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One of the most relevant exhibits to currently see in Paris is Women War Photographers (Femmes Photographes de Guerre) at the Musée de la Liberation de Paris in the 14th arrondissement. It not only highlights eight women photographers who history has sidelined, but it also brings home the impact of today’s headlines, the universal horror of war, and the ways we cope with it.
Women are always involved in war either as victims, fighters or support personnel and are witnesses to the horror of events surrounding them. The witness angle of women war photographers is especially strong as they often have access to families who experience the conflicts on many levels. There are numerous female war photographers that have been on the frontlines since photography was invented and this exhibit highlights the special viewpoint (or angle) of these selected eight that is unsparing about the violence and horror of war while capturing the fierce emotional impact on the men, women and children affected.
The eight showcased photojournalists are Lee Miller (1907-1977), Gerda Taro (1910-1937), Catherine Leroy (1944-2006), Christine Spengler (b.1945), Françoise Demulder (1947-2008), Susan Meiselas (b.1948), Carolyn Cole (b. 1961) and Anja Niedringhaus (1965-2014).
Witnessing atrocities is something these women didn’t shy away from. They covered 75 years of conflict from World War II to Nicaragua to Northern Ireland to Afghanistan. Each of the women had a distinctive way to capture what they observed. Some focused on faces up close that show horror and death. Some shot wide battlefield views that showed the extent and despair of destruction. Many focused on the women in war from fighters to young girls fearful as they crossed a street. They captured emotions about war death from blood-soaked bodies on battlefields, to a young son crying next to his dead father’s covered body, to sand-covered corpses that look like young men sleeping. All these images challenge the viewer into thinking about the wars we’ve lived through – close or far away – and bring the headlines of the current wars and terrorist insurgencies alive and in focus. They also highlight the destinies of individuals caught in the camera lens.
The eight women are as amazing as their photographs. They won Robert Capa Gold Medals, a World Press Award, and a Pulitzer for their work. They worked for press agencies such as Associated Press and Magnum Agency and for a variety of publications from the Los Angeles Times to Vogue. Two of the eight were killed on the battlefields they were photographing.
American Lee Miller started her career as a model and began her apprenticeship as a photographer under Man Ray in Paris in the late 1930s, then opened her own studio in New York. Recruited by Vogue, she became their war correspondent with the American Army in 1942 and covered the Liberation in Europe and the discovery of the concentration camps.
Gerda Taro was born in Germany and immigrated to Paris in 1933 where she worked alongside Robert Capa and learned photography skills. In 1936, she travelled to Spain with Capa to cover the Spanish Civil War for the French Communist press. Taro was fatally wounded at Brunete, Spain, in July 1937, making her the first woman war photographer to be killed at a battle front.
Parisian Catherine Leroy became an accredited press photographer in 1966, covered the Vietnam War until 1969 and was a Vietcong prisoner for a brief period in 1968. She also photographed the conflict in Lebanon. Leroy was the first woman to receive the Robert Capa Gold Medal in 1976.
Christine Spengler, born in France, traveled to Chad where she became a war photographer covering multiple conflicts in Europe (Northern Ireland in 1972), Asia (Vietnam and Cambodia), Africa (Western Sahara), the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Iraq. She worked for Corbis Sygma, Sipa Press and Associated Press.
Parisian Françoise Demulder studied philosophy before traveling to Vietnam to photograph the war working for Gamma. She later went to Cambodia, Angola, Lebanon, and Iraq. In 1977, she was the first woman photographer to receive the World Press Award.
American Susan Meiselas is a visual arts graduate and produced several series on women in the United States before joining Magnum Agency. She covered conflicts in South America (Nicaragua, El Salvador), and received the Robert Capa Gold Medal in 1979.
American Carolyn Cole worked as a photographer for several newspapers and joined the Los Angeles Times in 1994 as their war correspondent in Kosovo. She also photographed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. She received the Pulitzer Prize for her reporting on the wars in Liberia.
German Anja Niedringhaus studied philosophy and journalism and in 1990 was the first woman to be hired by the European Pressphoto Agency. In 2002, she began work for Associated Press where she covered conflicts in Yugoslavia, Iraq, the Middle East and Libya. She was killed during a battle in Afghanistan in 2014.
From the beginning of mankind, wars have been a part of history and current experiences. These truth-finding women photojournalists capture moments of keen awareness of the emotional impact of war on all women, men, children and families which reveal universal reactions to any war. Even today’s wars.
The Women War Photographers exhibit is at the Musée de la Liberation de Paris until December 31, 2022.
Musée de la Liberation de Paris
4 Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, 14th
Tel: +33 (0)1 40 64 39 44
Open from Tuesday to Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Access to the permanent collections is free of charge for all visitors.
The rate for the temporary exhibit, Women War Photographers, is 7 euros.
Lead photo credit : Women War Photographers exhibit at Musée de la Liberation © Martha Sessums