Exhibit Puts Spotlight on Women Behind the Lens

Posted February 27, 2007 at 4:33pm

The Sewall-Belmont House will kick off Women’s History Month by celebrating the power of females on both sides of the Capitol Hill camera lens.

On Thursday, the “Eyes of History” exhibit will begin its four-month stint at the Capitol Hill museum, showcasing the award-winning work of White House News Photographers Association members. To some involved with the exhibit, it’s more than just art — it’s also a powerful statement about the changing role of women in photojournalism.

The WHNPA, an organization composed of more than 600 photojournalists dedicated to covering Capitol Hill and the White House, features a yearly contest to judge the best work of its members in a variety of categories, from feature and profile shots to awards of excellence and domestic and international news coverage.

According to Jamie Rose, elected board secretary for the WHNPA, the 2006 award winners were chosen by a panel of three judges, who critiqued the entries without the knowledge of who the photograph belonged to or what news organization it came from.

Heidi Elswick, WHNPA business director, notes that top photos of the contest have already been displayed at a number of museums in D.C. and across the country, and Sewall-Belmont appeared to be the next logical step.

“They’re a wonderful location to showcase,” Elswick said. “So many people, even outside the Washington area, don’t know about the photographers who risk their lives on a daily basis to tell us stories, to tell us the truth, of what is happening.”

Melina Mara, a photographer for The Washington Post who took home the first place prize in the “On Capitol Hill” section, is familiar with the museum’s ability to showcase the achievement of women on Capitol Hill. Her exhibit, “The Changing Face of Power: Women in the U.S. Senate,” is ending its run at Sewall-Belmont just in time for the “Eyes of History” to debut. To Mara, the upcoming exhibit aligns perfectly with the mission of the museum that is home to the National Women’s Party.

“The one thing about Sewall-Belmont is that they definitely want to highlight women’s history … and how women have moved into and been successful in careers traditionally not meant for women at first, or at least not populated by women, like photojournalism.”

Becki Fogerty, education and interpretive program manager for Sewall-Belmont, is excited about the “Eyes of History” display at the museum, which ends July 14. Fogerty believes “it’s more about giving women a voice, a continuous voice. And that’s what our museum is really about.”

In 2006, female WHNPA members took home top awards in numerous areas of both still and television divisions, as well as awards for Photographer of the Year and Political Photo of the Year.

To some, the amount of female winners in the contest simply illustrates the amount of quality work being produced by the growing number of women in the field.

“I’m always happy to see women win because it has been a hard field for us to break into,” Mara said.

Carol Powers, a freelance photographer who received nods as the second place winner in the “On Capitol Hill” category as well as two Awards of Excellence, notes that “these contests are certainly a judge of people’s good work. There’s so much good work out there, male and female.” Powers added that “the fact that women did well … in the [2006] contest is no surprise, because there’s so many good women out there shooting,” and that “it was just our year.”

Powers has seen an upward trend in the number of female photographers since she began her photojournalism career in 1981, when “it was very rare to have women shooters, because the idea was … you couldn’t do the assignment because you might get hurt, or it might be something dangerous,” and that “editors didn’t want to take responsibility for a woman.”

Today, however, females are making their mark in the field. Part of this, Mara said, could be the finesse a woman can bring while shooting.

“I think we bring a different style to the job,” Mara said, “ perhaps a little more subtlety … in the way we photograph … because we’re brought up differently, we have different sensibilities.”

Mara also points out that the numbers of powerful women on the other side of the lens are rising, too.

“There are more women for me to photograph, and there is a woman who is the third most powerful person in the country,” Mara said.

“As women rise up in the ranks, and as women rise in seniority, more and more, we’re going to be photographing women, as we approach parity, not only in number but also in influence.”

The exhibit will be on display through July 14. A special reception open to the public will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday. For more information on the exhibit, or to RSVP, visit www.sewallbelmont.org.