Street Photographer & Author Gulnara Samoilova On Empowering Women, Artistic Expression & The Power of Confident Work

"Ultimately, street photography is about freedom of expression...women are pushing the boundaries in new, experimental, and challenging directions."
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Gulnara Samoilova is a fine art and street photographer based in New York City. She is the founder of @WomenStreetPhotographers and the corresponding traveling exhibition. We were thrilled to chat with her about her work and newly launched book, Women Street Photographers, which explores the work of 100 women and the experiences behind some of their greatest images. Originally from Russia, Samoilova is a creative whose wisdom is worldly and profound, and the work she has created directly reflects her experience. Her current goal is to empower women, and as you'll discover below, she is certainly succeeding.

Regula Tschumi, 'A Dance of Joy', 2019

Regula Tschumi, 'A Dance of Joy', 2019

You are a fine art photographer and street photographer, in addition to being a curator and editor. Your street photography developed from your work as a fine art documentary photographer—how did this interest come about? And what do you find most exciting and fascinating about street photography? 

Growing up in extreme rural poverty in the city of Ufa (located in the republic of Bashkortostan, Russia), I didn’t have much familial support. It taught me to be an independent thinker, risk-taker, and overachiever. I learned quickly that if I could dream it, no one was going to stand in my way. I applied that lesson to photography, which I fell in love with at 15. 

I realized art and photography were an opportunity to escape the confines of an extremely patriarchal society. I became very serious about studying photography as a teen. I had my first photographs published in a newspaper while I was in high school and soon thereafter became a freelance photojournalist. Being on assignment all the time kept me on the street, and it taught me how to capture the moment as it unfolds. 

I took up street photography when I moved to Moscow to attend college—although I didn’t know what it was called at the time. I just walked through the city taking photographs of people who caught my eye, like women with shaved heads who shocked me in a delightful sort of way. 

What I love about street photography is that it keeps me in the moment. I have to be open and observing, focusing on the world rather than myself, and engaged with other people, the environment, the light—all of these factors necessary to create a memorable image. 

Deb Achak, 'The Queue', 2019

Deb Achak, 'The Queue', 2019

What was the impetus for creating Women Street Photographers? 

Like many women, I have experienced a lot of sexism throughout my career, both in Russia and the United States—but it wasn’t until the 2016 Presidential election that it came to a boiling point. By that time, I had reached a crossroads in my life: I had created an extremely successful wedding photography business but I discovered that making money wasn’t enough. I closed my business and decided to start again. 

I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to do—then Trump got elected. His behavior triggered memories of the sexism I had experienced throughout my life. I decided to channel my frustration into something positive: a platform dedicated to women street photographers. I wanted to create the kind of support I would have liked to have received in my career, be it through promotions, exhibitions, artist residencies, inspirational films, publications, or just being part of a community. I launched Women Street Photographers on Instagram in 2017, and things took off. 

It seemed like this was something people had been waiting for, and not just women—almost half of my followers are men. I’ve been developing the platform organically ever since, developing a website, traveling exhibitions (2018), artist residency (2019), inspirational film series (2020), and now, a photography book, Women Street Photographers (Prestel, 2021). 

With Women Street Photographers, I want to create an inclusive community for women artists from around the globe who are pushing the boundaries of street photography in new and exciting directions. I’m interested in empowering women so that can tap into their creativity and feel confident about making work, whether they are professional or amateur photographers. 

Elena Alexandra, 'Sleeping Beauty', 2019

Elena Alexandra, 'Sleeping Beauty', 2019

Is this typically a male-dominated field? Why do you think this is been the case? What do you think inspired women to get more involved in this specific part of the industry? 

Like most professional industries, white men have dominated the field of photography in the United States. Women did not have the same access, and many of them have been systematically denied opportunities or driven out of the field after encountering sexism. It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that it became illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexuality, or gender—but as we have seen time and again, the fight for equality and against discrimination continues to this day. 

Many people are drawn to street photography because it is affordable and accessible. You do not need fancy equipment or a studio in order to take pictures. You can just pop your camera phone in your pocket and go outside. With the advancements in digital technology and social media, they can make photographs and post them to their feeds, effectively becoming both creator and publisher of their work. They can develop their own communities where they share work and cultivate an audience independent of or in the service of a careerist framework. 

By and large, street photography is not professionalized. It’s something most people do as a hobby; few can afford to make their living off of gallery representation of fine art prints or find a job where the creation of street photographs pays the bills. Ultimately, street photography is about freedom of expression. There’s no one style, format, or approach. As the book shows, women are pushing the boundaries in new, experimental, and challenging directions. 

Orna Naor, 'Women of the Sea', 2019

Orna Naor, 'Women of the Sea', 2019

How did you assemble this group of women and photos?

 I wanted to choose dedicated photographers from all around the world. In total, there are 31 countries and 34 nationalities represented in the book. The women range in age from 20s to 70s. Some have taken up street photography later in life after they had careers and families, while others started as teens and have dedicated their lives to the art. Each woman has her own approach to street photographs drawn from a mix of circumstances that inform her life, combined with what they all describe as a lifelong love of visual art. 

How did you narrow down the selection? Do you have any favorites? If so, I would love to know what about those images stand out to you? 

I made 4x6 inch prints of about 250 photographs and began pairing them together as a sequence of before and after, the same way I curate my exhibitions. I love the work of Nina Welch-King, Michelle Groskopf, Ximena Echague, Linda Hacker, Olga Karlovac, Farnaz Damnabi, Hana Gamal, Dominique Misrahi, and Natela Grigalashvili; their work speaks to me as an artist, a woman, and a citizen of the world. I love the way they transcend the boundaries of street photography to create a new way of seeing the world, whether it’s abstract, expressionistic, poetic, or simply reminds me of a scene from my childhood. They all have their own styles, but they share the ability to create a deeply emotional experience in a fraction of a second. 

Sandrine Duval, 'In the Mood', 2018

Sandrine Duval, 'In the Mood', 2018

Do you think street photography is becoming more inclusive as more women become interested and focused on it as their chosen art form? 

We would need to look at galleries, museums, photo festivals, book publishers, magazine publishers, and auction houses presenting the work of street photographers to see if they present the same amount of women as they do men to know if street photography is becoming more inclusive in the professional realm. 

Gulnara Samoilova, 'Cloud Eaters', 2018

Gulnara Samoilova, 'Cloud Eaters', 2018

What are your hopes for the book and the industry at large? How would you like to see street photography evolve over time? 

I’d like to see more women street photographers given the same opportunities as men in the industries mentioned above. I’ve recently started interviewing women who have published books on IG Live, and by and large, there are not that many of them. 

As for the Women Street Photographers book, I hope it finds a home in the hands of people who love street photography, no matter what their background may be. Nearly half of my Instagram followers are men, a very encouraging sign! What do you say to any aspiring artists who are wanting to start their careers at any age? Don’t be afraid to dream big, and follow your passion. Be patient, do the work, and have fun! 

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