How women photographers access worlds hidden from men

We asked National Geographic photographers to reflect on how gender influences their work.

By Nina Strochlic
Published 8 Mar 2019, 13:20 GMT
"Factory worker Reena Bihari stands above the nightlife of Bangalore, India, from her rooftop dorm. She's from a small village where women her age are, for the first time, encouraged to work in the big city instead of being forced into marriage. I remember the night I made this photograph. She was watching the world of men on the streets below, the warm breeze felt like it originated from the street itself. It was her first time on a building of higher than one floor. She said she felt powerful. Perspective adds a lot to our image of the world. Which is why it is also important to have photographers from many different walks of life—including women." Andrea Bruce
Photograph by Andrea Bruce

There are benefits to being a photographer who happens to be a woman: you’re welcomed into secret worlds, invited into homes, and trusted with the most delicate subjects. Then there are the downsides: fighting to be taken seriously by a male-dominated industry, entering dangerous and unpredictable situations, and tackling stereotypes about where women should go and the topics they should cover. We asked National Geographic's women photographers from across the world for memories and reflections on how gender is intertwined with their work, the opportunities for young women coming after them, and the future of their field. They showed us their favorite photographs of women—a young falconer in Mongolia (above), a Saudi motorcyclist, a Japanese geisha taking a smoking break—and told us the behind-the-scenes stories. They also told us they were optimistic that the status quo is changing, thanks to those who fought for decades to be taken seriously. "For a very long time, we've been predominantly looking at the world through the experience and vision of male photographers," says photographer Daniella Zalcman. "That's changing more and more rapidly now—and it's about time." Here are their words and photographs.

