A female lens
Photography to support change
The women photographers exposing human struggles
The women photographers exposing human struggles
Content warning: An historical image included and described in this chapter contains distressing content of severed body parts. We are conscious that the inclusion of the image can cause sadness or distress. We have chosen to include the image to highlight a horrific time in history and its connection to photography.
As photography moved from the studio to capturing life outside, women played an important role in the launch of another genre of photography - documentary photography. The documentary approach brings to light hidden or unacknowledged social issues, and can be used to support positive change in society.
In the 1900s, British missionary Lady Alice Seeley Harris photographed the atrocities committed against local people in the Congo Free State by Belgium. Her work is now considered one of the first photographic campaigns in support of human rights.
The picture above was taken on 15 May 1904 and captures a father called Nsala looking at the hand and foot of his five-year-old daughter which had been cut off by soldiers of the Abir Congo Company as punishment for not harvesting enough rubber. Two other local Congolese men look at him with grave expressions on their faces.
Lady Harris’ accounts and pictures helped change the public perception of enslavement and led to increasing international pressure and scrutiny of the Abir Congo Company. This pressure eventually forced Belgian King Leopold II to give up control of the Congo Free State, passing it instead to the Belgian government.
Elsewhere, at the same time, Augusta Curiel was a leading photographer in Suriname. Augusta’s mother had been born into enslavement and not much is known about her father. Her family were part of the Surinamese elite.
In 1904, during a time when little photographic material existed in her country, Curiel set up a home photography business with her sister Anna. They mostly worked on commission for the upper class and captured an idealised picture of Surinamese colonial society. Despite this, some of their photographs still manage to highlight class divisions and social struggles.
The photograph above captures protests in Paramaribo Suriname in 1931. In the 1930s, there was a worldwide economic crisis after the Stock Market Crash in New York in 1929. There were mass layoffs in all sectors of the agriculture and raw materials industries in Suriname. There was no social insurance, poor housing and a lack of adequate healthcare. The colonial administration did not take enough measures to support the unemployed, leading to hunger riots and people protesting on the streets.
Though the sisters were far removed from the working class, their work shines an important light on their struggles.
Even when photographers intend to capture social struggles in an effort to help bring about change, like Lady Alice Seeley Harris did, it’s not always a straightforward task. Things sometimes get complicated, for example, when the subject of a photograph speaks out. Let’s look at the case of Dorothea Lange.
At the start of the 1930s, around 14 million Americans were out of work, with three million people migrating to California to find opportunities. Portrait photographer Dorothea Lange left her studio to document their lives.
One of her most iconic works is Migrant Mother, which was published in 1936. Here’s Lange’s account of meeting the subject of this portrait.
'I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.'1
Lange reported the conditions to the editor of a San Francisco newspaper. Federal authorities were informed and an article was published with some of the images Lange took including the Migrant Mother. It is widely said that this prompted the government to send aid to the camp to prevent starvation.
Although Lange didn’t ask her name, we know now that the woman in the photograph was Florence Owens Thompson, who was of Cherokee descent. In a 1978 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Thompson stated: 'I didn’t get anything out of it. I wished she hadn’t of taken my picture. She didn’t ask my name. (...) She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did.’2
In another interview, Thompson complained:
I’m tired of symbolising human poverty when my living conditions have improved.3
Thompson was one of the few subjects of documentary photography to speak out about their experience of being photographed. What she says changes the way we now perceive her image and we’ve decided not to include the image for this reason.
Elsewhere, women photographers have turned the lens on themselves to document their own experiences, to dismantle stereotypes and to highlight social issues within their own communities.
Photographer Brenda Patricia Agard was one of many creative Black women active in the 80s in the UK. In 1985 she was part of 'Mirror Reflecting Darkly' - a group show aiming to highlight the diversity of Black women and challenge stereotypes and people’s expectations. She was also a member of the ‘The Black Photographer Group’ whose objective was to insert Black photography into art and photographic venues in Britain.
In the image above, Agard is captured in the streets of London instructing unseen students on street photography as part of an educational programme for the exhibition 'Testimony: Three Blackwomen Photographers: Brenda Agard, Ingrid Pollard, Maud Sulter'. On the other side of the street, we can see a poster ad with the caption ‘Put yourself in the picture’.
One of her contemporaries, Ghanaian-Scottish photographer Maud Sulter became an award-winner and represented Britain at the first Johannesburg Biennale in 1995 with her series reflecting on Black stories during the Holocaust.
Sulter’s work subverted traditional representations of women in Western art. She too was interested in putting Black women in the picture, saying:
This whole notion of the disappeared, I think, is something that runs through my work. I'm very interested in absence and presence in the way that particularly Black women's experience and Black women's contribution to culture is so often erased and marginalised.4
We explore the theme of women photographers turning the lens on themselves, exploring identity and dismantling stereotypes, in the final chapter in this exhibition - As she is - the female self-portrait.