To See and Be Seen: What Can a Woman Do with a Camera (Phone)?
by: Tracy Piper-Wright , June 25, 2022
by: Tracy Piper-Wright , June 25, 2022
Introduction: Across Time & Media
How have women used photography to claim space within visual culture? What similarities and differences might there be between the feminist photography of thirty years ago and work being made today? This paper analyses two important feminist photography projects: the book, What Can a Woman Do with A Camera? conceived by Jo Spence and Joan Solomon and published in 1995, and femLENS, an organisation set up in 2015 to educate women and girls from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds in photographic storytelling. These two projects share a common goal of empowering women to become photographers. Their approaches offer important critical perspectives on how women’s photographic authorship can be enabled and sustained.
What Can a Woman Do with A Camera? was published shortly after Jo Spence’s death, and is indicative of her work as an ‘educational photographer’. (Roberts 1998: 200) In her own practice and through numerous workshops, Spence pursued a relentless questioning of visual representation and engaged in the dismantling of hierarchies in the production and reception of images.
The book is an edited collection from different contributors ranging from the mid-1980s to early 1990s, presenting a heyday of critical feminist photography and a sense that a recognisable path was being forged in the practice, ethics, and critical culture surrounding women’s photography.
The book’s ethos emerges from Jo Spence’s work on the family album, and her workshop activities inform the content through interviews with women as family historians and archivists and specially initiated projects. The book draws together a range of voices and perspectives in terms of age, race, class, sexuality, gender, and education, and from this follows an equally broad range of approaches to using the camera from the documentary snapshot to the staged self-portrait, creating a non-hierarchical exploration of photographic practices and perspectives.
What Can a Woman Do with A Camera? is a manifesto of sorts; an introduction to critical thinking about photography for the lay reader, and a practical guide to using a camera and making pictures. The book’s introduction problematises the representation of women in the media and visual culture, and foregrounds the necessity for women to establish counter narratives by taking control of image production. The book’s quest is to motivate by example, encouraging readers ‘to engage with the psychic reality of our lives’ using the camera as a mode of ‘expressive documentation’. (Spence & Solomon 1995: 12) The emphasis of What Can a Woman Do with A Camera? lies in revealing hidden experiences which are not deemed newsworthy or particularly aesthetic, but which can offer alternative and necessary perspectives on women’s experiences. The subtitle of the book photography for women implies women’s dual positioning as critical observers and makers and strengthens the book’s position as both showcase and how-to guide.
Through its pages, varied projects problematise representation in diverse ways from questioning modes of self-presentation, examining how family and community impacts on a sense of identity, and interrogating seemingly banal photographic records such as the holiday snapshot. The final section of the book narrates workshop activities involving working class mothers, homeless young people, and primary school children, identifying powerful uses of photography as a form of revelation and reinvention closely aligning with Spence’s concept of photography as a democratic and political tool.
The book also prioritises narrative: speaking back and to the images is a large part of the way in which the projects are presented in the book. Sometimes this takes the form of an overarching essay peppered with illustrations. The most successful operate as photo-essays, with minimal text. The different approaches point to the individual voice and identity at stake in each photographer’s work, and evidence a refreshing heterogeneity of approaches, voices, and layouts.
Estonian photojournalist Jekaterina Saveljeva founded femLENS in 2015. After a decade working in the industry, she noticed two things: there were not enough women working in the field, and not enough photojournalism was done by locals (Plantera 2018: 15). For Saveljeva the conventional model of photojournalistic practice was flawed. Despite being an empathic and skilful visual storyteller, she became aware of the distance and brevity of most documentary projects: where the photographer is an ’outsider’ who embeds for a short period in a community or situation and then leaves, resulting in work which can only present a superficial perspective on the events depicted.
