A Woman's Eye
If a picture says more than a thousand words, what do the pictures taken by women photographers in Asia say about their countries and societies?
Kuwait may have banned DSLRs on its streets but in the not so faraway town of Siem Reap, Cambodia, visitors and locals are carrying cameras of every form, size and age for Angkor Photo Festival.
Now in its sixth year, the weeklong celebration held in the last week of November offers this year a fascinating showcase of Asian Women Photographers.
Are Asian women but drops in a sea of male photographers?
APF called for submissions in July. The criteria for entry were that the photographer be female, ethnically Asian, and should take the photographs in her native country.
Yumi Goto, curator of the series, said: “We had more than 100 submissions, most of them high quality but we had to choose just 15. This specific field –Asian women photographers doing photojournalism, documentary, and visual storytelling – has not received much attention, and there are still many possibilities left unexplored by research.
“There is a stereotype about women being more sensitive or emotional but the documentary photographers selected use different styles and cover a wide range of subjects, from prisons in Georgia to welfare towns in Japan.”
For most of the photographers in the series, being female was only a hindrance in physically grueling and dangerous situations, like the May riots in Bangkok and bombings in Gujarat, India. Otherwise it was just a novelty to societies who don’t normally see women lugging heavy cameras around their necks. Most often being a woman makes them more accessible to their subjects. Isabelle Eshraghi, who photographed women in Isfahan, Iran, said: “Being a woman helps a lot because I document women’s issues in gender-segregated communities in the Muslim world. You can enter doors where men cannot.”
Ying Ang believes however that the barriers are all subliminal, which is often the most dangerous. “It is very difficult to fight an enemy that won't show itself,” she said.
“One of the problems is mainly cultural associations. The modern challenge for us lies less in doubting ability and more so in the destructive idle banter that happens after the shooting is done, which is often conducted by both men and women.”
Almost everyone featured in the series chose subjects that are very personal.
Ore Huiying, a Singaporean photographer, attempts to bridge her indifference and disconnectedness to her family after overcoming a life-threatening illness. Her photos show three generations who have lived together in the same home for decades.
Saori Ninomiya chose to focus on sexual abuse in the context of traditional Japanese society. She herself is a victim of rape and believes that healing takes place through her photography.
Poulomi Basu, an Indian now based in the UK, captures intimate moments between female soldiers of the border arms force in the Punjab region. Most of her photos are black and white. She said: “I did not see any colour in their lives that’s why I shot in black and white.”
As Eshraghi says, photography is very much like writing. “It does not matter if you use a coloured pen, or a black one. What is essential and unchanging is your writing – it belongs to your soul, your mind, all that you are."
People are little less paranoid and protective if they see a woman behind the lens. One could even say that they are more welcoming to a woman in sharing stories of their lives.
Just as people from different countries perceive social interactions differently, so too do the genders. And it is these gender filters that make women’s photography very powerful.
Women, it is generally acknowledged, are endowed with the desire to do help others. This trait makes them more accessible and approachable. In Asia, women tend to run the household and trust must be earned for a family to allow strangers to take their photos.
“People are little less paranoid and protective if they see a woman behind the lens. One could even say that they are more welcoming to a woman in sharing stories of their lives”, said Suruchi Dumpawar, an Indian photographer who took images of the serial bomb blasts in Gujarat State in 2008.
asia!’s Pictures Editor Debby Ng added: “We are a minority of women photographers telling the stories of a majority of women who need to have their voices amplified.
“Women have come a long way in this field but if we want to include the 60% of the world's women who are still left out of the work force then we need women out in the field telling the stories of other women.”
These Asian women photographers are doing exactly that.
*Asian Women Photographers features:
Mery Agakhanyan (Armenia) The Life of Peasants in Armenia
Mariam Amurvelashvili (Georgia) Prison
Ying Ang (China) The Heartland
Poulomi Basu (India) To Conquer Her Land
Jean Chung (S.Korea) Korea’s Forgotten Women – Comfort Women for US Army
Suruchi Dumpawar (India) Sites of Terror (Ongoing project)
Rena Effendi (Azerbaijan) Oil Village
Isabelle Eshraghi (Iran) Women of Isfahan, 10 Years Later 1996 – 2006
Shiho Fukada (Japan) End of Labor Town – Dumping Ground of Old Men in Japan
Burcu Goknar (Turkey) Night Shift
Ore Huiying (Singapore) We are Farmers
Saori Ninomiya (Japan) Ano Basyo Kara: From that Place – The Voice of Being
Tatiana Plotnikova (Russia) Alcohol Abuse (Ongoing project)
Gali Tibbon (Israel) Echoes of Christian Jerusalem
Wenjing Wang (China) Form and Home—Young Generation in Beijing