What inspires photography? Visual Dispatches is a look behind the lens; an exploration of what a photographer might be thinking about on their creative journey. In Vol. 2, we spoke with Gulnara Samoilova, photographer, author, and founder of Women Street Photographers. With 40 years combined experience as a documentary and street photographer, artist, darkroom printer, photojournalist, and photo editor, Samoilova transformed the successful Instagram feed, @WomenStreetPhotographers, into a platform for women photographers from around the globe, launching a website, traveling exhibitions, artist residency, inspirational film series, and photography book, Women Street Photographers. A former Associated Press photojournalist, Samoilova received national and international awards for her iconic photographs of September 11, including first prize in the World Press Photo competition. Samoilova’s work is a part of major collections such as the Museum of the City of New York, The New York Public Library, New York Historical Society, the Newseum, and Houston Museum of Fine Arts. She holds a certificate in creative practices from the International Center of Photography in New York City and a diploma in photography from the Moscow Polytech College. Samoilova lives and works in New York City.
Tell us a bit about your background?
I am originally from the city of Ufa, capital of Bashkortostan, Russia, and fell in love with photography at the age of 15. Photography became a way for me to escape the confines of an extremely patriarchal society, both literally and figuratively. I became a member of a fine art photo union, took a trip for international photographers and was included in traveling exhibition across the United States. I realized that photography was a way out. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, I moved to New York City in 1992 to study photography at ICP. I drew upon 40 years combined experience as a documentary and street photographer, artist, darkroom printer, photojournalist, and photo editor to transform the successful Instagram feed, @WomenStreetPhotographers, into a platform for women photographers from around the globe, launching a website, traveling exhibitions, artist residency, inspirational film series, and photography book, Women Street Photographers.
Where did your affinity for street photography come from?
I became interested in photography at age 15 and street photography when I attended college in Moscow. . At the time, I didn’t know it was called “street photography” — I would just walk around the city taking pictures of the people who fascinated me. Everything in Ufa was so traditional, and Moscow was cutting edge. The people were very different and I was drawn to that. I wanted to preserve the powerful moments I was witnessing as I walked around the city.
Could you tell us about your involvement in the book Women Journalists at Ground Zero by Judith Sylvester and Suzanne Huffman?
I received national and international awards for my photographs of September 11, including first prize in the World Press Photo competition and nomination for the Pulitzer Prize by the AP, and was honored to have Judith Sylvester and Suzanne Huffman include them in their book. I was working for the Associated Press in 2001, and lived four blocks from the World Trade Center at that time. I knew I had to document it. I arrived at the World Trade Center shortly after the second plane hit. I didn’t know how dangerous it was until I saw people jumping and others coming out of the building injured. I didn’t want to take photographs of people in pain. Instead I wanted to focus on the human element of the story: the shock, confusion, horror, and fear people felt as they tried to make sense of what was happening in that moment.
When did you start Women’s Street Photographers? Why?
I had come to a crossroads in my life. I had run an extremely successful wedding photography business, but making money wasn’t enough. I felt the call for something deeper: I needed to make art. But I wasn’t sure what I was going to do until the 2016 Presidential election triggered memories of the sexism I had experienced throughout my life. I channeled my frustration to create a platform dedicated to supporting women street photographers. I wanted to empower women and provide 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.
Tell us about what WSP has going on?
Everything has flowed organically since I launched Women Street Photographers on Instagram in 2017. I’ve been developing the platform ever since then, a website, traveling exhibitions (2018), artist residency (2019), inspirational film series (2020), and now, a photography book, Women Street Photographers. In 2020 I was joined by Ximena Echague, Women Street Photographers ambassador, mentor and curator. We are now planning our inaugural virtual exhibition to launch in April 2021. The show will feature the work of 50 artists, who will be published on our Instagram feed and included in upcoming traveling exhibitions. One artist will be chosen as Best in Show and shall receive a US$500 unrestricted grant in memory of Patti Fogarty.
What do you see for the future of your organization?
With Women Street Photographers, I want to create an inclusive community for women artists from around the globe who are pushing the boundaries of street photography in new and exciting directions. Street photography is an incredibly inclusive and accessible genre, and I wanted to empower women to tap into their creativity, feel confident to make and share their work, and receive recognition whether they are professional or amateur photographers. I’m looking forward to the day I don’t have to write a photography festival to ask why they are not offering workshops by women, or no women on the panels of judges. I’m hoping Women Street Photographers book will remind people that just because you don’t see the work of women photographers doesn’t mean they aren’t out there making great art!
You can learn more about Women Street Photographers here, purchase the organization’s newly published book, Women Street Photographers here. And if you are interested in seeing more of Gulnara’s work, access her personal site here.
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