Saveljeva recognised that it was not sufficient just to train more women to become professional photojournalists, it was necessary to disperse the means of production and enable a broader range of women to become visual storytellers. The educational aspect of femLENS is a strong thread that runs through all their activities. This often takes the form of workshops, which have ranged across countries and communities to include single mothers in Ireland, women with physical disabilities in Poland, women living in Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, women vulnerable to human trafficking in the Ukraine, and migrant women living in Berlin. (femLENS n.d.) Workshops centre on empowering women to find visual stories within their own experiences and communities and gaining confidence in the basics of photography alongside developing critical awareness of contemporary visual culture and women’s impoverished representation within it.
femLENS also hosts exhibitions and publishes We See magazine (2018 to date) which provides an edited, public showcase of the work produced by workshop participants. These entries are varied, sometimes including an accompanying narrative which articulates the work—though often not—leading the viewer to explore the meaning and events being portrayed without accompanying text. This lends the magazine an inspiring, non-didactic air, and demonstrates confidence in the power of the image. In 2020, femLENS published Unlearning the Ordinary: through a lens for the commons, which performs a dual function as a reflection on the diverse work of the first five years of the organisation’s history, and a manifesto for a changing vision of photography based on ‘communal storytelling … documentation of what might, should or does matter’ (Saveljeva & Rimmele 2020: 11). The book evidences the wealth of stories that we never imagined existed in the first place. ‘We need these stories as much as these women do, because without them, however informed we think we feel, we will never truly be in touch with the world that surrounds us’ (Spence & Solomon 1995).
femLENS’ international scope and distributed modes of communication through social media and self-publishing have forged an extensive networked community of mutual support and development. Alongside official workshop activity new strands of engagement have formed through using social media, providing further opportunities for women who are engaged in personal practices of visual storytelling to come together and support each other in the development of new work.
The two projects outlined above are grounded in their historical context which necessarily informs their remit and the presentation of the work.
The focus of the projects in What Can a Woman Do with A Camera? is largely personal, and there is a sense of interiority and circumspection to many of the narratives and images. This does not diminish their power, but reminds us that the personal is the starting point for any political journey. ‘The personal is political’ was the watchword of 2nd wave feminist critiques, which looked to the domestic and family environment as a site where ‘womanhood’ was learned, and where cultural expectations of gender roles and dynamics could be challenged (Klorman-Eraqi 2019). The central motif of critique is the family album, and many projects focus on this notion of the personal narrative or re-examination of childhood expectations and beliefs through revisiting pictures from the past, a field in which Spence was an important pioneer. This places the book and its concerns in a historical context, and the approaches taken are framed within an oppositional critique (Jones 2012: 47), which focusses heavily on identity, and the re-formation of identity through image making.
femLENS operates in a diverse international context in which a wide range of women present stories about their lives and communities. Although these stories are developed from personal experience, the organisation’s focus on documentary and photojournalism signifies attention to the potential of photography as an outward-facing tool of visibility and change making. Part of the goal of femLENS workshops is to empower women to emerge from the confines of the home, liberated by the tools of visual storytelling to record and represent their community and society at large.
While femLENS workshops raise questions of how and where women are represented in visual media, the issues of identity at stake extend toward the structural and institutional barriers that exist for women through economic, social, or cultural circumstances. In this contemporary context it is the quest for a distributed visibility rather than an exploration of identity politics, which drives the mission to give voice to those who are excluded from the visual realm through lack of access to cameras and the ability to frame their own experiences visually.
These distinctions reflect the development of feminist thinking and practice in the intervening decades, but notwithstanding there are strong lines of correspondence between the book and organisation. The work that femLENS does could easily be subtitled ‘what can a woman do with a camera?’ Both the 1995 book and contemporary 21st century organisation have at their root the empowerment of women as photographers and storytellers of women’s experiences.
The connection between Spence and Solomon’s project and femLENS lies within two main areas. The first is a concern for the education of all women in the structures of visual representation which perpetuate gender and sex-based discrimination. Awareness of how images are used in the media, art, and daily life to create or perpetuate a hegemonic narrative is at the heart of this educative process. Secondly, both projects are concerned with demythologising the technical aspects of photography and disentangling the form from its associations with masculinity and privilege. For femLENS, this is done through the accessibility of the mobile phone, and a concern to prioritise experience over aesthetics. Spence and Solomon’s book was published at a point where cheap film and postal developing services made the medium highly accessible. Using what is available does not mean that good quality equipment and the technical knowledge to use it should remain inaccessible to women, but these can be real barriers to participation. The guerrilla tactics of recognising your resources and using them to create change cannot be underestimated in the context of extending participation beyond a small minority. Comparing Spence and Solomon’s book with femLENS reveals the persistence of two key barriers to women’s full participation in the visual economy: critical understanding and technical confidence, but also demonstrates the methods used to overcome these barriers.
