Photography

8 Photographers Who Captured the Lives and Struggles of Women

Look back on the careers of trailblazing 20th-century female photographers who documented global women's history

Every photo reveals the gaze of the person who took it, showing that photographer’s worldview. Throughout the last century, photographers and photojournalists all over the world used their cameras to portray the struggles they witnessed, and as a tool to reframe the way others viewed women.

To mark the beginning of Women's History Month, we look back at the works of eight incredible female photographers and photojournalists who captured the movements for gender equality on the streets and in the studio.

1. Christina Broom

When her husband was injured in an accident, Scottish photographer Christina Broom picked up a camera and set up a business selling postcards outside Buckingham Palace. She also photographed major social events and today is considered the UK's first female photojournalist.

Suffragette women, by Christina Broom.
Suffragette women, by Christina Broom.

Christina Broom rose to fame through her work on the Suffragette protests around the turn of the twentieth century in London. She photographed British women’s fight for their right to vote, creating iconic images of their protests and leaders—including this picture below of Suffragette organizer Charlotte "Charlie" Marsh taken during a rally in Hyde Park in 1910.

One of Broom's most iconic photographs of Suffragette organizer Charlotte Marsh during a Hyde Park Rally in 1910.
One of Broom's most iconic photographs of Suffragette organizer Charlotte Marsh during a Hyde Park Rally in 1910.

2. Gerda Taro

Many people recognize Magnum photographer Robert Capa as one of the greatest photojournalists of all time. But what many people don't know is that Robert Capa was a pseudonym originally created and shared by two people: Hungarian photographer Endre Ernö Friedmann, and his partner and photographer Gerda Taro. Together, the pair covered the Spanish Civil War.

Republican militiawoman training on the beach, outside Barcelona (1936), by Gerda Taro.
Republican militiawoman training on the beach, outside Barcelona (1936), by Gerda Taro.

Taro photographed the activities of the militia women, and one of her most famous works is the 1936 photograph Republican militiawoman training on the beach, outside Barcelona. Showing a young woman practicing with a revolver on the beach, French magazine Vu published it in their special report on the Spanish Civil War.

Gerda was tragically killed in an accident on the Brunete front in 1937, a year after arriving in Spain to cover the war.

3. Florestine Perrault Collins

While many of these notable photographers captured the voices of women through rallies and protests, Florestine Perrault Collins revealed Creole and Black women’s experiences within the walls of her studio. She was born in 1895 in New Orleans, and by fourteen was beginning to support her family through photography.

In the 1920 census, she was one of only 101 Black female photographers in the United States. Often passing as white during her early career, to study with white photographers, she then opened her own studio and began advertising—with self-portraits to help her clientele feel safe and empowered when working with her.

Portrait of Bea Duncan, by Florestine Perrault Collins.
Portrait of Bea Duncan, by Florestine Perrault Collins.

By crafting delicate images and elegant portraits, Perrault Collins unveiled the personalities of her subjects while allowing Black women to demonstrate their beauty and reject mainstream stereotypes of who they could be. By photographing celebrations such as weddings alongside her portrait work, she sustained a thirty-year career and provided for her family even through the Great Depression.

4. Tsuneko Sasamoto

Japan’s first woman photojournalist, Tsuneko Sasamoto was born in 1914, turning 107 last year. Throughout her long career, she’s photographed everything from daily life to landmark moments in Japanese history to student protests and labor strikes—like this 1960 shot featuring a group of union workers' wives joining in the Mitsui Miike Coal Mine strike.

Wives of union workers on strike against the Mitsui Miike Coal Mine (1960), by Tsuneko Sasamoto via Lucie Foundation.
Wives of union workers on strike against the Mitsui Miike Coal Mine (1960), by Tsuneko Sasamoto via Lucie Foundation.

She often turned her lens to women who fought against gender discrimination of the time, especially the “unsung heroines” of the Meiji and early Showa eras (from the late-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century)—like the Queen of the Blues, Noriko Awaya.

Sharing these photos in a 2014 exhibition, 100 Years 100 Women, she said to DNP’s Artscape Japan: "These were independent, strong women who broke all the molds…”

5. Adriana Lestido

Adriana Lestido is one of Argentina’s most famous documentary photographers. Her black and white images have a marked social character, sharing the stories of women in Argentina.

