By Anna Levin
When Parisian authorities issued a decree in 1800 requiring women to obtain a permit to wear pants in public, the French writer George Sand defied the order. She dressed in men's clothes and walked from one end of Paris to the other, later writing about the exhilarating feeling of being able to go wherever she wanted, whenever she wanted, and not have anyone pay attention.
Melissa Breyer, a writer and photographer, recounts that bit of feminist history in an excellent introduction to a new book, Women Street Photographers, arguing that Sand's "peripatetic explorations" of 1830s Paris helped pave the way for later generations of women who would use cameras, not pens, to chronicle their impressions of public life.
The book showcases the work of 100 women around the world today using cameras and cell phones to capture the lyrical moments of everyday life " what Henri Cartier-Bresson once called "the decisive moment." The pictures " tender and funny, mysterious and unsettling " were curated by Gulnara Samoilova, a former Associated Press photographer and founder of the Women Street Photographers project.
In scenes from India, Karine Bizard captures a close-up of an intense-looking man getting a shave along the banks of the Ganges, while in Pushkar, Dimpy Bhalotia observes an elegant pattern of birds over the shoulder of a man and his camel. Farnaz Damnabi explores reflections in glass in a moody shot of women napping on a bus in Tehran. Orna Naor opts to shoot in black and white for a heartwarming image of three fully clothed Palestinian women romping in the surf on a Tel Aviv beach, while Regula Tschumi exploits the emotional register of saturated color for a joyous shot of two girls in shiny turquoise skirts dancing on a street in Accra, Ghana. In New York, Suzanne Stein's intimate portrait of a couple living on the street in the East Village records the moment when Melissa is thinking about turning herself in to police on outstanding warrants, which would mean leaving her partner, DJ.
Readers may wonder what, if anything, distinguishes this body of work from that of male documentary photographers? Probably nothing in terms of subject, composition or technique. What is unique are the hurdles that female photographers in the field have historically faced " not just cultural, ethnic and religious taboos, but also misogyny and the pervasive threat of sexual harassment and violence. In that respect, this book is more than an anthology; as Breyer notes in her introductory essay, it's a celebration of hard-won freedoms.
Ann Levin worked for The Associated Press for 20 years, including as national news editor at AP headquarters in New York. Since 2009 she's worked as a freelance writer and editor.