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"There's something special that happens between women" – Georgina Goodwin on the power of the female photographer

A woman sleeps on a narrow bench in a wooden hut in the all-female Umoja village in northern Kenya.
Being a woman grants Kenyan photographer Georgina Goodwin access to places her male counterparts may not be welcome, such as the all-female Umoja village in northern Kenya. It was established in 1990 by Rebecca Lolosoli as a sanctuary for homeless survivors of violence against women. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 24mm f/2.8 lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24mm f/2.8 IS USM) at 1/40sec, f/5 and ISO200. © Georgina Goodwin

Photographing unrest in her home country, Kenya – starting with its post-election riots in 2007 – has taught documentary photographer and Canon Ambassador Georgina Goodwin how to spot signs of danger. "If I see a group of young men who have been drinking, I protect myself by keeping my distance," she explains. "Sometimes, I see a moment unfolding but can't get my camera out – instead, I let the opportunity pass and keep walking. If you're attracting attention, what you're witnessing becomes fake, and that feeds into inauthentic photojournalism. It makes it impossible to tell the story properly."

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Women continue to be under-represented in photojournalism, and experiences such as Georgina's might explain at least part of the reason why. But she has also learned that being a female photographer can work in your favour. Georgina has photographed for UNICEF, the World Food Programme and Greenpeace, as well as news agencies such as Agence France-Presse. A male photographer might have found it difficult to get access to some of the environments in which she has been welcomed – places such as the cervical cancer ward at Nairobi's Kenyatta National Hospital and the Gynocare Women's and Fistula Hospital in Kenya's Rift Valley, not to mention Umoja, an all-female village near the town of Archers Post in Samburu County, Kenya – also known as "the village where men are banned".

"It would require a lot more trust for a man to be allowed in," she says. "Of course, there are many gentle, loving men who work in the industry, but there's something special that happens between women. I see it all the time. African women recognise humility and quiet strength in each other and they look for it in me, too."

A woman looks at her mobile phone while sitting in a waiting room at a cancer hospital.
Georgina uses three main lenses for much of her work, usually in the same order. The versatile Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM) is used here to establish the story – to capture the waiting room and corridor at Faraja Cancer Centre in Nairobi. Damaris, 42, is pictured sending a message to her daughter while waiting for radiotherapy. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III at 24mm, 1/13sec, f/5.6 and ISO2500. © Georgina Goodwin
Laura Morton and Catalina Martin-Chico look on as Ilvy Njiokiktjien speaks at a panel on stage at the Visa pour l'Image festival.

What's keeping women out of photojournalism?

At the Visa pour l'Image photojournalism festival, three Canon Female Photojournalist Award winners discuss the barriers women face.

While, for Georgina, being a woman in a male-dominated industry can often be a benefit, this isn't the case for every female photographer. That's why Women Photograph – a global group of female visual journalists, of which Georgina is a member – was set up in 2017 to increase the visibility of female documentary photographers. The organisation has nearly 1,000 members across more than 100 countries. Its mission is to "ensure that our industry's chief storytellers are as diverse as the communities they hope to represent".

Each day, via Twitter, Women Photograph looks at the lead photo bylines on the front pages of global news outlets and provides a percentage breakdown of images taken by women. In the final week of January 2020, for example, 47% of images that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald had a female byline. At the other end of the scale, the Associated Press scored zero. In between, organisations such as The Guardian and the BBC sat at 20% and 30% respectively.

A young woman sits on a bench holding her newborn baby at a clinic in Bujumbura, Burundi.
Georgina uses a Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM lens for more intimate shots, such as this image of Claudine Nshimirimana, 21, with her second child at an Association Burundaise pour le Bien-Etre Familial (ABUBEF) clinic in Bujumbura, Burundi. The clinic offers advice on sexual health, family planning and living with HIV and AIDS. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS at 1/320sec, f/3.2 and ISO2000. © Georgina Goodwin/IPPF

Safety above all else

Does Georgina feel she's ever been overlooked for a job because of her gender? The answer is yes – but not for the reasons you might imagine. "It took me a long time to be given an assignment in Somalia," she says. "There's definitely been hesitancy when it comes to dangerous places – in many cases it's because the editors genuinely care about their journalists and don't want them to be harmed."

