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Women Are Changing the Face of Documentary Photography

by J. Sybylla Smith

Contemporary women and female-identifying photographers are activating a new form of documenting that is led by content and context. Grounded in extensive research, they construct a matrix of intersectional ideas, histories, realities, and considerations. A powerful impact of their work is their intentional approach to lead with an awareness of power differentials, to offer a presentation predicated on inspiring dialogue, the aim is one of illumination of our complex and messy world in pursuit of a deeper understanding and a hope to provoke informed change.

Photo by Lola Flash

Photo by Lola Flash: Felli, 2022. From surmise series. Courtesy of Jenkins Johnson Gallery.

“Look at us. Take your time. Listen to us. It’s time.”

Published June 2024


This clarion call delivered by nineteen international women and female-identifying photographers from the stage of Paris Photo in 2019 was a historical event I was grateful to witness. La Part Des Femmes, a collective dedicated to the visibility and recognition of women photographers, repeated the above refrain while reading their written manifesto. It was a powerful beginning to the day-long symposium on gender parity hosted by Elles x Paris Photo. Inaugurated in 2018 and partnering with the French Ministry of Culture and Kering Women In Motion, this initiative increased the exhibition of women artists from 20% to 36% at Paris Photo over the next five years. Previous statistics on exhibition and acquisition of work by women artists at major art organizations are under 10% and as low as 2% for women of color.


A convergence of scholarship, exhibitions, and educational events addressing the current and historical invisibility, misrepresentation, and overlooked contributions of women and non-binary photographers has grown exponentially in the past decade.  


International collaborations dedicated to research, coalition-building, data collection, and a critical analysis of contemporary and past practices and methodologies in the field are dismantling the ecosystems of patriarchy. A global force for change has been unleashed challenging the dominant gaze, one informed by privilege and elitism, offering monolithic perspectives and reductive generalizations.


What We See


We are at an inflection point spearheaded by the coordinated efforts of historically excluded groups. A humanization of photography is underway interrogating photography’s role as a source of harm and its potential as a positive force for change. Its theory, practice and history are being challenged to expand beyond the idolization of sole practitioners and the canonization of a mostly male visual perspective. 


At the forefront is Fast Forward Women In Photography, founded in 2014 by Anna Fox and Karen Knorr of the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, England. Their value-driven manifesto and 2020 Report on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion set a foundation and a path. Their impressive output has resulted in five international convenings to dialogue and share resources in Brazil, the U.S., India, Finland, Nigeria, and the U.K. Mentorships have been created in China and Africa. Topics of investigation include: gender representation, use of archives, political activism, recognizing the framing of photographic practice, conflict, and empowerment. Putting Ourselves in the Picture, their collaborative 2022 publication, is a generous project-based book. It shares the process and results of empowering refugee women from Angola, Congo, El Salvador, Iran, Iraq, Uganda, and Qatar. Autograph, Impressions Gallery, and Women for Refugee Women, were active in this coalition to teach photographic skills as a means to tell personal stories. By documenting their lived experiences these courageous women increased representation, created community, initiated healing and restitution.

Photo by Aida Muluneh
Photo by Rehab Eldalil

Photograph by Rehab Edalil. Embroidered photograph of Nadia by her cousin Mariam. Up until the 1990s, women were prohibited from being seen by men from other tribes without their consent. As technology evolved, the awareness that an image might be circulated on the internet and accessed by people beyond one’s control escalated this concern. This led some women to refuse to ever be photographed for fear of losing control of how and to whom they’re represented. In this collaborative process with the female Bedouins, every woman I photograph adds embroidery to her portrait or to a photograph she chooses printed on fabric. In the process, she freely reveals or conceals the contents of the photograph using the traditional medium of embroidery, taking full control over her representation in the project. St. Catherine, South Sinai, Egypt, 2019. From the series The Longing of the Stranger Whose Path Has Been Broken. 

Aida Muluneh, “The Rain of Fire - Vietnam,” 2020, commissioned by Nobel Peace Center. courtesy of Jenkin Johnson Gallery.

French photographer and activist Marie Docher created a blog, Atlantes et Cariatides, in 2014, aimed at critically examining systems of representation in photography. She then took her research findings and boldly confronted the documentary-focused festival Les Rencontres d’Arles in 2018 on their lack of gender representation. This led to the successful increase of 51% of exhibitions being by women in 2019. 


I attended the  groundbreaking exhibition, “Who’s Afraid of Women Photographers? 1839-1945” held concurrently at Musée L’Orangerie and Musée d’Orsay in 2016 in partnership with the National Museum of Women in the Arts, focusing on contributions by women photographers in the U.K., Germany, France, and the U.S. In a Zoom interview, Paris-based curator and author Clara Bouveresse shared she considers this exhibition as a pivotal point in opening dialogue and instigating data collection on gender parity in Europe. Bouveresse authored the three-volume set, Women Photographers, highlighting 190 international women photographers over three centuries for the Photofile series.


