The photographer and founder of Women Photograph, a platform that elevates the voices and work of women and non-binary visual storytellers, considers the homogeneity of the documentary image
In her landmark book, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag declared “to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude”. A documentary photograph suspends reality, but, it is a fragment of reality selected by the individual behind the lens. Men have dominated the photography industry since its inception. In November 2018, Huck Magazine reported that 85 percent of photojournalists working today are male. The way that we have chosen to frame reality throughout history has been and continues to be, largely dictated by a male perspective.
“When we are documenting our world through a homogenous lens… we are teaching our audience to see and understand the world through a westernised and masculine perspective,” says photographer Daniella Zalcman, who we spoke to in light of Female in Focus – a new award seeking to celebrate exceptional female-identifying photographers. In 2007, Zalcman founded Women Photograph, a platform to elevate the voices and work of women and non-binary visual storytellers. Women Photograph is a database of more than 850 independent female photographers based in 99 countries. Its core mission is to diversify the photojournalism community and how this community is documenting and presenting the world today.
It is not only a male perspective that has dominated our understanding of the world through photography, but it is also a colonial one: the white, western, male photographer who, throughout history, has tasked himself with bearing witness to the conflicts and crises of far-flung communities across the globe. “For the longest time, documentary photography has been this deeply colonial practice, predicated on the idea that we in the west are somehow more equipped to tell the stories of communities around the world than they are themselves,” says Zalcman. “Obviously, that’s not true. Outsiders are more likely to miss some crucial piece of history or context, to skip right over nuance, to perhaps misunderstand a situation entirely the first time they come into a new environment.”
Much of Zalcman’s work focuses on interrogating legacies of western colonisation around the world – from the practice of high schools across the United States representing themselves with Native American-themed mascots, to an exploration of the roots of homophobia and anti-gay legislation in East Africa.
Zalcman’s project Signs of Your Identity addresses the impacts of cultural genocide and intergenerational trauma on individuals who attended Indian Residential Schools during their youth. From the 1870s, the Canadian government separated Indigenous Canadians from their families and enrolled them in church-run boarding schools. They were punished for speaking their Native languages and observing Indigenous traditions, sexually and physically assaulted, and even subjected to medical experimentation.
Rather than just photographing individual survivors, Zalcman spent time getting to know the communities with who she was working. “I firmly believe that as long as you show genuine interest and caring about people’s lives, it is not all that hard to be allowed in,” she says. For Signs of Your Identity, Zalcman wanted to capture the memories of the individuals she was documenting. Many of Zalcman’s subjects spoke to her for hours, sharing intensely painful and traumatic memories. Zalcman employed double exposures to capture and communicate these shared experiences – she overlayed the portraits with sites and memories of her subject’s boarding school experiences.
Through her work, Zalcman is committed to highlighting a range of perspectives. The photographer asserts that there has been a dramatic shift in the industry over the past decade, with people addressing the importance of inclusivity and how it impacts the way we see. But, there is still a long way to go. “If you are asked to speak on a panel or judge an award, and the group is utterly homogenous, ask the organisation to reconsider,” she says. “If you are commissioned for an assignment and you know that there is another photographer who has more of a connection to that story, or more of an insider perspective that has not been heard, ask the editor to consider that photographer in your stead.” Ultimately, it is the responsibility of those in power to make space for, and support, the image-makers who have been relegated to the margins.