Since 2017, Bashkortostan-born photographer Gulnara Samoilova has been on a quest to empower women in photography. She started with a small group on Instagram dedicated to their work, but she soon expanded the effort to include a website, traveling exhibitions, an artist residency—and now her new book, Women Street Photographers. Published earlier this month, the book highlights 100 such photographers—both amateur and professional—from 31 countries, ranging in age from 20 to 70.
It couldn’t be more perfectly timed. Following a year of lockdowns and quarantines, it’s a reminder of a time before Covid-19, when people could go outside, meet with friends and family, and travel freely. Looking at these images now, they feel intimate—flashbacks to the days before masks and social distancing were necessary to survive. Coming on the heels of a worldwide vaccine rollout, they also feel like an affirmation that our previous sense of normalcy is still within reach.
Even in its more mundane moments, Samoilova’s book also asks readers to recognize the unique challenges these women confront. Street photography involves capturing interesting public encounters and nuanced narratives. While each person has their own distinct approach, all street photography requires some amount of courage. These photographers regularly navigate complex interactions with their subjects, some of which are nonverbal. Sometimes they need to be quick and nimble, other times patient. But most of all, it’s incredibly important to be present. In the time it takes a photographer to remove their lens cap, the moment they’re trying to capture might disappear.
As we close out Women’s Futures Month, WIRED connected with Samoilova to discuss her book, making photographs during Covid-19, and why it’s still essential to highlight the work of women creatives.
One day it might be possible for women in all professions, including photography, to stop having their gender associated with their work. Right now, that’s not the way things are. Being a woman is a vastly different experience depending on where and how you live. Some countries still require women to obtain their husband’s permission to vote or leave their home. Even in places where women have de jure equality, there are still barriers that keep them from using their talents. In Samoilova’s book, Melissa Breyer explains why it was important to include the “women” descriptor when discussing the street photographers featured. “Despite this continuing increase in women around the world picking up a camera, women still remain underrepresented in photography and other areas of the arts. When women are given platforms for their artistic work, it is often under the subcategory of their sex: ‘Women Artists,’ rather than just ‘Artists,’” Breyer writes. “In many artistic mediums, the inclusion of this caveat feels patronizing and irrelevant; a judgment of the artist’s work tempered by their biographical background in a way not experienced by their male counterparts. However, with street photographers this acknowledgment feels not only necessary but celebratory; these images were not created in the safety of a studio, but on city streets and village backroads around the world, where in the past it has not always been possible for women to take photographs—and take up space.”
Covid-19 has made all photography challenging, and while some have embraced the confines of shooting during lockdown, street photography becomes nearly impossible when you’re ordered to stay home. For some street photographers, shooting empty sidewalks and masked errand-runners isn’t that appealing, but Samoilova says, “I embraced the wisdom of my photojournalism days, which taught me to really look at what is happening in front of me and show it as it is. I wanted my photographs to capture the experience of being on the street in a pandemic, as surreal and anxiety-provoking as it was. At times I found myself taking photographs for historical, rather than aesthetic reasons. I realized that for me what mattered most was to document the moment.”
One of the most critical things technology has done to help photographers is give almost anyone the tools to be one. And while the prevalence of facial recognition software and surveillance tech have made some folks leery of cameras, Samoilova believes digital photography and social media have done a lot to democratize the medium “When I started, everything was analog—film was expensive, and most people who had cameras saved them to document special occasions,” she says. “Now that it costs nothing to put your camera phone in your pocket, step outside, make and immediately distribute photographs through social networks, the medium and the genre is gaining popularity, because it’s something most people can do without the baggage of professionalization holding them back.”
There are some people who were born camera-ready and delight in being photographed. Others, though, never want their pciture taken, especially by a stranger on the street. But there are ways to avoid confrontations and earn subjects’ trust. For Samoilova, it’s a matter of being friendly and forthright with the people she wants to photograph. “People respond aggressively to the feeling they are being manipulated, used, or disrespected in any form,” she says. “Now that we see how photographs can be altered, shown out of context, or commodified without consent, it’s reasonable for people to be suspicious of a stranger with a camera.” Samoilova’s method involves connecting with the subject first, as if she is asking for consent nonverbally. “Before I take a photograph, I smile and make eye contact, making my intention clear, and I do my best to read the facial expressions and body language of the person, to make sure that my approach is welcome,” she says. “Then I stay long enough for my subjects to continue what they were doing before I approach them to make my photograph.”
In the 1970s, feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey coined a term that has only gotten more play in the years since: the male gaze. The idea, at the time and now, is that films are often made with a cisgender heterosexual male viewer in mind, that everything on the screen is intended to be seen through their eyes and with their interests in mind. Theoretically, when a woman makes a film, this viewpoint is different, involving fewer objectified women. In Samoilova’s eyes, it’s too soon to assess if something similar happens with street photography. “The idea of a ‘female gaze’ is something fascinating, but not something readily defined; we need to see the work of many more women from an extended period of time before we start to consider what qualities might shape the way a gender sees,” she says. “For it’s not simply a matter of gender alone, but of the intersections with race, ethnicity, nationality, age, creed, class, and ability that we may begin to think about the full scope of the ‘female gaze.’ It’s something I’m excited to see more of and hope this book helps to precipitate that.”
This summer, as the Covid-19 vaccines roll out and a new generation of young people step outside with their cameras and smartphones, the next wave of women street photographers will be getting their chance to capture the moment. It is these emerging documentarians that Samoilova wants to find. She started an artist residency program in 2019 to bring female photographers to New York City for two weeks to hone their craft, get mentorship, and put together their own solo exhibit. Last year’s recipient, Debrani Das, from Kolkata, India, had her residency derailed by Covid-19, but as soon as it’s safe, she’ll be heading to the city to begin the program. She won’t be the last. Samoilova hopes her book will inspire other women to pick up a camera. When they do, she offers them all the same advice: “Have fun. Make mistakes. Don’t take street photography too seriously. Don’t chase the moment—let moments come to you.”
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