Book review — Women of Vision (National Geographic)

Women of Vision accompanies a travelling exhibition of the same title, curated by National Geographic. Both celebrate the work of eleven inspiring female photojournalists, featuring nearly 100 images, ranging from social issues, effects of war, and changes in our natural habitats.

Renowned American news journalist, Ann Curry, begins the foreword with words, “Henri Cartier-Bresson, considered the father of photojournalism…”, explaining how a photographer’s vision is influenced by one’s experiences and emotions. And how these will be different due to gender.

To a degree, that is certainly true. For example, I cannot imagine a male photographer gaining access to record moments such as young girls and their adult husbands (“Too Young to Wed”, Stephanie Sinclair), a woman-owned beauty shop in Zambia with a customer breast-feeding a child (Lynn Johnson), or a girl in diaper and makeup in advance of a beauty pageant (Jodi Cobb).

But none of the photographers fit any female typecast. Some may have had to accept a “girl’s” work assignment from their editors during their career. Indeed, Lynn Johnson stills sees a gender divide: “It’s an issue at every level: with what you decide to shoot and how you’re received. Then you have to decide, are you going to make it an issue?”

But all excel in the outstanding quality of their work on display here.

Indeed, this edited selection reveals the diversity of approaches and subject matter that one would expect in the wider genre. Why wouldn’t it?

For example, as Lynsey Addario explained: “Everyone covers wars for different reasons. Some are in it for the adrenaline rush, some for the exciting lifestyle, and others because they care. For me, it’s about telling the story of human suffering and getting those images to policy makers. I hope to effect change.”

Likewise, Maggie Steber said:  “To me, the story of Rhodesia was not about the front line, where I would have gotten killed. It was about how the society was changing.”

Storytelling is a compelling motivation for several of these photographers.

Describing her project photographing immigrant broccoli pickers in northern Maine, Amy Toensing said that it was the first time she realised that she could tell a story through a sequence of images.

Several others describe their method of familiarising themselves with the subject matter. Erika Larsen, for example, spent three years immersed with the Sami people of the Arctic Circle for that project. 

Meanwhile, I identify with Carolyn Drake’s midpoint approach: “The most interesting time on a project is when you’re on the border between being an outsider and an insider — able to separate from it, but also identify with it.”

Regardless, photography becomes addictive. 

As Lynn Johnson said: “I don’t think you understand; I have to do this.” Or as in Lynsey Addario’s just-published memoir, It’s What I Do.

And now we live in an age when so many more people are creating and consuming images, in which some fear the craft of photography is getting lost.

But Kitra Cahana would counter this, by her embracing of 21st century technology:  “My hope is to wed photography with more voices beyond my photographic voice, to be an all-in-one journalist, to tell stories that are fully rounded,” by meshing it with other mediums.

And as Diane Cook explained: “Taking pictures is not just pushing a button. Like a musician, you have to practice and be tuned and have the instinct to respond in the moment.”

Photography is about learning through experience (Carolyn Drake), and getting what’s inside your heart out onto the photograph (Amy Toensing).

So Henri Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’ lives on. What Women of Vision achieves is a revelation of this process amongst an exemplary group of influential photographers of our day.

See following panel discussion among the photographers, chaired by Ann Curry:


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