Being a Woman Photographer: An Important Part of the Journey

Posted on November 22, 2008 by Alexandra Avakian

Women at the shrine of Hazrat Fatemah Ma'soomeh

The Holy Shrine of Hazrat Fatemah Ma'soomeh

It is Foto Week here in Washington, D.C., and I've been busy going to exhibitions, events. I also helped hang a photo exhibit I'm part of which was the kick-off event of the week, by Contact Press Images, the photo agency I belong to. (Get more information about Foto Week at www.fotoweekdc.org)

I've also got some photos on exhibit now at the National Geographic Society: www.nationalgeographic.com/museum/exhibitions/focal-point.html.

Continuing to expand upon aspects of my book, Windows of the Soul: My Journeys in the Muslim World, published by Focal Point, National Geographic Books' new imprint, and wrapping up the intro chapter, people often ask me what it is like to be a woman in my field, so here we go:

Contact sheet showing photos from Mogadishu, Somalia

Mogadishu, Somalia

Being a woman working in the Muslim world has mostly been a great experience—one of the most satisfying of my life. Sure, I have been beaten, shot at, and more, as I write about in my book, but these things happen anywhere to anybody in the world during a conflict, most recently in Congo or Georgia. The Muslim world is just like the rest of the planet: It goes through cycles of political change, and sometimes that change can be dramatic.

Men at a Hezbollah rally in Lebanon

Hezbollah rally, Baalbek, Lebanon

I have mostly been made to feel at home in the Muslim world. I have made a point to dress modestly and know the local etiquette and culture wherever I have worked. Throughout my career, I have had unusual access to Islamist groups and individuals, including Hamas and Hezbollah, so being a woman has not at all been a disadvantage. Indeed, being a woman has actually been an advantage in that once trust is earned, I have been able to interact with both male and female sides of the conservative Muslim world. Male photographers are usually forbidden entry to the world of conservative Muslim women.

Masked women on the street in Iran

Masked women, Minab, Iran

In the field and on assignment, being a woman helps as much as it hinders. Sometimes people will help you because you are a woman, or think you couldn't possibly be analytical or important enough to be a challenge. Other times they will stop you because they think it's easier to do so. Being a woman in the photography world is as tough as in any other male-dominated field, although I have mostly been supported spectacularly in my career by the best editors, and am grateful for it. There have also been unfortunate incidents of gender bias and sexual harassment that I have in common with working women in many professions.

A Sudanese solider stands with a machine gun, while a small child looks on in the background

Yuai , Southern Sudan

As you will see from my book, there is no difference between me and the toughest, most successful male photographers. My experience as a photojournalist has been exciting and rewarding, and I wouldn’t trade back any of it. Being a woman has been an important part of that journey.

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