Our post for International Women’s Day resonated with many of our readers, who asked about sharing their own images of powerful women. In response, the Your Shot community launched the hashtag challenge #portraitsofstrength. While my initial blog post focused on women photographing women, our hashtag challenge was open to photographers of any gender sharing images of the strong women they’ve photographed. I chose images from the submissions that showcased the strength of the female subject, reflected a genuine interaction, and carried a story of inspiration. Below are my top five selects.
Rolia Manyongai-Jones was born in Liberia to the indigenous Gola tribe. She grew up in a village and did menial labor for the Americo-Liberians. Determined to make more of herself, she successfully applied to schools in America and left to pursue her dream. Tragically, in 1980 the first Liberian civil war broke out, leaving her stranded in America not knowing the fate of her family and community. Left devastated and alone in Portland, Oregon, she lived hand-to-mouth while getting her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She finally landed a job at Portland Public Schools where her focus was teaching disadvantaged children African dance and building solidarity with the rest of the African and African American community. Rolia has reached a celebrity status in the Portland metro area; she is known as the “dancing lady” at the Portland Trailblazer’s (NBA) games when they play on home court. She continues to teach African dance and founded both the African Women’s Coalition that helps immigrants and refugees from all parts of Africa get settled in the U.S., and also Kukatonon African Children’s Dance Troupe.
I have been photographing Rolia for years but never felt I captured the essence I was looking for, so I asked her to do a more intimate portrait shoot in traditional African dress. To me the stillness, repose, drama, and texture of this photograph visually describes that she has arrived at a significant stage of her journey. She has overcome tragic loss of love, family, and country, suffered discrimination from fellow Africans, and endured impoverished conditions to pursue her dreams. She is the beacon of light for African women in the community and continually instills hope in those where it has long since fled.—Sandy Banister
When I took this photo I was conducting fieldwork as a Ph.D. student to measure the socioeconomic impact of the creation of two new Marine Protected Areas in the north of Madagascar. My field team and I were working in Marotogny, Madagascar, and as part of our work, we arranged a trip to the small island, Nosy Iranja. This woman, who lived in Marotogny, needed to visit her relatives in Nosy Iranja, so we offered to bring her with us. She suffers from leprosy. This is true for many people in Madagascar. Now it is pretty easy to cure in its early stages with medicine. However, the isolation of many villages in rural areas makes access to doctors difficult. Because this woman didn’t receive treatment until too late, she had to amputate her right leg.
But what makes her strong is that despite terrible disease and amputation, life is continuing. She continues to visit her children, which takes several hours both walking and boating. This fantastic strength can be seen in her face. She seems deeply calm and peaceful. When I look closely at her face, I can see a subtle smile and lights in her eyes as she is telling us that beyond hardships, life remains beautiful. At least, that is what I hope this picture is telling us.—Sébastien Desbureaux
I photographed Terra while documenting lesbian women in South African townships for my project “Rainbow Girls,” the third installment of my ongoing project “Proud Women of Africa.” South Africa is still home to high levels of violence against women and children, despite a constitution widely regarded as the most progressive in the world and after a legislative overhaul that safeguards women’s and children’s rights. Lesbian women in South African townships are confronted daily with threats of violence. They are constantly intimidated and are often cast out by their own families. In spite of all this, Terra and the other lesbian women of Gugulethu and Khayelitsha township continue to be proud of who they are and the love they represent. Today Terra is a determined and outspoken filmmaker. She wants to tell stories from the townships in order to educate people in her community and empower other young women to speak up and to not be afraid of who they are. Part of my work is to let my subjects tell their own stories, as I feel that only they can bring across what they have gone through. I have included Terra’s below.
“My name is Terra and I was born in Cape Town on April 21, 1989. I got kicked out of the house when I was 16 years old because I’m a lesbian. Up until then I lived a secret lesbian life, and living a lie is very difficult. You have to come out and be yourself. I started then living with my grandparents who were very strict and taught me to be disciplined. Life was hard, but you always have to remember, “If I’m not gonna make it through this, who is going to make it for me?” The name “Terra” is a butch name, and it gives me respect where I live. I’m not safe living in Gugulethu as a black lesbian. I’m not safe in my community. I’m not safe in South Africa, and I will never be safe. I’m living in fear, but with the respect I got I seem to be able to stay out of trouble. There are people who discriminate and criticize me when I walk down the street with my girlfriend. Community can break people’s heart by being harsh with their presumptions, but we all have to fight hate crimes, otherwise I think we will always be the victim. We have our own freedom and shouldn’t live in fear. I’m making a documentary right now about the hidden, untold, and painful stories of lesbian women in the townships that need to be heard. All we have is love! We love each other and they can’t break us because new generations like us are gonna fight. We are able to respect and to love, and people here in our community, in our townships, need to know this. It’s not the apartheid from [a] long time ago, it’s apartheid amongst ourselves in the black community.”—Julia Gunther
I am working on a photography project about religious and ethnic migrations in my city, Reggio Calabria, in the south of Italy. The first community I photographed was the Indian Sikh community. I spent several Sundays in the temple. Here, Sikh women and men prayed in the same room. I loved this portrait. I don’t know a lot about this woman’s life. I only know that she is married and is the mother of two children. I captured this moment when she was in deep prayer. As an outsider, I found her spirit very strong, and I like that she is surrounded by other women, it speaks to family. For me this photograph is about spiritual strength.—Paula Kajzar
This was a precious and serendipitous moment. The 95-year-old matriarch of our family, Kazuko Kurashina, had finished eating dinner, which included sushi and sashimi (fresh tuna, her favorite food) served with a cup of green tea. After visiting with her family members, she decided to retire for the night. When I peeked into her bedroom shortly thereafter, I saw her face with her eyes closed and her aged hands over her face. It was a moment when she was just falling asleep, going to visit her private dreamland for the night. My camera was in the living room, and I grabbed it to capture this image of her. Over many years, as the matriarch of our family and clan, she has taught us to “hope for the best, overcome hardships with resilience, and love people with compassion.”
Mrs. Kurashina was born and raised in northern Japan. The saddest day of her life came unexpectedly when she lost her firstborn son due to illness. If antibiotics had been available, she thinks he most likely he would have survived. It took almost her entire life for her to overcome the untimely loss of her child. She and her husband always said that their children were their true family treasures. They cared for their children deeply, and loved their life surrounded by their children and later by their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The matriarch is admired, respected, and loved so greatly by everyone. Today, she is like a time capsule, embracing her stories and memories from nearly a century of her life.—Hiro Kurashina
On Monday, March 30, at 2 p.m. EDT we will be holding a chat with Sarah Leen on the National Geographic magazine Facebook pageNational Geographic magazine Facebook page. As both the director of photography at National Geographic and a female photographer, Leen will engage in a conversation about strong female subjects, portraiture, and female photographers.