Photography is gender-neutral. However, on the occasion of International Women’s Day, we bring to you three Indian women who’ve left their mark in the field of photojournalism.
HOMAI VYARAWALLA (1913-2012): India’s First Female Photojournalist
Besides capturing the last days of the British Empire, Homai Vyarawalla was one of the key visual chroniclers of the post-independence era, tracing the euphoria and disillusionments of a new nation as India’s first female photojournalist. For years her vast archive chronicling three decades of Indian history received less attention than the Indian work of her international contemporaries, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Margaret Bourke-White. But a new retrospective titled “Candid, The Lens and Life of Homai Vyarawalla” at Manhattan’s Rubin Museum of Art is finally paying tribute to her groundbreaking work. Vyarawalla had a style of her own, too. Though Vyarawalla was from the westernized Parsi community where women also wore dresses, she mostly dressed in a saree on assignment. Formal attire offered respectability in conservative times when she was the only woman among photographers. Her colleagues, many of them younger, nicknamed her “mummy.”
But beyond questions of sexism in photography, women photojournalists have to contend with a more real glass ceiling: rarely, if ever, do they make it big in the male-dominated world of photojournalists.
Living in New Delhi, she has been making documentary photostories since 2002. Her editorial work has been published in many international and national publications like Yo Dona – El Mundo’s Magazine, Gulf News, Days Japan Magazine.
She has also undertaken many development projects on Climate Change, Disaster Relief, Renewable Energy, Bio Diversity, Infant Mortality, Special Ability Schools and Gender Issues such as Domestic Violence, Sexual Violence, Land Rights and Menstrual Hygiene for UNDP, UNICEF, UNFPA, UN Women, UN Habitat, CARE UK, NIPI (Norway India Partnership Initiative), Amnesty, IKEA, Nobel Women’s Initiative, International Water Management Management Institute, Plan India, Down to Earth Magazine, Voices Unabridged, Ashoka Foundation, Agha Khan Foundation, Helpage India, CRY, Jagori, Schoolnet and Greenpeace……
Ruhani is the only photojournalist I know who managed to make it as a photo editor in a newsroom (at Open).
Sarvesh, has been a photojournalist for over 25 years. Her six-year stint with a mainstream daily says a lot about how difficult it can be for a woman to negotiate a largely male-dominated photo desk. Especially, if she is single.
Sarvesh survived an abusive marriage for about 10 years before she left it — the reason why she uses only her first name. She took to photography after she was gifted a camera by a friend. Sarvesh has covered the 1991 Uttarkashi earthquake and Kargil War as a freelancer. Close to 100 of her pictures from the Kargil War were published across newspapers and she also won an award for one of them.
She has done more work as a freelancer than when she was in a newsroom. Sarvesh worked for Hindustan Times and she does not speak fondly of her time there. She joined the company as a Senior Photographer and remained so at the time of her leaving the organization. She says she was not promoted in the six years and had marginal increments.
What bothers Sarvesh more is that at Hindustan Times, she wasn’t allowed to pursue the work she wanted to. The Kedarnath calamity happened when she was there, but she wasn’t allowed to go despite the fact that she is a mountaineer. She was always game for challenging assignments but somehow she was never thought fit for it, adding that people aren’t very comfortable with “bold women” and that there is a tendency to demoralise them. Being kept away from “hard news” is something that most women speak of.
Renuka Puri, who has worked with Indian Express for more than 25 years, says her early years were spent on small city assignments and wasn’t given hard news or late-night assignments. So she used that time to start her family she says laughingly, adding that all she had to do was sit in a car, move around the city and click pictures of piles of trash. By the time her son was one, many of the boys had moved on to other organisations and she was now senior. She pushed for late-night assignments and got to do the Fashion Week. Seeing how photographers had shot the previous Fashion Weeks she decided since no one had covered the greenroom, she would start her shoot from there.