Sunday, 25 May 2014

Women on the frontline: female photojournalists' visions of conflict

Tracey McVeigh                         Observer/UK                                     25 May 2014

Women are coming to the fore in a profession long dominated by men, and telling stories their male counterparts couldn't get. 

For female photojournalists the past six weeks have been a particularly brutal reminder of the dangers they face. Two photographers have recently been killed while making a record of the suffering on humanity's most extreme edges, documenting the otherwise hidden effects of war on people left to endure tremendous hardship and pain.

German photographer Anja Niedringhaus was shot dead at a checkpoint in Afghanistan on 4 April by a man in police uniform, and just four weeks later, a young French photographer, Camille Lepage, died of gunshot wounds in the Central African Republic.

Alice Gabriner is a picture editor now at National Geographic, where about 12 of the 60 freelance photographers are women. The National Geographic Society has chosen to celebrate its 125th anniversary year by showing the work of 11 female photographers in an exhibition entitled Women of Vision (the exhibition runs all year in various venues across the US) because, says its vice-curator Kathryn Keane: "For the last decade some of our most powerful stories have been produced by a new generation of photojournalists who are women."

Gabriner has worked closely with the world's leading female photojournalists: "I'm always astonished by the bravery of these women. "I like to try and meet people, to try and get a sense of a person before a commission. Make sure that they understand the risk. I've stopped working with people in the past who I thought were too immature.

Women in war photography are a relatively new development. But they have played a vital role in the development of photography generally, from the Scot Clementina Maude's pioneering portraiture of Victorian ladies in the 1860s to Londoner Christina Broom – the UK's first female press photographer – and her startlingly atmospheric pictures of first world war soldiers leaving for the front, and the American Dorothea Lange's famous, harrowing images of migrants during the great depression, which helped to change the perception of poverty in the US in the 1930s.

One of the first women widely known to have taken her camera on to a battlefield, certainly from the western world, was New Yorker Margaret Bourke-White, who was allowed to travel with American troops during the second world war and later photographed the Korean war and India's civil rights struggles under Gandhi.

Female photojournalists are often telling the stories that are hidden from male eyes, and would otherwise never be covered. Only by getting inside homes in Afghanistan during the rule of the Taliban could anyone find out how women were living their lives, while access to other culturally sensitive issues like child marriage and female genital mutilation, while difficult for a western female, are a non-starter for a man.

"A great photograph is something you feel, in its compassion, its light and colour, its aesthetic. A photographer recently said to me . “'I don't take pictures with my eyes, I take pictures with my body”.

In an interview last October, Camille Lepage talked about her work in South Sudan, where she had gone to live and cover the under-reported conflict in the Central African Republic. She said: "Since I was very little, I've always wanted to go and live in a place where no one else wants to go, and cover in-depth conflict-related stories… I can't accept that people's tragedies are silenced simply because no one can make money out of them." [Abridged]

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