Women’s Perspectives star in this year’s Organ Vida

“In the EU today, we take women’s rights for granted,” says Marina Paulenka, director of Organ Vida, a three-week international photography event held annually in Zagreb. Founded in 2008, the festival has always been driven by political context, and this year, for its 10th edition, its all-female team have chosen to emphasise female-identifying perspectives from around the globe.

“In a time of post-capitalist global turmoil, technological advancements, with the strengthening of rightwing extremism, the growing influence of religion that limits women’s rights again, and the semblance of democracy in the 21st century, we are facing a situation in which women must fight anew for the rights that had been won long ago,” Paulenka insists.

In tandem with the main festival’s 2018 theme, Engaged, Active, Aware – Women’s Perspectives Now, with participants selected from an open call, she has organised a touring exhibition, Vigilance, Struggle, Pride: Through Her Eyes, which will arrive at Zagreb’s Museum of Contemporary Art in September, in time for the opening of the festival.

Initially conceived as a separate project, Through Her Eyes features 13 renowned international women artists, including works from Zanele Muholi’s acclaimed portrait series of the LGBTQI community she belongs to, and Sandra Vitaljić’s deeply disturbing photo-installation, Beloved, photographs of lethally damaged body parts, injuries inflicted by a violent partner. Each of these women question, from their own situation, society and condition, what it means to be a woman now, the forces that limit and repress us – and how we can escape them.

In the wake of public movements including the Women’s Marches, social media protests around #MeToo, and the furore over gender pay gaps, Organ Vida brings together the past, present, and future to highlight how genuine change can emerge from the public sharing of the complexities of the female experience. Their aim is, Paulenka says, “To see how art can trigger and provoke reaction in society, to address the current problems and make them visible in our society, where patriarchal patterns are still present”.

Miss Tee Menu, Parktown, Johannesburg, 2014 © Zanele Muholi

Yet within photography, the term ‘female gaze’ is still being grappled with. Until now, it has largely been applied to Western artists, but Paulenka is interested in diversifying our understanding, shaking up the definition of the female gaze as a trend dominated by white Western women and centred around images of the female body that often emerge from social media. At both Organ Vida and Through Her Eyes, narratives on subjects as broad as war and violence, architecture, and history, prove that the female gaze is not confined to discussions on gender and sexuality, but is a new world view.

Paulenka sees the potential of the female gaze as “a moment of emancipation, as well as being in charge of the control over representation”. She and her team have worked closely with participating artists to ensure each work is given its proper critical framework – crucial in an age in which photography often travels with no context.

“Many young artists have consciously adopted this term as a feature of their own approach, their activist and emancipatory engagement. The female gaze is juxtaposed with the dominant, patriarchal male gaze, which objectifies the female body and defines the position of the woman as passive,” she explains. “Women artists purposefully take on an active role in order to articulate potential new perspectives on personal and direct female experiences that have, until now, remained invisible or been represented in a stereotypical manner.”

Photography is both a tool for change and a mirror to the world we’re living in: often, when it comes to representing women in the art world, the female gaze is simplified, or commodified, to appeal to a commercial gaze that is predominantly heteronormative and male. Paulenka’s stance is unflinchingly political: for her, the female gaze has a direct feminist purpose. Though there is a great disparity in the way different societies treat, and gaze upon, female bodies – cis and non-cis, Western and non-Western – Paulenka ultimately believes that the “problems are different but the aim is the same: to live in a world of equality”.

Another important aspect of her mission has been to counter the Western-centric idea of the female gaze, inviting photographers from Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa, as well as Eastern Europe. Although we cannot assume the position of a woman in Tehran is the same as a woman in, say, Tokyo, Zagreb or Santiago, “Everything is political. And being a feminist is being a person who stands for equality in all levels and fights against misogyny.”

If equality is the goal, does a festival with a female-centric programme not defeat the idea of freeing us from gender bias? Seen outside of the tolerant space of exhibitions and biennales, galleries and museums, can photography really have an impact on the mainstream conscience in terms of how we view women – without inciting tokenism?