She's covered everything from female prisoners to the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo protests, whose children and families disappeared during the Videla dictatorship. Shown below, her 1982 photo of a mother and daughter wearing white headscarves became symbolic of the protest.

Mother and Daughter in the Plaza de Mayo (1982), by Adriana Lestido.
Mother and Daughter in the Plaza de Mayo (1982), by Adriana Lestido.

Lestido's iconic images not only showed the dignity and pain of those who had lost loved ones, it also reflected her own fight: Lestido's partner and activist Willy Moralli was disappeared in 1978. As Lestido told a Tiempo Argentino interviewer, “I realized recently, that that image was the foundation of all my work. Their search was my search too. It still is."

Self-portrait, by Adriana Lestido.
Self-portrait, by Adriana Lestido.

6. Pilar Aymerich

Catalan photojournalist Pilar Aymerich captured some of the key moments in Spanish and Catalan history, using her position to address women's rights through powerful images throughout her career.

She covered everything from Spain’s first Catalan Women's Conference in 1976 to that same year’s demonstrations against the Francoist law criminalizing adultery.

Women protesting against the adultery law, by Pilar Aymerich.
Women protesting against the adultery law, by Pilar Aymerich.

These protests were where she took her iconic image of a woman carrying a boy, and holding a sign saying Jo també sóc adultera (Me too, I’m an adulterer).

Learn more about Aymerich’s career in this article from the Domestika Maestros series (in Spanish only) .

Two women giving a feminist gesture, by Pilar Aymerich.
Two women giving a feminist gesture, by Pilar Aymerich.

7. Hengameh Golestan

In 1979, Iran’s Islamic Revolution overthrew the Shah of Persia and created the Islamic Republic of Iran, a political regime built on the principles of Islam. The country changed radically after Ruhollah Khomeini’s arrival to power, and women were forced to wear the hijab in public.

Iranian photographer Hengameh Golestan covered the Iranian revolution, focusing on the role and reaction of women and photographing protests against the compulsory use of the veil.

Women protesting against compulsory use of the hijab in Tehran in 1979, by Hengameh Golestan.
Women protesting against compulsory use of the hijab in Tehran in 1979, by Hengameh Golestan.

Golestan took her photo of women in Tehran protesting for their right to dress as they pleased on March 8, 1979. Years later, she remembered that image as one of her all-time best shots in an interview with The Guardian, saying, “This was the last day women were able to walk the streets of Tehran with their heads uncovered.”

Image of women protesting in Iran in 1979, by Hengameh Golestan.
Image of women protesting in Iran in 1979, by Hengameh Golestan.

8. Sheba Chhachhi

A boom in activism in the late 1970s saw Indian women standing against violence and objectification, and it was following this that legendary photographer Sheba Chhachhi united her interest in myth and mysticism with feminism, to produce work that closely focused on the female subject.

Her documentary work in the eighties told the stories of key protests in Delhi and elsewhere, but as the eighties and nineties progressed, she also began to experiment with artistic combinations of media to bring new layers of texture to her photography. She explored femininity and subjective experience through sculpture and objects integrated into installations with her photos.

Sathyarani – Staged Portrait, Supreme Court, Delhi (1990), by Sheba Chhachhi.
Sathyarani – Staged Portrait, Supreme Court, Delhi (1990), by Sheba Chhachhi.

Uplifting the voices of women over violence, series like Seven Lives and a Dream are still iconic. For this series, Chhachhi invited seven fellow activists and feminists to collaborate with her in staged photographs that told their life stories and experiences through collected objects. Each of these women brought her own perspectives and background to the imagery, allowing Chhachhi to “present and perform a larger truth about the heterogeneity of the women’s movement and the possibility for representational diversity”.

These trailblazing photographers and their many colleagues produced images telling the story, viewpoint, struggles, and demands of half of the population. Tell us about your favorite photographers in the comments below.

English translation by @studiogaunt ; additional reporting by @lauren_duplessis

You may also like:

- The PhotoBook That Vindicates the Memory of Argentina’s Trans Community
- Silenced Bodies: The Photographer Capturing Female Beauty
- Women Photograph: A World Catalog of 1300 Female Photographers
- Domestika Maestros: Viki Ospina

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