As a native of Metro Detroit, it’s not uncommon for me to return home a few times a semester to enjoy some R&R and catch a break from the fast-paced University life. On one of these returns a few months ago, I stopped by an exhibit at our local science museum, which featured a collection of National Geographic photographs all shot by women. Aptly titled “Women of Vision,” the exhibit was moving, poignant and empowering, but I have to admit I didn’t think deeply about it until I received the hardcover collection as a gift this past week. Flipping through the glossy pages of striking photographs, it became apparent to me just how important it was to have a space that recognizes not just good photographers, but fantastic women artists.
We hear cries for gender equality in politics, we try (unsuccessfully) to pass legislature to close the wage gap, but there’s a quieter movement for equal recognition in fields of art. For many years, art has been a place to foster social movements, including gender equality, and while there’s certainly a space for women in artistic fields, there remains a discrepancy in how women artists are recognized professionally. Of the 11 photographers highlighted in “Women of Vision,” several make mention of how difficult it was to be taken seriously in their field professionally, due to gender and not skill. One photographer even quoted a male colleague’s reaction to her job placement: “A girl! I’m not working with a girl. She’ll never be able to carry my equipment.”
Of course, there are exceptional artists, in this case photographers, of every gender identity, and talent should be celebrated without dependence to this categorization. However, I’ve noticed that females often have a skilled eye for reading people, a skill that translates well through artistic mediums.
Maybe it’s due to nature or nurture, two X chromosomes or something else biological, but when I look at the photos in “Women of Vision,” I see individual captures of humanity that really encourage emotional response. My reactions are not black and white, but rather a kaleidoscope of emotions, much like the human experience itself. Sure, there are photos of landscapes, lions stalking prey in the Kalahari Desert, a moonrise behind Mount St. Helens and cherry blossoms in Kyoto, but the majority of the photos are focused on raw, unfiltered humanity, which is not always easy to look at: A Nepali child bride crying out in anguish as she’s forcibly taken to her husband’s village; unsettling polygamous, Mormon families in Utah; a Swedish reindeer herder mourning the loss of two of his herd in the snow.
It’s this ability to capture moments so deeply human and the power to elicit a range of emotions that not only cements photography as art, but also encourages further recognition of women as artists. And the ability to bring to light political and human rights issues in the world through the lens of a camera is a skill that starts with the artist’s own eye for artistry.
Just a few weeks ago I found myself at a Zine release party, celebrating 52 glossy pages of poems, photographs and designs, all created by women artists and many from the University. It was truly inspiring to see such a large turnout for the event, including both women and men, all gathered to celebrate female artists. Even if this sparked desire for women-curated art begins in progressive cities like Ann Arbor, I’ll bet that the fire will spread to the rest of the world. There just needs to be artists encouraged to light the match.