With his camera slung over his fatigues and a cigarette dangling from his mouth, Robert Capa defined the image of the war photographer in the 1930s. Ever since, conflict photography has been seen, essentially, as a man’s job. The stories of women war photographers have been largely sidelined – among them Gerda Taro, Capa’s girlfriend and colleague on the Spanish civil war frontline. Her work, recently rediscovered, went on show with Capa’s at the Barbican in London last month. And there was Lee Miller, of course, but she was also blonde and beautiful, and much photographed herself.
Today, far more women work in war zones, shooting conflicts and their consequences. But if the situation is changing, it is changing slowly. Susan Meiselas – the US photographer renowned for her images of Nicaragua’s 1970s civil war, which have just been republished in a new book – is still one of only seven women at the Magnum photo agency, out of a total of 79 international photographers.
British photographer Jenny Matthews sees a lot more women photojournalists now, “though we are still outweighed by men. It is much harder for women, because of the assumption that we don’t have the killer instinct, or the persistence to hang around in the rain with a heavy bag.” UK-based Jillian Edelstein, who has covered Bosnia and Georgia, spent several years photographing South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, travelling with an unusual companion: “I took my son, then aged two, using his buggy for my camera bags.”
Working in a warzone can be physically as well as emotionally demanding. Meiselas recalls working in Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1970s and 1980s: “I had to learn how to move on streets that were dangerous. There were no fronts, as in Iraq today. When I was in the mountains [with the Sandinista guerrillas], I was physically tested even though I was strong, having been an athlete.”
Women photojournalists can find themselves patronised, but this can work to their advantage. Matthews visited Afghanistan in 1988 with an all-female team: “Though the secret service was on our case, we were not taken seriously because we were women. It helped us get around and get our story.” Meiselas would agree: “Women have the advantage of being less threatening. So I could go into the homes [of Sandinista rebels], if given permission, and take photos, because that is where the wounded were taken.”
Matthews points out other differences: “Women sometimes think of better ways to capture a story. We look behind the action and have different priorities, such as the human interest. Twenty years ago, there were rarely any images of the women who were left behind in conflict zones. Now, because of women photographers, you see images of refugee camps all the time – taken by men as well as women.” Edelstein adds that “women are prepared to look at the emotional undergrowth of the situations we’re in.”
Meiselas thinks women war photographers may be accused of letting their emotions override their journalistic objectivity. She doesn’t see this as a failing. In Nicaragua, she says, “it was important to balance and feel the emotion. I was interested in multiple perspectives. The ethos of objectivity is an illusion.”
Edelstein talks about photographing a mother and son in El Salvador. The woman, Felipa, had just been reunited with her son, Ricardo, one of the many children who had been taken from their homes by the military 16 years before. “Felipa started crying, so I was feeling the moment and showing it. My own experience as a mother affected me, and I felt strongly for the aching she must have gone through. It affected the way I took that shot.”
Of course, every photographer – man or woman – is driven by the same primary desire: to take the one image that most powerfully captures the moment. “When you’re in it, you’re doing the job,” says Edelstein. “You work all hours. You work incredibly hard. You don’t think about being a woman”.
• Susan Meiselas’s revised Nicaragua is published by Aperture. Gerda Taro is at the Barbican, London EC2, until January 25; barbican.org.uk
Nicaragua: June 1978 – July 1979, Claire Rosenberg (Editor) and Susan Meisela (Photographer)