"No matter where you come from or what language you speak, there will always be aspects of the female experience to connect over. I imagine that the level of trust and intimacy I’ve been able to forge with women I photograph would be challenging to obtain as a man." Acacia Johnson
Photograph by Acacia Johnson
"As photographers, I think one of the biggest challenges is to break barriers and stereotypes within the industry. Our duty today is to redistribute the cards equitably. And in that sense we need our work, processes, and way of thinking to be trusted and respected. I believe that our greatest opportunity is to take advantage of this historic moment to lay the foundations of a fairer and more equitable culture, for all of us." Lujan Agusti
Photograph by Luján Agusti
"Last year marked many changes for Saudi women. We were allowed to enter stadiums, watch football matches, have music concerts to attend, and, most importantly, were able to finally drive cars. These big changes weren't even considered two years ago. As a Saudi photographer there were many instances where I would photograph with tears in my eyes with joy and disbelief. However, I understand the responsibility that I have as a documentarian. I have to share a side of Saudi that isn't always expected nor accepted by outsiders and unfortunately, sometimes not even welcomed by Saudis, either. Images that depict women with strength are not always welcome by men. Perhaps because they see it as a threat? I try to capture images of women that I find as empowered. Ones that I can point out to my daughters and say: 'Look! This can be you too!'" Tasneem Alsultan
Photograph by Tasneem Al Sultan
"The people behind the camera do not reflect the people in front of the camera, or the audience we report for. I think diversifying photojournalism is also the biggest opportunity—we as an industry have the chance to unpick years of patriarchy and racism that is entrenched in the entire history of photographing. We have the knowledge and skills and, I believe, will to change the way we collectively represent the world. It feels like the tide is changing and I am optimistic about the future of photojournalism being very, very different than the past." Anastasia Taylor-Lind
Photograph by Anastasia Taylor-Lind
"Overt and institutional sexism remains the most important issue to women photographers, as it affects much of our lives in an interconnected fashion: hiring practices (from frequency, to pay, to quality of assignments), personal and financial health and stability, attitudes toward reporting sexual harassment and assault, and the simple fact that the two continue to occur with frequency and harm both professional and personal life, with rare action by individuals or media corporations to admit or fix the issue." Yana Paskova
Photograph by Yana Paskova
"As I stood in a room full of about fifty women, on the outskirts of Lahore, Pakistan—babies crying, women gossiping, light beaming through the open ceiling—I couldn’t help but feel the energy of the room pulsating through my body.These women were meeting a week before elections in a country that ranks among the last in the world in female political participation. They were mostly from underprivileged families, many illiterate, and many had never voted in their lives. When Bushra Khaliq, a human rights activist, began to talk, the room went silent. She asked the women around the room: “Who is going to determine your vote?” The women replied emphatically: 'Myself!'" Sara Hylton
Photograph by Sara Hylton, National Geographic
"This photo was taken while in Syria, in the Kurdish region of Rojava. I was following young fighters from various Kurdish factions in their fight against ISIS, and these young women were a part of a sniper unit that had fought in Kobane. One night when the lights went out, they started singing traditional Kurdish songs, their male counterparts illuminating them in their cell phone light. I thought it was a very poignant moment for these very young girls and women (most 16 to 25 years old) who fight and die alongside the men in northern Syria with the hope of ousting ISIS and the dream of a Kurdish state." Alex Potter
Photograph by Alex Potter
"Be true to yourself, your vision and focus your energy on the act of doing the work. Believe that even if your vision is not totally clear it will emerge from the process of engaging in your practice. Realize that your personal and inner life will inevitably reflect in your work so don’t neglect this aspect of yourself as it will prove to be strengthen the profundity of connection to your practice." Erika Larsen
Photograph by Erika Larsen, National Geographic
"In my profession I have been fortunate to meet and share with many women who have left their mark on me. Women have opened doors to unknown worlds. They have shared their lives and their secrets, and have become communication channels. They have been like mothers, sisters, and friends to me and will forever live in the corner of my heart where I keep all these encounters." Karla Gachet
Photograph by Karla Gachet
"Women photographers have moved ahead in great numbers in developed nations but many of our sisters continue to struggle in developing nations where longstanding cultures prohibit women from working in what is still considered a man’s business. We still fight for equality and recognition in both publishing opportunities and pay throughout the world, but many of our sisters struggle with greater bullying and cultural mores that do not allow them to advance as artists or storytellers." Maggie Steber
Photograph by Maggie Steber, Nat Geo Image Collection
"Our world needs diversity—in every way possible—and we have an excellent opportunity to bring a different perspective into our industry and create in a way we have never been able to before. The industry has shifted, and there is a lot more access, knowledge and equipment available for women photographers to utilize. We have strong voices that speak to our audience in a unique way, which can never be discounted." Michaela Skovranova
Photograph by Michaela Skovranova, National Geographic

"Big wave surfing, one of the most dangerous sports in the world has been traditionally dominated by men. To focus on the amazing women athletes who have been surfing for years without getting the same recognition was a great, inspiring experience. My first day at Mavericks, California, as I was watching many surfers competing for 40-foot waves, I heard the observers around me referring to all of them as ‘he.’ It struck me right away that no one even considered that women could be among them."

