Women war photographers are fascinating to read and learn about. I’ve been reading quite a bit of historical fiction lately and many of the books take place during wartime periods. Several of these books and stories and had me digging further into the biographies of these inspirational women who broke barriers to record history.
Margaret Bourke-White (1904–1971)
Margaret Bourke-White is best known for being the first foreign photographer allowed to take photos of Soviet industry under the Soviet’s five-year plan, the first female war photojournalist and having one of her photos on the cover of Life magazine.
During World War II, she was the first woman to be allowed to work in combat zones and was the only foreign photographer in Moscow when German forces invaded. She was also an architectural and commercial photographer working with companies such as Otis Steel. From 1929–1935 she was the associate editor and staff photographer at Fortune magazine. You can learn more about her here.
Gerda Taro (1910–1937)
Gerda Taro was from Stuttgart, Germany. She went to Paris in 1933 where she met Robert Capa. She worked with him, helping him promote and caption his photographs. He taught her about photography.
During the Spanish Civil War in 1936, they covered the war as a team for Vu magazine. By 1937, Gerda had emerged as an independent photojournalist in her own right.
In July of that year, she was covering the Republican offensive in Brunete and was crushed by a Loyalist tank in the confusion of retreat and died several days later. Her work was largely overshadowed by that of Capa’s but her images are effective portraits of individuals at war. They were simple and had an emotional power that made her small body of work a very memorable account of that war.
Lee Miller (1907–1977)
Lee Miller went to the Art Students League in New York City in 1926. She worked as a model for two years and then took off for Paris. There, she began an apprenticeship with Man Ray and later worked with him.
She owned her own studio from 1930–1932 and photographed many of the Surrealist artists from that time. In 1940 she was hired by Vogue and became an accredited war correspondent with the American army in 1942. From 1944–1945 she reported for Vogue from France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria and Hungary. She ended her photography career in 1949.
Dickey Chapelle (1919–1965)
Georgette Louise Meyer (Dickey Chapelle) was a war correspondent photojournalist for National Geographic during the Second World War. She covered the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa with the Marines. After World War II, Dickey covered all of the major wars and rebellions including Hungary, Algeria and Lebanon.
In 1958, Reader’s Digest sent her to cover the uprising in Cuba. She volunteered to cover the Vietnam War and was one of the few reporters who went on search and destroy missions. In November 1965 she was the first female war correspondent to be killed in action. More information on Dickey Chappelle can be found here.
Christine Spengler (1945–)
Christine is only one of a few well-known female war photographers of the 20th century. Her photographs tend to focus on the point of view of the victim. Her coverages of wars and conflicts include Chad, Northern Ireland, Vietnam, Cambodia, Lebanon, Western Sahara, Kurdistan, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and others.
When asked if it was difficult being a woman in those kinds of scenario and in those times, among unfamiliar cultures and in wartime, she reveals that “on the contrary, it always worked in my favor, because as women we have a special sensitivity; I always tried to empathize with the women who were victims and they would ask me to photograph them and tell the world what was happening to them.”
Throughout the years, there have been and are many other women war photographers. I highly suggest looking them up and reading their stories. Of course, check out their photographs as well. Here are six more that you might find interesting:
- Catherine Leroy
- Françoise Demulder
- Susan Meiselas
- Carolyn Cole
- Anja Niedringhaus
- Lynsey Addario
One resource I found where some of this information came from is the book “Women War Photographers: From Lee Miller to Anja Niedringhaus (Kunstpalast and Prestel, 2019).”
Cover image: Six female war correspondents who covered the U.S. Army in the European Theater during World War II appear together in this 1943 photograph: Mary Welch, Dixie Tighe, Kathleen Harriman, Helen Kirkpatrick, Lee Miller, Tania Long (U.S. Army Center of Military History).