The educational ethos of both projects lies in the entwining of theory and practice in the making of photographs and photographers alike. For both groups of women, critical awareness of the power of images in theory informs the development of new visual stories which resist conventions and offer alternatives to representing the diverse complexity of women’s lives. The exploration of looking and picturing from a subjective position is at the heart of this, and recalls Spence’s observation:
There is no way I could have understood fully the political implications of trying to represent other people (however well intentioned) if I had not first of all begun to explore how I had built a view of myself through other people’s representations of me. (Spence 1986: 83)
For Spence the connection between theory and practice is based on a profound sense of what representation feels like when you are the one who is misrepresented or unrecognised in image culture. The issue of being seen is key for Spence, and to be seen clearly, we must first see ourselves. It is perhaps no accident that femLENS’ regular publication of workshop participants’ work is entitled We See with all the resonance the imperative implies. To see and be seen are interrelated acts forming part of the distinctive visual resistance proposed by both projects.
That the position of the photographer is from within the story being told is key to this and situates the form of visual resistance as one based on self-realization. To observe one’s own life, or the lives of those closest, requires an empathic vision which understands as it reveals, a kind of ‘looking-relation’ as suggested by Kaplan (1997) with its implication of mutual recognition in the entangled process of seeing and being seen.
Jill Soloway suggests something similar in her concept of ‘feeling seeing’; a subjective viewpoint where the camera ‘uses the frame to share and evoke a feeling of being in feeling, rather than seeing—the characters’ (Soloway 2016, author’s emphasis). What is suggested here is the removal of the observing subject as an outside entity to be replaced by a level of connection not based on vision but on a sensual connection occurring within the frame of reference.
The notion of recognition and connection implied in both terms suggests a form of visual engagement which moves beyond the simple ‘facts’ of observational sight to involve a deeper perception. Using photography as a tool, the photographers in femLENS and What Can a Woman Do with A Camera? assert their right to be seen, and the right to see, opening new pathways within conventional modes of photographic representation and storytelling.
The Right to be Seen: A Counter-visual Project
The political project of What Can a Woman Do with A Camera? and femLENS centres on the right to be seen: the right to present an authentic vision of oneself and one’s environment. In both cases the right to be seen is claimed in resistance to dominant forms of ‘visuality’: the political/historical processes by which we come to understand visual power relations and our place in them (Mirzoeff 2011). Dominant visual practices use tactics of division and stratification to reproduce power relations, constraining the right to look and the right to be seen. Claiming the right to look is a therefore a feminist, decolonial strategy, a form of counter visuality which claims its right where none previously may have existed, and which seeks to ‘resituate the terms on which reality is to be understood’ (Mirzoeff 2011: 28).
This re-situation is evidenced in the work of photographers in What Can a Woman Do with A Camera? and femLENS whose critical perspectives inform the creation of new ways of seeing and being seen, claiming space in the visual economy on their own terms. Being seen goes beyond the simple fact of making visible, and involves processes of education, democratisation, and a consideration of the sustainability of any type of counter visual practice (Mirzoeff 2011: 5). Resistance to the hegemony of established authority encourages the invention of new forms which lie outside of easy categorisation, or which propose alternative ways of using photography.
In Putting Myself in the Picture, Jo Spence narrates her exploration and ultimate rejection of documentary photography as a style and as a method for commenting on the political and social experiences that shaped her, instead proposing new ways of combining image and text, constructed images and montage to reveal what the camera could not (Spence 1986: 72). This politically driven experimental ethos informs the work of contributors to What Can a Woman Do with A Camera? and shows the development of an expanded form of documentary practice, or ‘expressive documentation’ (Spence & Solomon 1995: 12), a phrase used to signify practices which deconstruct the purported evidentiary nature of the genre.
