Motorsports photography isn’t a space traditionally associated with or particularly welcoming of female photographers, but one woman — Alison Arena — has made a name for herself in this industry and is now coaching others to follow suit.
Motorsports photography, similar to any other type of sports photography, can exhilarate both the viewer as well as the photographer. It is a genre of photography that allows photographers to create powerful stories of high-running emotions, technological advancements and techniques, one-off moments that can instantly change the outcome of the race, and the achievements of sports professionals who are taking part.
As a niche sports photography genre, it isn’t as popular among women photographers, but photographer Arena from Ignite Media — with Mazda, Red Bull, Ferrari NA, and Wired among its past clients — has proved that it can be a career path to break into and does so successfully and with passion.
Arena got started in motorsports photography as part of her class projects in school and found that she had a great interest in it, particularly drifting. She started out by shooting races she attended as a fan, fine-tuning her photography skills step by step with every event.
“Shooting drifting as an up and coming sport allowed me to grow with the sport and make it so I had so much more access than if I had started in a bigger race series”, says Arena. “Eventually, I gained a couple of clients and then worked my way up from there.”
In all aspects of racing, there are very few women involved, which is why Arena took it upon herself to work harder than her counterparts to prove herself in the motorsports world — one that is filled with masculine energy — and to gain respect from her peers.
“I feel like part of my job is suppressing my femininity, which at times gets a little old,” she tells PetaPixel.
On the other hand, the downfall of being one of the few women photographers in motorsports also works to her advantage to a certain degree.
“I stick out, so I’m memorable and people think to hire me for future gigs or go out of their way to see what my work is like,” says Arena. However, it can soon become tiresome to stick out and constantly having to prove herself or show to others that she can be “one of the guys.”
Understanding the problems faced by women and minorities who may not have considered motorsports photography a field they can enter and excel at, Arena has also focused her efforts on coaching and educating to help refine their skills, build a motorsports portfolio, and gain confidence.
Arena recently ran a photography clinic that gave female photographers a crash course on shooting competitions like the Red Bull Tennessee Knockout, with Enduro champion Cody Webb participating to give the photographers a subject in motion. The participants included photographer Amy Lentz and Alyssa Del Valle, who wanted to bolster their motorsports photography skills, as well as Wrenne Evans, who comes from the world of concert photography and has worked under renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz and spent years touring with singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers.
Arena believes that the motorsports industry is generally becoming more inclusive, but it is still going to take time for it to fully materialize.
“I think it’s important to make women and minorities aware that it is an option to shoot racing,” she says. “Since you don’t see many female motorsports photographers, a lot of women might not even think of it being an option. It’s important to make it clear that this is an avenue that can be pursued and isn’t out of their grasp.”
The US military presence in Afghanistan has been called “America’s longest war,” which is an accurate description of an occupation that lasted nearly 20 years, beginning in the fall of 2001. The ending date had originally been May 1, 2021, set by President Trump after negotiating a withdrawal agreement in 2020 with the Taliban, an Afghan fundamentalist Islamic group that ruled the country from the mid-1990s until 2001. But President Joe Biden pushed back that deadline until August 31, at which time there would be a planned withdrawal of US forces.
However, not much about the withdrawal of troops has gone according to plan. That’s because the Taliban continued to seize more and more territory from the US-backed Afghan government with each passing week (something the Taliban had been doing since the spring of 2021). But in the first two weeks of August, the Taliban began taking control of nearly all major provinces and cities in the country, at which point the US-backed government collapsed. On August 15, Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, fled the country and the Taliban seized the capital city of Kabul.
Individuals across the spectrum, including photojournalists who have worked in Afghanistan over the past 20 years, are tremendously concerned about the fate of the most vulnerable in the country—particularly women. In fact, on August 10, the United Nations issued the following statement: “Disturbing reports of Taliban violence against communities now under their control in Afghanistan have been condemned by UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet, who on Tuesday backed a return to peace negotiations in Doha…. The High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a statement that there was ‘fear and dread’ across Afghanistan, which had driven people to flee their homes. Women have been flogged and killed in areas overrun by the extremists, while journalists and human rights defenders had also been attacked and killed, Ms. Bachelet said.”
But in the face of this chaos, two award-winning photojournalists—Ami Vitale and Lynsey Addario—have published Instagram posts and information on other social media accounts about how the public can help the women of Afghanistan.
Ami Vitale’s Instagram Post
Award-winning photojournalist and National Geographic magazine photographer, writer and filmmaker, Ami Vitale began her career photographing in some of the most dangerous parts of the Middle East and other regions, including Kashmir and Afghanistan. Often, during these early years, she focused on capturing women and children.
On her Instagram feed, Vitale wrote a plea for helping the vulnerable in the region, “The Taliban have taken control of Afghanistan. How can we turn our backs on all the innocent human beings who will be targeted? I will be searching for ways we can help.”
Vitale goes on to list some resources for getting involved and helping those who are vulnerable in Afghanistan: “This post from the @GeorgetownUniversity Institute for Women, Peace and Security at giwps.georgetown.edu/how-to-save-the-lives-of-afghan-women/ is a good place to start. In the meantime, we can support humanitarian visas, support those protecting those who spoke out and ask the U.S. government to make protecting women, minorities and activists a priority.”
Additionally, Vitale recommended following several “brave, thoughtful journalists.” The list included, among others, the following photographers’ Instagram feeds:
To see more of Vitale’s work, go to her website at amivitale.com.
Lynsey Addario’s Instagram Post
Another photographer who has captured many powerful images of Afghanistan over the past two decades is Pulitzer-prize winner, Lynsey Addario. In fact, Addario just published a powerful story on her work photographing women in Afghanistan over the past 20 years. And a story she’s written for The Atlantic, entitled “The Taliban’s Return Is Catastrophic For Women” is a must-read for any photojournalist.
As an American photojournalist who regularly works for The New York Times,National Geographic, and Time magazine, Addario began her career in 1996. Not long after that, in 2000, Addario first traveled to Afghanistan “to document life and oppression of women living under the Taliban, and made three separate trips to the country under Taliban rule before September 11, 2001.” She’s covered every major conflict and humanitarian crises of her generation, including those in Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur, Libya, Syria, Lebanon, South Sudan, Somalia, and Congo.
Like Vitale, Addario is always thinking of ways she and others might be able to help those who are vulnerable. That’s why she posted the following call to action on Instagram: “So many of you are asking how to help Afghanistan. THIS is where you can help!! I am partnering with @stephsinclairpix and @tooyoungtowed to help evacuate and resettle high risk Afghan women. Please see link in bio and donate any amount if you can.”
In 2019, I interviewed Addario about her book, “Of Love & War” for Digital Photo Pro magazine. In my interview, I asked her why she took the photographs she captured, which many times focused on women. “I’ve always been interested in telling stories about women,” she said, “and not only the injustices but also celebrating strong women. And so I think it was sort of natural for me to focus on women where I had more access. Afghanistan, especially under the Taliban was very segregated—male, female—and men who are not blood relatives couldn’t actually get into family homes or go into the women’s hospital. So, I realized that my gender as a woman was an asset and that I could focus on these women’s stories.”
In that same interview, I also asked Addario about why she photographs war. She said, “People always associate war with the most horrific things, because, of course, it brings out the worst in humanity. But it also brings out the best in many. I see generosity, I see kindness, I see love and inspiration.”
Hex, a company that makes premium designer bags for photographers, is in the process of publishing its five-part series titled “Women In Focus.” The series follows five different women photographers at different stages of their careers and discusses their lives, challenges, work, successes, and failures.
