The popular saying “a picture is worth a thousand words”, is like most clichés, undoubtedly true. This is the power of photography and in particular photojournalism. Whether reporting on wars, social conditions or something more joyful, one photograph can tell a complex story and have a more lasting effect than any amount of words.
Few photojournalists are household names and as in most professions, the number of women choosing this career have been few, for the usual reasons of male dominance of news rooms, the dangerous conditions that are often intrinsic to the profession and the need to travel, which takes time away from a home life with a family. Even so, many photojournalists find that being a woman in the field has certain advantages.
One early women reporter, whose work has since become iconic, is Dorothea Lange (1895- 1965). She is famous for her images of impoverished people during the Great Depression in the USA. Lange studied photography at Columbia University in New York City under Clarence H. White, a member of the Photo-Secession group. During the Great Depression, Lange photographed the unemployed men who wandered the streets of San Francisco, where she was living at that time. The photos were exhibited and received immediate recognition both from the public and from other photographers. This led to Dorothea being commissioned, in 1935, by the Federal Resettlement Administration, today’s FSA. Her intimate photographs of the migrant workers, who accepted her presence and allowed her to live with them, were often presented with captions featuring the words of the workers themselves. The agency hoped that Lange’s powerful images would bring the conditions of the rural poor to the public’s attention.
Dorothea Lange. Migrant Mother, Florence Owens Thompson, Nipomo, California, 1936. This photograph hangs in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
© Dorothea Lange. Migrant Mother, Florence Owens Thompson, Nipomo, California, 1936. This photograph hangs in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
India's first woman photojournalist was Homai Vyarawalla (1913–2012), commonly known by her pseudonym Dalda 13. She began work in the late 1930s and in the early years of her career, since she was was a woman, her photographs were published under her husband's name. Vyarawalla stated that because women were not taken seriously as journalists, she was able to take high-quality, revealing photographs of her subjects without interference.
People were rather orthodox. They didn't want the women folk to be moving around all over the place and when they saw me in a sari with the camera, hanging around, they thought it was a very strange sight. And in the beginning they thought I was just fooling around with the camera, just showing off or something and they didn't take me seriously. But that was to my advantage because I could go to the sensitive areas also to take pictures and nobody would stop me.
In 2011, she was awarded Padma Vibhushan , the second highest civilian award of the Republic of India. Her images documented her country, notably its struggle for independence, from the 1930s until the '70s, while she was working with the British Information Services.
Photo journalist Lynsey Addario has covered conflicts and humanitarian crises in many countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Somalia. Her work in Afghanistan contributed to a Pulitzer Prize that The New York Times won in 2009 for international reporting. Addario has been kidnapped twice while working in war zones and her memoir, It's What I Do, was a New York Times best-seller.
In an interview for the podcast Women Who Travel, in 2020, she talks about her point of view,
I was raised in a very female-centric family. I have three older sisters, my mother. I had two very strong Italian-American grandmothers. One is still alive. She's 106. I think for me, women have always sort of dominated my life, so I've always been drawn to photographing women.
She says that she is driven to photograph in order to explore and learn about the unknown or something that is foreign to her and she has achieved that through travel. She estimates that she has traveled through 70 to 75 countries and despite the danger, being a woman has largely been an advantage for her work.
When I was working in very conservative Muslim countries, like in Afghanistan or Pakistan, as a woman, I had access to those women. I had access and better access. It was just more comfortable to be in spaces occupied by women and they allowed me to photograph. It was also a world that I felt people didn't really have access to, so I was bringing something new. I was bringing sort of a new perspective on what women's lives were like at home in Afghanistan and Pakistan, so that was really interesting for me.
In Addario’s new book Of Love & War her subjects include the lives of female members of the military, as well as the trauma and abuse inflicted on women in male-dominated societies, interspersed between her images are personal journal entries and letters, as well as revelatory essays from esteemed writers.
Early career photographers might believe that the only images that will get them noticed by their peers must be shot in exotic locations, unusual foreign places or in dangerous conflict zones, but some renowned photographers have devoted themselves to more domestic topics, which are nevertheless equally important.
One such photographer is Joan E. Biren, known as JEB, who self-published her first book, Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians, in 1979 and it has recently been republished, some forty two years later. Now in her late seventies, JEB has been an artist activist her whole life documenting her LGBTQ community for decades. She told The Guardian recently,
I started photographing at a time when it was almost impossible to find authentic images of lesbians. I needed on a deep level to see a picture of two women kissing and I couldn’t find one. So I had to make it myself. At that point, I didn’t even own a camera, so I borrowed one and did it myself. I wanted my photographs to be seen. I believed they could help build a movement for our liberation.
JEB’s photographs were revolutionary at that time. The only available images of lesbians were either overly romanticized photos of white, young, slim people or mainstream, porno type images. She photographed lesbians from different ages and backgrounds in their everyday lives -- working, playing, raising families, and striving to remake their worlds. The photographs are accompanied by testimonials from the women pictured in the book, as well as writings from icons including Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich. In 1979, Eye to Eye signaled a radical new way of seeing, moving lesbian lives from the margins to the center, and reversing a history of invisibility. The new edition features new essays from photographer Lola Flash and former soccer player Lori Lindsey.
In 1979, JEB had to self-publish the book because the existing lesbian or gay press could not publish it on good paper. Publication was made possible, firstly because the women featured agreed to be publicly named and out, as lesbians, and secondly thanks to the money that the community donated to finance the printing. The original run was 5000 copies, a lot for a photography book, and these sold out in three months.
JEB recently talked about her life’s work on the Slate podcast:
“These courageous women who understood that lifting the burden of hiding, of lying, of denying who you were, was also worth taking some risks. And it speaks to the hunger that was in our community to have authentic reflection of who they were. Books just disappeared and many of them were stolen from the bookstores and libraries because people were so afraid”.
Biren’s inclusive approach was ahead of its time, even by today’s standards, as few photographers attempt to reflect so many lives and experiences.
"It’s about being human and being human covers the whole spectrum of experiences. I wanted to show diversity in every way I could, with the limited resources I had".
JEB says that she is surprised and very happy that her work is not only being recognized and acknowledged as important documentary, but is also being appreciated as art.
"It was entirely political. I originally thought of the pictures as propaganda. I wasn’t thinking about anything other than the movement. Material survival came second. I always knew it was important and I thought it would be recognized after I was dead".
The work of these four journalists, both past and present, developed from their desire to bear witness to and to make public, the struggles of other women, whether the dire poverty of the Great Depression, the fight for independence from colonial rule or against more recent oppressors and the war of attrition to obtain equal rights. Whether shooting images of friends and neighbors or people living in completely different cultures and conditions, these images have contributed to a greater public understanding of political and social struggles. When a camera is your tool of choice to record the intimacy and trials of life, you may well have greater freedom to focus if you are a women behind the lens.