The work by Alice Dennett in What Can a Woman Do with A Camera? is a good example of how expressive documentation can reveal aspects of personal experience in a new way. Dennett uses her camera to focus on the material conditions of her life, and the eight black and white photos are accompanied by a terse and knowing commentary. In one photo a woman, dressed neatly in coat, boots and headscarf, pulls a large white object out of a skip, in another the same woman looks through the window of shop emblazoned with sale and discount signs. The images symbolise the economics of precarity: ‘I am in the same position now as my parents were all those years ago, with no more money or possessions and hardly any real social change’ (Spence & Solomon 1995: 98), Dennett observes, as a pensioner in 1980s Britain. Pictures of mending shoes and clothes reveal the white working-class organisation of the family as a survival unit, fiercely self-reliant and wary of Government benefits lest they bring with them unwanted interference. Another image shows a man and woman sitting next to a gas fire dressed in coats, hats, gloves and shoes, their attire a comical mismatch with their interior setting. Likely the gas fire is not switched on, and this is necessary household economics at work. The image is both symbolic of the widening gap between rich and poor that signified Thatcher’s Britain, and an unadorned record of lived experience. The images of the woman at the skip and the window also contain the potential for this double reading: they operate both symbolically—the woman as stilled presence in an otherwise empty environment—as well as appearing to be factual descriptions, and the viewer can seamlessly telescope between these two perspectives.
Later on in the series, Dennett uses methods of image construction and staging to explore her social status and women’s unseen labour. In her text Dennett is scathing of her unacknowledged housework, which, like her paid labour, has involved repetitive cleaning. For Dennett the reality of constant housework and poorly valued industrial scale labour make a mockery of middle class, wealthy women’s feminist ambitions: ‘Equality with who?’ (Spence & Solomon 1995: 100).
As a working-class pensioner, Dennett is perhaps on the lowest rung of agency in relation to the power she can exert and the authority she can command. Her visual agency in the pages of What Can a Woman Do with A Camera? is, by contrast, large, and she wields it with authority. Spending time with the images, it becomes apparent that we are seeing the same woman—in a headscarf at the skip, mending clothes, sitting gloved and hatted by a cold fire. Who then is the photographer? Is Dennett playing with us perhaps, elaborately framing her images to hone an incisive commentary, not of what she sees but how she is seen, of how life appears inside and outside? This meta-documentary turn is easy to overlook at first glance, the images and text so seamlessly operating in the register of Dennett’s observing and recording as photographer toward subject. Awareness of the woman we come to recognise in the pictures leaves us wondering where Dennett is—in front of the camera or behind it? Our confusion disrupts our easy certainty over these documentary-like images. Dennett is in both places, resisting the placement of herself as an object to be described, directing the narrative, telling a story that is rarely ever told.
Dennett’s project exemplifies counter-visuality as a method of reimagining not just the stories that could be told, but how they can be visualised, in all their complexity. The creative strategies of expressive documentation, as shared by Spence in her workshop settings, empowers women like Dennett, giving them the tools through which to visualise the things that matter to them, enabling them, finally, to be seen.
The work of Halima Al-Haj, a participant in a femLENS workshop in Shatila camp, Beirut in 2017, demonstrates how democracy and sustainability become strong motifs of a counter-visuality. Al-Haj’s first works, published in We See I (2018), focus on the specific street architecture of the refugee camp, a place of ‘alleys and wires’ (femLENS 2018: 40) that residents must navigate. Her position inside the camp is both privileged and marginal, enabling her to record the intimate spaces of the camp off limits to outside observers yet invisible in the ‘bigger pictures’ of conflict and war. Moving through the cramped environment her pictures take us through the subterranean gloom of passageways, rugs layered and drooping from the maze of wires overhead, to turn a corner and come across a loose assembly of chickens scratching among ruined buildings. Around another corner we see a more recognisable life: a group of women stand waiting to buy groceries, crates of fresh fruit and vegetables in plentiful and glowing piles stacked against a pockmarked and damaged wall. Al-Haj’s images express how the business of maintaining daily life in abnormal and precarious living situations falls to the women who establish routines of shopping, cooking, and cleaning out of necessity; activities that always underpin the more newsworthy aspects of political and social life and which go unremarked and unrecognised.
In her project Scarves, Al-Haj turns her attention to the headscarves of her fellow women in the camp. Recognising the cultural norms where for some women, publishing images of their faces would be taboo, Al-Haj creates a series of portraits of the women from behind with the emphasis on clothing and colour. The portraits are mostly full-frame and capture the personality of the individual through a movement or an action that places these women as fully engaged in the process of portrait making, which offer an alternative vision of representation. The scarf, as a signifier of religious observance that can be used as a catch all visual stereotype for Arab women, is here used to counter that idea of uniformity and covering, instead revealing an individual expression of being in the world. Al-Haj’s work demonstrates how an alternative to the conventions of portraiture creates openings for other interpretations of the individual which do not rely on physical features, but which offer new ways of observing ourselves and others, through stance, gesture, or fabric. These images propose a counter visual tactic to the vexed question of female representation and the gaze, embodying the mutuality of the looking-relation which is borne out of Al-Haj’s sense of belonging with and understanding of the women she photographs.
