Foto-Feminas: Interview with Founder and Photographer Veroncia Sanchis
Jaibaná. From the series, NAMA BU. ©Karen Paulina Biswell. Cover image courtesy of Foto-Feminas.
It is undeniable that the internet has revolutionised the way we experience photography. If it wasn’t for the internet, we wouldn’t have such indefinite access to images - particularly those from parts of the world that we otherwise wouldn’t have access to. As someone who has always used the internet as a resource to find the works of other photographers, digital platforms like Foto-Feminas have been crucial in making female photographers from around the world accessible to those like me - and more importantly - to editors and the mainstream media. For those that are not familiar with it, Foto-Feminas is an online database that shares the works of young and contemporary female photographers from the Latin American continent.
Platforms like Foto Feminas are important not only because they put the work of women out there, but by doing so are holding us accountable when female photographers are not given the opportunities they deserve. As Linda Nochlin, the great art critic and feminist curator, once wrote: “to question the assumptions lying behind the question "Why have there been no great women artists?" On the contrary, by attempting to answer it, they tacitly reinforce its negative implications.” The work of Foto-Feminas becomes essential in challenging the ways that women’s work is recognised, bought, and distributed, and has real impact in giving female photographers opportunities, as opposed to defining a female problem as such. [Although, I would like to note that, as the twitter account of Women Photograph reports, in 2018 alone, women photographers made up less than 25% of the photography on major publications and was as low as 5% for some publications such as the Wall Street Journal.]
Since it’s beginnings in 2014, Foto Feminas has featured countless Latin American photographers, and helped to build a library of photobooks for these photographers, bringing their work to photo festivals all over the world and redistributing them throughout the Latin American continent. I caught up with the founder of Foto Feminas, Veronica Sanchis (who is a photographer herself hailing from Venezuela) to ask her about how she began the platform. Below is our conversation:
What prompted the start of Foto-Feminas? How did it come about?
It was an organic development. As a woman from Venezuela it was difficult to find the works of other women like myself who were also photographers. Although at the beginning I didn’t have a good understanding of why that was the case - but ill start from the beginning. I studied photojournalism in Wales, and while I was doing my degree I always had an interest in Latin America, it’s people, the culture and language. So interest in photography from Latin America was very natural. And at the time it was very difficult to access information or even photo-books on photography coming from there, it was always difficult to get to.
During my last year at university, we had to hand in a final external project as well as a dissertation. For my external project, I went to Santigo in Chile to work with an NGO, which was a very inspiring experience for me. When I came back, I decided that I wanted to my dissertation to look at photography in Latin America - so I decided to write about the differences between local and foreign photographers in Mexico. This became my “opening window” into photography from the region; I was very inspired by the work of Graciela Iturbide (she was the assistant of a famous Mexican photographer), and all of this left me with hunger and I wanted to learn more and know more about women photographers in Latin America.
After I graduated, I moved to London, and that’s when the seed for Foto Feminas got planted. I moved there to become a photographer and like everyone else I began assisting a commercial photographer in the studio. But then on the side I was contributing to Latin American House - which is the largest charity for the Latin American and Caribbean community in the UK. They used to teach Spanish, teach English, provide legal advice, they had a nursery and promoted Latin American culture through food, music, literature. They had a small cultural magazine that they published online and it was monthly with different contributors. The director asked me to contribute by interviewing photographers from Latin America. I loved the idea because I just came out of university and wanted to continue my research. So I began in 2013-12, it was it was pretty straight forward format, it was 10 questions for each photographer. But It was still difficult to find the work of Latin American female photographers - and not just famous, accomplished photographers. I was curious to see the work of my peers. I tried to feature them as much as I could.
But I would say the biggest impact and motivator to start Foto Feminas was when I moved to New York and worked as a library/research assistant at ICP (International Center for Photography). And it had the biggest impact on me because I came across so much content from around the world. And even then, it was still difficult to access the world of Latin American women. But I guess I was a bit more mature and I had seen a bit more work so I said maybe I can do something? It was very slow and very organic. I remember I began building the website in September 2014 and featuring contemporary works. I also started created an instagram because it helps to have a wider audience through social media.
