April Wiser is the CEO and founder of Foto Femme United (FFU) — an international women’s photography collective and community based in Paris, France. She is a publisher and an exhibited photographer herself who has explored themes around fine arts, women, fashion and much more through her extraordinary work. Using their innovative and feministic platform, April and her team highlight the work of women, non-binary and transgender photographers and writers. We recently interviewed April about her journey, and inspiration that led her to establish FFU, the future of women in the photo industry. Read ahead.
CFWIJ: Photography is a powerful tool. How far have we come with representation of women photographers and photojournalists across the world? Do you think it is being used to its potential?
April: No. This is something I am really trying to express. It (photography) is the one language that transcends all of the others. We can’t really say that about any other verbal language where we can just look at something and collectively everyone has some sort of understanding. With the power there is also a lot of responsibility. In my opinion, the photo industry is not serving the public well because it is really male-dominated. It is only one perspective of a story.
When I was a student, we would often do these exercises where we would all go to the same event and look at the variety of different things people shoot, the way they shoot, the perspective, the intimacy and the expression that you can get from people. It is really male-dominated and we don’t have the whole side of the story. A lot more needs to be done to bring women and their work in the spotlight, and give us an equal chance to tell a story.
Foto Femme United is a very powerful platform for women in the photo industry. What led you to take that first step and establish a community that tries to intertwine feminism and representation of women using photography?
It was from my own personal experiences while dealing with sexism in the photo industry. I am a photographer and have been to school with a lot of women as well, so after having discussions with them and realizing that all of them have at least one similar story. It was not just an isolated incident and not just something in my head. We then started a collective towards the end of 2017 and it evolved over the years. It was really small with me and two other women at the time, and we decided to feature photographers.
In terms of social media, there was difficulty in doing that because of the shadowbanning and the removal of photography because there is nudity. Even if you follow and respect their community guidelines, they will still shadowban you and remove your photographs. It started getting really suffocating, so we had some discussions about it and realized that we could just build our own website. I started doing a lot of research as well to see how the situation was; and it was much worse. So we started developing different content and finding contributors. It was really important for us to have all kinds of perspectives; and today, there are 23 of us now.
How do you and your team brainstorm ideas?
Sometimes we look at different themes. They usually pitch their ideas to me and I am more like a timekeeper. I make sure that nobody is stepping on each other’s toes and writing about the same thing. I usually leave it pretty open and give them some direction. Sometimes, we have different photographers submitting press releases for their exhibitions or different people approaching us to be featured or written about, so we incorporate those kinds of things as well. Most of the topics just happen to be around women. It is not advised but it is just their choice most of the time. It is important that they are featuring photography by women, non-binary people or transgender photographers.
Foto Femme work is based around women. How do you make sure there is diversity of background, more inclusion of women of colour?
Most of the projects we feature are from Latin America right now. Sometimes we have French photographers but we do have some different photographers from Europe. This is something I have been discussing with my team. A lot of times we work on the different submissions we receive. But I have been speaking to my team to go out and dig in to find some photographers in different areas that we haven’t covered very much.
What is Foto Femme United’s process to discover photographers for the exhibition?
The recent exhibition was an open call for women. This was our first one, so it was not too bad. We received 139 submissions, so that is over 400 photographs. It was really diverse and submissions came from all over the world, which was really an honor.
For a lot of different competitions, you have to pay, so all the printing, and send submissions over. Sometimes, it is across the world, which can be very expensive. We understand that a lot of women working in this sector are not really being paid as much as men. So we wanted to make this really accessible to anyone, which is why there was no submission fee. We are actually covering the cost of printing and framing as well.
What efforts do you have to consider to sustain Foto Femme United?
We have a lot of different content that we are showing right now. The idea is to find other ways offline as well. We do a lot of things online but we are now starting pop up exhibitions. I started in Paris because it is practical for me. Since it was our first time, it was a test to see how it goes. Then we just have to look at how it went and see where things need to be modified. But the idea is to have these exhibitions worldwide in order to give more opportunity to women, so they can exhibit their work. I do have some other things which are in progress right now, but since we have not finished, we are not going to make any announcements about it just yet.
The ongoing exhibition by FFU is focused on censorship. Please tell us more about that.
I wanted it to be something really confrontational because people are scared around the topic and they think it is really annoying. But it is much deeper than that. So I really wanted to show people that it is more than annoying and the effects that it can have on people in general. It is a photography exhibition but it is also showing the kind of things that they are blocking on Instagram and other social media.
It is a moment to educate people and make them aware about how social media censors people. They pass content by companies or accounts, which are clearly about money or influence because these accounts are allowed to post something that does not even respect their own guidelines. We or other feminist accounts are unable to post content because it is maybe not an idealized version of a body or it is not a young person. I really find that dangerous and it is perpetuating this old thinking.
I wanted to choose something that I find really relevant and something that people can think of in a deeper way.
What kind of feedback has the exhibition received so far?
At the moment, we have not really received any backlash. I thought there would be a lot more because I was trying to compare the different comments that people may have. From time to time, we have received comments from different men and there is still a lack of understanding about why these different groups exist. A young man recently if they were any men working on the project, I had to explain to him that our approach is to push women, non-binary and transgender photographers and writers in order to achieve equality. There is still some work to be done so that everybody understands what that means.
With several collectives and communities like Foto Femme United, and others such as We Women and Women Photograph to name a few. How do you see the future of women in photography/photojournalism evolving?
It is definitely a good start. Women Photograph’s platform is becoming quite huge. They are doing so many different things both online and offline like workshops. The more we go forward, there will be even more similar groups and collectives. The best way to at least start is to take matters into your own hands. We should not wait around for things to work out on their own and use social media to express what we are thinking about the situation.
Do you think there is a shift in the narrative about women and non-binary individuals claiming their space in the global photography industry?
I have been really trying to find some numbers about it and the fact that I’m having a difficult time proves that there is still a lot of work to be done. I’m glad that at least it is being addressed. We have started seeing those words more often but quite honestly more work needs to be done.
How much has social media helped in creating wider possibilities for a greater number of women in photojournalism?
There are so many people who use Instagram. Personally, I use it more than Facebook. In terms of image and video, it is the platform to use. Despite their efforts to shadowban and remove people, it is still moving forward and photographers are being discovered that way. We have also discovered really amazing photographers that have submitted their work to us. It is really touching to be able to show their work in print magazines as well and help them move forward in their careers.
What advice do you have for women who want to pursue photography but are often, to this day, let down because of the space dominated by men?
I would say you need to be daring. You really can’t be somebody who waits around for things to come to you. You have to go and demand it yourself. You really need to be a self-starter, find your voice, find what it is that you really want to do and don’t be afraid to take risks.
This interview was originally written for Women In Journalism Magazine by The Coalition For Women In Journalism