Women photographers travel the globe recording stories of triumphs and tribulations of the world as they see it
“The camera gives me power and I become brave,” says Anahit Hayrapetyan, 32, a photojournalist based in Yerevan, the historical capital city of Armenia, a former Soviet bloc country. “It’s not easy for me to go out with a camera in my hands but once I am out there, everything changes. My camera is my motivation, my interest, my soul, my tears... [It’s my] life,” adds the talented lens-woman.
Photographing the life and times of girls and women in her country has been like a mission for Anahit ever since she started taking pictures in 2005. Although she admits she has an emotional connect with every story she has clicked, one of her most moving works yet has been the ‘Princess to Slave’ project that depicts the various forms of violence Armenian women face - be it physical, sexual, psychological or gender discrimination.
Like Anahit, Russia-born Irina Popova, 27, also trains her lens on the everyday woman. From photographing an unusual family living on the streets of St Petersburg to covering a war zone, she has done varied work.
Anahit and Irina are part of an increasing tribe of women photojournalists from around the world, who are using their evocative photography to showcase the diverse challenges faced by women. They may be living in Tver (Russia), Paris (France) or Yerevan (Armenia), but they willingly travel to far-flung regions like Abkhazia, Cuba, Morocco or India to shoot women and present their hitherto unexpressed fears, apprehensions and problems.
Violence against women is a subject dear to Anahit’s heart. As part of ‘The Other Side Of Europe’ project, which has roped in various well-known photographers from Eastern Europe to present an “inside view” of the region, she writes, “I believe that problems can be solved only if we speak out; otherwise they will stay hidden in our society, and the society will stay sick....hiding violence can bring death...Women must know their rights and bring these problems out into the open.”
Anahit recalls an incident involving the death of a young woman. “It was the funeral of a young, pregnant and beautiful woman. She was in white... her family wasn’t rich. While her family insisted that she was killed, the husband’s family maintained that she had committed suicide. At that time my son had just been born. I had to go to their house then return to feed my son and then go back there again. Emotionally, it was one of the most difficult days of my life,” reveals this mother of two, who has worked with National Geographic Traveller Armenia, Institute for War & Peace Reporting and Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, among others.
It’s the unusual subjects that attract the artist in Irina, who has many accolades to her name, including the title of the Best Photographer of Russia, which she won in The Best Photo Story category. The works she has produced over the last few years clearly demonstrate her interests – she has photographed Cuban women, captured Georgia during war, and even told the story of two-year-old Anfisa and her parents, who are punks and heavy drug abusers. The last feature created quite a sensation in the Western media.
“I love to interact with people who are not part of 'real' life. I too had no 'real life' and that's why I took up photography. I [love to] travel for my stories and pick out my destinations [depending on what interests me],” she says.
One such destination Irina chose was strife-torn Georgia, located in Eastern Europe. Over the last couple of decades, relations between Russia and Georgia have been quite tense, especially because of Moscow's support for separatist sentiments in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Irina has been a witness to the violence that had unfolded in Abkhazia some years ago. She recalls, "I reached there a month before the war. When I saw a Russian military camp in the actual conflict zone I started to shoot immediately. There were about a hundred tanks crossing over from the Russian side."
On that occasion Irina was arrested and questioned for an entire day. The authorities deleted all her pictures, even the ones that were not related to the war zone. While she was shaken up by the incident – "as a photographer if you witness something unwanted then you're in real danger" – she does not regret her decision to go there.
While Anahit and Irina tell stories of social impact, war, drugs, subcultures and faith, Italian Guia Besana, 41, who is based in Paris, is equally at ease with shooting a corporate project for a leading international chain of coffee shops or portraying the lonely lives of AIDS victims in Swaziland. A Marie Claire Photography Award (2012) finalist, whose works have been recognised on various photography platforms, Guia says, "All my projects have touched me. 'Traces', which was about AIDS victims left a very deep impression on me as did the project 'She', a poignant story that expressed the conflict of Laura, the first man in Italy who underwent a sex-change surgery."
On her website, Guia describes how she is "very drawn to my subjects that have conflict and contradictions". She describes her meeting with Laura, “I listened to her story trying to fix gestures that could well represent her strong personality. I discovered an elegant woman, an excellent cook, a wise and creative friend.... My desire was to bring alive this project through images representing my personal vision of her, her disguises, of fiction and non fiction, showing a fragment of her soul.”
Of course, it isn't easy doing the kind of work these women do. As is evident from Irina's experience, many a time they not only face the wrath of the State but also public ire. Irina puts it this way, "Everyone asks what a photographer does when s/he sees a situation that needs intervening. That's a heavy moral dilemma. But there are also times when a photographer becomes the victim. I feel photographers in general face a lot of aggression."
Anahit adds, "Very often I do face problems from the police and even ordinary people but I try not to notice them. The main idea is to just go out and start taking pictures."
What about the time they invest in striking a relationship with their subjects? Do they go back once they have moved on to something new? All of them unanimously declare that they make it a point to stay in touch. Anahit still tracks the lives of the refugees she met in a building as part of her maiden project. She says, "The kids from that building are now living in apartments. They have all grown up. One of them is a boxing champion in Armenia now. Soon, I plan to shoot a small story about him [and his journey of becoming] a boxer."
The protagonists of her 'Cuban Women' project are still in touch with Irina and have even sought her help in finding eligible Western men! "Occasionally, I show these photos to my audience, telling them the stories of these girls and asking if anyone would be interested in marrying one of them. Usually, people simply laugh," reveals Irina.
Women photographers are indeed a unique species – they take risks, they make lasting relationships with their subjects, they strive to capture unseen realities. And they do all this in the hope of making the world a better place.
(Women's Feature Service)
The photo caption has been corrected for a wrong credit.