Women to Watch: Meet the Photographer Empowering Women to Tell Their Stories
Entrepreneurs. Travelers. Artists. Women who do, see, and use their voices to share their perspectives, hopes, worries, pain, and laughter. These are the kinds of women who make up the Wanderful community and the world needs to hear what they have to say.
That’s why Jekaterina Saveljeva is committed to reversing this imbalance by providing women the opportunity to share their stories using their mobile phones.
Frustrated by the lack of diversity in her field of documentary photography, Jekaterina founded femLENS: an organization dedicated to empowering women, regardless of resources, to share their narratives. It’s been four years since she first set off to do this work and throughout this time, she’s worked with single mothers in Ireland, women with physical disabilities in Poland, women living in Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, women vulnerable to human trafficking in the Ukraine, and migrant women living in Berlin.
I recently caught up with Jekaterina, originally from Estonia, who runs the femLENS initiative from Berlin, Germany. During our conversation, we talked about how her love for travel and photography led her to training women around the world in documentary photography.
Claire: For those unfamiliar with your organization, what’s the mission of femLENS?
Jekaterina: Women are still highly underrepresented in photography, and in certain parts of the world, are not participating in recording history at all. We’re trying to challenge that by teaching women to use the available technology in their pockets—mobile phones—in a more meaningful way. femLENS’ mission is to empower women using documentary photography to form their own narratives.
C: In what ways does femLENS fill a resource gap for women?
J: Being a documentary photographer myself, I had to overcome professional obstacles such as being unable to afford proper gear, not knowing how to network, what skills are crucial or can be learned on the job, and so on. I also noticed how little variety there was in terms of who my colleagues were—mostly white, male, middle class, and always older than me.
This lack of diversity worried me—who is showing us their perspective of the world? Why only them and where is everyone else? Others who have noticed this have started to act on this gap, but most of these projects are aimed at elevating existing women photographers, which is necessary for those women but doesn’t train more women nor address the lack of diversity in photography.
The women I try to reach can’t afford to buy even a semi-pro camera or live in places where documentary photography has never crossed their path as an activity.
C: How have your experiences as a traveler influenced your photography?
My idea for femLENS came into focus while on assignment in Guerrero, Mexico.
I spent a month documenting social change in a town challenged by drugs and violence. When I left, I felt like something was missing. While I spent more time there than most photojournalists, I felt that didn’t document anything of substantial value about that place, and most importantly there was no one there to keep the process going, from a local perspective. It felt exploitative to go there, photograph the community with an outsider’s perspective, and then leave again.
I realized if my work isn’t directly benefiting the community, it’s a waste of time. Now I try to always hold a workshop in every place I go to photograph.
C: How did you take the leap from an idea to actually holding your first photography workshop?
I was living in Dublin at the time, so I reached out to a connection there to start a photography workshop. We created a photo walk exhibition where my students posted their workshop photographs on physical places in the community—buildings, light poles, mailboxes, and so on. We had created a printable map of the neighborhood so people could self-tour the exhibition.
This working-class neighborhood sat next to an upscale neighborhood, from which a resident stumbled across the exhibition. She reached out via social media later to express that it had been a memorable day—an eye-opening experience. It was then I began to see the possibilities for these workshops and their ability to challenge stereotypes, such as those between the poor and wealthy.
C: How does photography, and your workshops, in particular, empower women?
J: There are a couple of sides to it, from the deeply personal to the communal experience. The program participants learn, create, and complete something new in a relatively short amount of time. Today, there are so many distractions to start and finish a project displayed for other people to see. But when it’s created through your own dedication and commitment, it gives the participants a serious self-confidence boost.
This has a larger impact on the community of women and girls as they have new role models and a new understanding of what they can or cannot do.
For several workshop participants, the empowering aspect can be in real-life terms. For instance, prize money for winning a photo competition, which happened to one of our students last year. Halima Al Haj Ali is a Syrian refugee who lives in the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon. I encouraged her to enter a photo competition representing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), helping her select a photo and caption.
Even though we applied late, she won $5,000 because her photograph better reflected the reality behind the SDGs. That was powerful.
C: You were born in Estonia, grew up in South Africa and have lived in Ireland, Poland, Spain, and now Germany. What challenges have you faced as a female entrepreneur living abroad?
J: My biggest challenge is that I move too fast and too often! While I integrate very fast and feel comfortable almost anywhere, as soon as I establish connections, I am already planning my next move. People know that I’m not going to stick around, so often the projects don’t go as deep as I would like them to.
And while I am aware of this and would like to find a way to stop, I realize that it’s also helped me in my work with femLENS because it’s given me the ability to find a common language with whoever my next students will be, even when sometimes we work through translators.
C: How do you hope to see the world shift in elevating female photographers and women in general?
J: I think governments need to play a much bigger role in the shaping of society through laws and policies that protect and support women (with women taking active participation in the creation of such laws and policies).
And, of course, more funding for women-led projects. I could give all kinds of statistics about how women are behind men on mobile phone ownership or education or wages, but they are also behind in entrepreneurship and property ownership. This needs to change.
C: Are there any upcoming exhibitions or projects you can tell us about?
J: Yes! In Berlin, we are collaborating with a festival called “Art Despite Exclusion,” featuring work by different artists, readings and talks, alongside our workshops.
We’re also fundraising for a series of workshops in Gaza. Gaza is not easy to get to, requiring all kinds of permissions. Insurance and accommodation are also very expensive. But it’s all worthwhile because at the moment, as far as I am aware, there are only two women photographers from Gaza – and one currently lives in the U.S. I have a great partner NGO there and we hope to not only teach documentary photography but also to form a photo collective so the participants can continue working together after the workshops.
C: Last question—what’s your best advice for aspiring women artists, travelers, and entrepreneurs?
J: I’m a really good saver. Learn to save as soon as possible, as it will provide you many more options for your future. I finally learned to save when I was about 24, and wish I had done it sooner. I wasted a lot of money.
But more importantly, if you want to do something, then you have to go and do it. Don’t forget that everyone has something that they are scared of, but not everyone allows it to hold them back.