“I don’t have a problem with all-female projects,” Paulenka responds. “Women are absolutely not visible as artists in art history, so any kind of focus on them I heavily support.” She notes that she did not deliberately exclude male photographers, but found that the strongest works selected to address this year’s theme were by women.

Shenasnameh, 2017 © Amah Mahmoodian

There are incisive, documentary-led works, such as Shiraz-born Amak Mahmoodian’s series examining the photographs of women taken for the official Iranian birth certificate identification, a series which ruminates on identity, religion and Middle Eastern women. Barcelona-based Laia Abril, known for her work on sex clubs, lesbian culture, and eating disorders, presents the first part of her compelling trilogy A History of Misogyny.

Chapter one, On Abortion, “is not about the experience of abortion itself but about the repercussions of women not having legal, safe or free access to the procedure, often forcing them to use dangerous alternatives and causing physical and mental harm,” says Paulenka. These are, according to Abril’s work, among the effects of a patriarchy on women’s bodies and lives.

“I have a problem with some activist feminist work, because it is so literal and shallow,” Paulenka admits. “It had its place in history and played a significant part of the fight, but today I would like to see different approaches.” One of the aims of the festival is to bridge the intergenerational divide in feminist photography, and to put the new language under scrutiny.

“Today we are witnessing a sociopolitical situation in which rights that have already been won must be re-examined, and women’s questions are more pressing than ever. Photography may, if it finds its audience, be a powerful tool for engagement of marginalised and discriminated individuals.”

She adds that, during Organ Vida, “We would like to give an example of the positive power of civil society and encourage people to be involved in shaping the future of our everyday life and not become disillusioned and cynical in the face of the seemingly unchangeable status quo – this disillusionment is fertile ground for the rise of populism and nationalism, which we are seeing take root over Europe and the world.”

In Croatia, the works resonate deeply with recent local struggles. “In our country the situation is terrible,” Paulenka explains. “The main person who is campaigning against women’s rights is actually a woman, the president of the rightwing political initiative, In the Name of the Family, who organised a referendum against abortion and fights against the Istanbul Convention that was ratified in Croatia two months ago.”

The Istanbul Convention, a treaty to prevent and challenge violence against women, was signed by Croatia in April, but also drew fierce opposition, with 10,000 people, backed by the nation’s Catholic church, joining a protest in Zagreb in March campaigning against the treaty. They claimed that the convention “imposes gender ideology”.

From the book An autobiography of Miss Wish, 2017 © Nina Berman

In this polemical atmosphere around women’s rights, Organ Vida is positioned as a platform of education for the public about the day-to-day effect of such political acts on individual lives. It is an open space, where different, colliding points of view will be loudly voiced through the inventive and universal language of photography – supported by the festival’s programme of workshops, talks and events, across some of the most prominent cultural venues in the city. Photography, Organ Vida maintains, can influence politics in significant ways.

“I really believe that this festival edition and its programme will achieve positive progress and change,” says Paulenka. “It will educate the audience, since our main aim is to educate, to try to change the state of mind, and to gain the critical thinking through a visual language which is powerful and relatable for everyone.”

The Organ Vida International Photography Festival is from 10-16 September at the Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb; many of the exhibitions are open until 30 September ovfestival.org This article was first published in the September issue of BJP www.thebjpshop.com

Noises in the Blood, 2015 © Lua Ribeira
The Girls Who Spun Gold © Nydia Blas
Inspire Sisterhood, 2017 © Hannah Starkey
Saudi women sitting at an art gallery, curating for the weeks exhibition, Khobar © Tasneem Alsultan
Facial Signature, 2015 © Tomoko Sawada
Charlotte Jansen

Charlotte Janson is an arts journalist and editor-at-large of Elephant Magazine. Jansen has written for publications including The Guardian, The Financial Times, ELLE, Wallpaper*, Artsy, Vice and Frieze, and has authored two books on photography: Girl on Girl, Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze (2017) and Photography Now (2021). Jansen is also the presenter of the Dior Talks podcast series on the Female Gaze.