer, based in Bolivia. She works on various issues related to development with a strong focus on women’s issues in South America.
Amber Bracken is a member of Rogue Collective and a lifelong Albertan. Her interest is in the intersection of photography, journalism, and public service with a special focus on First Nations People.
Joan Lobis Brown is a photographer whose portrait projects highlight segments of our society that have been subjected to intense stigma.
Vidhyaa Chandramohan is an editorial & documentary photographer from India, currently based in Abu Dhabi. Her long-term projects delve into women-related projects/issues, human rights and gender identity.
Jean Chung is an award-winning photojournalist based in Seoul, South Korea who gained international recognition with her series of photo-reportage in Afghanistan and Africa.
Anica James is a documentary photographer and photography instructor currently based in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. She is a member of Muse Projects and Women Photograph.
Susan Kessler is a practicing architect turned documentary photographer who is most passionate about photographing for organizations that positively impact the lives of women and children in developing countries.
Heba Khamis is an Egyptian storyteller whose work concentrates on social issues that are often ignored.
Valerie Leonard travels the world following her theme, “Labours of Hercules,” a series of photographs that attempts to show with utmost respect the dignity of women and men living and working in hostile environments.
Amy Martin uses her camera’s lens to increase awareness, understanding and compassion across physical and social barriers.
Marinka Masséus’s photography revolves around people and is a constant reflection of her passion and fascination for human nature and the way we live our lives. Topics concerning injustice and gender inequality are a driving force behind her work.
Emily Schiffer is a photographer and mixed media artist interested in the intersection between art, community engagement, and social change.
Maranie Rae Staab is a Pittsburgh-based, independent photographer and journalist working to document human rights and social justice issues, displacement and how violence and war affect individuals and societies.
Danielle Villasana is an independent photojournalist whose documentary work focuses on women, identity, human rights, and health. She is currently based in Istanbul and contributes to Redux.
Beata Wolniewicz is a Polish photojournalist and documentary photographer, who has travelled to many countries including Georgia, Ghana, Israel, Lebanon, USA, Poland and many European countries.
Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi was born in Romania to a Romanian mother and Iraqi father. She uses photography to explore the human condition across various political and cultural contexts. She is based in Brooklyn, NY but often works in areas experiencing social unrest or humanitarian emergencies.
Immaculata Abba is a writer and photographer studying History and Comparative Literature at Queen Mary University of London.
Danielle Avram is a writer, photographer, and curator based in Dallas, Texas.
Wendy McDowell is a writer and editor living in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the Senior Editor of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin.
Jenna Mulhall-Brereton is both a photographer and a professional in the philanthropy sector—two passions that are fueled by her travels throughout the world.
Alison Nordström is an independent writer and curator based in Cambridge, Massachusetts specializing in historical and contemporary photographs of all kinds. Formerly the Director and Senior Curator of the Southeast Museum of Photography, (Florida)and Senior Curator of Photographs at George Eastman House, (New York) she is the author of over 100 published books and essays on photographic topics, and has curated over 150 photographic exhibitions in nine countries.
Ladan Osman was born in Somalia, her chapbook, Ordinary Heaven, appears in Seven New Generation African Poets. She is a contributing editor of The Offing and lives in Chicago.
Anne Sahler is an internationally published writer, photographer and graphic designer who divides her time between Japan and her homeland of Germany. Her curious nature and never-ending need for travel help lend a clarity of perspective to an evermore complicated world.
Nayo Sasaki-Picou is a New York-based interdisciplinary artist and recent graduate of New York University’s Master of Arts program. Her latest written and photographic work is featured on SDN and titled Afrobeat: The Way She Moves.
J. Sybylla Smith is an independent curator with more than 25 solo or group exhibitions featuring over 80 international photographers exhibited in the US, Mexico and South America. An adjunct professor, guest lecturer and thesis advisor, Sybylla has worked with the School of Visual Arts, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Wellesley College, and Harvard University. She is also the guest editor of the Women’s Issue of ZEKE magazine.
Erin Thompson studies the damage done to humanity’s shared heritage through looting, theft, and the deliberate destruction of art. She co-curated “Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo,” the first full-scale exhibit of art created by detainees at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp, displayed at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Ezinne Ukoha is a multimedia journalist and the founding editor of MyTrendyBuzz, a pop culture and entertainment-themed website. She was raised in Lagos, Nigeria and recently recognized as one of Medium’s Noteworthy writers.
Women Photograph is an initiative that launched in 2017 to elevate the voices of female visual journalists. The private database includes more than 700 independent women documentary photographers based in 91 countries and is available to any commissioning editor or organization.
Women Photojournalists of Washington
Women Photojournalists of Washington is a nonprofit dedicated to educating the public about the role of women in photojournalism and fostering their professional success. With over 250 members across the visual journalism field, WPOW creates a strong community of women photojournalists who gather to inspire and educate.
Women’s Photo Alliance
The Women’s Photo Alliance (WPA) was founded in 2015 to promote and support women photographers in order to diversify a male-dominated field. The group’s mission is to offer multiple perspectives, challenge stereotypes, and make the point of view of women more universal.
While the journalism and documentary industry struggle with issues of diversity and representation, Native wants to change visual journalism to be representative of diverse talent from across the globe. We connect emerging journalists, documentary makers and visual storytellers from underrepresented regions and communities with major publications and introduce them to a global audience.
Alliance for Women in Media
The Alliance for Women in Media is an organization for women, by women. We are committed to supporting women across all media segments, to expand networks, educate and celebrate accomplishments.
ZEKE is published by Social Documentary Network (SDN), an organization promoting visual storytelling about global themes. Started as a website in 2008, today SDN works with thousands of photographers around the world to tell important stories through the visual medium of photography and multimedia. Since 2008, SDN has featured more than 2,800 exhibits on its website and has had gallery exhibitions in major cities around the world. All the work featured in ZEKE first appeared on the SDN website, www.socialdocumentary.net.
Spring 2018 Vol. 4/No. 1
Executive Editor: Glenn Ruga
Guest Editor: J. Sybylla Smith
Editor: Barbara Ayotte
Social Documentary Network
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