Some of the featured artists are well known, others less so. Regardless of fame, Hex says the series is meant to shine a light on five different women with various backgrounds and show what it takes to thrive as a woman creative in the photography world.
The company says the series is part of an overarching message that it has always held with regard to supporting and encouraging creativity.
“In an industry with a history of being predominantly male, we feel it is essential for women in all stages of their careers to hear directly from other women about what it takes to be part of the growing, female photographers movement,” the company says.
Historically, women have found their roles in front of the camera instead of behind it, which is why this series is quite a welcome opportunity for meaningful dialogue about why that is and will hopefully encourage and continue the movement of women photographers who are changing that narrative.
“The series consists of short and shareable segments from 5 female creators we admire, including Natalie Amrossi, Shauna Wade, Elise Swopes, Claire Lejeune, and Enkrypt Los Angeles,” Hex says. “These women are at varying points of their career, and bring their unique energy and aesthetics. We hope to encourage more female creators to know more about the business of photography, and also to grow as artists in their craft.”
The most recent episode focuses on Elise Swopes, A New York-based artist known for her surrealistic graphic creations where she mixes photography with multiple forms of graphic and design work to create unique images.
Swopes started out using only her smartphone, and despite having a full range of camera gear, she finds herself still using the mobile device quite frequently in an effort to prove and make art more accessible. In the candid interview, Swopes discusses how safety is a big issue as a woman shooting by herself and the steps she takes to protect herself while on the job, as well as how her talent has landed her clients including Adobe, Nike, Sony, Adidas, McDonald’s, and Starwood Hotels. “Her art is as unique as her story and her ability to create a life for herself against the odds is nothing short of inspirational.”
Swopes says The advice she’d give to new female artists is to “trust yourself, love yourself, there’s going to be a lot of doubt and struggles that are going to be thrown your way to test you. Step up to the test and challenge and you may not always win, but you are going to have a ton of wonderful lessons from those different experiences. Don’t let them defeat you, let them inspire you and stay motivated by your own momentum.”
There are currently three episodes available on the Hex HEX YouTube channel with the next two episodes set to launch soon.
Image credits: Photos by Elise Swopes and used courtesy of Hex.
Architecture photography has traditionally been a male-dominated genre, as has architecture and the building industry generally, but things are changing fast.
Some of the biggest names in architecture photography are now women, so to give you lots of ideas and inspiration for the current Architecture round of APOY – which closes on 11 June 2021 – we speak to some leading exponents below.
How did you get into photography? I have always enjoyed photographing. In the beginning, I was in doubt if I would study fine arts or architecture. I decided on architecture and graduated in 2003.
From 2007, when I was still working in an architectural office, I started doing various photography courses as a hobby. Gradually, at the request of the office, I approached architectural photography by taking photos of the construction process and development of some buildings.
After that, in 2013, I decided to leave the office and start my own practice to only work with architectural photography. At that time, it was very difficult to find specialised architectural courses. So, I started to wonder about—and build—what I considered important issues to develop my own language.
Did you start out on a specific type of photography that eventually led you to a more architectural style? As I graduated in architecture, this language has followed me since 1998. When I started to become more interested in photography around 2005, I chose some courses that were aimed at photographing people.
I remember a special course that followed the daily work of recyclable garbage collectors on the streets of São Paulo.
The photo essay revealed an almost invisible work of very important urban actors in the city’s informal economy. Photographing people in their activities in the city is something more important to me than photographing just architecture.
As a woman, what’s your experience of being an architectural photographer? How accessible is the genre? When photographing interior design, I don’t see much difference between male and female photographers. But, to photograph large scale architecture, male photographers are still predominant.
I believe that this “natural” selection comes from two main factors: physical resistance, as it is very exhausting to photograph almost 12 hours in a row carrying heavy equipment and also because of women’s safety while walking through the streets. To make these great essays possible, I do hire a male assistant to help me.
Unfortunately, architectural photographers are still mostly men, but, great female professionals have achieved prominence throughout the years in other fields as well, and this is really encouraging.
What do you shoot on? My first year as a professional photographer was with a basic lens kit (18-55mm / 17-40mm). I remember not being able to photograph a facade of a building because there was not enough recess, and the lens distorted the architecture too much. The Photoshop work was intense to correct perspectives and distortions.
Today, I look at these pictures and I dislike them immensely! Then I have gradually acquired the equipment that I work on today— the Canon 17mm, 24mm and 50mm tilt-shift lenses.
However, the lens I find most versatile is the 24mm TS-E. Another very important item is a good tripod. As I have also photographed large works such as airports, a museum, corporate clusters with several buildings, I cannot have a very heavy tripod. I have a carbon steel Gitzo with a Manfrotto head.
Who do you draw inspiration from? I really admire the works of Cristiano Mascaro and Nelson Kon, two great Brazilian photographers of architecture and cities. In addition, my references include Thomas Farkas, Peter Scheier, Sergio Larrain and Saul Leiter, whose works also focus on common people and day-to-day life in the city.
Is there anything else you’d like to talk about from your work? It is not specifically about my work, but about the work of architectural photographers in the contemporary context. Today, our images are practically disseminated only through digital media, since printed media are increasingly more scarce.
The production of great text and image content depends on good professionals and, of course, with long training and expensive equipment. Today, we see the indiscriminate re-posting of images by companies willing to sell their products shown in the photos without wanting to pay for the right to publish it. So, we all expect (and are grateful for) the recognition and respect for the work we have developed.
How did you got into photography? It all ended up as an extension of filmmaking. I was very encouraged by European cinema—Béla Tarr, Michael Haneke, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Werner Herzog, Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, and other filmmakers.
At that time, I used to watch four movies a day at the local movie theatre and had moved from Portugal to Italy to have a formal education on the history of Italian cinema. Based on my strong visual sense, it was clear to me that I could become a filmmaker and that photography was one of the many fields that I had to be proficient in.
After collaborating at the Italian Cinematique, I decided then to follow my path by starting studying photography and working as an assistant photographer in a studio. This had a tremendous impact on my image-thinking approach. That was my starting point, I became so obsessed with photography that today I’m a photographer.
How did you end up developing a more architectural style? Focusing on space came very naturally. I have always created bidimensional images of physical spaces and landscapes in my mind as a way of trying to tell a story in film—it was a natural part of storytelling.
Moreover, I grew up in Portugal, a country which has a strong cultural sense, interest and sensibility for architecture. I never saw architecture as merely a built environment, but rather as part of society—part of human-kind, a research of social theory, with an important role in sociological and psychological fields.
That is what interests me here as a photographer. Who are the people who use these buildings and spaces inside my images and what are their responses?
As a woman, what’s your experience of being an architectural photographer? How accessible is the genre? Gender stereotypes strongly influence people’s choices and are barriers to women’s career progress—and so, mine. I still nowadays experience resistance, but it makes me a tougher woman.
Women are still underrepresented in different fields. In the media industry, for instance, it is very clear that women architects, philosophers, image-makers and so on still have very narrow space to participate and share their thoughts.
I think it is important that we as a society encourage and increase women’s participation. That is the key to promote gender equality.
There are plenty of angles in your work, which you seem to combine with organic shapes. Is that a deliberate choice? Yes, I do consciously use composition and different elements to create contrast. All my images are created with maximum control, and I rigorously organise each millimetre you see inside the image before shooting.
What comes across at the end will depend on the project and expressive feel I am trying to achieve.
What do you use to shoot? It is based on the project I am working with. I can use a 24×36, medium format, large format, or even polaroids as I did when photographing the physical space in Ramallah, Palestine.
