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Del Barrett
Rut Blees Luxemburg by Philip Jones

Q&A featuring Rut Blees Luxemburg and Del Barrett

Jan 08, 2019 - Gita Cooper-van Ingen

To mark the new Hundred Heroines campaign launched by the Royal Photographic Society we’ve met with Rut Blees Luxemburg and Del Barrett to discuss matters of women’s representation in photography. Thank you so much for joining us!




Could you outline the Hundred Heroines project; explaining in which ways it is a curatorial project or where it as a campaign to more raise awareness of women’s status in photography? 


DB: Globally, there are so many extraordinary female photographers making extraordinary work, much of which is often overlooked. We launched an international campaign, not as a curatorial project, but to challenge current perceptions. The campaign called upon the general public, as well as leading photography industry figures, to nominate their own modern-day photography heroines in order to highlight awareness of the impact women are having on the medium. By adding our voice to the conversation, we hope to support the redefinition and realignment of women in contemporary photography.


RBL: Hundred Heroines is twofold: marking and amplifying the significance that exceptional female practitioners have in photography and accelerating the recognition of ground-breaking female photographers working globally.


The nomination process closed in September, but members of the public were able to nominate female practitioners over the course of the summer. How many people gave their nominations and what were some of the criteria the jury used when selecting the final 100? 


DAB: We had nearly 3,000 nominations through the website, but many more on social media. Some photographers attracted more than one nomination, and so we ended up with just over 1300 nominees. The main criterion was the extent to which the photographers were heroinic, i.e. having shown courage or having achieved greatness. Courage can take many forms and we were not prescriptive in how it was defined. Some of the nominees show physical courage, making work in war-torn areas, bringing a new perspective to life in a conflict. Others display courage in the way they use photography to deal with loss, or to help others deal with loss or post-traumatic stress. There were examples of photography being used as a form of activism and protest, particularly in countries where freedom of expression is discouraged. Likewise, we did not define ‘greatness’ and this too was interpreted in different ways. Some of the greats are responsible for changing the way society sees women, because of the ground-breaking work they were making in the 1970s. Others have achieved greatness through using photography to show that issues affecting women are not taboo areas, but issues that need to be aired, whereas others are seen as great because of the strides they’ve made in breaking down the barriers that prevent women in the arts being seen as equals.


We believe it is extremely important for institutions to support and instigate revisions when it comes to the underrepresentation of any minority or group, how have your reactions been so far to this campaign?


DAB: We have been overwhelmed by the strength and breadth of the response, which highlights just how much work still needs to be done. We intend to play our part by providing a platform for women to showcase their achievements and by supporting the various movements that are trying to make a difference. We are particularly pleased by the response from curators, educationalists and gallerists, showing that there is a real willingness to work together to break down barriers.  The campaign was conducted in an open and inclusive manner, resulting in the active involvement of men throughout – in the back office, the ambassadorial team, on the jury and particularly as engaged followers and nominators, showing that the discourse is not taking part in a vacuum and we intend to continue this engagement. We see this project as one very small step in moving towards a more inclusive, holistic approach.


The selected heroines will be shown in an exhibition in 2019, can you tell us how the works are linked (thematically, chronologically etc), if at all? 


DAB: Details of the exhibition will be published early next year. At the moment, we are not in a position to comment on the curatorial direction, as there are so many different possibilities.


You have had Emmeline Pankhurst’s great-granddaughter and granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst supporting this program, how much has the history of the RPS involved the creation of this campaign? 


DAB: Our heritage and history have been really important. Historically, we were always at the forefront of new developments in photography. This segues neatly into phase II of the campaign, which is to identify 100 historical heroines, who will be chosen by a public vote. We hope that this will help support other campaigns in the prevention of women being written out of the history of photography.


Projects that seek to highlight underrepresented minorities, whether ethnic or gender-based, have often been criticised for providing a brief moment of visibility which then reverts back to the ‘status quo’ afterwards, has Hundred Heroines planned a more permanent scheme to give female practitioners more lasting visibility and space? How will Hundred Heroines continue?


RBL:  The Hundred Heroines is just the start of a series of initiatives that we have planned for the next year and beyond. We want to continue to promote inspirational women in photography, and celebrate those no longer with us. The list of 100 is important at this moment because it marks the centenary of women’s suffrage in the UK. From next year, the project will be renamed to be more encompassing and to provide a platform for all female photographers, not just the selected hundred. We’ll keep you posted as to further developments.


The nominees were announced on the 14th of December 2018, one hundred years to the day since some British women first voted in a general election, in what ways do you feel the arts can help politicians see the changes that still need to be made towards achieving equal representation between women and men across society? 


DAB: Through making politicians aware of campaigns like the Hundred Heroines. The visuality of photography can help them see the need for equal representation perhaps more quickly than the written word. I’m currently talking to Emma Lewell-Buck MP, who supported the campaign in the House of Commons, about how the arts and politics can work more closely together.


Can you highlight specific examples you were surprised by or felt were particularly noteworthy? 


RBL: There were so many highlights, but the final hundred shows some of those that were felt to be particularly noteworthy.


Could you speak more about the process and discussions that surfaced in the panel whilst working on the nominations? 


RBL:  The process of looking at the work of over a thousand photographers was incredibly stimulating and inspiring for the jury. It opened up so many new avenues of understanding contemporary photography practices. Hundred Heroines has created an enormous and growing resource to be accessed and shared, opening the possibilities of new connections and dialogues with photography as a dynamo. The selection of Hundred Heroines reflects a much larger community of female photographers, those chosen to salute and embody this community are emblematic for their inspiration, advocacy and pioneering spirit.


 Finally, could you kindly share some more historical facts about women in the Royal Photographic society? 


From its beginnings, the Society has welcomed women to its membership. Its first rules noted that membership was open equally to men and women. The Society has had as members some of the great women photographers but, reflecting photography more generally, the number has been modest. The first published membership list included seven women, mainly from well-to-do backgrounds. Lady Eastlake, the wife of the Society’s first President, and one of photography’s first critics was involved with the Society although she was not a member in her own right.


Amongst the notable nineteenth-century members were Julia Margaret Cameron, who was elected to membership in 1864 and remained so until her death in 1879; Annie Brassey, the traveller and writer who joined in 1873 until her death; and Viscountess Frances Jocelyn.

In the twentieth century, women members were actively using the new colour processes introduced from 1907 and Violet Blaiklock and Agnes Warburg were instrumental in the setting up of the Society’s Colour Group in 1927. Sarah Acland and Helen Messenger Murdoch were well-known colour photographers. The Society elected its first President, Margaret Harker, in 1958. She was active in British photographic education. The natural history photographer Heather Angel was elected President in 1984.