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Romania's Disappearing Girls
Romania's Disappearing GirlsPhotography Andrea Bruce

The women at the frontline of documentary photography

These are the female photojournalists fighting to show you the world as it really is

As with a lot of professions traditionally deemed as masculine, women have often been written out of the history of documentary photography, especially when they choose to report on war and conflict. Despite this, there are plenty of women who put risk aside in order to go to the frontline of crises and to report on some of the world’s most pressing issues.

This year, Moroccan-French photographer and video artist Leila Alaoui was tragically killed while shooting an assignment on the topic of women’s rights for Amnesty International in Burkina Faso. Due to her multi-cultural upbringing – she lived and was educated in Morocco, France and America – she was dedicated to documenting stories that related to understanding different cultural identities and, after the recent Paris attacks, wanted to show the world there was more to Arab culture than the Islamic State. As a tribute to her, we wanted to highlight the work of some female photojournalists whose storytelling skills have made them leaders in their field.

ARATI KUMAR-RAO

Based in South Asia, Arati Kumar-Rao has dedicated her life to environmental photography. While her glittering landscapes and gently glistening seas are striking, the most engaging project of hers is her work on environmental refugees. According to the photographer, “Environmental degradation is perpetrating a slow violence on the most vulnerable sections of society, pushing them deeper into debt and forcing some to migrate into cities where they live sans basic support structures like schools, affordable healthcare, and clean water... bringing a refugee crisis of a different kind is on our hands.” Many of us will be used to hearing the word refugee as a way to describe those displaced by war, but Kumar-Rao’s work follows those forced to move due to the manner in which we treat our planet. Through her lens, we see stories about how the river Ganges has begun to slowly eat its way up the bank at night, threatening to engulf the people and homes that surround it.

Her decision to document the human side of climate change and environmental problems is a powerful one. More often than not, we hear about environmental activists lamenting that the majority of us do not care about the state of the planet. Although this may be an optimistic perspective, our blase attitude may come from the fact people generally care about problems when they have can relate to a human face consequently making Kumar-Rao’s work all the more important.

LYNSEY ADDARIO

For Addario, her work is quite evidently her life’s fire and calling. After being held captive by the Libyan army in 2011 she also took on the task of motherhood, yet still returns to photograph some of the most dangerous places in the world. Her tenacity and dedication have led to her receiving prestigious awards such as the MacArthur Fellowship and the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting.

Although Addario is one of the most celebrated in the field of photojournalism, her new biography, It’s what I do: a Photographer’s Life of Love and War, is an insightful read. Held inside is a raw account of passion for photography but also the specific hurdles that a woman going into a war zone will face. For a long time, there was a culture of silence around sexual assault and pregnancy, as these were two facets of womanhood that made society view women as weaker or a liability. Consequently, her choice to share intimate thoughts surrounding these subjects acts as a service to women who want to report on conflict. Not only does it debunk the myth that pregnant women become immobile and professionally redundant, her story reveals how femininity can be a guise of invisibility, and provide access to stories that men would not be able to report on – an example of this is her focus on the stories of women who had survived gender-based violence in the Congo.

FRANCESCA TOSARELLI

Ms Kalashnikov, the title of the brainchild of documentary photographer Francesca Tosarelli, follows the journey of female rebellion across war zones. However, the form of this body of work is as exciting and daring as the creator herself. Ms Kalashnikov cannot be contained into one form and so it has been developed into a multi-platform experience. Initially, the project began as a photo essay. In 2013, Tosarelli set in the Congolese jungle photographing the female rebel fighters, but after a long period living with these women, in her own words, “I began to question: if I were in their position, faced with their choices, might I not swap my camera for a Kalashnikov too?”

Given the questions Tosarelli desires to invoke with her work, she moved beyond traditional documentary photography and started developing a virtual reality experience. With this, she hopes to generate a conversation about the potential of war to provide a space for the shifting of identities and traditional roles. The project especially seeks to emphasise how active resistance is not exclusively male. Her work is also being developed into a biographical novel which is being coauthored by Wu Ming 5.

ANDREA BRUCE

After making a name for herself through her work in Iraq and Afghanistan, Andrea Bruce is rightly seen as one of the leading photojournalists. In 2015, she travelled to Romania to report on the human trafficking of young girls, around the age of 14, into sexual slavery in Europe. In this series, called Romania’s Disappearing Girls, there is a sense of intimacy created through the relationship of respect and trust between photographer and subject.

Through her work, Bruce seeks to highlight the experiences of people living in the aftermath of war. Alongside being named Photographer of the Year four times, she is the co-owner and member of the world famous photo agency NOOR images. Since its creation in 2007, NOOR agency has sought to produce independent visual reports that have the ability to spark change and discussion around issues of social justice. Despite her works having an impressive range, they share a unifying factor: an eye for the moment of emotional impact. Whether that’s the suffocating grief of loss or the bittersweet victories of a revolution, Bruce’s power as a photographer comes from a union of incredible skill and her ability to read – and predict – human expressions.

TANYA HABJOUQA

Jordan-born photographer, Tanya Habjouqa, likes the absurd. Out of context absurdity might seem quite an abstract topic for a photographer to chase, but given that Habjouqa frequently covers the Middle East, her fascination with life’s sweet strangeness makes up for unique viewing. Unlike some of her contemporaries, she shows the humorously human side of this region through images of women in surreal yoga poses with the West Bank as the background. As a consequence, her subjects are not defined by the conflict going on around them and, in turn, her viewer sees a side of a country not usually highlighted by the mainstream media. Indeed, this unique approach was recognised when she won a World Press Photo Award for her book Occupied Pleasures.

In addition to this, she is also a founding member of the Rawiya Photo Collective. The name, Rawiya, literally means ‘she who tells a story’ and is the first all female photographic collective in the Middle East. Aside from Habjouqa, there are three other women who are all from different countries but come together in order to support more Middle Eastern women to take up cameras and report on stories that interest them.