For a few years I have observed an interesting dynamic whenever there is a dialogue around women and photography. For me, I feel an ongoing tension that a lot of women are unable to use “feminism” or “feminist” as they talk about their practice or experiences.
An example last year was a photographic celebration of International Women’s Day during which both individual presentations and a panel discussion took place. The participants where all noted women involved in making work as photographers, writers, educators. Not one of the women presenting or discussing their work used the “F” word; the women hosting the event was herself referenced as a “bra burner” by one of the panelists as she tried to steer discussions into a dialogue that reflected the reason why the women were participating- International Women’s Day.
Recently, another example slapped me round the face. I very belatedly became aware of Eugenie Dolberg’s ground-breaking partnership with 12 Iraqi women “Open Shutters Iraq”, writing about and photographing their experiences in 2006/7 (and still, heartbreakingly, very pertinent). As part of the Brighton Photo Biennial, she presented this work with accompanying text and slides. The audience was 90% women, mostly young, and it was packed. The work was passionate and vital, and at great mortal risk of all those involved, came out of a “ferocious desire to not be written out of history”. Eugenie herself was clear that this was a “political action”, less a participatory or community based “project”. Other concerns arose such as what do you do with an archive whereby the subjects and those that produced it could be at physical risk, depending on who was in power, which militia had control.
Eugenie talked about the work coming from feelings, how this was at the core of the journey each woman took. She was clear about her role of sharing her technical skills with the women, so that they used photography in the way they chose to represent their feelings and experiences. That she very much felt that people should not be given power “they have to take it”. As she spoke it became apparent that her approach seemed based on a feminist ethos. I wanted to ask about this, whether she came from a feminist position, for example, and if the work would have had a different outcome either way. I did not. I sat stewing with myself on why I felt silenced, why I allowed it. However, despite this, I left the talk inspired and keen to find out more about her work and that of the women (of which, two have since been killed).
The next day I delved into Photoworks latest publication “Communities, Collectives and Collaboration”. Eugenie, together with Anthony Luvera, and others involved in participative practice, took part in a round table discussion. As someone with a keen interest in the notion of participative photography, this chapter was hugely helpful in unpicking what is meant by this or being “socially engaged”. However, what captured my attention was Eugenie’s use of the “F” word. The work she made in Syria with the Iraqi women is something she felt had been labelled “participative” but on reflection that she might have insisted the project was a “… political feminist action”. She overcame life-threatening obstacles alongside the women, to get their stories told despite people saying it was impossible to get a group together of various cultural and religious backgrounds. Eugenie refused to label, and with the women, worked to produce work about women, children and family that was otherwise not being made, and that perhaps that was her “feminist action”. ( I cannot here do justice to their work or their approach and highly recommend you explore the project online or get the book, or watch the accompanying film “Our feelings took the pictures”).
After reading the chapter, I was left with a lot of questions. One theme is recurring. At the talk, why did Eugenie not describe the work a “political feminist action”? Why did I not follow my guts and explore what I sensed was a feminist approach and ask her? Why is there an almost overbearing silence, or even denial, of work coming from a feminist approach? What are we saying about photographers who made the way forward a little easier for the generations ahead, and who were proudly and fiercely feminist (including a handful of men). Why is there almost an embarrassment to “go there.” Personally, I am proud that I was influenced by feminism, to be a feminist, a perspective that informs and nurtures me; the questioning that refuses to shut up (in my head at least), and appreciation of what women the world over have gone through and still go through to live, to survive, to create.