Shining a Light on Female War Reporters

This month The Circle is encouraging their supporters to #WidenYourCircle by sharing inspirational stories of women empowering women.

With this in mind, I decided to write about the incredible Marie Colvin and two inspirational female photographers who risked their lives, pushed through and broke down gender norms in this field of work and amplified the voices of women. These photographers are Lee Miller (1907-1977) and Christine Spengler (*1945). I was inspired to write this article from reading the catalogue Women War Photographers: From Lee Miller to Anja Niedringhaus which was created from the exhibition. The exhibition is being shown at the Fotomuseum Winterhur from 29th February to 17th May 2020.

“When they tried to get a picture, they’d have 10 men pushing them out of the way” – Marilyn Kushner

As Felix Kramer who is the Director General of the Museum Kunstpalast, argues, war and conflict still has masculine connotations despite the fact that women have also shaped our view of worldwide conflicts.[1] A lack of educational opportunities and social acceptance meant that it was only towards the end of the 19th century that women were allowed to study photography.[2] In the Second World War women were still not permitted to photograph on the front and their assignments were mainly photographing hospitals and civilians.[3]

In 1942 Lee Miller stated ‘“Just treat me like one of the boys”[…]when asked under what rules she was willing to work as one of the few women among many men.’[4] This reveals just how hard and brave it was for women to fight for their place in the male-dominated world of photojournalism. In July 1944 Miller was assigned to a field hospital in Normandy and it is her background in the art of Surrealism and the use of her own reports that made her stand out amongst the male photographers, as Felicity Korn also suggests. Korn goes on to argue that her work breaks with the ‘“classic”’ style of war photography[5] and that it is Miller’s background as a model and fashion and fine art photographer that led to her becoming Vogue’s War Correspondent.[6] Through believing in her own artistic choices, Miller showed that it is her skill as a photographer that should determine where she is assigned, not gender. Although it must be addressed that according to Anne-Marie Beckmann and Felicity Korn, female photographers have said that ‘reporting as a woman from crisis zones can work to their advantage” as it is easier for them to meet with families and women affected by war.[7]

“I wanted to report on just causes. If you ask me…’What do you consider a just cause?’, then I always say, ‘I stand on the side of the oppressed.” – Christine Spengler

1970: an armed regional conflict was taking place in Chad and Spengler, with her younger brother at the time, got out her 28mm camera and started taking pictures. This led to her arrest and jail time for several weeks.[9] According to Ingo Borges, this experience led Spengler to become one of the greatest war photographers. But Spengler had a different focus; instead photographing the everyday lives of women and children who were affected by war.[10] Spengler really captures the fact that these people are trapped inside a country at war with no choice but to protect themselves, their families and carry on daily life. Spengler manages to capture moments of laughter among the children who are unaware and innocent to the reality of war. In other images we see a woman defending her home with a gun, a mother carrying her baby whilst a gun is slung on her left shoulder (a female fighter of the Polisario Front in Western Sahara 1976, p. 139). Another, we see a young boy crying over his dead father in Cambodia, 1974 (p.133). Spengler captures moments which would have unlikely been focused on, but it is these moments which capture the humanity in wars of violence and destruction.

 It is the incredible strength, belief and perseverance of women like Lee Miller and Christine Spengler who made it possible for journalists like Marie Colvin to report on the front lines as one of the most brave and talented war correspondents in history. Colvin worked for the Sunday Times and in February 2012 was killed in Syria “reporting the injustices of conflict, determined to uncover truth from one of the most dangerous places on earth.” Colvin was passionate about women’s rights and would mentor young female journalists who were entering into the same profession. The Marie Colvin Circle was set up in her memory by her friends. This circle supports the Marie Colvin Journalists’ Network, a network that works with local female journalists in conflict zones. This important type of journalism is met with life threatening situations of violence, threats and kidnapping. The Middle East and North Africa regions (MENA) have over 100 local female journalists who are supported by this network. They can receive practical support and mentoring as well as network with local journalists in the area. Psychological support is also something the network offers as these women are working alone and under incredibly difficult and dangerous circumstances. Other types of support are also offered which you can read here.

Women like Lee Miller, Christine Spengler and Marie Colvin are such an important part of showing how no person should limit or question another’s ability because of their gender. If men can report on the front lines, so should women; as many female journalists have proven. They too have made history, and we must continue to remind ourselves of their work and inspire others to continue fighting for gender equality in journalism.

Click here to find out more about The Marie Colvin Journalist Network.

[1] Women War Photographers: From Lee Miller to Anja Niedringhaus, p.9.

[2] See footnote 1, Introduction by Anne-Marie Beckmann and Felicity Korn, p. 11.

[3] See footnote 2, p. 16.

[4] See footnote 1, p. 47. Original reference quoted on p. 51 as ‘“How Famous People Cook: Lady Penrose, the Most Unusual Recipes You Have Ever Seen”, in Vogue USA, April 1974, pp. 160-61, 186-87.’

[5] See footnote 1, p. 50.

[6] See footnote 1, pp. 49-50.

[7] See footnote 1, p. 18.

[8] See footnote 1,p. 123. Original reference quoted on p. 125 is ‘Christine Spengler, in an interview in Sigrid Faltin’s documentary film Kriegsfotografinnen: Der Kampf um Bilder, Leben und Tod, SWR/arte, 2016.’

[9] See footnote 1, p.123. Original reference quoted on p. 125 as ‘Christine Spengler, Une femme dans la guerre, Paris 1991, p. 19.’

[10] See footnote 1, p.123.

This article was written by Georgia Bridgett who is an intern for The Circle. Georgia is a recent English graduate and is passionate about women’s rights and the underlying issues in the fast-fashion industry.