Shedding Street Photography’s Male-Dominated Legacy

Women Street Photographers, a new photobook edited by Gulnara Samoilova and published by Prestel shares the work of 100 photographers and the experiences behind their greatest images.

Street Photography, like most photographic genres, has been traditionally male-dominated. In recent years, however, more women are claiming space and offering a dynamic lens. Gulnara Samoilova’s new anthology presents a collection of international approaches from women of all ages, races, ethnicities, creeds, and sexualities.

The book comes as an extension of Samoilova’s @womenstreetphotographers, which took Instagram by storm in 2017 and quickly grew to over 100,000 followers, becoming one of the most influential Instagram feeds.

Images range from the classically “decisive moment” influenced work of photographers like Nina Welch-King and Birka Wiedmaier, to Michelle Groskopf’s flash-blasted slices of everyday life. It even includes fashion-treading images like the cover photo by B Jane Levine. Women Street Photographers’ energy and diversity of style pushes the genre to not only be more inclusive but to shift and shatter the many visual clichés holding it back.

We speak with Samoilova to learn more about why this book is so important right now, in photo history’s male-dominated canon, and in its inspiring future.

‘Untitled’, 2019 © Birka Wiedmaier

The Luupe: Why do you think, historically, street photography as a genre has been so dominated by men?

Gulnara Samoilova: Photography, not just street photography but every aspect of the industry, has been dominated by men, just as many areas of public life have historically been. Although women have always worked, professional opportunities were largely limited and it only over the past century that we have seen women slowly make advancements in fields previously closed to them.

 

Meet Gulnara Samoilova, founder of Women Street Photographers. Photo credit: Malvina Battiston

The Luupe: Beyond your platform, what do you think has helped shift that in recent years?

Samoilova: With the advent of digital technology, photography as a whole has become more democratic. Previously it was an expensive hobby enjoyed by the few, and most people were unable to produce let alone publish and distribute work. Digital media, the internet, and social media have created extraordinary opportunities for access to all people, and we are seeing the work of more women now that they are able to post and share their own work.

Street photography is also incredibly accessible as you don’t need any special equipment, a studio, set up, models, travel budget, or anything else professional photography demands. You can literally walk outside your house with your camera phone and photograph the world in which you live. For many people street photography is a hobby, it’s something they can do for fun, to unwind, escape, and relax — which makes it even more accessible to people outside the industry.

‘The Serpentine’, 2017 © Efrat Sela

The Luupe: What excites you most about the future of the genre?

Samoilova: As you can see, accessibility is the most exciting thing to me. A lot of people have asked me to generalize about women street photographers and it’s simply not possible to make blanket statements yet. We need to see more of everything: more women representing across the spectrums of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, creed, age, class, ability, et cetera. I’m excited to see the work from all corners of the world from people whose perspectives, aesthetics, and life experiences may push the boundaries of the genre beyond the known.

The Luupe: It seems like the general response to this project has been really positive. Has there been any backlash, given the history? 

Samoilova: The general response has been incredible. Nearly half my followers on Instagram are men. Maybe they want to see the work of women photographers, or maybe they just want to see great photography? Either way, the result is the same. People have been incredibly supportive. It’s the internet, so you always have one or two odd comments, but there has been nothing I would describe as “backlash” in our efforts to support and elevate the work of women street photographers.

‘Sleeping Beauty’, 2019 © Elena Alexandra

The Luupe: That’s great. What has been the most rewarding piece (aside from publishing this inspiring book) coming out of this project?

Samoilova: The most rewarding aspect is not a piece but a person: documentary and street photographer Ximena Echague, who joined Women Street Photographers in 2020 as ambassador, curator, juror, and mentor. The opportunity to meet, speak with, and become close friends with Ximena and so many other women in the community is a huge part of Women Street Photographers.

Beyond this, I am most excited about the artist residency and creating the opportunity for someone deserving to have this experience. Helping others is so rewarding. Being of service, inspiring, and empowering people helped me at a time when I was at a crossroads in life, and creating Women Street Photographers provided me with both a vision and a purpose.

‘Soul of the Ganges’, 2019. © Ximena Echague

The Luupe: We’re fascinated by your cover decision – a boldly lit back-portrait by B Jane Levine that, while it is still consistent with a lot of classic street photography, breaks from the “decisive moment” expectations (or sometimes tropes) one might expect. How did you land on this image as the cover image?

