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Photo: Untitled , Adjara, Georgia, 2014 © Natela Grigalashvil
To coincide with Woman in Focus 2021 , Gulnara Samoilova – certainly one of last year’s judges – discusses her latest photobook, compiling the work of hundred women street photographers through around the world
In the mountainous Adjara region of the former-Soviet state, Atlanta, three girls pose for the photograph on a misty town road. The image, captured by photojournalist Natela Grigalashvili for her series Women with Headscarves , is a delicate portrait of youth and innocence; a time whenever something as simple as having a photograph is an event. Inside it, the two eldest girls hold up a piece of black, transparent fabric for the camera: a material which will be made into headscarves to them after they marry, as a symbol of their femininity, loyalty, and “inner peace”.
“[Grigalashvili] is from Atlanta, ” says Gulnara Samoilova, editor of the illuminating brand new anthology Women Street Photographers , in which Grigalashvili’s image features. “I i am from [the Russian Republic of] Bashkortostan. Even though they are planets apart, when I look at this picture, I am transported back to years as a child. ”
Growing up in great rural poverty in Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan, Samoilova first turned to photography as an escape: a magical means of reimagining life’s mundanities, discovering people, places and issues in a new light. The shy yet curious, risk-taking teen, she had her first image – a street photo of a lamppost made at night – released in the art section of a local newspaper, and thereafter, she was hooked.
She moved to New York in 1992, and would go on in order to garner first prize within the World Press Photo competitors for her coverage of 9/11. “I see myself, my mother, and my grandmother once i look at Natela’s photograph, ” Samoilova muses. “And that’s one of the most incredible things photography can do. Not just preserving a moment in time, but holding the power to transport you to your past; affirming a deep connection that is present nowhere except in your recollections. Reminding us that we tend to be more alike than we are various. ”
“That’s one of the most amazing things photography can do. Not only preserving a moment in time, yet holding the power to transport you to your past; affirming the deep connection that is present nowhere except in your remembrances. Reminding us that we tend to be more alike than we are different”
Women Road Photographers , published by Prestel, combines the work of 100 women photographers around the world, recognising their particular extraordinary contribution to an overwhelmingly male-dominated field. Featuring artists from the ages of 20 to 70, alongside a foreword by Ami Vitale and an essay by Melissa Breyer, Samoilova storage sheds light on generations of underrepresented talent: proof that this relatively few women approved to the canon of the road photography – our Mary Ellen Marks, Helen Levitts and Vivian Maiers – are just barely scratching the area.
The book arrives off the back of exactly what began as a travelling exhibition and accompanying Instagram feed, founded by Samoilova in 2017 to champion the job of both amateur and professional women street photographers. Much like the project’s previous iterations, Women Street Photographers is not a linear, historical, or even academic book, but rather exactly what Samoilova describes as “my emotional, aesthetic, and religious response to the work of various other artists”. It is a vibrant display of scenes she sees moving and powerful, through ultra-orthodox youth in a Tel Aviv park, to a sea of taxis outside the Kolkata train station; a moonlit bus stop in Munich to some foggy morning in Romania.
Do females see the world ‘differently’ to men? “I think it is far too early in the discussion to summarise what includes the ‘female gaze’, ” Samoilova says. “We’ve already been indoctrinated by the ‘male gaze’ for so long that it is hard to say where that ends and where we all begin. But it’s period we create the space in order to reflect upon these queries in further depth, and at greater length. ”
Certainly, only once the visual landscape opens up to every iteration and intersection of woman, throughout race, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, ability, age, class and so on, can we begin to distill what the ‘female gaze’ really looks like. Until after that, Samoilova endeavours to “build everything I wish I had formed encountered over the past 40 years functioning as a photographer that would have helped me along my journey – so that I did not feel so alone in the world”.