In early June, I posted images from Elizabeth Herman’s series, “A Woman’s War”. Along with being featured on Lens, this series was a part of Photoville NYC’s “The Fence” exhibit at the end of June, and Jezebel.com nominated her as one their Jezebel 25. After seeing these images on Lens, I wanted to find out more about the project. Here is what Elizabeth had to say:
Since certain wars are known to be particularly damaging to female populations, what stood out to you about the revolutions in Vietnam and Bangladesh?
Truthfully, it was what was possible to photograph at the time! As a recent graduate, starting a new career can be very difficult, especially working as a freelance documentarian. I traveled to Vietnam with a photojournalism group that I was involved with at Tufts, Exposure, which is run through The Institute for Global Leadership, and it was in Vietnam that I first started ‘A Woman’s War.’ After spending about a week and a half speaking with women who were active in the North Vietnamese Army fighting against the United States, I knew that I wanted to continue this project. I was moving to Bangladesh that fall on a Fulbright Fellowship to research the politics of history education – the way that different political parties have sought to rewrite the national history for their own political agendas – and thought that it would be interesting to look into the role of women in Bangladesh’s Liberation War of 1971. It ended up being a year-long project that continued to unfurl into fascinating, unexpected places and stories.
Whats your process like? How do you get access and, in turn, make such a connection with your subjects? ‘
It varies dramatically between – and even within – countries. I generally just start asking around, to see if anyone might know how to get in touch with the women that I’m looking for, and then from there, hope that the first contact will be able to point me towards another, and then they will be able to point me towards another, and so on – basically snowballing contacts. In each country I’ve also worked with fixers (translator/guides) to seek out women who are more difficult to find; often, there will be a handful of women that are very well known, and you’ll be told about them again and again, but more experienced fixers will be able to help you find lesser-known women.
Once I meet the women, I just listen to their stories and see how our connection develops. I try to allow at least a few hours for our meeting, so that they’ll have time to convey what they want to before I even take out my camera. I find that listening to each woman’s story is hugely important to making her portrait – that what she tells me, and how she conveys her story will greatly affect how I’ll work with her to make her portrait.
What pressure do you feel by taking on such a weighty project? Do you feel pressure in representing stories correctly or capturing a particular emotion that subjects convey?
I feel like anyone who is trusted to speak about someone else’s story feels responsible to convey it as truthfully as possible. Of course, it’s passing through a number of filters: through the person telling their own story, through me, perhaps through a translator, or any pressures the person might feel – if family members are present, or if there could be potential consequences to their telling their story (for example, there was a great deal of political tension still present in Vietnam and a number of the women that I spoke with were wary of conveying their stories at all). So you’re never getting a totally truthful account, so to speak. So what I strive for – and am not always able to find – is a way to convey how a woman speaks to her story, how she feels about it present, and how it still lingers in the life that she is leading now. Is it a matter of great pride, or something that haunts her continually? Or some combination of the two? Has it changed over the years? As often as I can, I try to use the women’s own words, as they convey an aspect of her story that I’ll never be able to. I’ve also taken to writing little vignettes for each meeting, to give an idea of the environment in which the story was told, and how its tone shifted as it was being told.
Are you grant funded for these trips? Are they intertwined with your paid work? How do you go about getting your funding?
It’s been a sort of piecemeal funding. So far, this project has been the product of (1) a photography workshop through Tufts in Vietnam, (2) working on the side while on a fellowship in Bangladesh, (3) a journalism fellowship in Egypt, (4) an assignment in Egypt, and now (5) the Tim Hetherington grant, through the Program for Narrative and Documentary Practice, to continue the work in Bosnia. So as you can see, very, very varied sources.
How did you find this story?
I was prepping for the workshop in Vietnam, reading on the Vietnam War, and came across a number of accounts that spoke to the experiences women on the Ho Chi Minh trail had there. The aspect of their stories that stuck out to me the most was simply that they hadn’t been told – they’d been omitted from most historical accounts, even though women paid a key role in the war effort and often suffered a great deal for what they did, both during and after the conflict. After moving to Bangladesh, I found that the same thing had happened there – that women’s accounts of active engagement in the war had been swept away, with women only spoken about as victims of sexual assault, if they were spoken about at all. In Egypt, I found that there was no shortage of highlighting ‘the role of women in the Egyptian revolution,’ but that many Egyptian women that I spoke with expressed a frustration at the way that their stories had been told. Many thought that the accounts more commonly spoke about female activists as anomalies rather than the next link in the long, strong chain the Egyptian feminist movement. In each country, the work became about women reclaiming their own stories – ones that had never been told, and ones that had been told in a way that didn’t represent their true experiences. Unfortunately, this under-representation of women in conflict is far too widespread, and exists in a huge number of places worldwide.
Can you tell us a bit about your background? How did you get to NYC from Boston?
I grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, and after graduating from Tufts University in 2010 I moved to Bangladesh for a year on a Fulbright Fellowship. I then moved back to the States, to New York, in the fall of 2011, and have been based here since.
Any other projects you’re working on you’d like people to know about?
I’m working on a few different documentary projects in New York currently – freelancing, and working on a couple different startups. What’s really exceptional about New York is the density of new things there are, and the excitement that exists around collaborations – it’s really unlike any place that I’ve ever been before. I’m also trying to expand ‘A Woman’s War,’ looking to take it to Bosnia soon, to document the experiences of women who played active roles in the Bosnian War, both as fighters and peacemakers.
Last week, A Photo Editor posted an interesting interview with Kurt Markus about portraiture. Read it in full at A Photo Editor. Also, they did a really long interview with Kurt last year. Its long, in two parts, but worth reading. Here are some excerpts of the recent one:
I bring lights every once in a while and do my best never to open the case… I just feel so much more inspired by the light that’s out there, if you just look and if you’re flexible enough to move around… I’ve got a little set up that I call the ACME lighting kit. It’s something straight out of a Road Runner cartoon. It’s like a hardware floodlight with a daylight bulb and a stand. That’s my idea of lighting.
About creating portraits:
It’s not about a moment, it’s about a moment made… It can be hard to move people off center because we can’t help ourselves. We get in a groove and fall back on what we think works. I really try to limber someone up to take chances. A portrait is an extension of every kind of picture ever made, because in a way, even a landscape is a portrait. It’s a portrait of the photographer.
I shoot film. I don’t think I could do work that I really believe in with the feel and the look that I want if I was shooting digitally… But the light coming through a 6×7 Pentax lens hitting on film, is something digital can’t duplicate—and I love the look of it.
On printing and retouching:
I don’t retouch. I don’t try and manipulate the image into something I like afterward. 6×7 is a very forgiving medium. Black and white film, these lenses, a slow shutter speed. I’ll photograph women and a lot of time they look flawless, but real. When you’ve had a great experience photographing someone, you don’t want anything to get in the way of someone thinking that’s great looking person.