Who inspires you? I am a passionate reader, my mind gets very stimulated by literature as the voice of Thomas Bernard, who has a great sense of humanity in his writings. I simply cannot avoid reading, I walk from one shelf to another, consuming old papers regarding Hellenistic culture and its literature, art-historical references, philosophy, sociology in a very rigorous and methodical way.
I am thinking, for instance, all my readings, music evenings and strong interest in visual communication go directly to the consciousnesses—it is all about the essence that lies beyond each discipline.
How did you get into photography? My interest in photography started as an architecture student in Rome, where I would use photography to document and complement my design projects. I got even more into it when I had to make work for an urban photography course.
The professor was teaching with Lewis Baltz in Venice and I got obsessed with Baltz’s work. I’m now less interested in the New Topographics, but I think it’s been a great starting point for my career as an architectural photographer.
How did you go on to develop a more architectural style? After my MA in Architecture in Rome, I moved to Toronto, where I was born. I wanted to try and live there for a few months to discover the city and also be close to a part of my family living there.
While I was looking for jobs in architecture, a photographer I met suggested to get in touch with A-Frame Studio, one of the most famous architecture photography studios in Toronto and so I did. I got completely fascinated with the idea of becoming an architectural photographer, waking up early to spend a full day in beautiful houses and buildings, studying the light to document each space.
Since the assisting days at A-Frame, I never looked back. I came to London and completed an MA in Fine Art Photography and that has been a complementary experience that allowed me to expand my photographic knowledge.
As a woman, what’s your experience of being an architectural photographer? How accessible is the genre? I’m really proud to be a woman working in architectural photography. This is still considered a predominantly male profession—probably because of the heavy equipment to carry around and time to spend alone in the streets in strange hours.
But I see more and more female architectural photographers producing beautiful work around the world. I often like to look at architecture photographs and guess who is behind the camera, looking for clues in style between male and female photographers. In some cases, women’s work is more atmospheric, I think and if architecture photography is moving away from the classic empty photographs, focusing only on the shape and monumentality of a building,
I hope that the vibrant and dynamic touch of female photographers becomes more and more present over time.
Who inspires y0u? There are several artists I really like, but they have very different styles. I’m always very fascinated by the composition in the work of Jeff Wall and the uncertain meanings of his photographs.
I also love the use of colour and shadows in Vivian Sassen’s photographs; the calmness in the Italian landscapes photographed by Guido Guidi and the soft and atmospheric way Alfred Stieglitz portrays New York. I remember staring at his small photos at Tate Modern a while ago and thinking that I really wanted to walk on rooftops and photograph cities.
What do you shoot on? I had the chance to work with technical cameras – Arca Swiss paired with a Leaf digital back and beautiful manual lenses—from the beginning. Here in London, I also had access to similar kit, but I soon realised that a smaller full-frame DSLR camera would be much more manageable – especially as I usually document the development of a project from beginning to end, on construction site also.
Now, I regularly shoot with the most common set of tilt-shift lenses and I think they are essential to architectural photography. I also use film for personal projects and love shooting with my Hasselblad.
Can you tell us a bit about how you got into photography? I started my photography when I moved to Belgium in 1999. I studied photography at RhoK Academie, and later in Ecole des Arts d’Ixelles in Brussels.
MUDEC Museum, David Chipperfield Architects
What led you to a more architectural style? In the beginning, I was interested in portrait and landscape photography. I was especially excited to work in the darkroom when the image came out of the chemicals.
Working with analogue cameras, developing black-and-white film and making prints in the darkroom, was very important for me in the process of learning and understanding photography. Later on, I got the opportunity to work for a Slovenian architectural magazine, where my work had been published. This has been a great motivation for me, and I became totally devoted to architectural photography.
Nowadays I am appealed to photograph architecture, which is innovative, sustainable, and in harmony with nature. Since 2018 I have been participating at the London Festival of Architecture (LFA), which takes place in June every year. This year, LFA Digital was launched due to coronavirus.
Stelios Ioannou Learning Resource Center, Atelier Jean Nouvel
I’m taking part, with my exhibition A Vision for the Future: Sustainable Buildings. In this exhibition, I present a sustainable office building, 7More London, the PwC building by Foster&Partners.
Besides photographing commissioned projects I also explore architecture as space and as poetry. With my personal projects, I like to present the space as an emotional experience. I photograph mostly contemporary architecture, but I am also excited to photograph the architectural heritage, industrial architecture, historical buildings, process of restorations and constructions.
Series “The Winding Stairs”
As a woman, what’s your experience of being an architectural photographer? How accessible is the genre? It is a privilege for me to work as a female architectural photographer, which gives me a chance to present an additional view of the architecture comparing to male photographers. I think that accessibility to this genre is a question of ability to find the clients and the quality of photography work
Also from the series, “The Winding Stairs”
There are plenty of angles and organic shapes in your work. Is that a deliberate choice? I am aware that I always look for light, how the light falls into space, and how creates new shapes and forms. I also pay attention to sound, temperature, smell, material. I’d like to explore the atmosphere of the space and bring it to my photographs.
What do you shoot on? I have used different cameras and lenses—Nikon, Canon, Pentax, etc. Currently, I work with a DSLR, the Canon EOS 1DX. I use different Canon lenses, as well as tilt-shift lenses. I prefer working with the available light and rarely use artificial light.
Series “Architectural Detail”
Who inspires you? Many great photographers from the last century—contemporary artists, and architectural photographers—have inspired me. I would like to mention, among others, a few.
Edward J. Steichen, Josef Sudek, Julia Margaret Cameron, Masao Yamamoto, and Bauhaus artists. I admire their work because of their originality, new vision, composition, poetry.
How did you get into photography? It started out sometime around 1998. In the later years of high school, I always had disposable cameras and would take photos of my friends when we were goofing around. Then, after graduating in 2000, I went to art school and by then I had my first analogue SLR.
In the first year, I studied all the studios (ceramics, painting, textiles, commercial art, printmaking, sculpture, film/animation and photography) as well as art history. In the second year, I continued the art history classes and specialised in the painting and textiles studios.
I had access to the darkroom and photo studio so I was still shooting, developing and printing photos on my own time. I really enjoyed the process of creating an image from start to finish, and I always had a supportive community encouraging me to keep pursuing photography.
After studying architecture, I was accepted into the photography programme at Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver. I had realised that four years of university wasn’t enough for the massive responsibility that is architecture and I wanted to focus more on the connection between architecture and photography before entering into the professional sphere.
So in the summer of 2006 I packed up my life and drove 5000kms to start a new adventure. I ended up getting a number of credits covered because of my architecture degree so I was able to spend a lot more time playing with my own ideas and self-directed projects which were mostly architecture/design related. I graduated at the top of my class in 2009 but in 2008 Canada was hit with a recession so I had a surprise wakeup call that any entry-level jobs I would be looking for at an architecture firm likely no longer existed.
That’s when I realised starting my own business as an architectural photographer was one of my only options where I could use the degrees I had just earned and satisfy my passion for both. Now I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
Apple Visitor’s Center – Foster and Partners, Cupertino, CA
What do you shoot on? I have always used Canon equipment from the beginning so it just made sense to stick with it as the technology changed from analogue to digital. I went to architecture school right around the time digital techniques were being introduced and slowly becoming integrated which was the same experience I had in photography school.
