Street photography gallery from @womeninstreet, curated by Melissa O’Shaughnessy
Guest curator Melissa O’Shaughnessy
Women in Street
social media collaborative for female street photographers
Growing up near a beach filled with tourists and sailors, there was an atmosphere of men checking out women, sizing up their bodies. I was aware of the male gaze from an early age. It was easy to feel “hunted”. Photography is an art that requires hunting, searching and chasing a visual moment. Culturally, this has been an action reserved for men. When a woman has a camera, it inverts the paradigm. I find men to be surprised when they catch me looking at them. As a woman, it demands a certain level of courage to photograph in public.
The access of women to some subjects, like children for example, is certainly unrivaled when compared to men. But, being a woman does not make things easier, and it is not always true that people on the streets are more compliant with us. In London, once I was asked to stop making pictures of children playing in a square. I was astonished as the place was full of photographers, and I was acting openly and not in a sneaky way. I stopped and moved on. And this was not the only time. I think that it does not really matter being a woman or a man, it depends on the culture we deal with, and on our attitude and approach, that must be always respectful.
I started the workshops a few years ago, after I attended a workshop in Varanasi, India. The main reason I had signed up for it was because I really wanted to travel to India for my photography, and was nervous about going as a woman alone. My experiences while traveling there gave me new confidence, and I had the idea of giving my own workshops before, and now I decided to pursue this.
For my first workshops in Rome, only women signed up, and they are still mostly women. I don’t mind, I actually love it. My dream is to give to women photographers, or just women in general, this freedom that I have found. Many of them are feeling how I was before I went to India, feeling they don’t have enough courage to travel because it’s dangerous, or some are afraid to get close. Women who are just starting, they are often not very confident and shy, compared with male photographers. We are less aggressive, we are different, of course we are, that’s just normal. I want to be that person who allows and encourages them to travel, or to get close to subjects. I love that when we are together, it’s different, when you are out with only women, it’s completely changed. Sometimes I can see there is one who is more shy than the others, and to this one I say “Come on let’s do it!” And step by step, we reach the subject as closely as we can, and I say “Don’t worry we’re not doing anything wrong, we are just photographing reality.” And they are so empowered and feel great, and finally say “Wow that was so great, let’s do some more!”
Mamana Foto Coletivo is a Brazilian female photo collective. It arose in 2016, precisely in the year that I began to explore more street photography. I met a friend, Renata, and we started discussing how much we, as women, are too little encouraged to be photojournalists or street photographers. From this debate came the need to get organized, to meet more women and find these photographers, so we can get together and take this space that has historically been denied us.
From the first moment we got out on the streets, we suffered from harassment. As if society said “Go back home, this is not your place!” That’s part of the sexist culture in which we’ve been raised. Woman has always been kept in private space, and man has always been given the privilege of being on streets. With photography this is no different, so much so that women do not even think about being photojournalists, covering wars, protests, or walking on the streets with a camera around their necks, photographing strangers.
This is the context that Mamana promotes. We look for, encourage, and publish the work of women photographing on the streets. We want to connect them, so that they become empowered and occupy these spaces.
I think being a woman probably brings more delicate and respectful approach towards people in the street, but generally I don’t like that division. We are men and women of course, but first of all we are human beings. There are people sensitive and heartless, compassionate and hateful, warm and mean, etc. And it is not ruled by sex.
I think that there is now more awareness of male dominance in street photography. I’m confident this awareness is encouraging a more inclusive street photography community. Blogs like Her Side of the Street are playing an important role. Personally I’ve never felt I missed out because I’m a woman, but I will always advocate for an inclusive photography community.
It’s difficult to talk about this without falling into gender stereotypes, but I do think many of my interests are traditionally feminine and the general feel of my photography could also be described as feminine. While it’s interesting to be aware of general differences between the two predominant genders, I really think a photographer’s interests and work has much more to do with his/her personality than his/her gender. I also feel uncomfortable discussing gender as though it is binary, which it obviously isn’t.