Al-Haj’s involvement with femLENS makes these new representations possible, democratising image making and enabling new visual propositions. Her trajectory also demonstrates the concept of sustainability that is embedded in the organisation’s work. Al-Haj won an award for one of her photographs from Alleys and Wires, and continues to practise as a photographer. Her latest body of work documents the 2020 Beirut explosion which devastated huge parts of the city. Published in We See IV (2021) Al-Haj narrates and documents the experience from the perspective of the city residents, providing a crucial viewpoint on the events from an embedded perspective. Without a framework in which new voices are encouraged and maintained, counter narratives are always emergent. To trace the developing maturity and confidence of the work of Al-Haj, through successive issues of We See, is evidence of Saveljeva’s and femLENS’s commitment to sustainability as a core ethos of their counter-visual project.
The Right to See: Practising Photography
Gaining access to the means of production empowers those who would change the narrative. However, the photography industry, like any other, is beset with its own gendered expectations of production and consumption which can limit access and opportunity within the field.
Distinctions between amateur and professional photography, between serious image making and the snapshot, have been drawn along gendered lines since the early inception of the medium. Advertising rhetoric tended to place the responsibility for recording special moments and compiling the family album into the hands of women, promoting a range of easy, non-threatening equipment to do so. By contrast the ‘serious’ amateur market, aimed at men, promotes technical knowledge, expensive kit, and shooting tips for a range of picturesque scenarios from the nude to landscapes. In a professional context, there is a stark disparity between the 70-80% of women in photography education and the 15% who go on to sustain a viable position in the industry (Barry 2020).
These gendered cultures of practice in photography are interrogated by both projects, in different ways. In What Can a Woman Do with A Camera? the conventional family album, the ‘smiling public faces’ (Spence & Solomon 1995: 12) that hide the tensions of family life, becomes the starting point for a critical and deconstructive exploration of picturing the domestic experiences of women. femLENS’ work emphasises widening the reach of women’s photojournalism and puncturing the male-centric view of world affairs. In so doing it prioritises the individual, personal and domestic story as one of importance and value; as an opportunity to ‘show us something familiar in a new light or raise a topic we might have not have thought of before’ (femLENS 2018a: 31).
It is evident that alongside the question of visibility—the right to be seen—comes the right to see, the right to be the one in charge of the camera, making photographs. Making a photographer requires more than just providing access to tools, although this is a necessary first step. It is also about breaking down barriers that govern what is acceptable as a photography practice, a legitimisation of women’s vision beyond the constraints of what is deemed an acceptable subject matter or use of the camera. This takes time, and as can be seen from the preceding example, goes beyond the initial stages of being competent with the technology and fundamentals of composition. Becoming a photographer entails a sense of self belief in the value and relevance of making pictures through continuing engagement with the act of photographing.
Sara Ahmed refers to this as a form of orientation, in which the body, performing actions repetitively, becomes inured to the work involved and acts without effort. As we orient ourselves to certain activities, or indeed aims and aspirations, we build a sense of self; a sense of what we can do or want to do (Ahmed 2010: 246-247). Orientation is not neutral, and is governed by cultural conventions that make certain situations appear normal and natural. Ahmed points out that gender becomes a naturalised property of bodies, objects and spaces and photography is one such case, where the expectations of who has the capability or wealth to access technology, who has the freedom to observe, and the leisure for creative pursuits, become a set of exclusionary obstacles to women’s engagement in photography as practitioners.
The importance of practising photography is to create new patterns of orientation: ‘what we do affects what we can do’ (Ahmed 2010: 252). By doing photography, the women in What Can a Woman Do with A Camera? and femLENS take up space in the arena of photographic practice, securing ‘a place that is not already given’ (Ahmed 2010: 254), but which can be made, though practice. This place making occurs through personal practice but also through the mutual support and knowledge sharing that is a distinct feature of both projects. In each case, workshop activities promote a collective sense of agency which empower participants to legitimise new forms of image making.
