Numerous studies in recent months have proved, once again, that the impacts of large-scale crises are never gender-indiscriminate. Last year, United Nations secretary-general António Guterres warned of a “horrifying global surge in domestic violence” directed towards women and girls since the start of COVID-19 lockdowns. Sexual and reproductive health clinics have been closing worldwide, with some US states restricting access to abortions.
Women’s job losses due to COVID-19 are, globally, 1.8 times greater than men’s; they also tend to bear the brunt of care responsibilities, rendering them unable to work, when schools close or family members fall ill. It is no surprise that a devastating female mental health crisis has materialised as a byproduct of the past year, only further obstructing women’s attempts to rebuild their lives.
When the world finds itself in historic moments like this one – and crucially, when it is women who are being hit the hardest – it matters who gets to tell the story.
This is the sentiment at the heart of global women’s photography collective The Journal. Founded by Charlotte Schmitz and Hannah Yoon of the Women Photograph community, the project compounds more than 400 women photographers documenting their lives during the coronavirus pandemic. Within it, women turn the camera on themselves and their families, on intimate moments and private spaces, to bring nuance to the way COVID-19 is being covered.
“Most members [of the collective] had never photographed their families nor intimate spaces before, and certainly didn’t publish them,” says Schmitz. “Suddenly, we realised the value and beauty in not only documenting them, but also sharing them with the world.”
Traversing countries and timezones across the globe, The Journal seeks to foster open dialogues about topics such as decolonizing the lens, juggling motherhood and work, sexism in the industry and the power of solidarity in photography, all against the backdrop of the pandemic. “Our photo industry is based on individualism and competition,” Schmitz says. “Collaboration barely exists. But that’s our biggest treasure. We are creating sustainable change by simply living the collective.”
Below, seven members of The Journal reflect on some of their images and experiences from the past year.
Samyukta Lakshmi, India
The COVID-19 lockdown in India was announced on 25 March 2020, with only four hours prior notice. It left the nation in a state of frenzy. Faced with dwindling savings due to unemployment during the lockdown, millions of migrant workers made the decision to return to their hometowns from cities around India, sparking the biggest human exodus in India since the partition. I had been documenting the situation in my hometown of Bangalore.
The pandemic has deepened pre-existing gender inequalities and has disproportionately affected women and girls. Women are losing livelihoods. It is so important to champion women’s stories and bring awareness to the challenges they’ve faced.
I dream of an existence where I begin and end the day with sun on my skin and dirt on my hands. A body composed of branches as limbs, vines as hair, a face of flowers. Where I am so deeply connected to the Earth, that nothing can disturb me. Over the course of the pandemic, I would go through phases of physical activity, spirituality, depression, and joy. This self portrait is a reflection of the peaks and valleys I was experiencing at the time.
When I reflect on the last year of the pandemic, I can’t shake the scary statistics around the rise of domestic abuse. I think of how, each day, we’re faced with more depressing stories of violence against women — which cut even deeper considering the helpless state of this pandemic-driven world. It reinforces the need for the strong presence of our stories, our words, our experiences… Knowledge is power.
The pandemic has led me to deepen my thoughts on the way in which we, as humans, relate to nature. At one point in the quarantine last year, I went to live in the countryside to learn in the wild organic vegetable garden of some friends who work in permaculture. My daily tasks ranged from removing the grass, removing the slugs one by one at night (one of the most important tasks for the garden to thrive), watering when it has not rained and, of course, harvesting.
When The Journal began, Colombia was early in its quarantine; I was feeling stuck and locked up. The Journal became an excuse to be creatively active and connect to women from other parts of the world who were feeling a similar way. I believe that the pandemic has exposed once more the functioning of patriarchy, and the precariousness of women’s lives in many places — at least in the so-called ‘third-world countries’.
During the pandemic, I struggled to make sense of everything. There was too much loss and too much emptiness that I often felt suffocated in my own space. With the internet using this time to pressure creatives into creating, and using what felt like free time on their hands, I found myself losing my muse and motivation. I needed to show the world that my own boat was on a capsizing loop, and that I couldn’t escape from it. To remind me and the others like me that we were not drowning; we just needed to keep breathing.
I followed The Journal from the very start, and I was inspired by how women were using what was around them to create beautiful images of nothingness. I was inspired by how articulate and intimate these images were. You don’t often think about photographing your own space in those ways — and that sparked my motivation back to remember what mattered most.
This image is a portrait of my mother and my sister. To me it is such an important reminder of the power of the matriarchy in my community. As a Kichwa indigenous woman who grew up outside of my traditional territories, it was through my mother’s determination that my sisters and I grew up with a deep love and respect for our roots.
Growing up in a western context, I experienced discrimination and racism for being indigenous. To me, this image is part of my healing process, and a reminder of the strength of our matriarchs and the defiance of the new generation to continue carrying on our culture, wherever we are.
The image was taken at the beginning of the confinement period in Lima, Peru, in 2020. I made the image with the only person with whom I share my apartment. I needed to start seeing daily moments through different eyes. I live in Lima, and most of the time it is cloudy and grey; I wanted to imagine the stars.
The patriarchal and masculine gaze has always predominated historic moments like this one. The man has always narrated the story. It is time to see the collective perspective of different women.
This image captures a moment from my hometown of Andul, India, during the Kali Puja festival of 2020. Because of the pandemic, we celebrate Kali Puja in our home; we didn’t go outside. I lost my grandma on 2 March 2021. Now, this photo is a memory of how I spent my time during the pandemic with my family — and also a happy moment with my grandma.
Andul is a small town, and I don’t have any other artists to talk to… I went through lots of mental trauma during lockdown, but The Journal gave me space and hope where I could engage myself with other creative people. We built a community where we could share our vulnerability.
The Journal welcomes donations to help champion women’s work via exhibitions, panels and the collective’s upcoming podcast, as well as helping to empower new photographers to enter and navigate the field of photography. Donate here.
Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently Commissioning Editor across awards, Studio and partner content. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.