I suppose, as with most things in life, being a woman has its pros and cons. I believe that being a woman with a camera makes me appear less threatening to people, and being 5ft 2” means I don’t stand out in a crowd, which I think also helps my style of photography. Beyond that, I can’t really comment on how being a woman affects my view of the world through the viewfinder; I think it probably has more influence on how my work is perceived by others.
I don’t feel safe out on the streets shooting at night any more, which is quite annoying as I think some of my nighttime work is my best. Well, it hasn’t really stopped me, when a scene is there I press the shutter sometimes, regardless of what consequences there could be. Other than that, being a female I enjoy being able to engage with people — from young lads and girls out on the town, to elderly people.
Genuinely, this has happened a few times, we can be out and about and often bump into other photographers. Normally, if we do tend to see someone else with a camera, it’s quite easy to strike up a conversation. Normally male photographers though, and this has happened on a few occasions, tend to direct most of the conversation towards Craig. They ignore me, Craig gets embarrassed and tries to bring me back in to the conversation. It is annoying, as you want to say “Hey, I’m here,” but to be honest, I tend to just take a few steps back and wander off into the crowd. I would much rather be out there doing what I love.
I think we stand our ground as female street photographers, and certainly have a good pedigree of historic female street photographers in our collective portfolio. Vivian Maier, Shirley Baker, and Jane Bown to name but a few. I could go on, as the list is endless.
It affects me in many ways, not only in the themes I approach, but also in the moment in which I am facing an artistic discipline where only men have space. From the fact that men consider that we women have “advantages” in street, to the fact that they do not allow, or they invalidate our own ways of looking at and living the street. The challenges that exist, or exist in street photography, are just one example of all the schemes and stereotypes that we have to bring down in so many other areas. Men have always spoken for us, it’s time to shout that we can do it for ourselves.
Women are more sensitive. I think they look at reality with different eyes, more empathy, and are more involved with people and situations.
I am not really sure if being a woman affects my work. I don’t think I am doing anything differently than male street photographers. If there are differences in results, that of course is for others to judge. Because this has been more of a male dominated field, I am very glad to see that now more women’s work is coming out. But I still don’t know if women do this any differently than men.
I tend to be more inspired by female photographers. It’s very often not only about the photos, but also the circumstances or their stories. I’m inspired by early female photographers like Inge Morath or Eve Arnold, who managed to make their way as photographers in a male dominated profession. Also, for example, I recently saw an exhibition on the photography program of the Farm Security Administration during the European month of photography in Bratislava. There, the photos of Dorothea Lange inspired me most. Of course because I liked the photos, but also because I was inspired by her story.
Women are frighteningly underrepresented in the street genre — I often wonder why. Perhaps it is because women are not as good at tooting their own horns, which is certainly true in my case. Also, for me, when my children were younger, I simply didn’t have the time to go pound the pavement for hours on a Saturday afternoon. It’s worth noting that both Levitt and Maier were childless, and also worth noting that Maier was a full time nanny but still managed to produce the astonishing body of work that she did. Granted, she probably had weekends off.
It’s unfortunate to see so few women members in the numerous street collectives that can be found online, and the relatively rare appearances of women in the wonderful Hardcore Street Photography Flickr pool. Like it or not, street photography is a male dominated genre; perhaps the mostly-male gatekeepers don’t appreciate the type of images women street photographers make. I have also wondered if women are not as attracted to the genre, and how much of a role this could play in the underrepresentation.
I do feel being a woman street photographer has the advantage of societal trust in the female. Women are thought of as less threatening, whereas a man photographing strangers, especially women or children, will put people on high alert. Don’t get me wrong, I get the odd glaring stare as well, but I would wager it is much less often than I would if I were a man. It’s yet another example of how men and women are stereotyped. It just happens to go in our favor in this aspect. It allows us a bit more freedom in who or what we shoot.
