The pioneering legacy of Inge Morath

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On the 20th anniversary of the Inge Morath Award, Sumeja Tulic reflects on the photographer’s brilliance and perseverance in what remains a male-dominated industry and her influence on generations of photographers since

In 2002, following Inge Morath’s (1923–2002) memorial service at the Lincoln Center, New York, several Magnum photographers gathered at the agency’s New York office. As when Morath had first entered Magnum Photos’ Paris office in 1949, the majority were still men. “Being one of the then rather rare women photographers was often difficult for the simple reason that nobody felt one was serious,” Morath once said. “I certainly do not think that I got the same forceful male brotherhood support the men got.” However, now things were somewhat different: the group rallied around discussing how to honour the photographer and the person she was. Eventually, the Canadian photojournalist Larry Towell suggested something everyone agreed on, and the Inge Morath Award (IMA) was born. The annual grant has been open to women and, later, also non-binary photographers under 30 to apply to every year since 2002. It sees one grantee receive $5000, supporting the completion of a long-term documentary project. “Our collective tribute to the spirit of Morath,” as the revered documentary photographer Susan Meiselas describes it. 

Morath’s spirit was one of curiosity, adventure and defiance. She was born in Austria in 1923, the daughter of two research scientists who were Nazi sympathisers. When the Second World War broke out, the family was living in Berlin. The photographer laboured in an aeroplane factory after refusing to join the Hitler Youth. Following the war, she worked as a translator and journalist in Munich and Vienna (Morath was a linguistics major in college and could speak six languages fluently throughout her life). Then, in 1949, the photographer wound up at Magnum Photos in Paris, invited by Robert Capa, along with her then-colleague Austrian photojournalist Ernst Haas. In 1955, after working at the Paris office for several years, the photographer eventually became the agency’s first female member in Europe.

Dancer's skirt. Feria, Seville, Spain © Inge Morath/Magnum Photos.
6:30am. Chang'an Avenue. Beijing, China. 1978 © Inge Morath/Magnum Photos.

For Morath, photography was “essentially a personal matter – a search for inner truth,” as she described it. The photographer travelled extensively, often alone, covering stories in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, the US, and South America for publications including Vogue and Paris Match. She also worked as a photographer on motion picture sets, including The Misfits (1960), where she met her second husband, playwright Arthur Miller. A significant portion of Morath’s work is devoted to black-and-white portraiture. Her subjects were artists, writers, fashion designers, actors, celebrities, anonymous passers-by, and even a llama named Linda, famously pictured with its head extending from a car’s window in New York. “If you’re one of her subjects, you hardly know your guard is down and your secret recorded until it’s too late,” said Philip Roth, the American novelist photographed by Morath in 1965.  

Morath forged a photographic career for herself. However, it was one still greatly affected by gender inequality. At Magnum Photos, for instance, women remained in the minority, with Eve Arnold (1912–2012), Marilyn Silverstone (1929–1990), Susan Meiselas (1948–), and Martine Franck (1938–2012) gradually joining Morath as the agency’s earliest female members. Meiselas fondly remembers sitting next to Morath during Magnum Photo’s annual meetings. Reluctant to speak publicly, Morath would whisper into Meiselas’ ear.

Today, although female membership of Magnum Photos has increased, including its leadership, the agency is still predominantly male. Magnum Photos is not alone: across the photojournalism industry as a whole, women are still underrepresented and experience numerous barriers to full and equitable participation. From 2015 to 2018, for instance, the annual World Press Photo Contest surveyed 5202 of its entrants from over 100 countries. The resultant report The State of News Photography (2018) discovered 69 per cent of female respondents had faced discrimination in the workplace. Meanwhile, a follow-on paper revealed just 15 per cent of photojournalists today are women, a sobering statistic given the influence of news photography on our perception of current affairs.

A llama in Times Square. New York, USA. 1957 © Inge Morath/Magnum Photos.

