Interview with the Founder and Workshop Facilitator of femLENS by Rita Plantera, former femLENS Chief of Growth

Jekaterina Saveljeva is a photographer, editor and the founder of femLENS and workshop facilitator. We asked her to introduce us to femLENS and its vision.

March 2018.

You founded femLENS in 2015. How did you come up with femLENS? How did it all start?

I had been thinking about women and the lack of diversity in documentary photography for some years before starting femLENS. There were ideas of a photo agency for women from the East and South of the world, as they are often not included in the “best of” lists, nor do they work much internationally. But as time went on, I didn’t feel that it was enough.

That year, as I worked on a story in Mexico, I started to feel that not only were the women from the East and the South not being offered the work, but that there weren’t many whom the work could be offered to, either. I saw that there was a gap not only in the gender of those who create photographs, but also in the cultural and economic backgrounds of those who do.

A lot of what we see is interpretations of people’s cultures, upbringing, backgrounds, neighbourhoods, traditions and so on. At the time I was brooding over all of this, World Press Photo, the biggest photojournalism contest, released a study of the field. It showed that in 2015, women made up less than 15% of more than fifteen hundred participants from one hundred different countries, (in 2017, it was 18%). The study also showed that female photographers often earn less than male photographers, as well as that photographers are often people with a certain degree of education and income, which to me greatly determines how the reality is going to be presented to us. This last piece of information was what made me think about creating workshops rather than organising into an agency.

But there was another factor in my decision to do that first workshop in Dublin. I had spent a month in a small Mexican village, where the people had organised into a community police group and had fought off the local narco cartel and had expelled the corrupt state police. It was very early on for them and there was a lot of optimism and enthusiasm. They didn’t have many resources, but the activities were very idealistic, like giving free literacy classes to the elderly, or organising a community radio with education programs for people of all ages on topics ranging from science to health. When I returned to Europe, I was very sensitive to the prevailing attitudes that to do anything at all, one needs a lot of money, and connections and education. It felt paralysing, but also no longer true. At the time, I didn’t have much money, as freelance work wasn’t paying, and I was sleeping on my friends’ floor.

But I reached out to some old contacts, took an almost two-hour bus journey across Dublin, and started the first workshop in Balgaddy, a social housing project. Instead of going there to see what I’d understand, I wanted to work with some women there on using the tools they probably already had—mobile phone cameras, and see what they could show us. That was the start.

What and who are femLENS?

femLENS is many things. It’s workshops, and an association of people who are interested in photography, media and culture, and who have the energy to contribute to the development of society. I also hope that it’s a disrupter. There have been many different people involved in different capacities and at different stages, starting with those who gave me a mattress when I was working on something new, to those who have contributed ideas, contacts, finances, premises, translations, and much more.

But now I have a stable core team of three people, which is something unexpected because part of the motivation behind starting femLENS was some kind of anger. I didn’t think that anyone would pay any attention to it, other than the people who might be glad to get a free photography class off me. Today we have a lot of support from the most unexpected places—private, NGO and corporate organisations, and we are very grateful for it. Our core team has a background in media: photography, print journalism and radio. Seems right.

Is femLENS a feminist movement?

Is it a women’s organisation supporting or promoting the ideology behind feminism? When starting femLENS I didn’t think I was starting a feminist movement or organisation. But considering that we focus on photography education only for women and on promoting their vision and voices, I would safely say that yes, femLENS is part of the feminist movement. We would like for the media to offer their clients a balanced representation of women, to represent their interests to the same extent as they do men’s, and to look at subjects not through the eyes of a selected few, but through a diverse lens. For that to happen, more women need to meet photography first.

Once they do, they need to get access to education and a support network. They need mentoring and development, as well as time to understand how to use technology. Maybe they already know some part of this technology, like smart phones, but have never used it with photography in mind. During the workshops, I explain to the participants why I offer these workshops and why they are free. I explain that I believe more women need to document their communities because they often know so much about them, but we get to hear or see these stories only through translators. I also explain that photography is a way to get to know something even better, that it can reveal that which used to be hidden, and that it offers behaviour models and examples to the younger generation in a given community. Women need to be role models. They need to hack the technology they already have, get to know it better and use it better to make themselves heard so their rights and needs are not an afterthought.There are many organisations around the world that help women to develop their voices, supporting them in standing up for their rights, and we hope to contribute to this in our own way.