New histories are being sourced that enrich our knowledge of contributions by women and female-identifying photographers along with queer and women of color. As Marie Robert notes in her essay, A Long Tradition of Being Ignored, “..women were everywhere and recorded everything” (pg 21). She and Luce Lebart prove this in their seminal book, A World History of Women Photographers. The 500-page publication compiles images by 300 women photographers from five continents spanning two centuries, accompanied by text by 160 female writers. Photographer Joy Gregory’s recently released, Shining Lights: Black Women Photographers in 1980-90s Britain, is a critical anthology co-published with Autograph and Mack Books. 


Critical analysis of our field is led by asking questions with an abiding awareness of a photograph’s multiplicities. In spotlighting work by women and substantiating gender-based inequities, we inform our current reality. Contemporary theorist Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, writes extensively on her concept of civil imagination. By investigating the layered dynamics between the image maker, the viewer, and the subject, she illuminates power differentials inherent in our medium. Her hope for photography lies in our ability to see beyond oppressive systems, reject their siloing constructs, and embrace our common humanity. Azoulay worked with Wendy Ewald, Susan Meiselas, Leigh Raiford, and Laura Wexler, for a decade to collectively reframe infrastructures of photography to present clusters of vantage points from which to consider its complexities, offering a stunning pedagogical tool. Their findings are offered in Collaborations: Toward a Potential History of Photography. 


Who We See


How has the mitigation of diverse visual representation shaped our perception and knowledge, our opinions and behaviors? Author Sara Ahmed states; “If a world can be what we learn not to notice, noticing becomes a form of political labor. What do we learn not to notice?” A concerted effort to notice the specificities of who we do not see represented is well under way and the results of these observations are striking.


A Le Part Des Femmes study in 2021 found 94% of the French national press images were made by men. An analysis of how genders were photographed found women, queer, and people of color in submissive postures with gestures of less agency as opposed to stances by men reflecting authority and strength. Women Photograph’s publication What We See, states 85% of photojournalism is by men. Positive change is being led by The San Francisco Chronicle Director of Visuals, Nicole Frugé who according to the 2023 Women Photograph study achieved 49% lead photo bylines by women and non-binary photographers. 

Catchlight’s State of Photography 2022 is an in-depth international study that targets economic insecurity and other risks for historically marginalized imagemakers. It found solid agreement on these current problems in our field; sexism 79%, socioeconomic disparity 78%, and structural racism 75%.


In 2019, Getty Images, Dove, and Girlgaze began Project Show Us resulting in adding 5,000 images of diverse female-identifying and non-binary women to their stock photography database — and notably they hired 119 women and female-identifying photographers to make them. ( The same year, the British Journal of Photography and 1854 Photograph found women constitute 70-80% of photography students globally yet account for 13-15% of professional photographers. 

Substantiating these identity-based inequities is essential to address their causal relationships. Stratification and othering, flattens our human complexities to be singularly categorized. This predominant vertical power structure preferences a good, better, best hierarchy, of both the image maker and the subject. A horizontal power structure, based on rhizomatic theory, foundations a multiplicity of perspectives and contributions, it thrives on connectivity, recognizing our interdependence as our greatest sustenance and strength. A conscious shift towards this community-focused and collective-based image-making is being led by women, genderqueer and people of color— those previously unnoticed.


In 2020 The Photo Bill of Rights, authored by Authority Collective, Color Positive, Diversify Photo, The Everyday Projects, Juntos, the National Press Photographers Association, Indigenous Photograph, and Women Photograph, called out harmful practices that marginalize workers in visual journalism and the editorial media industry. Focused on challenging the dominant media gaze, in addition to a shared manifesto, it offers toolkits, programming, and resources to individuals and institutions. It aims to empower the most marginalized: “BIPOC, women, and LGBTQIA+ lens-based workers”, and it notes these visual storytellers constitute “a genuine mirror to the world.”


Rethink Everything, is a women-initiated investigation examining interconnectivity with the intention to highlight causal relationship. It began as an exhibition Pensar Todo De Nuevo, curated by Andrea Giunta, and produced by Rolf Art of Argentina in March, 2020. During the 52nd edition of Recontres d’Arles it launched in book form and as an exhibition titled, Puisqu’il fallait tout repenser.


The Eye Mama Project is a book, exhibition, and educational platform that began on Instagram during the pandemic. Fifty thousand professional photographers from fifty countries who are mothers shared images of their lived experiences. The founder Karni Arieli calls it a collective mama gaze, authentically documenting the light and dark side of motherhood. This platform continues to address representation, shared resourcing, community-building, and advocacy for artists/mothers.