Learning analogue photography and then having to shift into digital was inevitable but was still sad to have to put my 4×5 camera aside. Now I’m using a Canon EOS 5DsR and a backup Canon EOS 5D Mk III, a Manfrotto tripod with a specialized tripod head that combines three-way panning and geared movements for more precise positioning. I have various lenses that I use depending on what the space is like, a 16-35mm for big wide spaces, a 24mm tilt shift lens, a 50mm for details and vignettes and a 70-300mm zoom when exterior shots call for it.
I also learned quickly when shooting architecture that all your baggage should be on wheels if you can’t carry it on your back because there’s so much moving through a space to capture all the angles, details and materials.
Heliopolis Sporting Club, Cairo, Egypt
Who inspires you? I love the work of Vivian Maier. Her work beautifully depicts everyday life in the modern city and the characters she encountered. The story of her life is also mysterious and is pieced together by all the documents and photographs she left behind.
I’ve always been inspired by Julius Schulman’s photography of modern architecture. The way black-and-white photography highlights the geometry of the architecture is always exciting to me. I love math—specifically algebra and geometry—and puzzles, so I’m drawn to the composition of lines and how elements of a space fit together.
I learned early on about street photographers and documentarians, the way Henri Cartier-Bresson composed his images by waiting for the decisive moment has always been the objective. To allow that moment to occur naturally amongst the architecture, and being able to recognise it, brings a level of authenticity to how the architecture is being inhabited. Modern architecture/design itself is a huge inspiration because of the philosophy and ideas behind the movement. If you experience a great piece of modern architecture, it can be magic.
Capilano House – Miza Architects, North Vancouver, BC
Because of my painting background, I’m inspired by Pop Art and Cubism, and the modern artists who were changing art the way the modern architects were changing design. I take a lot of inspiration from film and cinematography as well—the way you can create space with light, composition and repetition to influence emotion is powerful in its ability to affect the experience of architecture.
As a woman, what’s your experience of being an architectural photographer? How accessible is the genre? Like architecture, photography and more specifically architectural photography, has been a male-dominated profession. As times have progressed, women slowly made their way into architecture as they did with so many other fields and today the ratio of women in architecture has greatly improved.
A few years ago I volunteered with the Vancouver chapter of Women in Architecture and a lot of the concern (that still exists) is being in a profession that hasn’t accommodated the role of professional women who are also mothers so the result has been women stepping away from their careers to become primary caregivers for children but on the flip side, many were able to become small business owners.
Shopify – Linebox, Ottawa
They’ve been able to create a situation that allows them to still be architects but on a different schedule that is more malleable for a growing family.
Since becoming an architectural photographer and small business owner, I’ve seen more women enter into my profession which helps broaden representation and shifts the idea away from men as more qualified since that’s how it’s always been. Occasionally I still get an older guy commenting on what I’m doing and how I’m doing it but I usually get the impression it’s because secretly he wished he had my job.
I do think that the internet and dare I say, Instagram has helped in bringing more exposure to women photographers while introducing the idea that architectural photography shouldn’t be reduced to a small demographic. What I hope for with the societal shifts we’re starting to see is the inclusion of more people of colour in architectural photography as well as the architecture profession.
Bringing more perspectives into the conversation can only strengthen the genre and through that broaden our ideas of the built environment and how architecture inevitably affects our lives.
The Shed – Diller and Scofidio + Renfro, New York City, NY
Any other aspects of your photography you would like to talk about? When I’m not shooting for clients and traveling for work I’m working on self-directed projects. In the background the one project I always have on the go is photographing modern architecture at varying scales. It’s such a treat getting to experience original modernism but to also be able to photograph it satisfies my deep nerd tendencies.
Another project that I’m currently working on is with my friend and colleague Dina Sarhane. In December we traveled to Egypt for the month to study the community spaces located throughout Cairo. While we were there we met with several architecture academics and professionals to discuss the history and design of the spaces that are integral to the wellbeing of the neighbourhoods and urban population.
I was able to document the whole experience and gained access not usually permitted, especially to foreigners. We also went on a three day desert safari to the White Desert where I had a great time experiencing the culture and landscape outside of the city. I have a few different photo series from that trip that I’ve been working my way through.
How did you get into photography? I have always had a strong attraction for images and, I always thought that somehow I should have insisted on this inclination of mine. I come from southern Italy in a small town, which I left as soon as I could to go to study photography.
In Turin I attended a three-year course at the I.E.D. university, where I gained many important skills that helped me to take my very first steps into the complex world of images.
After my studies, I joined a creative collective called “Superbudda”. There, I finally put my aesthetic vision into context with the realization of events and promotion materials, from the planning stage to the final realisation.
What do you shoot on? A funny side of my path is that for several years I have never owned a camera! I knew very well all the equipment that fortunately I was able to use during my studies but as beautiful and professional as they can be to create images are also very expensive. Outside the university, I have always managed my work as I could and with any equipment, I could put my hands on.
To be honest, I am happy with that because I learned to do my job with any tool and equipment that can create an image, without worrying too much about the quality and the performance itself but always finding a valid reason for the final success.
Where do you find your inspiration? At first, more than in photography, I use to look for ideas and inspiration into modern paintings, probably due to my previous artistic studies. My first shots, perhaps for this very reason, are so graphic that they resemble more a modern painting than a photograph.
I have my weaknesses and are certainly Mark Rothko and Edward Hopper, about painting, in photography instead my perfect mix is composed by Ralph Gibson, Stephen Shore and Thomas Demand.
It is already very complex for me to explain why I photograph. When you do something spontaneous, especially when you do it just for the need of doing it, it is untranslatable in terms of explanation. I would very much like to be able to create images that do not need any explanation.
Unlike many, I am more fascinated by aesthetics than motivations even though, today, we believe it is more attractive and captivating to look at something followed by a declared strong meaning.
As a woman, what’s your experience of being an architectural photographer? How accessible is the genre? Very often, I am asked this question and just as often I have found myself in situations where I was ‘chosen’ precisely because I am a woman who focused all her work on architecture.
I admit that at the beginning of my journey I never thought that a photographic genre could be associated to a human gender, male or female, but then, someone pointed out to me that architecture photography is, in fact, a male-orientated genre.
Finding that out came as a surprise and, even today, it is still incomprehensible to me. If architecture is a man then it means that while I photograph I will be a man, no problem.
How did you get started in photography? I started photographing in 2002 when I moved to Toronto, Canada. I was 16 and had a compact camera that didn’t work very well, but I took it with me everywhere. I photographed mostly the landscapes—so different from the ones that were familiar to me in Brazil. Everything was so different and fascinating, so I photographed a lot during my walks around the city.
I was always alone during these walks and photographing was a way to connect with this new reality and share it with my friends from Brazil. A few months after I arrived there, I enrolled in a photography class where I had my first contact with a reflex camera and black-and-white lab. In 2004, I came back to Brazil and the next year I got into college to study photography.
Up until then, I didn’t think about photography history and language. I just took pictures. That’s when I started to study and fully dedicate my time to photography.
My first job was as an events photographer—birthdays, weddings, baptisms, all kinds of events. I didn’t identify with that work because working alone, as much as possible, has always been very important to me. All those people, even though they were the main subject of the job, ended up disturbing me. But, I did it for years because I gained experience from it and the money allowed me to invest in equipment.
Meanwhile, I also worked with fine art printing and as an assistant for my friend Ricardo Teles. It was only in 2010 that I came in contact with architectural photography—I started working for Nelson Kon, who is one of the first architectural photographers in Brazil. A couple of years later, I quit event photography for good. In 2013, I did my first architectural photography job for some friends of mine.
