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When thinking of artists who dominate the street photography field, names like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, and Garry Winogrand instantly flash through your mind—and rightfully so. Meanwhile, trying to come up with names of female photographers in the same field can be a far more grating task. Enter Gulnara Samoilova, a Russian-born artist working toward breaking down the divide and creating a platform for female street photographers of all ages, races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. Her new book, Women Street Photographers ($35), features the work of more than 100 contemporary artists hailing from around the world, from Istanbul to Venice and Tehran to Kolkata.
Each photograph in Women Street Photographers pushes the boundaries to what we know street photography to be. The book is a celebration of women from all walks of life and the artists’ eternal need to tell a story through their images. The images themselves are full of poetry, life, and movement—women running into the sea, blurred faces under blurred umbrellas, a couple engulfed in clouds of cigarette smoke, and children dancing in the streets.
After nearly 40 years as an artist, Samoilova, who’s known for winning the World Press Photo competition for her photographs documenting 9/11, has now dedicated her career to creating visibility for female artists. She hosts an annual exhibition to showcase female street photographers without a major platform, and a two-week, NYC-based artist residency program open to photographers around the world. Now, through the recently debuted Women Street Photographers, she continues to give these artists a space for their work to exist and thrive, to open doors that would have otherwise been closed to these artists. She wants female artists to feel confident both in themselves, their art, and their ability to create, regardless of finances, race, age, and location.
"Having women photographers broadens the way we look at the world. We’ve been taught to think of street photography as something that happens in cities and is based around the human figure,” Samoilova told Departures. “The women featured in the book expand our ideas of what street photography can be; it can be abstractions, it can be scenes in the countryside, or at the beach. It’s based on the idea of capturing the world as in its ever-changing forms, and seeing it with fresh eyes.”
Growing up in the patriarchal society of the republic of Bashkortostan, Russia, Samoilova turned to a life of photography as a way to escape, both figuratively and literally. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and a photo trip to the United States, she left for New York City in search of freedom as a woman and artist.
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Samoilova was inspired to start curating female street photography exhibitions in 2017. She tapped into the raw emotion triggered by “memories of the sexism I had experienced throughout my life,” said Samoilova. “I used my anger and frustration to create something good: a platform dedicated to supporting women street photographers. I want to create the kind of support I would have liked to receive in my career, whether that’s promotion, exhibitions, residencies, inspirational films, publications, or just being part of a community.”
Samoilova originally launched Women Street Photographers to provide exhibition opportunities to female artists around the world whose work wasn’t being shown in galleries. The exhibition started in New York City but has expanded to other cities and to include virtual components, which Samoilova hopes will widen the reach of these female photographers who might have otherwise been overlooked.
“I’m hoping this book will remind people that just because you don’t see the work of women doesn’t mean they aren’t out there making great art,” she concluded.