Elizabeth Herman is a photojournalist, researcher, writer and champion of women's stories told through stunning and, oftentimes, complicated imagery. Historical narrative frequently overlooks women and their relationship with power — most notably in images — which has been Herman's career focus. She's spent years traveling the globe working to give women a place and space to inhabit public memory. And now she has turned her lens toward the political.
It was with this in mind that she pitched The New York Times with an idea: photograph the women of the 116th Congress. The project, jointly photographed with photographer Celeste Sloman, came to be and is redefining how we all will remember women in power. As Herman herself described the project, "It expands the collective imagination about what power can and should look like."
Read on as we speak with the dynamic woman behind the lens of this monumental portrait series.
What is your career backstory? Give us a hint of your trajectory as a photojournalist and researcher until today.
In undergrad I studied political science and economics; I didn’t study journalism. But there was an extra-curriculum journalism club at Tufts (just outside of Boston). I first started with photojournalism then and trained with really wonderful documentary photographers and photojournalists.
And when I graduated I extended the research work I did as an undergrad — I did a Fulbright in Bangladesh studying the way the war there is remembered, specifically by looking at history textbooks (which built off research I had done in my undergrad thesis). I was in Bangladesh for a year and started working on A Woman’s War as a side project, which was an extension of a workshop I had taken in Vietnam the summer after I graduated (but through Tufts). In both Vietnam and Bangladesh women play a huge role in conflict, as they often do, but they are not remembered in dominant historical narrative and public memoir of the war. At all.
I moved to New York and decided to try and pursue photojournalism full-time, so I started freelance while still working on A Woman’s War independently applying for grants. I did some work in the UK and Ireland for funding. And I always knew I wanted to go back for my Ph.D. and applied to Berkeley and started in 2014. I wanted to continue the work on public memory, on historical narratives.
But I started to shift more to conflict studies and psychology. And for my dissertation I’m now looking at how trauma and PTSD affects intergroup relations after conflict. Current conflict literature doesn’t really account for the humans living through conflict — there are lasting psychological effects of conflict and that will naturally affect communities after conflict ends.
And then came The Women of the 116th Congress. I read that this project was your idea! How did it come about?
I hadn’t done much political photography but was interested in it, and felt that with my background it would be a really natural overlap. I shadowed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on election night (not the primary night, but the general election in November) and it was so interesting how different images of her as a politician in spaces of power looked so different from images I had been used to seeing.
It was kind of born out of that idea — in the weeks following this idea kept popping into my mind that there’s a historic number of women that are set to serve in Congress. I had been the year prior to the National Portrait Gallery where they have all the presidential portraits. I was super struck by Obama’s portrait — mostly how differently Obama occupied that space [of power]. And the painter, Kehinde Wiley, did that on purpose. He brings people that are not typically depicted as powerful into those spaces. So in a direct nod to his work I thought it would be interesting to photograph these women the same way.
So, you pitched The New York Times to photograph all 131 women of Congress?
Yes, I wrote the pitch and sent it to Martha Taylor Swartz, The Times photo editor in D.C. And that’s what is so interesting about pitching, there is always so much going on that you have no idea about as a freelancer. It was a really serendipitous series of events — The Times wanted to do something on the women of Congress and hadn’t figured out what yet. Then I came to to them with this.
The original idea was of a change in representation, but through having these conversations with the editors it evolved to photograph all the women of Congress. So it was this really interesting confluence of events that it all came to be. We finally got approval on December 13th, 2018 and we were shooting on December 18th. I did the initial round of phone calls to the women, and we all working on this giant spreadsheet to make it happen. [Editor's note: 130 women agreed to sit for the portraits.]
When you reached out to the Congressional women about the project what was the reaction?
We hit a tipping point to make it happen because the initial response was like wait, what? You’re photographing all the women? Not just the new women? It was a joint effort with photographer Celeste Sloman, and we shot for two full days the first week. After the first day it really became a topic of conversation on the Hill, which built momentum. Once we photographed about half of the women, we hit a critical mass and everyone understood what we were doing.