Even though I had been working with Nelson for three years, until then I hadn’t done anything related to this area… but it worked. They liked it, I liked it, and now I’m a full-time architectural photographer.
As a woman, what’s your experience of being an architectural photographer? How accessible is the genre? I’ve felt many times that clients doubted my capacity as a photographer for being a young woman. It was nothing openly said – always something subtle, like seeming surprised when meeting me in person or walking around me to see what I’m doing during the photoshoots.
I must say that I feel an enormous satisfaction when these clients receive the images and say how happy they are with the results. And there’s the most common thing to us women in any field: clients choosing a male photographer that doesn’t have as much experience as I do.
What do you shoot with? I work with a Canon EOS 5D Mk II with 24-105mm and 70-200m lenses, as well as 17mm, 24mm and 50mm tilt-shift lenses. Plus, a Manfrotto tripod and bubble level attached to the camera.
Who inspires you? My biggest inspiration is Nelson. He’s the one who taught me everything I know about architectural photography, and he’s a very generous guy with his knowledge.
I also love the works of Lorena Darquea, Iwan Baan, Julius Shulman, Nick Hufton, Allan Crow and Joana França, and I’m a big, big fan of Hélène Binet.
Mary Ellen Mark was a highly influential and respected photographer during her 50-year-plus working career, which spanned from the mid-1960s till her death in 2015. She was a pioneer in the art of empathy and embedding herself with her subjects – from poverty-stricken families in the US to prostitutes in the brothels of Bombay – while never judging her subjects, purely telling their stories with her amazing photographic eye.
Crissy, Jesse, Linda and Dean Damm in their car. Los Angeles, 1987
As a child Mark had a Box Brownie camera but she decided to study painting and art history for her initial degree. Her photographic career began in 1964 after she’d completed a Master’s degree in photojournalism at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the following year her travels began when she went to Turkey for a year on a Fulbright Scholarship (a US cultural exchange programme).
While overseas, Mark took the opportunity to also shoot in England, Germany, Greece, Italy and Spain. The resulting work ended up in her first published book, Passport, in 1974. Though originally from Pennsylvania, Mark moved to New York after returning from Turkey and began documenting anti-Vietnam War demos, transvestite culture, the women’s liberation movement and more – it was then that the roots of her work around issues of social justice were firmly planted.
Laurie in the bathtub of Ward 81, Oregon State Hospital, Salem, Oregon, 1976
Mark once revealed, ‘I feel an affinity for people who haven’t had the best breaks in society. What I want to do more than anything is to acknowledge their existence.’
This penchant for highlighting the struggles of those who suffered hardship, mental illness and homelessness is dotted throughout her stunning body of work. For her Ward 81 project she lived for six weeks with the patients in a women’s security ward of Oregon State Hospital and for her Falkland Road project Mark spent three months documenting the lives of prostitutes on a single street in Bombay, India.
Alongside her documentary work Mark also developed a career as an on-set stills photographer on over 100 major motion pictures, including Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Federico Fellini’s Satyricon and Mike Nichols’s Carnal Knowledge.
Indeed Mark would meet her husband, filmmaker Martin Bell, in 1980 on the set of Milos Forman’s Ragtime, which saw the final screen appearance of James Cagney. During her career Mark worked with a number of photographic formats from 35mm, 120, 220, 4x5in all the way up to a 20x24in Polaroid Land Camera and was also a teacher of photography – at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York, the Center for Photography at Woodstock and in Mexico – for several decades.
Sadly, Mark passed away of blood cancer in May 2015, aged 75, but that proved to be the trigger for the creation of a new three-volume set of books called The Book of Everything. The project showcases Mark’s work over the decades and includes hundreds of her iconic, timeless images from around the world. To get the inside story of the project AP spoke to Mary Ellen Mark’s husband, Martin Bell.
Mother Teresa feeding a man at the Home for the Dying, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, Kolkata, India, 1980
What drove the idea for The Book of Everything? I thought of making this book when Mary Ellen died on 25 May 2015 of MDS, myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood cancer. The idea was to give a sense of the extraordinary and passionate life she had making these images. It would be a “book of everything”.
The book would contain fragments of text, recollections from friends and people she had photographed, and Mary Ellen’s thoughts on her journey through it all, with excerpts from her own journals and notes. It would be in roughly chronological order, a visual diary of her life’s experiences. A compassionate human record, without judgement.
My original concept for the book was it should be one volume. By the time we had completed the edit there were 880 pages and Gerhard Steidl, the publisher, beat sense into my head, but nicely. He told me the bindery was not able to bind that many pages. I realised then that only Olympic weightlifters would have been able to lift the book… a limited market! So The Book of Everything is in three volumes and lives inside a beautiful slipcase.’
Marina Campa as Batman’s grandmother, Kimberly Crown Circus. Mexico City, 1997
How did you do the image edit for the books? We began digitising Mary Ellen’s archive in 1987, scanning and cataloguing her selections from contact sheets. This database is the core of the archive and grew to 63,000 images by the time Mary Ellen died. When we started this book, we turned to this database, but soon realised there may have been frames that were missed. We had no choice but to go back to Mary Ellen’s archive of contact sheets and look at all the images.
In 2016 I started looking through the thousands of contact sheets and chromes. I looked at every frame, of which there were more than two million. I noted Mary Ellen’s 63,110 selects, to these I added 5,977 images of my own choice that I thought she had missed or had marked and were not in the database.
Meredith Lue, Mary Ellen’s library manager for 20 years, and Julia Bezgin, Mary Ellen’s studio manager for 12 years, and I edited down the thousands of frames to the 515 plates that are in the book. It took us four years to put this book together.
Brooke and Billy at Gibbs Senior High School Prom, St. Petersburg, Florida, 1986
Are you happy with the books? Every person who worked on it brought only the best of themselves. Chuck Kelton, who had made silver prints for Mary Ellen for some 20 years, made a complete set of new black & white silver prints for the book’s plates. Sonya Dyakova created the beautiful design for the book.
Gerhard Steidl, the master printer and book publisher, orchestrated all the elements that made Mary Ellen’s work come to life on the printed page. It was a great pleasure for me, along with Meredith and Julia, to be in Gottingen alongside Gerhard and his exceptional team and watch the signatures flow from the Roland offset printing machine, matching exactly Chuck Kelton’s silver prints.
My one regret was that Mary Ellen was not there to witness it.
Ram Prakash Singh with his elephant, Shyama, Great Golden Circus. Ahmedabad, India, 1990
Who inspired Mark’s work? As a child Mary Ellen was moved by an illustrated screenplay, The Forgotten Village by John Steinbeck, which was published in 1941. The illustrations in the book are still frames from that movie and the young Mary Ellen’s imagination was caught up in the story these images told, she thought that the characters were real. They were, in fact, actual villagers cast in a movie.
Mary Ellen worked on two Federico Fellini films: Fellini Satyricon, 1969, and Roma, 1972. Watching this genius creating his unique world with his actors, costume and sets as well as watching his cinematographer lighting the set was an invaluable experience for her.
I think this work resonated with her when many years later she photographed the Indian circus. ‘Mary Ellen would often give her students a list of photographers whose work she admired and wanted them to study. Those that were always on the list were Margaret Bourke-White, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Josef Koudelka, Dorothea Lange, Helen Levitt, Helmut Newton, Irving Penn, Marion Post Wolcott and Alex Webb.
left: Federico Fellini with a bullhorn during the shooting of Fellini Satyricon, Rome, 1968
What were Mary Ellen Mark’s main motivations for her work? ‘ Mary Ellen said in an interview for Swedish broadcaster SVT in 2010, “I didn’t have the happiest home life or childhood, so I think that gave me a feeling of justice and passion for those people that don’t have all the breaks. I think it was important to me to be free and wander the world and not have a family. I don’t have kids. I think if you don’t come from a happy home, maybe you don’t want to tie yourself down. I always wanted to be completely free. Even from the time that I was like eight years, seven years old, I remember walking home from grade school thinking, when am I going to get out of here? I’ve got to be free. So, the freedom was always a major thought for me, a major plan.”