If a photographer is to remain in such a heightened state of awareness and, at the same time, deliver photographs that tell a story, they need to be at one with their kit, and this is an area where Georgina excels. She is never without her Canon EOS 5D Mark III, and she works methodically, often using her three main lenses in the same order.

A young woman in a hospital bed is comforted by an anaesthetist.
Georgina often photographs women when they are at their most vulnerable, so she needs to ensure she gains their trust beforehand. Here, anaesthetist Mark comforts 25-year-old Phillis during corrective surgery at the Gynocare Women's and Fistula Hospital in Kenya's Rift Valley. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM) at 29mm, 1/30sec, f/4 and ISO3200. © Georgina Goodwin/Fistula Foundation

"The Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens is my workhorse," she explains. "It gives me the freedom to shoot far, middle and close in 30 seconds, so I know I won't miss anything."

Once she's happy she's established the story, she switches to the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM) for portraits and scenes that require a compressed perspective. Then and only then does she break out the lens that, for her, is the star of the show – the Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM.

"It's really sharp and has a lovely depth of field," she enthuses. "It allows me to be intimate with my subjects without them being intimidated by the kit. I move to it once I have all the other shots in the bag, and it allows me to really sink into things and get creative."

Rows of houses in the Mahama Refugee Camp in Rwanda.
The Mahama Refugee Camp in Kirehe, Rwanda, is home to around 54,000 refugees who fled Burundi after violence broke out in 2015. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM) at 200mm, 1/200sec, f/9 and ISO200. © UNHCR/Georgina Goodwin

Crucially, when working in more sensitive situations, she never hides the fact she's a photographer. "When I visit the cervical cancer ward, my camera is visible at all times," she says. "I stand in the doorway, introduce myself in Swahili, and explain why I'm there."

She makes sure she meets each woman individually; sometimes there may be two or three patients to a bed, but she spends time with each one before starting to photograph. Such an approach nearly always means missing images, but this is something Georgina accepts. "Often, I see moments unfolding and can't photograph them. But it's so important to gain the women's confidence and trust first, as this allows them to carry on as they were before. Then, I can be with them for as long as I want."

A young girl in a red dress sits on the floor next to a boy sleeping in a bed covered with a mosquito net.
Malaria remains a major public health and socioeconomic problem in Kenya. In the village of Milalani on the south Kenyan coast, mosquito nets are provided to prevent the spread of the disease. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM lens at 16mm, 1/400sec, f/2.8 and ISO2500. © Georgina Goodwin/TanaNetting

Despite the many positive experiences over the course of her 13-year career, Georgina acknowledges there will always be room for improvement. She recognises she works in a small corner of the industry, but has still observed an increase in the number of women being hired for photographic jobs, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Women Photograph. But it's not easy. "There are less physically and emotionally demanding jobs," she says, laughing, "and you have to put in so many hours in order to be seen. Male or female, black or white, it's exhausting [trying] to stay relevant."

Autors Ailsa McWhinnie


Georgina Goodwin's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Georgina Goodwin's kitbag containing Canon cameras and lenses.

Camera

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

The successor to the Canon EOS 5D Mark III that Georgina favours. This beautifully engineered, thoroughly accomplished all-rounder is designed for professional performance in every situation. Unleash the 4K filmmaker in you and add 4K EOS Movie to your creative portfolio.

Lenses

Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM

A standard zoom lens that goes just that little bit further, whether you're shooting photography or video. "It's my workhorse… It gives me the freedom to shoot far, middle and close in 30 seconds, so I know I won't miss anything," says Georgina.

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM

A modern classic: this fast-aperture telephoto zoom lens is a favourite with photographers in virtually every genre. It’s now even better in bright light, and engineered to perform in the most challenging conditions.

Lenses

Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM

A versatile, compact pancake lens. A fast maximum aperture enables low-light shooting and depth-of-field control. "It's really sharp and has a lovely depth of field," says Georgina.

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