Why did you think this portrayal was necessary right now in the context of our living history?
We all grow up in societies and in communities and we consciously and unconsciously see power — there are certain things we associate with power just because either we’ve be explicitly told these things are powerful or we’ve seen them put next to each other again and again. It’s like Pavlov, when you ring the bell the dog gets food. When we think of power, we see this image, and then this image begins to represent power in our minds.
I think that associating women and power has not been done in our historical narrative or in our conversations, and definitely hasn’t been done in our imagery. It’s not enough to just have conversations about these women, we need to see them.
So it’s actual images of women in places of power that need to be added to historical record?
Yes. Like at the State of the Union when all the Democratic women were sitting in the same area of the chamber and wearing white, that’s a visual mark. They are sitting in a physical place of power, physically occupying that space and they are representing this is what power looks like in this moment.
Talking about women being in power and knowing that there are more women in Congress than ever — both are incredibly important — but seeing this mass of images taken together, portraying these women, letting these women occupy these spaces that have been historically reserved for men, that may shift and influence the way that we perceive power. There’s a vacuum of these kinds of images of powerful women in the world — what if we can create 131 of them to be part of historical record?
How intentional were you when composing the portraits of the women?
I relied heavily on historical portrait paintings (those were the reference images) for the setting itself and setting up the actual poses. It was very intentional, and it was very important that we were making a clear nod to the past. When you translate poses of power that men have typically done to women, it’s not a copy and paste. Many poses men take that are read as powerful are not poses women can take.
For example, I wanted to use JFK’s presidential portrait as reference for Nancy Pelosi’s portrait. He has his arms crossed and is looking down (to be read as a thinker). Speaker Pelosi was very into the idea, and she was even wearing a suit that modeled JFK’s. She hit the pose and looked down but it read as passive. So I asked her to look directly at the camera — the image didn’t end up running, the editors chose another — but it was such a strong illustration of the edits women have to make to be seen as powerful, and the ways women have to edit their language or bodies or dress in order to convey the same kind of power as men.
What was the mood of the women in the room when you were shooting the portraits?
When we were shooting on January 2nd, we were photographing a lot of the new members — women that were political newcomers and they had just gotten their keys that day and were getting sworn in the next day — it was such a cool moment. The energy was electric, a lot of them knew each other so there were lots of high-fiving and hugging. It was a really cool day of shooting.
And photographing the current sitting women of Congress the week before was also really interesting because they’ve been engaged in the political landscape for a really long time, some for the fifth and sixth term.
It must have been such an electrifying few days behind the camera!
It’s sort of impossible to characterize the full scope of it, but one of the coolest moments was when Nancy Pelosi’s office organized a group shot on January 4th of all Democratic women of the House. I was sitting on the ground waiting while the women were filling in — and I’m scanning all their faces and thinking, we photographed every single one of these women. It was this really crazy, energetic moment that translated in the photo.
Even when we were photographing women from across the aisle at the same time — a lot of those women have relationships with each other, so it was more of a communal atmosphere than you may expect given the current political climate.
Did you feel like this project was a cornerstone of your professional career?
It was a dream assignment. I’ve done portraits but never political portraits. It really was a unique set of events that put it in motion and I can’t emphasize enough how much of a team effort it was. The print spread had a phenomenal design team behind it with the 27 different covers for the 27 different locations. The editors made it all possible, namely Beth Flynn and Marisa Schwartz Taylor of The Times.
Most of the projects I’ve worked on really independently, aside from the few I’ve had mentors on, but true collaboration is missing. Part of what made this project so amazing was the team effort and all the behind the scenes to make it possible.
What was the most moving part of this project for you?
The coolest part of this project was seeing little girls and young women interacting with the print spread, opening it up and flipping through pages and pages of women visually represented in a way that women are not usually represented.
Women are typically shown as demure or sexy, or if they are represented as powerful it’s as angry, irate, aggressive, bitchy. Seeing powerful women without the usual negative connotations of women of power — 130 images of them — and adding these to historical record is important.