An example of this is the artist Claire Collison, whose work in What Can a Woman Do with A Camera? explores imaginative methods of self-representation. In a series of self-portraits, Collison works through tropes of feminine representation in painting, subverting the established figure of the Madonna or Ophelia by creating flat dioramas with herself at the centre; holding a drill and looking angelic in one, and in another with a flat upward gaze, arms crossed, haloed by clothes pegs. There is humour and knowingness here, poking fun at the idealised images of womanhood which seep from visual and literary culture, and a deliberate flaunting of the ‘right way’ to do things in terms of established photographic technique (Collison 2020). Collison’s witty essay begins with her first experiences of photography at the local night school: ‘Nightmare! Silver halide crystals, big lenses and “which lovely lady would like to pose for us this week?” All gadgets and trousers’ (Spence & Solomon 1995: 39). This overtly masculinised world of the camera club is one with which many women engaging in photography will be familiar, if only indirectly. Collison’s solution to this uncomfortable environment was to set up her own darkroom at home and to use a range of inventive methods to achieve her images, ‘My home-made methods owe a nod of thanks to Blue Peter, B movies and Bunty’ (Spence & Solomon 1995: 42). Collison’s removal of herself from established routes to photographic training presents an alternative to the technical straitjacket which proposes only one right or ‘correct’ way to make photographs, and legitimises an experimental, playful lens-based image making. This subversion of the ‘rules’ of photography in pursuit of creation and self-expression is a form a feminist critique in a lineage that can be traced back to Julia Margaret Cameron, whose deliberate soft focus was both creatively brave and rule breaking (Smith 1992).
The second set of images are from Collison’s Camerawork commissioned project Silent Health. The project explored Collison’s ME diagnoses by visualising the effects of her symptoms, and the public perception of an ‘invisible’ illness. Collison uses projection, double exposure, found images, and cheap lens adapters, among other things, to create her visually arresting bespoke images. Through the inclusion of technical notes and details, Collison shares the knowledge she has gained through her own inventions and discoveries with the book’s readers, inspiring others to invent and explore the potential of photography. Collison’s projects speak to women’s reframing of photographic education away from a dry technical checklist and toward a richly inventive exploration of process.
For femLENS, breaking down barriers to participation is achieved using mobile phone cameras and social media, modes of image making and publication which are in reach of almost everyone. For Saveljeva, confidence with technology is the first step in the journey to empowerment: ‘[women] need to hack the technology they already have, get to know it better and use it better to make themselves heard so their rights and needs are not an afterthought’ (Plantera 2018: 17).
In their workshops femLENS develop the creative skillsets of participants, from the initial research and planning stages through to post-production, image editing and packaging work for publication, enabling their professional participation in photojournalism contexts. Workshops do not just concentrate on technology and skills, they also create spaces for mutual support and a sense of belonging which are important factors in facilitating and sustaining an emerging practice. Embodying the ethos of ‘communal storytelling’ (Saveljeva & Rimmele 2020: 10) femLENS’ uses workshops, social media, and self-publishing outlets to encourage and maintain communities of practice, recognising the potential of shared goals and aspirations to validate individual voices.
While some workshop participants will use disposable film cameras or loan cameras gifted to the organisation, mobile phones are the main means of production for most. Legitimising the phone as a tool for ‘proper’ photography asserts the professionalism and seriousness of the project that participants will undertake, contributing to a sense of self-belief. In addition, the innocuousness of a mobile phone enables workshop participants to explore a situation without fear of being challenged or harassed, an important aspect in women’s participation and one which is easily overlooked.