A few years ago I decided to take a more professional approach to my street photography and re-brand myself. I thought about the many women authors who use initials in order to avoid judgement about being female. At first I was reluctant, but eventually I did change to RL Bellamy, rather than Regina Bellamy. It had a nicer ring to it anyway. It’s sad that in this day and age we still have to resort to such games, but I find it does go in my favor. My theory was proven soon after, when I had an exhibition in a local gallery. Another photographer saw the poster for the show and asked the gallery owner who the “guy” was.
Being a woman really helps a lot, and I am blessed to be a woman photographer. People are very easy going with women, and trust can be built easily. When there is a sensitive situation, people are much more friendly, and are calmer with women photographers in India.
I do wedding photography, and I have realised brides, and even grooms, feel much more comfortable interacting with a woman photographer. In the wedding photography industry in India, there are many more women photographers than male photographers.
Even in documentary photography, women photographers can cover any sensitive situation much more easily, because people trust them easily.
Recently, some of my street pictures were published along with some amazing street photographers from all over the world, and one of the reasons (other than my pictures) is that I am a woman street photographer in India. Gradually here, street photography is being taken up with huge interest by women photographers, and one of the reasons is social media — the different groups and handles on Facebook, Instagram, and Flickr, which inspire them to shoot street photography.
The other day I was shooting around the market in Whitechapel, and my energy was off. It was my first day out shooting in a while, and I just couldn’t get into the flow — couldn’t make any good images. I started to head home when I felt someone watching me. This dude began to follow me for about 20 minutes, smiling like a creep every time I turned around — until he finally cornered me under a bridge (I refused to NOT walk under the bridge). I sprinted into a cafe a couple minutes down the road and waited there for awhile until I calmed down. The woman working in the cafe helped me chill out and then told me that I shouldn’t be walking around with my camera around my neck.
I was angry. It wasn’t the first time it had happened to me. It makes me jealous of male photographers, who don’t have to think about that kind of stuff — who can just go out and shoot and not worry about anything but the photograph. Each time this kind of shit happens, I carry a little more weight on my shoulders — and the camera strap should be enough.
On another vibe, being a woman brings sensitivity to my images. I find myself connecting more often with female subjects rather than male ones. I see myself in young women falling in love and grandmothers with a full face of make up. It’s sisterhood. It’s a powerful feeling.
Please tell us a bit about you, and how you found photography.
I started quite late – a few years ago, while already in my 40s. I never thought I had any “artistic” talent, I am much more analytical by nature. Winter is my least favorite season. A few years ago I came across a 365 day challenge, and I started it to keep me from being bored. I surprised myself by sticking to it – one of few people that lasted until the very end. My photos were pure garbage, but eventually that resulted in me finding ways to teach myself about photography (books, videos, forums, etc.). I am entirely self-taught, and still eager to learn more every day. I started doing landscape shots, and interesting signs or graffiti. After some of that, I realized that I found photos with people in them to be much more interesting. A friend introduced me to a group of local photographers who shot “street” – something I didn’t really understand was its own genre. That all resulted in me focusing on street almost exclusively ever since.
You seem to have started out with mostly black and white but have migrated to color, why?
I used to process a lot in black and white, but lately I have been into color. I still do B&W, and will likely do more in winter. Summer seems to lend itself to color. I also used to avoid color because I thought it was more difficult. I have a friend who is a great photographer and he told me to learn color and not to use black and white as a “crutch”, since you can cover up issues by converting to B&W. My LCD screens used to be in B&W, but I have switched back to color. I know that some people think B&W is more suited for street, but I really do enjoy color as well.
And lately you have been using flash?
I started using flash last year. I really like the effect on a bright summer day because it makes the colors pop and helps lift some strong shadows. It also presents new challenges – it’s much more difficult to shoot in stealth mode when using flash. I’ve recently started taking some portraits, which I never used to do. Sometimes I see somebody so fabulous and I know I can’t get off a stealthy shot with flash like I would want, so I ask now instead of missing the shot.
