In 2005, Fiona Rogers joined Magnum, the prestigious photography co-operative, as an unpaid intern. She spent 16 years there, working her way up to chief operating officer. Founded in 1947, Magnum has long been dominated by its white, male membership, although that is beginning to change. During Rogers’ time there, she became familiar with debates about positive discrimination with regard to gender and race. When it came to voting in new members (a decision taken solely by the photographers themselves), “the problems around tokenism, and this being a very reductive thing, would crop up every time,” she says. “There were the very active people who felt that you had to look more specifically at the stories and do the work to attract the right women, or people of colour. And then there was the other side of the argument, who said, ‘I don’t care whether they’re black, white, feminist, trans. I don’t care. I want to judge it on the work and the work alone.’”
Frustrated by conversations like these, she decided to set up her own online platform for female photographers in 2011 while still working at Magnum. She called it Firecracker. “I thought that if I build this platform over here, the next time they argue, ‘Oh, we just haven’t found any women photographers that we think fit the Magnum mould,’ I could be, like, ‘Hello, here’s 20 artists that we’ve shown this year’.”
It was an exciting time for Rogers. She was running the education programme at Magnum and travelling the world. “I was doing these amazing workshops and meeting these amazing women. This was before Instagram, so there was no online community like there is now. That’s where Firecracker came from.” Since then, it has grown into a worldwide network supporting and representing the work of “female, female-identifying and non-binary photographers”.
Rogers, 39, was recently appointed Parasol Foundation Curator of Women in Photography at the V&A, a new post for the London museum. At a time when gender fluidity is a hot topic, the very title begs a question as to how open it is to work by those who identify differently. The South African artist Zanele Muholi, for example, one of the most celebrated contemporary photographers working today, identifies as non-binary, using the pronouns them/they. Muholi’s work has brought attention to the hate crimes assailing South Africa’s LGBT+ communities and given visibility to the individuals within them. In 2017, Muholi’s inclusion in a book celebrating Firecracker’s photographers was felt by Rogers and her co-authors to be “essential . . . because [Muholi’s] subject matter has not become less urgent, and because their evolution as an artist — as well as a visual activist — is profound and hugely influential.”
How does Rogers intend to interpret the new role and its title? The answer is as widely as possible. “But it is complicated,” she says. “There are certainly some women who would think that this labelling was not necessary. It’s a bit reductive. I talked about it in terms of Firecracker: does this platform need to exist anymore, particularly as we’re obviously moving towards a wider conversation about gender? But [at the V&A] we’ve kept the definition deliberately open and we’re hoping to work with photographers from a broad range of communities.
“Ultimately it will focus on living contemporary artists — which is very much part of the new vision for the photography department — but also surfacing and highlighting some of the more historical works that maybe haven’t had as much visibility. You know, Julia Margaret Cameron is really well known,” she adds, “but there are a lot of other women [who are not].”
Cameron, who was given her first show at the then South Kensington Museum in 1865, has always been something of a poster-woman for the museum, which holds around 900 of her photographs. But it has significant collections of work by other women, including the Victorian Clementina Hawarden, Ilse Bing (who worked in Europe between the wars) and the pioneering colour photographers Agnes Warburg and Helen Messinger Murdoch. Photographs by women make up around 15 per cent of the V&A’s collection, a number it is keen to improve.
The museum’s photography department is undergoing a long-overdue expansion. The first phase of its new Photography Centre opened in 2018, with two new galleries for its permanent collection. The second phase is scheduled to open in 2023, with two more galleries for contemporary exhibitions, another for digital projects, a room devoted to photography and the book, and another to the development of the camera. Duncan Forbes, the V&A’s director of photography, was appointed two years ago. “One of the shifts that’s happened since I arrived,” he says, “is a greater concern with the digital and a greater concern with the contemporary. I’m also incredibly interested in the dialogue between the contemporary and the historical collections. That will impact Fiona as well, in that I’ve asked her to pay attention to those links.”
Rogers’ post is part of the Parasol Women in Photography Project announced last September. It is funded for 25 years by a £3mn endowment from the Parasol Foundation Trust, established in 2004 by Ruth Monicka Parasol, an American philanthropist who made her first fortune in adult entertainment and online pornography before investing in online gaming. In 2005, her company PartyGaming was floated on the stock market for a reported £6.4bn; she sold her shares, and her trust has given some £35mn to medical, educational and cultural initiatives, with a particular emphasis on women.
If the V&A had any ethical concerns about the source of her wealth, they were put to rest some time ago. Parasol has been supporting initiatives at the museum for 12 years now, the Women in Photography Project being the latest. The new curatorial position comes with funds for acquisitions, research, education and public displays for 10 years. But, for Rogers, the most immediate and crucial aspect of the job is growing the Instagram account (@vamparasolwomenphoto), which launched last month. She wants to use it to discover and showcase female and non-binary photographers from all backgrounds around the world, and to open the museum’s collections up to a new (and probably younger) global audience.
“The joy of this role being a bit more [outward-facing] than perhaps some of the others at the V&A,” Rogers says, “is that through public programming, and through dissemination on our digital platforms we can get work out to a really broad audience quickly. Instagram, being the first part of that, allows us to be really nimble.”
In the past few years, the V&A has been buying more contemporary photographs by women, thanks to the museum’s photography acquisitions group made up of private donors. Rogers lists some of the artists’ names: Joana Choumali from Côte d’Ivoire; the Czech photographer Tereza Zelenkova; Dafna Talmor, who is based in London; and the Indian photographer and activist Poulomi Basu.
Basu is probably the most high-profile of these. She was shortlisted for last year’s Deutsche Börse Photography Prize for her book Centralia, about the conflict between indigenous tribal people in central India and the Indian state. Her interactive website blood-speaks.org exposes the taboos attached to “menstrual exile” that endanger women, particularly young women, around the world. She has received awards and grants, including support from the Magnum Emergency Fund in 2016 and, not coincidentally, she was one of Firecracker’s featured photographers. As was Hoda Afshar, an Iranian photographer based in Australia whose work Rogers is keen to highlight. Her latest project Speak the Wind, which documents the people and customs of the islands in the Strait of Hormuz, off the southern coast of Iran, was published recently.
Rogers’ job is, in part, to bring the work of lesser-known photographers to a wider audience, to show us work we may never have encountered before and which deserves to be seen. In that sense, it is a corrective. Does she believe that these artists bring a perspective that a male photographer could not? Is there — to ask a much-debated question — a specifically “female gaze”?
Her answer is both yes and no. She doesn’t believe there is any “defining gender gaze, because that’s dependent on where you grew up, and on what your class is, and what your race is, and what your childhood experiences were; whether you came from a [nuclear] family or you were brought up by a single parent”. But she does think that “there is a difference between the way a woman looks at the world and the way a man looks at the world, and I think that’s partially because of inherent unconscious biases that we’ve all had to experience over 2,000 years and more. And then it comes down to things like access.” She cites the American photographer Susan Meiselas’s project in the early 1970s following women who performed in “girl shows” at small-town country fairs. Her 1976 book Carnival Strippers has since been republished in several new editions. “There’s not a chance a man could have made that work,” says Rogers.
But it’s not just about gender, she insists. “It’s also about a lot of things that gender gives you access to. Because when we talk about women we tend to talk about a much broader cross-section of people. I’m looking forward to working with more artists of colour, with working-class women, with women from Africa, from South Asia . . . and to reaching out to people beyond the gallery-going audience. I’m excited to work with some great international artists. A lot of them have been working for a long time and not finding outlets for their work, and I think we can help with that.”
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