What kind of technology and tools are used or provided by femLENS to teach photography?

We are very low tech, usually using the smart phones that most participants already own. However we have organised collections of cameras that people don’t use anymore, and I give them out to those who seem to have a deeper interest, who need more control over how they photograph.

What is photography to you?

To me, photography is light, an illusion (of a captured form), but also something very real and enduring, in its printed form. Out of all forms of expression and documentation, I find photography most lasting and powerful at this time. It’s a language that most people, across time and space, will understand, and a print or a book can last through centuries without needing special technology, which I find kind of magical. On a less poetical note, today photography is very important, as the world is becoming more and more visual. It’s a strong tool to challenge injustice and oppression by exposing instances of wrongdoings, and homogeneity by showing just how diverse our world really is. I think it still has the power to inspire people, even if only a few individuals. Also, making a photograph is an act, and I would rather more people tried to take documentary photographs and thought about the story and editing than sat around watching mass-produced culture.

How can documentary photography be a tool of social change?

Thanks to technological developments photography is so accessible and immediate these days that it can expose wrongdoings to the world in an instant, and it can be used by a large group of people who have never had access to large audiences, or any audience for that matter. To some it may feel tired or overused (there are concepts like “compassion fatigue” or “photography cliches”), but to some people photography is just revealing itself, and it is only now that they are discovering the world of visual storytelling, the power of sharing their vision, and the joy of having a way to express themselves. As I said earlier, photography is an action to me, and I believe that it should be the eyes and the voice for the people who don’t know and cannot see. Photos have a double power, inspiring people to think about things and, negatively, distorting reality. It is extremely important to be aware of both the limits of photography and its potential in order to think of new models of storytelling.

How does femLENS decide which countries to operate in?

So far we’ve worked through word of mouth or recommendations, interest through people we know, in the place where I’m based at a given moment. Otherwise, if I’m travelling somewhere, I try to make time to organise a workshop there.

Out of all the femLENS workshops you have held so far, which is your favourite one and why?

I’ve enjoyed all of them, because of the people I was able to meet, and because as I keep doing the workshops there comes a time when a participant starts to develop her stories and her vision, after initial shyness and lack of confidence, and everything starts happening, I love that moment every time.

What are the specific challenges of promoting femLENS, of spreading its message and building a general consensus?

One of the goals behind femLENS activities is to put unusual photographs in unusual places and contexts. Last year we organised an exhibition in an underground passage in Gdynia, Poland. The pictures were torn off or just damaged. People aren’t used to that. Those walls had never seen anything before, and suddenly there were photos of people in wheelchairs and portraits of women. The challenge is also to keep coming up with interesting ways of getting the photos seen. Our goal isn’t to rival with mainstream media, but to diversify the local voices and to make photography available to more people. Another challenge is, of course, funding. While it’s fairly easy to organise a workshop locally, where I’m based at a given moment, it’s much harder to do it abroad. And it’s harder still to source funding for the exhibitions after the work is done. I think it is very important that the photographers’ work is printed and can be seen off the screen. So we do our best to be creative with what we have and to put on a great show.

What are femLENS goals by the end of 2018?

Every year the first goal is to do at least one or two workshops, and then to have an event at which the resulting photo stories can be shared with the community they were made in. But this year, we also hope to have a big party to celebrate the fact that last year we officially registered as a non-profit association, and to launch femLENS magazine. We also hope to put together a second issue before the year is out and to keep that going.

What about the long-term goals?

Long-term goals are similar to short-term ones, that are, more workshops in more diverse places with women and girls. As for the magazine, it would be great if we could have two issues a year published at regular times. Also, we would like to establish a relationship with some bigger media organisations. For example one vision is to have something like a regular femLENS column on a large media website where our different participants could regularly contribute photo stories. We would also like for the website to be used at some point as a kind of directory of local photographers in a geographic area of interest, to be used by media publications or other industries needing a photographer, to shoot, say, an advertising campaign. In 2017 we did a workshop with women with disabilities. A great example of the kind of collaboration we are after is if a wheelchair manufacturer wanting to shoot a promotion campaign to show their production plants, workplace diversity, and products, reached out to one of the femLENS photographers.