Women Street Photographers: A new anthology shines a light on women’s remarkable contribution to a male-dominated art

Untitled, Adjara, Georgia, 2014 © Natela Grigalashvil

To coincide with Female in Focus 2021, Gulnara Samoilova – one of last year’s judges – discusses her latest photobook, compiling the work of 100 women street photographers from around the world
Female in Focus is a global award recognising women’s extraordinary contribution to contemporary photography. Enter the 2021 edition now.

In the mountainous Adjara region of the former-Soviet state, Georgia, three girls pose for a photograph on a misty village road. The image, captured by photojournalist Natela Grigalashvili for her series Women with Headscarves, is a delicate portrait of youth and innocence; a time when something as simple as taking a photograph is an event. In it, the two eldest girls hold up a piece of black, transparent cloth for the camera: a fabric which will be made into headscarves for them after they marry, as a symbol of their femininity, loyalty, and “inner peace”.

“[Grigalashvili] is from Georgia,” says Gulnara Samoilova, editor of the illuminating new anthology Women Street Photographers, in which Grigalashvili’s image features. “I am from [the Russian Republic of] Bashkortostan. Even though they are worlds apart, when I look at this picture, I am transported back to my childhood.”

Growing up in extreme rural poverty in Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan, Samoilova first turned to photography as an escape: a magical means of reimagining life’s mundanities, discovering people, places and things in a new light. A shy yet curious, risk-taking teen, she had her first image – a street photo of a lamppost made at night – published in the art section of a local newspaper, and thereafter, she was hooked.

She moved to New York in 1992, and would go on to garner first prize in the World Press Photo competition for her coverage of 9/11. “I see myself, my mother, and my grandmother when I look at Natela’s photograph,” Samoilova muses. “And that’s one of the most amazing things photography can do. Not only preserving a moment in time, but holding the power to transport you to your past; affirming a deep connection that exists nowhere except in your memories. Reminding us that we are more alike than we are different.”

Women Street Photographers, published by Prestel, brings together the work of 100 women photographers around the world, recognising their extraordinary contribution to an overwhelmingly male-dominated field. Featuring artists from the ages of 20 to 70, alongside a foreword by Ami Vitale and an essay by Melissa Breyer, Samoilova sheds light on generations of underrepresented talent: proof that the relatively few women accepted to the canon of the street photography – our Mary Ellen Marks, Helen Levitts and Vivian Maiers – are just barely scratching the surface.

The book comes off the back of what began as a travelling exhibition and accompanying Instagram feed, founded by Samoilova in 2017 to champion the work of both amateur and professional women street photographers. Much like the project’s previous iterations, Women Street Photographers isn’t a linear, historical, or academic book, but rather what Samoilova describes as “my emotional, aesthetic, and spiritual response to the work of other artists”. It is a vibrant showcase of scenes she finds moving and powerful, from ultra-orthodox youth in a Tel Aviv park, to a sea of taxis outside a Kolkata train station; a moonlit bus stop in Munich to a foggy morning in Romania.

Do women see the world ‘differently’ to men? “I think it’s far too early in the conversation to summarise what encompasses the ‘female gaze’,” Samoilova says. “We’ve been indoctrinated by the ‘male gaze’ for so long that it’s hard to say where that ends and where we begin. But it’s time we create the space to reflect upon these questions in further depth, and at greater length.”

Indeed, only once the visual landscape opens up to every iteration and intersection of woman, across race, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, ability, age, class and so on, can we begin to distill what the ‘female gaze’ really looks like. Until then, Samoilova endeavours to “build everything I wish I had encountered over the past 40 years working as a photographer that would have helped me along my journey – so that I didn’t feel so alone in the world”.

Written by Flossie Skelton

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