400 Women Photographers Are Banding Together to Capture Life during Quarantine
What does life look like under lockdown? Around the world, photographers have been braving the front lines in order to capture this new self-isolated reality—alien images of empty streets, spread-too-thin hospitals, and the concealed faces of people wearing masks becoming all too familiar.
Even photographers who have found themselves shuttered at home have found ways to respond to the pandemic. In March, as countries began issuing lockdown and stay-at-home orders to curb the virus’s spread, 400 women photographers decided to band together virtually in order to provide one another with support, inspiration, and opportunities.
The project, WP – The Journal, started as a discussion within Women Photograph, an organization founded by photojournalist Daniella Zalcman in 2017 to combat the lack of women photographers getting commissioned by major publications. Inclusive of all women-identifying and non-binary photographers, Women Photograph provides a public database for magazine photo editors; a network for the organization’s members; grants for underrepresented photographers; and opportunities for mentorship, professional support, and exhibitions.
Led by member photographers and project curators Hannah Yoon and Charlotte Schmitz, The Journal was born out of a Women Photograph brainstorming conversation wherein Zalcman asked the group to consider ways the organization could come together to respond to the pandemic. Schmitz proposed that they develop collaborative projects, and Yoon volunteered to help.
The project quickly evolved into much more than a series of photo collaborations, however. Since it was first brainstormed in March, The Journal has now become a system of support and motivation for hundreds of photographers scattered across the globe who are losing income, are isolated, and have needed to reinvent how they photograph their experience of the world. Schmitz noted that she initially expected around 50 photographers to respond to The Journal’s open call. They had to cap it at 400—the maximum number they could handle.
Organized into 45 groups that each contain 8–10 photographers, every group works independently of the others, but they all respond to weekly themes set by the curators. Images are then posted to the group’s Instagram page, which was conceptualized with the help of Friendzone.Studio, who also designed the project’s website. Participation isn’t limited to shooting photos either; some members have pitched in to edit, or have provided guidance via WhatsApp group chats.
Schmitz and Yoon thought about how the pandemic would fundamentally change the way photographers were working. “What is our process with photography? And how does it work when we can’t go into another person’s home?” Yoon asked. “How does that change the way we take pictures and think about pictures?”
With photographers’ subjects reduced to their interior lives, delicate studies of quietude, light, shadow, introspection, and small gestures have emerged. Photographers have often turned the camera on themselves, as Los Angeles–based photographer Jessica Pons did when she took a self-portrait behind a hanging expanse of gauzy, jewel-toned fabrics. They’ve also taken playful images with things at hand, too, like Berlin-based photographer Karolin Klüppel’s portrait of legs and a canteloupe mirrored into a surreal double form.
With more than 80 countries represented, Schmitz and Yoon organized the photographers by time zone, pairing Americans with Latin Americans, and Europeans with Africans.
“We really wanted it to be as diverse as possible,” Schmitz said. The sense of connectivity across borders is especially important during a period of extreme isolation. Yoon and Schmitz have never even met, they note, but have been able to organize everything virtually, even in two different time zones: Yoon lives in Philadelphia; Schmitz in Berlin. “It’s a great gift to have Hannah in my life now,” Schmitz said.
The Journal also helps to ensure that the voices of marginalized photographers are not lost during the crisis. The pandemic has already laid bare the existing inequalities in healthcare and social safety nets; in photography, members worry that the recent progress they’ve made to include more voices in visual media could start sliding backwards as jobs dry up due to sharp cuts in media budgets.
“Some people won’t be able to keep freelancing after this, which is really unfortunate,” Yoon said. “And I can see women, women of color, trans, and non-binary photographers falling into that category more [easily] than men.”
Another goal of The Journal is to widen the visual archive of how the virus has affected the world. While news images reporting on COVID-19 stories are important—Yoon herself has been shooting them on assignment—the organizers emphasize that a broader range of images are needed, too. Beyond illness and anxiety, there’s also affection, tenderness, private rituals, and creativity.
Having to collaborate with photographers around the world on set assignments has also broadened participants’ practices. Yoon and Schmitz have noticed many of them working in new modes. In London, for example, documentary portrait photographer Amara Eno has turned to the organic forms of plants. Meanwhile, in Antwerp, photojournalist Ans Brys has begun a series on her young son in their home.
The first open call for images did not have a specific theme, but asked more generally for participants to photograph their lives. “We were blown away by how intimate the work was,” Yoon said. “People really turned inward.”
It’s a change of pace for many women in the group who are accustomed to lifting the voices of others. “Especially in photojournalism, you’re used to documenting other people’s lives. Suddenly, it’s ourselves,” Schmitz said. “I think this has been a challenge and something very exciting for most participants.”
The project is still in its infancy, and the curators hope to eventually publish a book of the work, host exhibitions as museums and galleries open their doors again, and provide grants and paid jobs for photographers through partnerships.
They’d also love to see photographers get hired based on the new work they’ve developed while quarantined. “Some photographers have never used the approaches they are [using] now,” Schmitz said. “And maybe that will change their career, [to find] a different language in photography.”