This week we welcome photographer and curator Gulnara Samoilova. Born in Russia, based in New York, Gulnara worked as a photojournalist and photo editor with the Associated Press for 9 years and has won prestigious awards such as the World Press Photo for her work on 9/11. Besides her own documentary work, Samoilova created the Women Street Photographers account on Instagram in 2017 and has been curating it ever since, culminating in a successful exhibition showcasing 75 female street photographers in New York earlier this month. Welcome Gulnara!
You have organised and curated the Women Street Photographers exhibition which opened at El Barrio’s Artspace in New York. Can you tell us about it?
The Instagram feed of Women Street Photographers, and the exhibition, is a platform of well curated, quality street photography by women. In the digital age we don’t really see our work in print, so I wanted to put together an actual exhibition. At first I was thinking of a small exhibition of 40-50 photos, but later I wanted to include more images from the Instagram feed. I also wanted to showcase one woman in particular. After many entries I chose Gisele Duprez whose work was the most cohesive for a solo exhibition. There is so much wonderful talent in the world, and I am happy that the exhibition features many photographers far from the United States, such as Australia, Iraq, Singapore, Georgia, Slovakia, Israel, Turkey, Thailand, Mexico, India, Russia and Iran.
The variety is great indeed. How was the exhibition opening, and what kind of response have you been getting so far?
The exhibition opened on December 18 on two floors of the Artspace PS109 and it was overwhelmingly packed. I had a few photographers in attendance, including Efrat Sela who came all the way from Israel and Niki Gleoudi, who flew in from Miami. I put my heart, soul and time into the exhibition and the responses I got are all just amazing. I’ve made the prints myself in my studio, framed and labeled each photo with background stories and the photographers’ Instagram names, so the viewers can learn more about the image and the photographer. I would love this show to travel around the world so more people can see well curated, quality photography. Now I’m looking for opportunities to show these photographs in public spaces and at festivals.
What is it you are looking for in the images you’ve chosen for this exhibition?
I’m always looking for a great moment. It’s not just about beautiful light or a composition, the image should also tell a story.
To what extent is this search for the story in an image related to your own background in photojournalism?
Being a story teller all my photographic life has definitely played a role in the search. I navigate towards a classic and timeless street photography. In my long career at the Associated Press I was also responsible for contests, books and exhibitions. Discussing what went into Pulitzer, World Press Photo and other big competitions definitely shaped my eye. My goal is to show the Instagram and exhibition viewers a deep and multilayered photograph, that makes you pause and think.
Why did you decide to focus on female photographers?
I’ve been in photography full time for almost 40 years and I know how challenging it can be to get exposure. In my native Russia, I was repeatedly told by male colleagues that my place was in a kitchen. So I have always been sensitive to sexism. The current political situation in the United States brought these feelings back. I also see that there are only few women represented in festivals, conferences and judging competitions. I’ve been following a lot of Instagram accounts that focus on street photography, and I noticed that they don’t feature a lot of women. It made me think of who were the “main stream” contemporary women street photographers and I could only think of a few. So I wanted to put together an exhibition of just women street photographers and show quality work. That’s how the Women Street Photographers Instagram was born, as a catalog for a future exhibition. Specifically, I wanted to focus on contemporary photographers so it can boost their inspiration and drive to pursue their passion.
One could state that photography or any other art form should be free of gender politics. I myself, as a woman, am happy to get invited to conferences and festivals because of my work and not just to level the male / female balance of that particular event. Do you think these conferences and photography related events should actively try to include more women in panels, judging and such?
I have been speaking at conferences and judged many contests and I hope I’m being invited because of my work and my inspirational message. For sure I wouldn’t want to be included just for the statistics. I have been doing photography for so long I don’t even think of myself as a female photographer, rather as just a photographer. And I agree with you, any art form or anything, as matter of fact, should be free of gender (or race) politics. But the reality tells us otherwise. I believe organizers should be aware of gender and race inequality and invite people thoughtfully. We need to remind festivals, conferences or other events when they, for example, promote workshops by men only. There are many talented photographers in any race or gender. One of the reasons I wanted to have this exhibition is to show the amount of talented and committed women in the street photography genre. I’m also extremely excited that the Women Street Photographers has a growing audience so that many people get to enjoy amazing photography, curated by a professional.
Personally I am not, but there are few photographers in the exhibition who are connected to both collectives. In my opinion, there should be more female groups. We need to be connected and support each other. During and after the exhibition opening many women reached out to me, saying that they didn’t feel so alone any more and that they were inspired to continue with their art. We also need to connect more in person. I will be hosting network meetings very soon so women street photographers can meet and inspire each other.
Do you think there is some kind of a difference between men’s and women’s street photography?
No, not really. But when I’m looking at Instagram feeds I can sense if its curator is a man or a woman. Usually when a photo of a woman is insensitive and shown in an unintentionally sexualised or degrading way.
As a curator, how do you approach the issue of repetitions and similarities in the genre?
I tell my students that it is ok to repeat a photo as long as it’s better than the original, or it has its own twist to it.
Does the curating of the account and the exhibition influence your own (view of your) work?
I’ve been shooting for so long that it’s kind of hard to change my own style or thinking. I also do fine art work. My next project is a hand painted fantasy world, so I’m shooting streets with that series in mind. However, since curating Women Street Photographers, I am more aware of what I am posting on my personal Instagram account @gulnara_nyc. I want to show meaningful work so I’m more selective.
As you’ve created the Instagram account as a catalogue for the current exhibition and the event is running successfully, do you have to set a new goal for yourself and the Women Street Photographers Instagram?
I wanted to do something bigger than myself so my goal for the exhibition is to travel. If your readers would like to host the show or know of a place or person they should contact me through Instagram or via the website. Another goal for the exhibition is an annual event. I will announce the new call to submit work very soon.
Thanks a lot Gulnara!
Thank you Julie for having me at Streetrepeat. I feel very honored. I enjoy very much your instagram gallery and the new exciting website, full of useful information. And your interviews with thoughtful questions are very much insightful.
Women Street Photographers Group Exhibition
Duration: December 18 – January 2
Venue: El Barrio’s Artspace PS 109, New York