“A picture paints a thousand words” – the phrase might be a well-known cliché, but it’s popular for a reason. Pictures, and indeed photos, can communicate stories and meaning in a way that can transcend language and other barriers.
It’s this universal nature which makes photos so effective at storytelling and a favoured medium with so many applications, whether they’re being used to inform in news stories, raise awareness of issues, or just for enjoyment and sharing online.
But while it can be argued that photography has a universal power of storytelling because it’s easily understood, we still need to address who’s telling the story. A photo, and by extension the story it tells, is coloured by who’s behind the lens – who they are, their background and their world view all have a role in shaping the story.
With this in mind, and to support this year’s focus on ‘Breaking The Bias’ for International Women’s Day, we spoke to three incredible female photographers – Canon Ambassadors Tasneem Alsultan and Eliška Sky, and Canon Miraisha Trainer Georgina Goodwin – about their stories and how to break the bias in photography.
What inspired you to start taking photos?
ES: I became interested in photography because of a photography competition in my high school. I started playing with everyday items and various lights to create magical still life shots. This transformation from everyday to something unexpected and epic made me really excited about photography. I also became interested in telling the stories via one or a series of images and such photography became a way of expression.
My main passion came with involving people. My classmates and friends first and then professional models. I carefully arranged them in their special outfits and compositions to form the concept. And here we are today, where I still use staged photography as a tool to tell my stories and messages.
GG: I was working as a steward on a yacht about to set sail 6,000 sea miles over three months from Cape Town to Malaysia. During that trip, I began to feel the need to capture what I was seeing and experiencing through taking photos. The photos are terrible but the need to continue to express myself and explore with a camera continued when I returned to Kenya and began work running a safari camp in the Masai Mara.
I entered two of my wildlife images into two photography contests, and to my delight, I won both. I decided then, I would BE a photographer.
So much about a photo is dictated by who’s behind the lens. Did you experience any barriers as a female photographer, and how did you overcome them?
TA: When I started photography, I was working as a lecturer teaching English as a second language. I had no background in photography – in fact, my Master’s degree was in anthropology – but I always had a dream to do something more artistic. I never expected that one day I’d be a professional photographer, so in a sense, the barrier I faced was my own – an internal mental block. I just didn’t think I could do it.
However, after a year or so of capturing photos of people’s children, I was asked to shoot a wedding. It was at this point that I became really invested in myself as a photographer
ES: I always felt that I have a unique point of view as a female photographer. My aim is to show the human as an empowered, strong and beautiful individual no matter the gender, ethnic background, shape or size. But it took some time to embrace it and find my own voice in the fashion field, where mainly the female image is often connected with the male gaze and a shallow vision of beauty.
GG: With news and some editorial work in locations that are considered ‘dangerous’ or ‘tougher’ locations, I am aware that I was not given assignments because I’m a woman. From what I was told at the time by the client it was due to ‘safety’ factors. My interpretation of this is that they felt it was easier to send a man.
Throughout my 17-year career, I have consciously decided not to worry about the assignments I’m not given, rather I’ve concentrated on getting myself out there on as many platforms as possible. Choosing to document the work of NGOs has definitely been an advantage as a woman photographer, especially with under-reported gender-specific issues such as female genital mutilation and fistula.
How do you feel about the way women have historically been portrayed through imagery? Are there stereotypes or biases you feel have been reinforced by photos?
GG: Photos and stories don’t in themselves make a narrative or validate a ‘side’. You can only take photos of what is out there, but the approach and agenda of the photographer, the editor and publishing house or space all determine what and how images are captured and what people ultimately get to see.
I feel that women have traditionally been defined in very narrow roles with women in the domestic sphere – motherhood, cleaning and housework – and as sex objects. There has been a major shift recently and brands are now less likely to stereotype in their advertising, but there is still a way to go when it comes to the representation of women on screen and in print.
ES: Looking back at history, painting and photography was dominated by the masculine gaze and lacked female representation. This was connected with primary female roles as housewives and mothers.
In photography, Julia Margaret Cameron brought something very special to the medium. She lacked the technical aspect of photography, yet she created one of the most beautiful and dreamy portraits of her sisters. Something which proofs the importance of gender equality in the representation of artists and photographers.
Do you think the next generation is aware of the power of storytelling? And how can we encourage them to take part?
TA: I'm currently running a workshop with kids in Saudi Arabia. Their hometown has been photographed by so many people but now they have cameras to document their own lives and it's so nice to see how they view their homes and families, and we wouldn’t have had access to their perspective in the past.
ES: I think there is a stigma in the idea that you need a lot of technical knowledge and high-end equipment to start taking photographs. That’s why education and workshops like the Canon Young People and Miraisha Programmes are so important to bring encouragement, technical basics and inspiration to start and create. You don’t need much to create powerful imagery, just a camera and a vision.
GG: With a global movement for gender equality, and with women taking on jobs and roles previously ‘reserved for’ or dominated by men, having workshops and education, in general, is important as they provide a consistent space for equal opportunity where women can be supported and encouraged as visual creatives.
I feel it is important to research and find out as much as possible the reality of what women do want. Is the percentage of women who want to be photographers and visual creatives actually 50%? Perhaps there are actually less or more women? Must the industry have to carve out a 50:50 space or can it/should it represent what research shows is what women do and don’t want? What matters is to make sure that the facilities, platforms, opportunities and training opportunities are equally available to everyone.
Tasneem, Georgina and Eliška will be discussing the topic of breaking the bias in photography and running workshops for young people at Expo 2020 Dubai on 27 March 2022.
To see more of their work, please visit:
Tasneem Alsultan >>
Eliška Sky >>
Georgina Goodwin >>