Shining the Light: Paola Gianturco

For the past 12 years, Paola Gianturco has worked as a photojournalist, documenting women's lives in 40 countries. Paola, tell me what your work was before you began as a photojournalist.

For the last 12 years or so, I have been working as a photojournalist and I've documented women's work and lives in 40 countries. However, for almost 35 years before that I was in marketing and advertising, corporate communications and public relations.

Additionally, for about the last five years of that time I had been teaching at Mills College and at Stanford University, doing executive programs for women in leadership. I was also working for private corporations, teaching courses about women's leadership. So I had a long career in business. Though I was in advertising and marketing and communications, I was always on the business side, not the " creative side" of those endeavours. I was not a copywriter. I didn't grow up writing. I've never written anything except business reports. I certainly was not a professional photographer. I took off on what I thought was going to be a one year sabbatical, having decided to do only what I loved most and what I wanted to learn next. I never went back.

What was the catalyst for that change in your life?

I had been working full time as well as teaching. I was doing essentially two jobs and in the final year, I was exhausted. I thought "What am I doing?" Then I looked at my funds and realized that I had earned two years worth of money in one year. I thought, "I actually bought myself a year; what would I like to do with that?"

How did you decide? Was it more the travel bug and the sort of interest in exploring different countries and cultures in the beginning?

The Beijing Conference on Women took place in 1995. I was teaching during that time at Stanford with some 25 senior executives. We were watching that conference very carefully. It was a very important event in all of our lives. I heard in the course of the reporting and read afterwards, stories that I had not been aware of, which were that women in the global South were sending their children to school with the money they had earned. I thought, my God, they are heroic. So I wanted to meet them, for one thing, and I wanted to document their stories. I was very interested in the emerging micro-entrepreneurial movement but it was a bit too early for me to know very much about micro credit, although I had begun to read about Yunnus' work. All of those issues propelled me to want to learn more. But when I started, I didn't think I was going to do books. I thought I was going to go work and take pictures and use up my frequent flyer miles.

So you get on a plane with your camera and you go. How does that transform into your first book, In Her Hands: Craftswomen Changing the World?

Pretend that you had in your mind the idea that you were only going to, for one year, do what you loved most. I love traveling. I wanted to learn next about women entrepreneurs and because I'm much too energetic to go lollygagging around, I wondered "What can I do with this interest and how could I capitalize on what I knew?" I also collect folk art so when I stirred that stew, I got the idea for telling the story of women who were sending their children to school with the money they earned from handicrafts. I thought, "How come this story hasn't been told?" If they are doing that, they are changing things not just for their families, but for their community and over time, for their countries and for all of us. So I didn't see these stories as small.

Your second book, Celebrating Women, focused on festivals and celebrations of women in I think it was 15 countries?

That's right.

Throughout the various cultures, traditions and interpretations of the celebration of women, is there a common theme that struck you?

First of all, the commonality was that women were being celebrated. At the most fundamental level, before we think cross-culturally, it astounded me to discover this because women are in so many cultures, denigrated and discounted. The genesis of the idea for the book was that women were being celebrated for one reason or another. What I discovered that surprised me is there are festivals in many, many countries that celebrate women and there are 155 of them listed in the back of the book and on the website.

What I discovered that they did not have in common was as interesting as the fact that they existed. What they did not have in common was any sort of shared reason for celebrating women. The reasons for celebrating women were as different from culture to culture as women's roles were in all these cultures and they were completely related to the way women are perceived and valued in different cultures. What was exciting to me about this project is it blew gender assumptions away. It really made concrete the idea that much of gender roles and definitions are culturally defined.

Can you give me an example, when you say "blown away?"

I can't speak for Canada but when I was growing up in the United States, in the middle of the last century and in the middle of Illinois, it was assumed that women would be nurturing and caring and certainly not warriors. When I grew up, there weren't even women in the military service.

I was astonished to get to Thailand and discover the festival of Thao Suranari. It celebrates a woman, who in the 1800's led other women in Nakhon Ratchasima, the town where they lived, against the Laotian invaders. They were essentially imprisoned in camps outside the city. The Laotians swept down from Vientiane and captured the women, who did something which, in 1950's Illinois, the women would never have thought to do, I think. They said give us your sword so we can kill animals to make a welcoming feast. Unbelievably, the soldiers gave them their swords. The women fed them so much to eat and gave them so much to drink, and they also seduced them. Then cut off their heads, put them in the pond and went home to their children.

In some cultures they might be identified as murderers. In the Thai culture, these women are defined as brave. When I interviewed men, women and children in this town, I was told that these women represented role models not just for the girls but for the boys as well.

Your most recent book is titled Women Who Light the Dark. What inspired that title?

Everywhere I went during this long saga of documenting women's lives for the last 12 years, I saw small groups of local women helping each other with the most serious problems that made life dark for them. Women who were working on issues like child rape and sex trafficking. They were helping each other with strategies that grew in part from the fact that they had virtually nothing in terms of material resources. What they did have was imagination and creativity and determination. It was those elements that they were using to light the dark, hence the title.

You talk about the imagination and the creativity of these women as though it was their currency. Because of the lack of resources, they rely on their creativity, their networking, this social capital in a manner of speaking.

Yes, if you have nothing, you still can sing, you can dance and tell stories, you can make puppets, you can draw. These women were using puppets to educate children in India. They were using line dances to rehabilitate women who had been victims of domestic violence in Vietnam. They were using classical ballet to teach girls from the favelas of Brazil to build discipline because they came out of neighbourhood environments that were so violent that no one had taught them the discipline required to study. The after-school tutorial programs used dance and cartoon animation to help these girls.

In Zimbabwe, where the Girl Child Network is working against child rape, the girls were using poetry as their weapon. The Shona culture has a tradition of poetry and so the girls would write poems about their experiences and then stand up in community meetings, recite and perform their poems. The communities were so shocked that they were mobilized to act against these problems.

You are no doubt aware of your own cultural beliefs and perceptions that can filter the images and stories that you're writing. How do you make sure that the stories you've written are the ones that the women featured want to be told?

Before I start working, I meet with the people who will be featured in each chapter in all of my books. I say, "This book is going to have my name on it out of necessity; that is the method of operation of American publishing. However, I understand it to be our book, not mine." I show them my other books so they know the quality of the work I'm doing, and that they are comfortable. I describe to them the new book and I show them the basic layout and design so they know exactly what I'm doing. Then I say, "What can you tell me or help me discover while I'm here that will make this the most interesting chapter in the book?" Then they tell me. Before I leave – because I'm always working with interpreters and I'm terrified that I will not have had things translated properly, or that because an interpreter who is educated well enough to speak English as well as the local language, may be educated in a way that makes her insensitive to what people are really saying – as I write every chapter, I send it back to the interpreter to read back to the women I interviewed. They then have the right to correct the facts and anything else for that matter, and I change everything that they say needs changing. That's the only way I can feel comfortable doing it.

You will also donate the royalties of this last book to an organization?

All of my books are philanthropic projects. One hundred percent of the royalties from Women Who Light the Dark will go to an organization called Global Fund for Women. It funds organizations with groups of women very much like those women groups in the book. They are the largest organization in the world that exclusively funds organizations that are working on human rights and that are headed by women. Other books have benefited other organizations.

What do you hope to achieve from the work that you're doing?

I really hope that my work will help people understand each other more completely, regardless of gender, nationality and culture. I hope that it will help people work together to collaborate more effectively to tackle the problems that beleaguer women in their families, everywhere.

I think it will really take all of us working together to bring hope and possibility to the world.