You have been exploring Coney Island with your recent series, can you tell us about the project?
Coney Island is truly my “happy place”. I go there all year round. It’s been nicknamed “The People’s Playground” with good reason. You find all ages, ethnicities and body types at Coney Island. A short walk will put you in Brighton Beach, home to a large Russian community that I also enjoy.
In the summer, there is so much joy with people at the beach and on the amusement rides. It makes for endless photo opportunities. I’ve been shooting at the shoreline lately – people swimming, exercising, and enjoying the beach. The boardwalk is great too – there are dance parties on weekends in the summer that are always fun to watch.
In the winter, I love the isolation and sense of loneliness. In Brighton Beach, the older Russian community congregates on the boardwalk benches all year round – often dressed to be seen (furs, pearls, etc.). I also know several members of the Coney Island Polar Bears, who swim on the winter weekends. I even went to a Polar Bear wedding this summer.
Do you feel being a woman affects your work?
I think it has advantages and disadvantages, like everything. One advantage is that I take shots that my male peers won’t even attempt – especially of children and women. With children, I make it obvious or ask the parents first, just so people don’t think I am doing something creepy. I know men that won’t even try doing that.
On the downside, I have had a few occasions where people tried to intimidate me. That probably would not have happened the same way to a man. You always have to use common sense, but I don’t scare that easily!
We often see pairs or couples, or groups of couples in your work, can you say anything about that?
I love watching the interaction between people – friends, lovers, siblings, etc. I have definitely become more attracted to shooting multiple people together and watching the dynamic between them. On the beach, I’ve been shooting a lot of families, or siblings playing together. I’m extra happy when I spot twins!
Please tell us a little about your background, and how you came to photography.
I come from a family of travelers, my parents lived and worked all over the world and I was born in the United States. A few years later, they decided they wanted to raise their kids in their home country, and we relocated to France. We continued to move every few years to a different region, and I still carry that yearning to travel with me!
I was always creative growing up (drawing, painting, ceramics, you name it), but the first time I picked up a camera, it was different, and more natural. I felt like I could see the world differently, and find more of myself in it.
I went into an arts program in high school and ended up studying art history (I still wonder if I then felt more comfortable in the role of the viewer than of the maker.) Throughout high school and college, I experimented with pinhole cameras and shot film on and off. I studied in Philadelphia for the last year of my master’s degree and got to take my first darkroom class, which sparked my interest again.
When I moved to New York after finishing my studies, my passion for street photography really started. I was shooting more (film, then digital) and got involved at the International Center of Photography where I took classes before serving as a teaching assistant. Eventually, I took a job as a studio manager for a photographer, while continuing to develop my own work.
After several years in New York, I was ready to pack up my bags again and I moved to Chile, where I’m currently developing new work.
You are currently based in Valparaíso, tell us about your approach to capturing the tone of this place, and how it’s different from your approach elsewhere. And how have you decided to depict this famously colorful city in black and white?
Working in black and white always comes naturally to me, it hasn’t been something that I second-guess when I start a new project, even when photographing in a place as stunningly colorful as Valparaíso (or Cuba, which I also shot in black and white.)
I think there’s a sense of “placelessness,” and timelessness in my work, which black and white really helps channel. I’m most interested in images that convey a sense of mystery about the place, photographs that feel unfamiliar and familiar at the same time. In that sense, I also find that there is a great continuity in my work: whether I shoot in New York, Valparaíso or elsewhere, I’m attentive to strong visual elements, unusual viewpoints, graphic lines and stark shadows.
As many artists before me, Valparaíso’s grit and poetry, dysfunction and energy drew me in. That sense of orderly chaos is, I think, central to my depiction of the port. Moving here has really felt like a turning point, both personally and photographically.
I moved to Chile almost on a whim – and not speaking a word of Spanish – so my interactions with the city were both exhilarating and confusing. It pushed me to reflect on my need to create a visual language, to find a sense of order, and why I rely on form so much.