And what was the process of creating the online platform? How did you decide to put it together?
The process of the website was very organic too. I began featuring photographers the same way I would feature them when I was working at the Latin American House in London. But I didn’t want to just do 10 questions, I wanted to look at the body of work. So I started with very short interview which was my way of connecting it with how I was doing it before.
The first and second photographers I interviewed I knew from my time at the Latin American House. From the third one onwards, I just approached them myself. Some photographers would suggest the platform to their colleagues, some would reach out to me themselves. But I mostly love finding and researching new works so it’s especially good when I find them myself. I want to also note that when I began I never really thought like “oh this is my thing, this is my solo project”, I wanted to respond to something that’s lacking. I was reacting to the lack of resources out there. And then I have to say the one thing I never expected when I began is that this became a community. We created a community. We are in different countries, from different backgrounds, but now we are a community. That’s what I value the most about this project. And through that we have been able to put on exhibitions, go to festivals, do fundraising and distribute works. That’s what I think has been the most positive outcome.
What do you think were the challenges facing Latina photographers in the past versus now?
This is our 5th year operating as Foto Feminas and in our region [Latin America] a lot of photo festivals have started to come up, it’s pretty recent and many of them are below 10 years old for sure. What is very rare to see is books by female photographers from Latin America. I don’t know if this is something related to funding - was it always going to men? Were women only given chances only after studying photography at university so they gave up? Were there less opportunities for women in general? Contemporary photographers have said that in their experience, in the past, they would always remain as assistance to male photographers, and there were few chances for them to come out of the dark. But I think this has changed, a lot has changed. in the past unfortunately I think the macho culture was very strong.
Some of the younger photographers have shared with me that they have felt that until recently, when there is a chance to cover a story by foreign media, they wouldn’t hire local photographers. This isn’t just in Latin America but in many parts of the world. Many have said that foreign media will come in and just share their point of view which obviously takes away opportunities from local photographers. Also, I think there should be a balance between a local and a foreign perspective to a story. But lucky, we are beginning to see online databases that really changing that. A great example is the online platform Women Photograph which was founded by Daniella Zalcman. What I understand from Daniella was that she was responding to something that she was frustrated about, so she created a database where you could find local photographers (and specifically) women photographers and promote them to editors. Another example is Blink - but I think that database helps you find photographers but not necessarily view their work. But there are quite a few options of databases that are tackling this discrepancy. That being said, there are other challenges that have yet to be addressed and affect women in general, not just photographers. For example, certain stories might not be given to women because maybe it’s dangerous or women are target in certain groups or areas. This is of course the result of the social challenges we have as women in the world.
But I do think small steps make a big impact. To go back to the issue of photo-books, it’s difficult to find books by Latin American female photographers so I started a library. I’ve been displaying their books at photo-book fairs and art-book fairs. I was basically archiving these books. Sometimes they would be up for sale, to help photographers to distribute their books. In Latin America it’s very difficult to distribute across the continent, the mail system isn’t reliable, and it’s expensive. So we distribute these books through Foto Feminas, so at least the dialogue will open up elsewhere.
To what extent do you believe the internet played a role in all of this?
The internet has been a really positive change. When I was at uni in 2005, the internet wasn’t like it is today. I remember students going to the magnum website, it was so slow, and it would take ages for the images to load. The access we have today, it so much better. The internet and especially social media and Instagram has influenced photography. It’s like a Pandora’s box now. I have discovered photographers that way and have come across new works that way. It’s a new way of researching instead of going to the library and looking through books. But books are important too. Nowadays everything’s so instant.
What is your advice for emerging and young female photographers (in Latin America and around the world)?
It’s good to experiment but it’s also good to know what your peers are working on. If you are in an emerging state, it’s good to be part of a community and its always inspiring to see festivals. Go so that you can see what’s happening and to meet people and seeing other people’s work. It’s important to be outside, to be part of a community and to not isolate yourself. Having a community will keep your mind open to what’s happening in the photography world.