Bella Antonyan-Shevchuk’s, project A Woman’s Burden exemplifies how the simplicity, discretion and immediacy of the phone camera creates opportunities for observations which are uniquely situated in time and place, enabling radical new observations of the everyday. A workshop participant in Ukraine in 2018, Antonyan-Shevchuk builds a visual taxonomy of women carrying bags in her hometown of Zhytomr: bags full of shopping or equipment, young and older women, women struggling to carry several bags, bags made of flimsy plastic, or sturdy baskets. The women are photographed as they move around the city, walking through markets, getting on and off the bus. These street photographs are tightly framed and taken from an observational distance, often from behind. The phone camera allows Antonyan-Shevchuk to be discrete: no obvious photography equipment, no sound to interrupt the flow of events around her, and it allows the weight of her observations to build over time, to become a tangible expression of a collective experience rather than individual identity. In the text that accompanies the work, Antonyan-Shevchuk reflects on the nature of the burden, physically manifest in the carrying of schoolbooks, shopping, and goods for sale, which map a trajectory of women’s work and striving for self-realisation and economic freedom against an ever-present backdrop of societal expectations of women’s work. At whatever stage of life there is a burden, articulated through domestic expectations or by financial necessity that keeps the women Antonyan-Shevchuk observes tied down, unable to lift themselves free: ‘each of us carries the load as best we can’ (Saveljeva & Rimmele 2020: 29).
Antonyan-Shevchuk’s project demonstrates how seemingly inconsequential every day observations can, over time, build toward a profound and thoughtful critique of women’s experience. The accessibility of the phone camera means that practising photography can be an immediate, daily activity, increasing the range and scope of visual stories that can be told. Through practice, femLENS photographers claim the right to see, and hone their powers of critical observation to offer a new and unexpected world view.
Conclusion: Shared Visions
Exploration of the work produced by photographers from femLENS and What Can a Woman Do with a Camera? demonstrates how their visual emancipation occurs through the interrelation of theory and practice in the combination of making visible and taking control. In cyclical processes of seeing and being seen these photographers consider and enact counter-visual strategies through their practice of creating visual stories and narratives.
Concepts of narration and storytelling are distinctive features of both projects. In What Can a Woman Do with A Camera? the emphasis on narration and using text to articulate images and vice versa is rooted in the book’s overarching emphasis on the visual diary and the use of this concept within many of the workshopped projects. Jo Spence’s inventive reimagining of documentary photography hinged on the pairing of image and text, using one to disrupt and inform the other in a process of destabilisation. This narrative process also forms part of the collation of the family album, a progressive and accumulative act taking place over an extended duration. The evidence of personal history through the album, with its gaps and omissions, also points to the impractical task of summing up the family or the relationships within it in a single image.
The work of femLENS is predicated on the concept of storytelling and of the indigenous reporter, observing and recording her environment over time, ultimately in charge of where her camera is pointed and at what. Storytelling becomes a form of empowerment, through which identity is given form (Cai 2021: 96), and when published in an external context, a subversive means to refute the ‘reality’ which is offered by mainstream visual culture. The durational aspects of image making are part of the emphasis within femLENS workshops, where the antithesis of understanding is the ‘parachute’ journalism which exemplifies much modern reportage.
It is significant, I believe, that both book and organisation share an emphasis on long-form image making, and feature sequences, groups or collections that present images in relation to each other. The problem of visual representation, that an image will suffice to tell us all we need to know about a given individual or situation, is fraught with the potential for misreading, and misunderstandings that occur through limited knowledge and world perspective. The ‘thousand words’ that an image may be required to speak are often curtailed by a visual culture which aims to simplify, leaving us to fall back on our existing stock of visual tropes to make sense of them. By emphasising duration and the story, the photographers in What Can a Woman Do with A Camera? and femLENS can resist some of the simplifying issues surrounding female representation and identity by building in complexity through the combination of image, time, and text. An emphasis on duration encourages us to think about the process of making the work, not just the resulting images, and to consider the relationships and activities that have brought them into being.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Jo Spence hints at something similar in her text from 1986, in which she questions the prioritisation of the visual image as the site of meaning:
it might perhaps be useful to try to shift our focus to another link in the chain of the ways meanings are produced within signifying processes: to the time of taking the photograph, and to the relationship between photographer and subject. (Spence 1995: 124)
The shift of focus that Spence proposes is a form of resistance to norms which can only ever repeat the structural dichotomies of the gaze. The examples from What Can a Woman Do with A Camera? and femLENS demonstrate how resistance is woven into the durational practices of seeing, making, and sharing which occur through learning together, documenting one’s community or gaining recognition as a photographer. This approach is one that acknowledges how context and relationships are integral to any image making process and demonstrate the importance of both projects in establishing new forms of feminist photographic practice.