I think that this describes some of the underlying forces that moved and informed Mary Ellen in her work.’
One of the key factors in her work is the ability to tell a story in one picture – how do you feel it was achieved? I was in awe at Mary Ellen’s ability to see a story in the simplest of things… something that you might see in the street and walk by without a thought. Her gift was to be able to bring the diverse elements of a story into a single frame. She called these frames “iconic images”.
To be able to achieve this iconic status is virtually impossible. Mary Ellen was never certain that she had captured a frame, ever. ‘I have been in the room or on the street with Mary Ellen and seen her take what I considered a great frame, and I would often say so. She would always say, “I’m not sure.”
Even while editing her contact sheets she would hand me the marked-up sheets to look at, and I would see a beautiful frame and say so and she would always say, “I’m not sure.” I think she went through her entire life not knowing whether she had taken a great frame, but her record speaks for itself.
Can you tell us more about the creative and practical process Mary Ellen Mark used for shooting her projects? Every detail of an assignment or personal project was researched and documented. Mary Ellen had an extensive library of photographers’ books. Before a shoot she would often look through these monographs to understand how other photographers had solved problems. She kept notes and research on story ideas she was interested in shooting.
All the studio work was fully documented from the preparation with assistants through to detailed records of lighting – distances of strobes from camera and backdrop, power output for exposure, lenses, f-stops… all these records are now part of the archive.
Did her use of different camera formats change her approach? ‘We have a photograph of Mary Ellen, as a young teenager, holding her Kodak Brownie camera. She shot film her whole life, mainly Tri-X negative and Kodachrome. From the beginning of her career, she used Leica, Canon and Nikon cameras for 35mm film.
In the early ’80s she started using the square format of the Rollei and later the Hasselblad. In the late ’80s the Linhof 4×5 started to be used along with the Mamiya 7, which she enjoyed using on the street.
Mary Ellen had used Polaroid for checking exposures but in the mid-’90s she fell in love with the Polaroid 20×24 camera. This massive camera was employed on two personal book projects, Twins, 2003, and Prom, 2012. Over the years she returned constantly to the Leica with Tri-X film – it was, for her, a true and trusted relationship.
How did she connect with the subjects of her photographs? Once Mary Ellen photographed you, you were never forgotten. Not you, your children, your pets. Everyone’s name was remembered including the pets, especially dogs. In 1983 Mary Ellen was assigned by LIFE magazine to photograph a story on kids living on the streets of downtown Seattle.
Tiny was one of those kids – that was her street name – her given name was Erin Blackwell, and she was 13. On that LIFE assignment Mary Ellen also met Rat, Mike, Patty and Munchkin, Patrice, Lulu and DeWayne. She called from Seattle and told me of the lives of these kids and said we should make a film with them.
That same year we made the film Streetwise; it was nominated for an Academy Award. For the following 32 years, Mary Ellen went back to Seattle and documented the life of Erin and her growing family of ten children. We made another film using all the material we collected throughout the years working with Erin – Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell.’
Did Mary Ellen Mark have a favourite country to work in? I think India and Mexico would be high on the list. Mary Ellen had travelled in India extensively and made two personal book projects there, Falkland Road and Indian Circus. I think the energy, diversity, and accessibility of the cultures was seductive for her. She taught in Mexico for 20 years.
Most of the work is in black & white… why do you think this was a crucial element of her work? I think what appealed to Mary Ellen about black & white photography was its abstraction and timelessness.
The Man Who Won the Moustache Contest. Istanbul, Turkey, 1965
Did Mary Ellen Mark print much of her work? A friend of Mary Ellen’s, the photographer Ralph Gibson, told me that he has a print that she made and gave him of ‘The Man Who Won the Moustache Contest’. The image was taken in 1965 while she was working in Turkey. He said that Mary Ellen was a great printer.
She gave up printing in the ’70s when she developed an allergy to the film processing chemistry. Mary Ellen worked with several printers throughout her career though. In 2000 she started working with Chuck Kelton and he printed for her till the end of her life.
Is there anything that Mary Ellen Mark was most proud of, in terms of her career? I think Mary Ellen took pride in all her work. Her work was her life, and she lived her life to the max.
Do you have any future plans for the Mary Ellen Mark archive? We are working on publishing an expanded edition of Ward 81 using transcripts from audio recordings made in 1976 when Mary Ellen and Karen Folger Jacobs were working for 36 days on Ward 81, a locked ward for women in the Oregon State Hospital. The audio is a daily log of what they discovered there as well as recordings made by the patients themselves. We discovered the 56 tapes while researching The Book of Everything.
We are also planning to re-publish other projects like Falkland Road and Indian Circus. There are two exhibitions which will open when Covid-19 allows, and we are also in the midst of completely rebuilding Mary Ellen’s website from the ground up.
Mary Ellen Mark Mary Ellen Mark specialised in documentary, portraiture and advertising work. After getting a degree in painting and art history she did a master’s degree in photojournalism and received a Fulbright Scholarship to photograph in Turkey for year. She moved to New York and began photographing people on the fringes of society.
She was a member of Magnum Photos from 1977 to 1981 and also shot on-set stills on over 100 movies. Mark travelled widely to work and taught workshops in the US and Mexico. She died in 2015 of cancer.
The three-volume The Book of Everything, by Mary Ellen Mark, edited by Martin Bell, is published by Steidl, ISBN: 978-3-95829-565-0, with an RRP of € £125. To find out more go to the publisher’s website.
We have not been able to vist places like Elvington airfield, home of the York Air Museum, so a look back today at those brave men and women who fought to secure our freedoms. Those freedoms feel a little tested at the moment so when I noticed my folder from last year it reminded me yet again of how precious freedom is. And how fragile. So we go back to Elvington in May 2019 to appreciate again what that means and see some of those who actually made what we have today possible.
A few days ago I received an email about a new grants program designed to support women, female-identifying and non-binary photographers and videographers. It offered a substantial amount of money and mentorship to the successful applicant. I was excited at the thought that this could kickstart someone’s career. However, as I read on, my heart sank. Applicants were required to submit their proposals for projects about the ‘authentic representation of women’. Most competitions have a theme, but why does every one aimed at women seem to focus on what it’s like to be a woman? It’s widely recognised that there should be equal gender representation in photography and videography, but these competitions, bursaries and awards seem to be so academic and worthy. Why don’t they aim to support women who are interested in more accessible forms of photography? Wouldn’t it be better to find the best female landscape, portrait, commercial or pet photographer? That would attract more entries and draw more attention to female photographers than challenging, academic artwork.
There are myriad reasons why women are less inclined to enter competitions than men
Reinforcing inequality I also worry that by focusing on projects that show ‘real women’ we’re actually elevating the subjects to the point that they seem unreal. It almost reinforces the inequality. And whilst I applaud anyone pursuing a project exploring representation in photography, doing so specifically to win money seems to detract from the authenticity. I think the awards bodies should concentrate on the craft of the photographers and their point of view. After all, that’s usually what happens in open-entry competitions and it’s more likely to lead to a successful career that inspires others. I imagine that some readers may be wondering why there should be competitions and awards aimed specifically at women. It could be considered sexist and potentially patronising. But statistics show that for a whole host of reasons, women are less inclined to enter competitions or seek grants and awards than men. And as a consequence, they don’t tend to win general or open entry awards as often, which means they don’t get the confidence boost and exposure that comes with a win.
