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Women, Photography and Resistance in Transnational Perspective

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - FEM-RESIST (Women, Photography and Resistance in Transnational Perspective)

Reporting period: 2019-09-01 to 2021-08-31

Women, Photography and Resistance in Transnational Perspective (FEM-RESIST), focuses on photography as a form of resistance and explores how the medium has been used to generate transnational solidarity with struggles against injustice. The project increases understanding of how women have used photography as a medium of resistance, particularly in the context of Nazism in Europe and apartheid in South Africa. The project aims to comprehend what can be learned from the non-violent strategies of resistance women developed in the past, and how they inform resistance to repression in the present; to open academic and public discussions about women, photography and resistance in transnational perspective; and to encourage the participation of women in research in order to address gender inequality, a cross-cutting objective of the Horizon 2020 programme.

The research draws attention to how individual women photographers challenged both repressive states and patriarchal structures, at considerable risk to themselves, and increases knowledge about the role of women in bringing about social and political change. This study positions photography as a means not only for remembering the painful events of the past, but as a medium that can inspire action and resistance in the present. Some of the key questions the project explored are: How can engaging with photographs open new ways of thinking about the past and its significance in the present? What is the state of photographic archives of women who documented resistance to WWII and apartheid? How can the content of these archives best be made accessible to contemporary audiences, both academic and non-academic? Why has the role of women in resistance been marginalized? What can be learned from the non-violent strategies of resistance women developed in the past and how can they inform resistance to repression in the present? How can historical photographs be used in contemporary struggles against antisemitism and racism and in attempts to obtain justice in the aftermath of human rights violations?
The research, which focuses on how photography serves as a medium of resistance and as a way to forge transnational solidarity against oppressive regimes, led to four peer-reviewed articles and numerous dissemination activities. The first article, “Bitter Emotion: Affective Archives and Transnational Solidarity against Apartheid” (2020) focuses on how affective archives of music, images, and poetry travel across time and space and serve as a conduit for raising awareness about injustice and for forging transnational solidarity. This article includes an analysis of an image by anti-apartheid women photographer, Gille de Vlieg, whose work also forms the focus of the exhibition that I curated as part of this project. This article was published open access in the peer-reviewed journal, Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies.
The second article, “Archives for Justice: Photographic Digital Heritage and the Re-opening of the Unresolved Truth and Reconciliation Commission Cases in Post-apartheid South Africa” (2021) entailed conducting research on anti-apartheid photographic archives and included assessing the state of visual archives in South Africa relating to the history of apartheid. This article was published as part of a special issue of the leading peer-reviewed journal, Photography and Culture. Two other peer-reviewed articles focusing on the work of women photographers will be published in 2022.
In addition to these four articles, I published a co-edited volume that makes a critical intervention in the fields of gender and visual studies. Women and Photography in Africa: Creative Practices and Feminist Challenges is the first book to focus on African women’s engagement with the medium. The book offers new ways of thinking about the history of photography, exploring through case studies the complex and historically specific articulations of gender and photography on the continent, and attending to the challenge and potential of contemporary feminist and postcolonial engagements with the medium.
Other works created during the MSCA fellowship include two book chapters, two podcasts, and five online articles that have reached a wide audience.
I curated an online exhibition of photographs by anti-apartheid activist, Gille de Vlieg. The exhibition includes over sixty black and white photographs, eight short videos and a catalogue.
In 2020 I circulated a call for submissions for a special issue on photography and resistance of the open access, peer-reviewed journal MAI: Feminism and Visual Culture that will be published in 2022.
As a researcher from outside of Europe, the MSCA fellowship offered me an excellent opportunity to develop my research network and to connect with researchers working in Europe, as well as in other parts of the world.
The expected results of this project include:

To produce research on women, photography and resistance in the Netherlands and in South Africa that will bring to light experiences of and strategies for non-violent resistance to repressive regimes
➢ To illuminate how photographs can be used to document human rights abuses and advocate for social justice
➢ To draw attention to the critical and largely unrecognised work of women who have resisted repressive regimes, and in this way, to address gender inequality and encourage the interest and involvement of young women in research
➢ To expand the research fields of feminist historiography, visual studies and histories of resistance
➢ To make this research publicly accessible through publications, an exhibition, workshops, debate, and online media
➢ To form research networks between institutions in Europe and between individual researchers from across Europe, Africa and other places, including the Middle East, working on women, photography, resistance and social justice. This network will include researchers working on historical topics as well as women who are focusing on issues such as forced migration and violence in the present
➢ Technical training: the acquisition of new knowledge and technical expertise in archival photographic research and curation

The research conducted for this project casts light on how photographs can be used to document human rights abuses and advocate for social justice and achieves its aim of expanding the research fields of feminist historiography, visual studies and histories of resistance. The work conducted as part of the FEM-RESIST project has been made publicly accessible through research presentations at international conferences, workshops, research symposia and seminars; the project website; the publication of peer-reviewed journal articles, book chapters, and articles in popular media; an edited special issue of a journal focused on photography and resistance; and through an online exhibition.

As a feminist project that foregrounds and showcases the work of women, both in the past and in the present, this research contributes to the European Commission’s Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025, particularly the key objective of challenging gender stereotypes. This aspect of the project takes on additional significance in the light of the international backlash against women’s rights, including within the EU.
Anti-apartheid activist Debora Marakalala, South Africa, 1985. Photograph by Gille de Vlieg.