How We See


Aida Muluneh, a recent Catchlight fellow, is an accomplished artist and visionary leader who advances African photography within the continent and amplifies its representation worldwide. She expanded the Addis Foto Fest, supported the online platform Africa Foto Fair, and founded Africa Print House. Muluneh’s The Road of Glory series begs the question: have our human advancements lessened our mutual compassion? These bold self-portraits are layered with symbolism investigating how hunger has been historically used as a weapon globally. 

Photo by Nichole Sobecki

After washing clothes in a roadside puddle, a woman walks home through a parched field in drought-stricken Somaliland. A changing, more extreme climate has upended millions of lives in the Horn of Africa. As cattle, goats, and camels have died off, seminomadic pastoralists like her have had no choice but to move, often to displacement camps or cities. Photo by Nichole Sobecki

Multimedia documentary artist Debi Cornwall, a 2023 Prix Elysée and 2019 Leica Women Foto Awardee, investigates and illuminates the systemic performances of power within the complex roles and dynamics of citizenship. Exhibited in Europe, Asia, Canada, Australia and the U.A.E., her work utilizes still and moving images. Model Citizens, Cornwall’s 2023 exhibition at the Photo Elysée Museum postulates; “How do staging, performance, and role play inform ideas about citizenship in a violent land whose people no longer agree on what is true?“ The accompanying publication, her third monograph, Model Citizens, will be released this Spring. 


Rehab Eldalil, based in Egypt, is a 2024 Foam Talent awardee who explores the complexities of land, migration, belonging and autonomy of Sinai’s Bedouin community. Her book and field guide, The Longing of the Stranger Whose Path Has Been Broken, published with Fotoevidence, is the result of a five-year in-depth community engagement. Eldalil grew her project in collaboration with the community including encouraging women to embroider their portraits as a means of retaining agency over their shared image. 


Lola Flash is an American Black lesbian photographer on the forefront of genderqueer visual politics for decades. Their project surmise is an account of perception and representation of queer people focused on the effects on individual psyches and the society at large. Syzygy, the vision, is their Afrofuturist self-portrait series. The retrospective book, Believable: Traveling with My Ancestors, includes their multiple projects and is published by Diverse Humanity.


Marni Shindelmans hauntingly beautiful nightscapes belie their light source – U.S. ICE detention centers. Restore the Night Sky, begins with the statement, “Detention is everywhere. You just need to know where to look.” Her ongoing documentation of the 45 private detention centers housing 45,000 mostly women and children addresses immigration, rural economies, and night pollution impacts. It is one of several series in the 2024 Fotofest Biennial: Critical Geography which “explores how space, place, and communities are influenced by social, economic, and political forces.”  Also exhibited at the Koslov Larsen gallery during the Houston, Texas city-wide Biennial is Paris-based photographer Delphine Blast’s Mujeres: The Beat of a Wing. Included are three bodies of documentary work with Zapotec women, Bolivian cholitas, and dancers of Queretaro, Mexico, in a collaborative celebration of artistic traditions by Indigenous women — enduring proof of their resilience and independence.


The archive is being utilized as a living entity, capable of constructing meaning, and expanding understanding. New York-based photographer Marilyn Nance was shortlisted for the Aperture Paris Photo Book Awards in 2023 for her monograph, Last Days in Lagos. This historic archive of the FESTAC 77 convening of 15,000 artists from 55 countries in Lagos, Nigeria in 1977 affords exceptional documentation of Black history. Nance is regarded as having amassed unprecedented visual documentation of African American spiritual culture and the African Diaspora. 

Photo by Debi Cornwall

“Save America” Rally. Miami, Florida (2022) © Debi Cornwall, courtesy of Prix Elysée. From Model Citizens (Radius Books, forthcoming 2024)

Spanish photographer Marina Planas, activates her familial archive in a collaborative open-ended investigation into tourism, gender stereotypes, and cultural identity. Her grandfather’s three million images of Majorca and the Balearic Islands are the basis for a transdisciplinary project questioning hegemonic narratives. Her project, Warlike Approaches to Tourism: all inclusive, triggers reflections on opaque forms of power, the gender gap, sex tourism, class, urban planning, and ecological abuses.


Photojournalist Nichole Sobecki, based in Nairobi, is a member of VII Photo who states; “To change the world, we have to first understand it as it is.” Where Our Land Was is her series documenting Somalis facing drought, displacement, and possible extinction. Climate crisis is Sobecki’s perpetual lens and is the subject of her feature film, Natura. It follows five women across five continents from the Arctic to the Sahara examining the intersection of motherhood in relationship to our unprecedented environmental realities. 

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