Also, the point of these awards isn’t just to slap one person on the back, they are also about showcasing female photography and letting young girls see that photography can be a career or hobby for them. More significantly, and at the risk of making generalisations, women often see in a different way or have a different point of view from men. That viewpoint is just as valid as any other, but it can get overlooked in a regular competition, especially if the judges are predominantly men. We need women’s photography to be highlighted to attract more women in to the craft, to get more women judging competitions and awards and to get photography on a more even keel.
Former AP Technical Editor Angela Nicholson is the founder of SheClicks, a group for female photographers which boasts more than 6,000 members. Visit sheclicks.net to find out more information.
According to an investigation by the BBC, women with darker skin are more than twice as likely to fail the automated United Kingdom passport rules than fair-skinned men when submitted online through the nation’s automated government checker.
The United Kingdom offers an online service to submit your own images for use on passports, which would theoretically allow a person to get their passports more quickly. If you follow a set of guidelines, a person could also avoid paying to have a photo taken of them if they have the means to photograph themselves at home. Those guidelines include having a neutral expression, keeping a closed mouth, and looking directly at the camera. If a photo is submitted that does not meet all of the criteria, it is rejected as being “poor quality.”
According to the BBC, a student named Elaine Owusu found that the automatic online portal rejected her image for having an “open mouth,” which if you see the image yourself was clearly not the case. Owusu did manage to eventually get the photo approved after challenging the verdict, but she had to write a note arguing that her mouth was indeed closed.
Though she did win, she wasn’t happy about it. “I shouldn’t have to celebrate overriding a system that wasn’t built for me,” she told the BBC.
To determine if there was a systemic problem, the BBC fed more than 1,000 photographs of politicians (based on the Gender Shades study) into the system to see if there were any patterns. They found that dark-skinned men were told that the image was of poor quality 15% of the time when compared to 9% of the time for light-skinned men. For women, it was worse: 22% of the time dark-skinned women’s images were rejected while women with light skin were told their images were of poor quality 14% of the time.
Computers are only biased when the information they are given is biased. In 2019, The New York Times published a detailed article explaining the history of racial bias built into the basics of photography, and that issue continues to show itself in newer technologies like the UK’s automatic photo checker.
“The accuracy of face detection systems partly depends on the diversity of the data they were trained on,” David Leslie of the Alan Turing Institute wrote in response to the BBC investigation. “The labels we use to classify racial, ethnic and gender groups reflect cultural norms, and could lead to racism and prejudice being built into automated systems.”
When a system like this doesn’t work for everyone, the designer of the software would normally be asked to explain. Unfortunately, the government declined to name the external company that provided the automated checker.
As a result, a solution to the problem uncovered by this investigation – where the system in place fails for a disproportionate number of dark-skinned people – is not immediately apparent.
As regular readers may already be aware, this year marks the 50th anniversary of esteemed photojournalist Tom Stoddart’s entry into an industry on which he has left an indelible mark.
We last saw Tom at the AP Awards in February, where he received a standing ovation while he picked up the Exceptional Achievement in Photography award. At the time, Covid-19 was pretty much an abstract threat in the UK. We had little idea how many things would change and how vastly. We’d spoken about the book he’d been working on, and over the past few months I’ve found myself hoping it wouldn’t be another casualty of an industry all but decimated by the virus.
Luckily, Tom’s been ploughing on and the launch date is almost upon us. In my mind, the book has been in the works for a year or so, but Tom would argue that it’s been in the making for the best part of the past half-century. Speaking to him remotely – as pretty much all interviews are conducted these days – from his home in the North East, he tells me, ‘I wanted to do something to mark the occasion, and someone at Iconic Images – Robin Morgan – said, “you’ve photographed an awful lot of women over your assignments – this is a great time to promote women in society” and that got me thinking and looking through my archive.
‘I’ve always been a passionate believer that when the chips are down, when things are really tough, that it’s the women and girls in families that put their shoulders to the wheel, show courage and get things done. When I started to look through my work, it became obvious that I had an awful lot of images that speak to that.
‘Then I got the chance of a book with ACC Art – Iconic Images are part of the collaboration. I wanted to make a high-quality book that is a tribute and a homage to women, not just in conflict, but in extreme circumstances.’
Every year, thousands of women join the ranks of the United States Marine Corp, the US military elite
Hard choices Dozens of photography books are released every year, and whenever I speak to the photographers and editors behind them, it’s plainly obvious that the vast majority of them are a real labour of love. The hardest part for those with careers spanning the decades is often narrowing down a choice of imagery from an extensive archive. ‘There were some photographs that instantly fitted the bill, and others that I had to think back in my memory and think why does this fit in,’ Tom says.
‘I didn’t want to just do, you know, here’s pictures of women that I’ve photographed over the years. A lot of the pictures have memories and stories behind them. It was a case of going through everything, editing it down, and editing it down again. ‘I worked with a very good designer, Stephen Reid, the designer at Iconic Images and formerly of The Sunday Times. I don’t do many books, I don’t churn them out, so I want it to be as good as possible. Each picture is an image that means something to me, and hopefully to the people who view them. Photographers make rubbish editors, mostly, because you always want all of your work in and to display it huge. That’s why having a really sympathetic designer with a great eye is really crucial.
‘It was fascinating to go back through [the archive]. Most of my negatives are in my garage in filing cabinets. The vast majority of the pictures in this book are shot on film, so to pick up a contact sheet and to go to each picture again, it was slightly bizarre, and slightly humbling in a way. There’s a lot of pictures that I’d forgotten about that jumped off the contact sheet. Even if they didn’t end up in the book, they certainly brought back very strong memories.’
A young gymnast practises leaps at Wuhan School of Sport. Harsh training often guarantees sporting success for China
A career in sections Extraordinary Women is split into different sections, each of which is indicative of the type of career that Tom has had: conflict, crisis, health, movement, courage, work and moments. ‘It’s about the viewer, or the reader,’ Tom explains. ‘It makes it slightly easier to identify visual elements, or the situations where various photographs were shot. ‘With the conflict pictures, I concentrated mainly on Sarajevo because I spent four years there during the siege. The place means an awful lot to me, and so do the people. With relation to women, if we take Sarajevo as an example, many women died in the siege because they were the ones who were out on the streets looking for food and collecting water from the pipes. So, when the mortars fell, they were outdoors. ‘Bosnian woman are very proud of their appearance. One of my favourite pictures in the series is the photograph of the women sheltering behind an APC (armoured personnel carrier) and they look immaculate, so well turned out – you would hardly know there was very little water in the city, or any electricity. Those are the small things that I wanted to show in how they conducted themselves during what was a terrible time.’
Women run for their lives across ‘Sniper Alley’ during the siege of Sarajevo
Putting together a book with a cohesive structure and which does justice not just to your own archive, but the subjects of your photography is always a testing time. ‘There are always challenges,’ explains Tom. ‘I wouldn’t say problems because the publisher was very accommodating. Of course, you want the best paper, the best printer, the best of everything. Books are a compromise – you do the best you can with the resources you have. It helps enormously if you’ve got a publisher who wants to try and make it happen and understands that you’re trying to make something of quality that will last a long time.’