The experiences of many of the award’s recipients reflect this reality. “I did not become a photographer right away. I began my career as an editor,” says Ami Vitale, the first recipient of the award, who received the accolade in 2002. “I dreamt of being a photographer […] I was a young woman, and the people out taking the shots were mainly men with a few remarkable exceptions. I remember showing work to supervisors and editors with the dream of one day being a photojournalist; they dismissed my dreams.” The IMA allowed Vitale to spend a year in Kashmir developing a body of work. “After [receiving it], I had several, mostly female, editors reach out and offer me opportunities I wouldn’t have had before,” Vitale continues. Today, almost a decade on, she is a Nikon Ambassador and National Geographic magazine photographer.

The experiences of other recipients echo those of Vitale’s. “Before receiving the award, people refused and questioned my work just because it was made by a woman,” says Mexico-based documentary photographer Claudia Guadarrama. She received the award in 2004 for Before the Limit, a project describing Central American migrants’ dangerous journeys crossing the Mexico-US border. US-based documentary photographer, writer, and filmmaker Isadora Kosofsky, who received the accolade in 2012 when she was just 18, remembers how “a few months before, an editor laughed at me and said I was too young to be published in her magazine. When you begin to channel some of Inge’s spirit, you’re reminded not to worry about the assumptions, opinions, and judgements of others.”

Two girls play with a scarf in Guajira desert on the Venezuelan border with Colombia. February 2017 © Fabiola Ferrero.
Two members of the militia during an event to commemorate Hugo Chávez's death in Caracas, Venezuela. 05 March 2017 © Fabiola Ferrero.
My grandmother's bed, inside our beach house with wasps on it. When I entered the house, it was so full of wasps I had to sleep outside on a hammock. The house is falling apart © Fabiola Ferrero.
An old image of me and my brothers with sand from the same beach where it was taken. Machurucuto, Venezuela © Fabiola Ferrero.

Alongside creating their own body of work, many of the award’s recipients have established initiatives to support women in the industry and beyond, something Meiselas describes as the grant’s “ripple effect”. Six years after receiving the 2005 award, Bulgarian-American photographer and filmmaker Mimi Chakarova established a fellowship program for female filmmakers. “Understanding the importance and value of supporting women, I set [it up] in the hope that more documentary projects of social significance will get made,” she says. Similarly, the 2009 recipient Emily Schiffer co-founded We, Women, “the largest social impact photography project by women in the United States,” following the 2016 US presidential election. And, in 2017, a year after receiving the IMA, the Vietnamese-American documentary photographer Daniella Zalcman founded Women Photograph, a nonprofit working to elevate the voices of women and non-binary visual journalists.  

Previous recipients have also formed a community of sorts, often collaborating on projects. Notably, eight IMA awardees, including Olivia Arthur, a member of Magnum Photos and its current president, embarked on a six-week photographic road trip, the Danube Revisited: The Inge Morath Truck ProjectThe photographers retraced Morath’s journeys along the banks of the Danube River, which she began in 1958 and continued periodically over many years. They travelled in a converted truck, staging exhibitions of Morath’s work while producing new projects of their own. Arthur is grateful for the community of women she met through the IMA, something “relatively unusual for awards,” she points out. “Photography can be a very lonely career, ” she continues, ” links and support are important”. 

This year, Venezuelan photographer Fabiola Ferrero will receive the IMA grant to work on her project, I Can’t Hear the Birds. The work explores the grief resulting from migration through the eyes of those left behind in Venezuela, capturing desolate landscapes, empty homes, and memories of once prosperous land found in dusty family albums. “I’m in awe to look at past recipients and see my name next to them,” says Ferrero. “It is because of women like them that we now have a less painful path to walk. I’m grateful, I’m happy, and I also feel a great responsibility to keep working and opening up spaces for others.”

The Inge Morath Award is given annually by the members of Magnum Photos and the Inge Morath Estate. The Magnum Foundation administer it as part of its mission to expand creativity and diversity in visual storytelling. Find out more about the Inge Morath Award here and previous recipients here.

Sumeja Tulic

Sumeja Tulic is a Libyan-born Bosnian writer and photographer. She writes about art, conflict, and everything in between.