The rationale for looking closely at the book What Can a Woman Do with A Camera? and the organisation femLENS, stemmed from an awareness of a surprising alignment between the two in terms of their educative and democratising ethos, despite their distance in time and place. In each case, photography is perceived as a critical and political means to counter the mistakes and omissions of conventional representations and a valuable tool for women’s self-realisation and belonging. Each project’s ethos is based on principles of mutuality and connection; the looking-relation that connects these women to the world they photograph and to each other, and which elicits new methods of envisioning their world. Spence and Saveljeva, in different times and places, understand that feminist visual resistance lies in growing and nurturing communities of practice that can empower women to see and be seen, and that it is this collective, shared vision that can sustain women in their efforts to forge impact and influence within photographic culture.
Ahmed, Sara (2010), ‘Orientations Matter’, in Diana Coole & Samantha Frost (eds.), New Materialisms: Ontology Agency and Politics, Durham and London: Duke University Press, pp. 234-257.
Barry, Therese (2020), ‘Why Women?’, Hundred Heroines, July 2020, https://hundredheroines.org/featured/why-women/ (last accessed 2 January 2022).
Cai, Emily (2021), ‘Women and Photography’, femLENS We See (January 2021), Vol. 4, pp. 94-97.
Collison, Claire (2020), ‘Do They Mean Me?’(Chapter reproduction from What Can A Woman Do With A Camera?), Claire Collison, https://www.clairecollison.com/artist-1/what-can-a-woman-do-with-a-camera-85czh (last accessed 2 January 2022).
femLENS (2018), We See Issue 1 May 2018, https://femLENS.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/We-See-Magazine.pdf (last accessed 2 January 2022).
femLENS (2018a), We See, Issue 2 December 2018, https://femLENS.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/We-See-2-web-2.pdf (last accessed 2 January 2022).
femLENS (n.d.), femLENS Stories https://femLENS.com/ (last accessed 2 January 2022).
Jones, Amelia (2012), Seeing Differently: A History and Theory of Identification and the Visual Arts, London: Routledge.
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Klorman-Eraqi, Na’ama (2019), The Visual is Political: feminist photography and countercultural activity in 1970s Britain, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Mirzoeff, Nicholas (2011), The Right to Look: A Counter History of Visuality, Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Plantera, Rita (2018), ‘The Challenge of New Feminism to the Media Gender Stereotypes: Interview with Jekaterina Saveljeva’, femLENS We See (May 2018), Vol. 1, pp. 14-18.
Roberts, John (1998), ‘Jo Spence: Photography, Empowerment and the Everyday’, in John Roberts (ed.), The Art of Interruption: Realism, Photography and the Everyday, Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 199-215.
Saveljeva, Jekaterina & Till Rimmele (eds.) (2020) Unlearning the Ordinary: Through a Lens for the Commons, Print on Demand, Blurb https://femLENS.com/books/ (last accessed 17 June 2021).
Smith, Lindsay (1992), ‘The Politics of Focus: Feminism and Photography Theory’, in Isabel Armstrong (ed.), New Feminist Discourses: Critical Essays on Theories and Texts, Vol. 2, London: Routledge, pp. 238-262.
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Spence, Jo (1986), Putting Myself in the Picture: A Political, Personal and Photographic Autobiography, London: Camden Press.
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WHO SUPPORTS US
The team of MAI supporters and contributors is always expanding. We’re honoured to have a specialist collective of editors, whose enthusiasm & talent gave birth to MAI.
However, to turn our MAI dream into reality, we also relied on assistance from high-quality experts in web design, development and photography. Here we’d like to acknowledge their hard work and commitment to the feminist cause. Our feminist ‘thank you’ goes to:
Dots+Circles – a digital agency determined to make a difference, who’ve designed and built our MAI website. Their continuous support became a digital catalyst to our idealistic project.
Guy Martin – an award-winning and widely published British photographer who’s kindly agreed to share his images with our readers
Chandler Jernigan – a talented young American photographer whose portraits hugely enriched the visuals of MAI website
Matt Gillespie – a gifted professional British photographer who with no hesitation gave us permission to use some of his work
Julia Carbonell – an emerging Spanish photographer whose sharp outlook at contemporary women grasped our feminist attention
Ana Pedreira – a self-taught Portuguese photographer whose imagery from women protests beams with feminist aura
And other photographers whose images have been reproduced here: Cezanne Ali, Les Anderson, Mike Wilson, Annie Spratt, Cristian Newman, Peter Hershey