“Photography is a strange phenomenon. In spite of the use of that technical instrument, the camera, no two photographers, even if they were at the same place at the same time, come back with the same pictures. The personal vision is usually there from the beginning; result of a special chemistry of background and feelings, traditions and their rejection, of sensibility and voyeurism. You trust your eye and you cannot help but bare your soul. One’s vision finds of necessity the form suitable to express it.”
–Inge Morath, Life as a Photographer, 1999
By Jennifer Gandin Le
Where we are born leaves an indelible mark on our bodies. The space where we first take air into our lungs is where language meets our ears, light meets our eyes, and the sensation of skin begins. No matter what follows, the place stays with us.
For pioneering Magnum photojournalist Inge Morath (1923-2002), born in Graz, Austria, the place that captured her imagination and vision was the Danube region in Eastern Europe. For nearly forty years (1958-1995), she made trips along the full length of the river, from the Black Forest to the Black Sea, and photographed the people and landscape along the river through generations of social and political change. She made her first trip along the Danube in 1958, traveling to Germany, Yugoslavia, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. Politics made Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Soviet Union inaccessible to her until the 1990s, after the fall of the Iron Curtain. In 1995, she exhibited her “Donau” project and published a book, but she continued to return to the region; the last trip she took before she died was to the land of her birth.
This July, Inge Morath’s photos of her beloved Danube region will return home.
Nine photographers — all of whom have received the Inge Morath Award, an annual prize given by Magnum Photos members to a woman photographer under 30 — will convert an 18-wheeler into a mobile gallery of her work and drive it along the Danube River, exhibiting the work in the very communities that Morath photographed.
Along the way, the women will create new work, collaborate with local female photographers in the region, and amplify the voices of existing local artists by inviting selected photographers to travel with them. “While we’re trained to be perceptive and pick up things with culture and people and photograph critically, essentially, we’re just visitors,” says Claire Martin of the project’s express mission to “support the under-represented female voice in documentary photography.” “We want people with the real voice of the region to participate in the project.”
“When I started here twelve years ago, the attention was on Inge and her history,” says John P. Jacob, director of the Inge Morath Foundation. “About halfway in, we changed the tone of the website to focus on her legacy. We asked, what can we do for those who feel her influence? It has been incredibly rewarding for us to see this project flow from that change in perspective.”
Danube Revisited’s numbers are impressive: nine photographers, three of their children, one documentary filmmaker, 24 cities and villages, 10 countries, 1,777 miles of river, and all in 35 days — especially when you consider that Morath completed her version of this journey across nearly 40 years.
“I’ve tried to put together group projects with friends before, but it’s never worked,” says Kathryn Cook, who won the Award in 2008. “This is different. There’s a lot of glue between those who have received the award.” Lurdes R. Basolí, 2010 winner, agrees. “I wouldn’t be doing this project without what we have in common — sharing this grant.” Despite the administrative challenges of organizing this project across four countries and over two years, Basolí’s faith in the project never flagged. “We built this ourselves. It was never an option to give up — we all had such deep commitment.”
A unique collaboration in a field known for its solitary work, these nine photographers will spend five weeks sharing ideas, informing each others’ work, pressing each other to grow and evolve, and supporting each other along the way.
“I’ve done collaborative projects like this with my students before, and it’s always been exciting to shoot similar situations, then look at our images together afterwards and see how our eyes are different. I’m excited to do this with these great photographers,” says Emily Schiffer, 2009 award winner. Schiffer and Cook will be traveling with their children, which was another important priority for the organizers. Their Kickstarter page drives the point home: “We are all between the ages of 31 and 41 and would love to prove that there doesn’t have to be an age or a period when women can’t create or take part in an adventure.”
Despite being the namesake for a high-profile award for female photographers, Morath herself was dismissive of the gender issue, emphasizing her photography as the important discussion. However, she and her Magnum colleague Eve Arnold were also proud of their prominence as women photographers, especially in a time when there were obvious gaps in the diversity of not only Magnum, but also the entire industry.
Claire Martin says, “We’re trying to correct the balance from the historical white male bias in documentary photography, and trying to bring it back a bit. Inge was a pioneer that way, and that’s why we’re so inspired by her. She was one of the first to put a woman’s print on work and have it publicly validated and recognized.”
Most of the award winners knew little about Morath when they applied. But through the last two years of planning Danube Revisited, Morath’s legacy has come alive for them in a new way. “As you talk with everyone who knew her, you realize that they created the award out of deep respect and love for her,” says Martin. “In creating this project, she’s become really influential to me. I think of her being the one of the first women, breaking the barriers of entrenched gender roles at the time. How challenging that must have been. How ballsy she must have been to be so defiant, such a powerhouse.”
Jessica Dimmock wonders about Morath’s own perception of her trajectory in the field. “Did she think her career would change things for women, or did she feel isolated by being a solo woman in a field driven by men? Based on the changes she was seeing in her lifetime, did she think the nine of us could exist? Would she have an idea that this many women would be drawn to this craft?”
Jennifer Gandin Le is a writer and photographer based in Austin, TX. When she’s not telling stories with words or images, she’s saving lives through her company Emotion Technology, which works with social web companies to prevent suicide and promote mental health online. When she was just 24, director Francis Ford Coppola commissioned her film adaptation of the best-selling novel The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank. Her non-fiction writing has been published in Wired Magazine, Time Out New York, BUST Magazine, and The Village Voice. Her short film, Small Changes, won the Grand Jury Prize in the 2009 Intelligent Use of Water film competition, and was screened at The Getty Center in Los Angeles. Gandin Le graduated with honors from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
The Inge Morath Award was established by the members of Magnum Photos in tribute to their colleague, who was associated with Magnum for more than fifty years. The annual Inge Morath Award is given to a woman photographer under thirty years of age, to assist in the completion of a long term documentary project. The winner and finalists are selected by the photographer members of Magnum Photos and a representative of the Morath Foundation at the Magnum annual meeting. The photographers participating in Danube Revisited are nine of the past Inge Morath Award winners, who have benefited and grown as a result of the award, and wish to honor the legacy of Inge Morath by retracing her Danube journey. Each photographer brings to the project both a unique personal vision and a common appreciation for the challenges facing women photographers today.
WE ARE: Olivia Arthur, Emily Schiffer, Claire Martin, Lurdes Basoli, Kathryn Cook, Mimi Chakarova, Jessica Dimmock, Claudia Guadarrama, and Ami Vitale.