Throw Covid into the mix, and you’ve got a whole separate set of challenges too, naturally. ‘It means not being able to get together – except virtually – with the designer, the publisher and Robin Morgan who edited the book. It also meant not being able to go on press [be at the printing press when proofs arrive] – all the things you would naturally do in normal times, so there was a lot of trust involved. I’m also not sure what the appetite for photography books is at the moment – but I’ve done my best and I’ve had a lot of good advice and input from everybody. ‘Any photographer will tell you that doing a book is a really stressful time, because you want it to be the very best it can be. But it’s also a wonderful time because you’re reacquainted with your work in such an intimate way, plus instead of having three or four pages to tell a story, you have 200. It’s a real privilege to put a book together.’
Tom’s image of Meliha is probably Tom’s best-known photograph
Confidence despite the snipers The book hangs on the image of Meliha (above) the confident woman striding along the dangerous Sarajevo suburb of Dobrinja. The striking image adorns the cover of the book, the obvious choice to do so. ‘It means a lot to me,’ says Tom. ‘It’s just one of those moments that I feel lucky that I was able to get. I think it transcends just the siege in Sarajevo, which is why people like it. She’s very beautiful and very proud, and this image kind of epitomises what I was trying to say about women. It’s not just about women in extreme circumstances, it’s a homage to women generally.’
One of those women is the Hollywood actress and Tom’s friend, Angelina Jolie, who was has written the foreword to the book. ‘She knows the image of Maliha very well – I know she loves it because when she was making her movie in Bosnia, the cast and crew gave her this picture when the film was wrapped. It was after that that I did some work for her. I’ve photographed some of her foundation projects in Asia. I’m pleased that she wanted to write something in the book because again, she is an extraordinary woman. People see her as an actor and a director, but I’ve seen her, first hand, working in refugee camps and spending a lot of hours with women and children talking about their situation. I have a lot of time for people like that. She could easily sit in Hollywood and not do anything – like a lot of them do – but she’s trying to make the world a better place. I think we should all do that – we need to equalise everything, respect each other and share our mutual understanding and love. ‘Photography can be quite cruel, but I’d like to think that my pictures have a human side to them – I’ve always tried to shoot in a very humane way so that I feel justified. I feel good about putting these photographs into a book.’
Crowds gather on top of the Berlin Wall near Check Point Charlie when East Berliners were allowed to cross into the west for the first time
Also included in the book is a 1987 news report by Marie Colvin – the foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times who died while covering the siege of Homs in Syria. Tom worked with her in Beirut, which was one of Marie’s first experiences of conflict. ‘I was older than she was, and I was more experienced. We took a chance in Beirut to get a set of pictures that alerted the world to something terrible that was going on in this refugee camp. It was with this story that Marie discovered that this is what she wanted to do – the story made a real difference. The resultant kind of world-exclusive stopped something terrible that was going on. I wanted to pay tribute to Marie, because in the end she gave her life for her reporting. That’s why I wanted to use her words, from her original article from The Sunday Times – The War on Women.’
Sister act The last time Tom and I spoke about his upcoming book, he was hoping to make some new portraits of extraordinary women making a difference right now. Names such as Malala Yousafzai – the Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest ever Nobel Prize laureate sprang to mind. Covid has of course put paid to such ambitions, but in a strange way, there is a new portrait in the book as a direct result of it. At the very end of the book is a portrait – a composite due to social distancing rules – of Tom’s sister and his nieces. The extraordinary women in his own family have spent a combined 73 years working for the NHS. ‘It seemed right to me that apart from having queens, heroines and people like that, that right there in front of me, there were members of my own family that deserved to be honoured.’
As well as the upcoming book release, there’s also an exhibition scheduled for the Side Gallery in Newcastle, Tom’s home town. In these socially distanced times, supporting galleries – especially the independents who are undeniably in peril – has never been more important. ‘Having an exhibition at The Side is a great privilege for me because I live in the North East, so I’m really a big fan of what they do and the exhibitions they’ve had there. It’s a real honour to be on the walls of my home town in such a highly regarded and prestigious gallery space.’
Extraordinary Women is available from all good bookstores from 1 October, or directly from the publisher (ACC Art Books). Images from the book will be exhibited at Side Gallery, Newcastle, from Saturday 26 September until Sunday 13 December. Please check the Side Gallery website for more details and opening times.
Dutch photo artist Erik Kessels has sparked outrage with his latest art installation, titled “Destroy My Face.” Kessels covered the ground of a skate park with portraits of women who have had plastic surgery and then invited skateboarders to shred them up by riding over them.
Kessels began installing the “interactive” exhibition on September 7th.
The installation was opened to the public on September 9th, and the launch was publicized by Kessels, the skate park (Pier15 Skatepark in Breda), and BredaPhoto Festival (the largest international photo festival in the Benelux).
“Plastic surgery has become something pretty normal in today’s society. However, when taken overboard, these surgeries can result in deformation and transforms mankind into monsters,” BredaPhoto writes. “Dutch artist Erik Kessels will showcase these archetypical faces in a grid, to be seen in a very unusual spot, where visitors can interact and interfere with these faces. As easy as they were once made beautiful, as easy they are now destroyed.”
Dazed reports that the installation has already received a significant amount of backlash, with many denouncing it as misogynistic and art that encourages violence against women.
A group of photographers and other creatives have published an open letter denouncing the artwork and calling for its removal.
“With a title like ‘Destroy My Face’, we assume that the point of this work was to elicit a response like this,” the letter reads. “It is in your face, pointed, and most of all, violent.
“This title, as well as your decision to place this work on the floor of a skatepark where female-presenting individuals can be trampled and skated over by skaters, reproduces this sentiment. By placing this work in a public space like Skatepark Pier15, another insult to injury is added. Skateparks and other public spaces should be places that are open and free to use by all who wish to come, and where people should not be ridiculed or judged based on what they look like.”
“[W]e are frustrated with BredaPhoto,” the open letter states. “As one of the more prominent photo-festivals in the Netherlands, BredaPhoto has the potential to talk about and stand against stigma and toxic systems in our (visual) culture but has nevertheless decided to fund this project. A work that does nothing but reinforce clichés in our visual culture while it shames and degrades the choices that people have made in regards to their own bodies.
“We cannot excuse the rampant sexism, racism and other biases that are still so ingrained within our cultural institutions – especially not in the difficult financial times of today where it is already hard enough to get projects funded. We do not understand how BredaPhoto accepted, financed and executed this proposal – and know that you can do better.”
The letter calls for the installation to be removed, for an explanation, and for transparency and accountability moving forward.
You can read (and sign) the full open letter here. We’ve reached out to Kessels for comment and will update this article if/when we receive a response.
Update: Here’s a statement provided by Kessels in response to the controversy:
Plastic surgery has become something pretty normal in today’s society. However, when taken overboard, these surgeries can result in deformations. The representation of oneself and what is real seem to blur more and more. The same can be said for how we present the image of ourselves online. Being insta-perfect can become the norm instead of the exception and we can manipulate our image in several seconds. The deformation that once started with plastic surgery will continue in this installation while skaters create another uncontrolled reality. Machine learning, as another artificial intervention, was used to generate the selection after entering all, male and female, available online plastic surgery portraits.
The intention of this work is ironic and intends to evoke a dialogue about self-acceptance. Of course it doesn’t mean to encourage violence against women. With this work I never wanted to offend anyone, but when reading recent comments online, I understand I’ve done so and I apologise for that. In my opinion the function of art in society is to start dialogues and I continue to believe in that.
Kessels says the festival will be releasing a longer statement shortly.
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