On the frontlines with women war photographers | Arts | DW | 08.03.2019
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On the frontlines with women war photographers

There may not be a 'female' perspective on war, but a new exhibition shows how the work of women conflict photographers has been vital in creating an accurate picture of war throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

Women photojournalists have been capturing war on film for nearly a century now — starting with the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, when portable cameras first made spontaneous snapshots possible. Yet conflict has long remained a field dominated by men, not only as war photographers but also actors and perpetrators of atrocities.

"Women War Photographers," an exhibition that opened March 8 at Dusseldorf's Kunstpalast Museum, hopes to change that. It draws the works of eight women conflict photographers into focus. The exhibition covers a large swath of 20th-century conflicts in images and sheds new light on the view of women's roles in war. Women are seen both as victim and perpetrator in the photographs chosen for the show.

"The images on display do not confirm the stereotype that there is such a thing as a 'female' perspective but rather show that these eight photographers employed different methods and visual imagery to bear haunting witness to these events," the curators write in the exhibition catalogue. The exhibition includes images by Gerda Taro, Anja Niedringhaus, Carolyn Cole, Susan Meiselas, Lee Miller, Francoise Demulder, Christine Spengler and Catherine Leroy.

Soldiers with guns stand in the foreground while women and children look out of the background (picture alliance/dpa)

Women photojournalists have access to parts of war that can be barred to their male colleagues. Above, a photo taken in Baghdad, Iraq, by Anja Niedringhaus.

Taking sides

Both soldiers on the frontlines and the repercussions these wars have on the civilian population are depicted in the show, beginning with the groundbreaking work of Gerda Taro during the Spanish Civil War from 1936-39.

Motivated by her political views to go to Spain to photograph the war from the view of the side she supported, Taro was anything but a neutral observer, something that photography essayist Susan Sontag viewed critically. In her 2003 book Regarding the Pain of Others, on the ways conflict photography shifts the memory of war events, Sontag notes that Taro's images were instrumental in swaying public opinion.

Focusing on the plight of the civilian population, Taro's pictures of women, children and refugees landed on the covers of prominent magazines like Die Volks-Illustrierte. Although she died on the frontlines — the first woman conflict photographer to do so — Taro's photographs of soldiers did little to glorify war. By capturing women from the Republican militia in training, she likewise took aim at the stereotype of women as passive victims of the war.

A woman looks worried as children sit around her (International Center of Photography)

Taro captured images of civilians internally displaced by the Spanish Civil War, such as the above women, children and man who fled Malaga to Almeria

Bearing witness

That view of women as aggressors in war is also transparent in the work of Lee Miller, a surrealist who bore witness to some of the world's worst atrocities in a way that both humanized the victims of the war and personalized the realities of a conflict that ran the risk of overwhelming readers of newspapers and magazines due to its unimaginable devastation.

Working for Vogue, Miller was one of four women photographers who accompanied the Allied Forces through Europe in 1944 as German soldiers retreated.  Present when the Americans liberated the concentration camps at Dachau and Buchenwald, Miller made clear in the article published alongside the images that she had no sympathy for the German people who, she wrote, were "repugnant in their servility, amiability, hypocrisy."

Capturing war in color

Although Miller kept much of what she witnessed to herself after the war ended, the images she published have served as inspiration to other women photographers who have gone into war zones to capture the stories that their male colleagues may not have access to.

One of them is Susan Meiselas, a documentary photographer who covered the humanitarian crises in Central and South America throughout the 1970s and 80s and who is shortlisted for the 2019 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize.

A woman wears a mask and holds onto a barbed wire fence (Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos)

By hiding her face beneath the traditional dancer's mask, this fighter in Nicaragua has covered up her identity

One of the first to draw the American public's attention to the civil war in Nicaragua, Meiselas avoided the gruesomeness of the battlefields, capturing the conflict using symbolic shots, like one of white handprints on a red door, signaling that a death squad had been inside a peasant farmer's home.

 At the time, her use of color was controversial, as it added color contrast to war, something which had previously been seen only in black and white. That use of color has carried on into the digital arena, where today colors are sharpened to draw the viewer's eye to particular aspects of a scene.

Read more: War photographer Heidi Levine: 'I could cover conflicts and make it home for dinner'

War in the everyday

Christine Spengler, a contemporary of Meiselas, is another photographer who focused on the consequences of war on civilians. Imprisoned for snapping pictures of a regional conflict in Chad in the 1970s, she went on to shoot children playing in the streets during the conflict in North Ireland, a woman polishing the boots of US GIs in Vietnam, as well as women in chador coverings walking through a graveyard in Iran.

In the Western Sahara, Spengler photographed a mother with a child in one hand and a weapon slung over her shoulder — a woman she met again decades later on the streets of Switzerland.

A woman holds a gun in one are and a baby in the other (Christine Spengler/Sygma/Corbis)

Life goes on after war, as Christine Spengler found out when she coincidentally met Nouenna, the woman in this picture, decades after the image was shot in 1976

While Spengler's work initially appears to show a softer side of war — her images display the living, not the dead — her focus on the harsh realities of life carrying on in times of conflict are thought-provoking. By avoiding the gruesome images of death and destruction, Spengler is able to position the role of conflict in the everyday and in so doing, make it more real to viewers who are taking it in at distance.

Although she no longer works in conflict zones, Spengler, who lives in Paris, has said that there is no need for her to travel to capture conflict; pointing to the Calais Jungle, the refugee and migrant camp in northern France, she notes the consequences of war are coming closer to home.

Women's vital views

Those images of war, even in distant lands, have likewise come closer to home with the advent of digital photography and plethora of images available online. They have made the realities of war something accessible to all who seek it out.

As the exhibition makes clear, a plurality of perspectives — including those of women — is necessary to gain a full understanding of war and its full capacity to harm. As the curators write, women do not necessarily have their own "female" view on conflict, yet the scenes they present to the world are just as vital in creating an accurate picture of the atrocities of the 20th and 21st centuries.

"Women War Photographers" runs at the Kunstpalast in Dusseldorf from March 8 through June 10.

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