Samoilova: Anna Godfrey, the book editor; Shaz Madani, the book designer; and I each selected five images we thought would make a good cover, and went from there. Shaz played with the design, and once she id a layout we had a much more clear sense of how the photograph would look on the cover.

B Jane Levine’s photograph is non-traditional yet timeless, and that’s what makes it the perfect image for the book. It is bold, sophisticated, and modern. It’s also anonymous in the truest sense of the word. The woman’s identity is protected yet she cuts a very distinct figure; you feel like you have a sense of who she is.

‘Red Upsweep’, 2019 © B Jane Levine

The Luupe: What was the first image you selected to be in this book and why?

Samoilova: The way I edit, there was no “first” image per se. What I did was make 4×6 inch prints of each photograph, put them on the wall, and begin pairing photographs together to have a sense of “before and after” in the sequence. This is how I curate exhibitions as well. I like to think about the sequence of individual images as they make up the whole.

One of the questions I asked myself was whether I should include one of my photography in the book, and I ultimately decided yes. I’ve been making street photographs since I was 18 when I moved to Moscow to attend college.

‘Cloud Eaters’, 2018 © Gulnara Samoilova

 

‘Untitled’, 2019 © Michelle Groskopf

The Luupe: Who are some of your favorite artists in the book?

Samoilova: Some of the images that spoke to me in the book were the work of Nina Welch-King, Michelle Groskopf, Linda Hacker, Olga Karlovac, Farnaz Damnabi — each for a different reason. Choosing the work for the book allowed me to think about the many different ways in which artists work as street photographers: there are traditionalists, realists, impressionists, abstractionists, poets — they each have their own visual language for seeing the world.

The Luupe: Building on that, care to talk about an image that you feel is particularly timely?

Samoilova: The work of Middle Eastern photographers like Farnaz Damnabi (Iranian) and Hana Gamal (Egyptian) is very timely to me. I love how they see the poetry of a place and translate this visually. In the West, we have a lot of assumptions about what it means to be a woman in a Muslim country, and I find it inspiring and insightful to look at their work to understand what it means to them.

© Linda Hacker

The Luupe: We can imagine that all of the images move or resonate with you –  is one that hits you especially hard?

Samoilova: Natela Grigalashvili’s photograph from the series Women with Headscarves moves me emotionally. I see myself in this photograph. It reminds me of my childhood. I have a photograph like this that I use in my painted collage photo series Found Family. I see myself, my mother, and my grandmother when I look at this family photograph. When I teach students, I tell them that if a photograph can move someone on an emotional level, it is successful.

© Natela Grigalashvili. From the series “Women With Headscarves.”

The Luupe: While the majority of the book is contemporary street photographers, you anchor them with the work of key figures like Lola Alvarez, Vivian Cherry, and Marianne Breslaur. Can you talk about this decision to balance the present and the past?

Samoilova: Although all the artists and artworks featured in the book are contemporary, it was integral for us to situate their work in the history of women street photographers. Melissa Breyer’s introduction to the book does just this. Her writing is so powerful, I cried at the end. I learned so much about the overlooked history, and hope it inspires a new wave of interest in women street photographers whose work has not yet been discovered.

‘Sun Worship’, 2017 © Laura Reid

The Luupe: When you first launched @womenstreetphotographers on Instagram, did you anticipate it growing to where it is today, becoming a book…?

Samoilova: When you do something out of passion, you don’t anticipate the outcome, you just do it. I definitely didn’t expect it to have global success. I always knew I wanted to make a book, but I was thinking about creating catalogs for the annual exhibitions rather than a trade book with a major publisher like Prestel.

I feel like this is just the beginning. Women Street Photography is just one genre of photography — there are so many more areas to cover.

‘Untitled’, 2018 © Graciela Magnoni

The Luupe: Do you think the book will help encourage more women to become street photographers, just as the platform already has?

Samoylova: Yes, I think the book will help encourage women to fulfill their dreams, whether that’s to pick up a camera and make photographs, or to organize their photographs into books and exhibitions. Sometimes it’s not until we see something already out there that we can imagine it for ourselves. I hope women take their work more seriously, feel empowered, and excited to share it with the world.

The Luupe: How do you think this book expands on your already inspiring mission?

Samoylova: The book is a calling card for future projects. While there are many successful social media feeds, not all of them translate into books. Women Street Photographers shows there is a market that not only wants to look at photographs for free but wants to purchase books and prints for themselves.