Photograph by Dina Litovsky, Redux
"In India there are two kinds of photographers: one is a photographer and the other is a woman photographer. Often, when an opening occurs or assignment arises, and if the photo editors are looking for photographers, they are looking for men. Unless it is explicitly stated that they need a woman photographer, often due to the specific requirement of the story, they don’t proactively go on a lookout for women." Saumya Khandelwal
Photograph by Saumya Khandelwal
"Factory worker Reena Bihari stands above the nightlife of Bangalore, India, from her rooftop dorm. She's from a small village where women her age are, for the first time, encouraged to work in the big city instead of being forced into marriage. I remember the night I made this photograph. She was watching the world of men on the streets below, the warm breeze felt like it originated from the street itself. It was her first time on a building of higher than one floor. She said she felt powerful. Perspective adds a lot to our image of the world. Which is why it is also important to have photographers from many different walks of life—including women." Andrea Bruce
Photograph by Andrea Bruce
"This is a portrait I made of trapeze artist Kristin Finley, who left her corporate job and bravely took the unconventional path of becoming a circus performer. She has now worked with circuses around the country, even for the now shuttered Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. We spoke after it closed and, true to her character, she told me: 'Life goes on. You either cry and feel sorry for yourself or you pick up your pants and move on.'" Stephanie Sinclair
Photograph by Stéphanie Sinclair
"Traditionally, the Samburu women of northern Kenya are married off at a young age without an education, let alone a chance to work. But as the first female head keeper of the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in the remote Mathews mountain range, Sasha Dorothy Lowuekuduk is breaking new ground. Though she and the women who work for her encounter resistance, the team at Reteti is united in its mission to rescue abandoned elephant calves, nurse them back to health, and reintroduce them to the wild. It requires vigilance and round-the-clock care, but Lowuekuduk’s passion for saving these 200-plus-pound babies knows no bounds. In a world where we focus only on the challenges and things that divide us, it's important also to talk about the solutions." Ami Vitale
Photograph by Ami Vitale, National Geographic
"Anna Zavorotnya survived Holodomor (the Soviet-era imposed famine of Ukraine) when she was just a six-month-old baby in 1932. She was rescued from a group of starving villagers who resorted to cannibalism and nearly butchered her for food. Anna also lived through the Nazi occupation of Ukraine. In 1986 she witnessed the world's worst nuclear disaster when the reactor No. 4 exploded in the city of Pripyat, Chernobyl. Anna chose to return home just a few months after the nuclear accident. I watched Anna run around her yard with almost manic energy in a ghost town with only three remaining residents. She butchered a pig for Christmas and fetched a shot of moonshine with some homemade preserves and offered it to me. I asked Anna why she chose to come back—wasn't she afraid of radiation? 'Radiation? No, I can't see it. What about starvation? I am afraid of that!' she responded. In spite of all the adversities she had faced in her life, Anna's spirit was indomitable." Rena Effendi
Photograph by Rena Effendi
"Silence the 'peanut gallery' in your own mind telling you photography is too difficult, too expensicve or simply not something women can do, and take the first steps into the art of photography! Women are hardwired to" be storytellers and our planet has never needed more passionate people telling stories that help us understand our place in the world; there has never been a better time to be a female photographer than today, when the world needs us." Cristina Mittermeier
Photograph by Cristina Mittermeier
"A Japanese Geisha. Their lives are so exclusive and private that most Japanese have never even seen one. I was the first photographer allowed into their secret and exclusive world for my book “Geisha: The Life, the Voices, the Art”—a book that could only have been photographed by a woman. I spent six months over a three-year period in the tiny rooms of the geisha houses and backstage at the theaters where they perform, and saw how everything about a geisha changed when a man entered. Her posture, mannerisms, voice—she became her professional self, a woman trained to serve and entertain men. To pamper the male ego, one told me. Would she let a male photographer see her real, unguarded self?" Jodi Cobb
Photograph by Jodi Cobb
"I think that while there are still massive challenges facing women photographers today, we're also in a unique moment in history: we're finally having real, sustainable conversations about how the identities of the people behind the cameras impact the way that photography is made, and therefore how our audience consumes and understands stories. We are, I think, just starting to understand that if we want to have access to a balanced, informed, and nuanced look at our world, we need to make sure that our image makers and story tellers are a diverse and inclusive set of creatives." Daniella Zalcman
Photograph by Daniella Zalcman
"Be humble, real and honest when photographing and always tell the stories in an intimate and honest way. Photography is a journey, an exploration towards our unconscious, a tool of self-knowledge and personal exploration that allows us to be children again, because it gives us the ability to be amazed. For this reason, always be open and never have preconceptions or judgmental because the only thing that connects us to the people and the stories we tell is the capacity to wonder and the openness of our heart." Tamara Merino
Photograph by Tamara Merino

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