Female photographers across the Global South reflect on the challenges they face

From the series Five Pounds in My Pocket © Shaista Chishty.

Drawing on the experiences of 22 women in 20 countries, a recent study illustrates the issues faced – and the acts of resistance carried out – by practitioners across the Global South. Brenda Witherspoon and Saumava Mitra report.

Across the Global South, women working as photographers for international media are dismantling systemic practices. These practices can strip people of dignity, overemphasise stereotypical perspectives and undermine their work as professionals based on their gender, race and nationality. They resist along a spectrum of impact and consequence. They leverage scraps of power to shape narratives. Sometimes they walk away. “I prefer to have less work but have it right because I feel like this is something that needs to change. And I know that change is going to take some time and some sacrifices,” says a woman working in Asia who did not want her name used because of safety concerns.

A research study we recently completed explores these acts of protest by drawing on the experiences of 22 women from 20 countries whose work is known internationally. We found that strong inner compasses guide their interactions with photographic subjects and industry gatekeepers alike. They offer a model of respect for these subjects and demand – but don’t often receive – respect from their editors, especially those with less cultural competence. However, they remain determined to challenge what they see, and make the changes they envision despite the many barriers. “I still have a voice. Even though my voice is just in my small circle of 20 to 30 people, it is still a voice. And they are words; they are images,” says a woman from the Middle East/North Africa who took part in the study. “It is a snowball effect. It will grow, and this is how… change happens.”

All but two of the women we interviewed in 2020 for the study, which granted them anonymity, have ties to the Global South; most of them live and work there as photographers. The woman from Asia mentioned in the introduction was interviewed separately following the research, as were several others who spoke on the record. Their actions echo the forms of resistance described by those in the study: countering stereotypes and, when called for, refusing to bend to undue demands. In their struggles to earn respect for themselves, they position respect for those they photograph at the centre of their work.

From the British Journal of Photography.

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