• March 27, 2015

#PortraitsofStrength From the Your Shot Community

Jessie Wender

Our post for International Women’s Day resonated with many of our readers, who asked about sharing their own images of powerful women. In response, the Your Shot community launched the hashtag challenge #portraitsofstrength. While my initial blog post focused on women photographing women, our hashtag challenge was open to photographers of any gender sharing images of the strong women they’ve photographed. I chose images from the submissions that showcased the strength of the female subject, reflected a genuine interaction, and carried a story of inspiration. Below are my top five selects.

Picture of a woman dressed in traditional clothing from liberia posed in a stlized way with dramatic lighting
Rolia Manyongai-Jones, Portland, Oregon, 2014
Photograph by Sandy Banister, National Geographic Your Shot

Rolia Manyongai-Jones was born in Liberia to the indigenous Gola tribe. She grew up in a village and did menial labor for the Americo-Liberians. Determined to make more of herself, she successfully applied to schools in America and left to pursue her dream. Tragically, in 1980 the first Liberian civil war broke out, leaving her stranded in America not knowing the fate of her family and community. Left devastated and alone in Portland, Oregon, she lived hand-to-mouth while getting her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She finally landed a job at Portland Public Schools where her focus was teaching disadvantaged children African dance and building solidarity with the rest of the African and African American community. Rolia has reached a celebrity status in the Portland metro area; she is known as the “dancing lady” at the Portland Trailblazer’s (NBA) games when they play on home court. She continues to teach African dance and founded both the African Women’s Coalition that helps immigrants and refugees from all parts of Africa get settled in the U.S., and also Kukatonon African Children’s Dance Troupe.

I have been photographing Rolia for years but never felt I captured the essence I was looking for, so I asked her to do a more intimate portrait shoot in traditional African dress. To me the stillness, repose, drama, and texture of this photograph visually describes that she has arrived at a significant stage of her journey. She has overcome tragic loss of love, family, and country, suffered discrimination from fellow Africans, and endured impoverished conditions to pursue her dreams. She is the beacon of light for African women in the community and continually instills hope in those where it has long since fled.—Sandy Banister

Picture of a woman sitting on a beach wrapping herself in a beautifully patterned red cloth
Nosy Iranja, Madagascar, 2014
Photograph by Sébastien Desbureaux, National Geographic Your Shot

When I took this photo I was conducting fieldwork as a Ph.D. student to measure the socioeconomic impact of the creation of two new Marine Protected Areas in the north of Madagascar. My field team and I were working in Marotogny, Madagascar, and as part of our work, we arranged a trip to the small island, Nosy Iranja. This woman, who lived in Marotogny, needed to visit her relatives in Nosy Iranja, so we offered to bring her with us. She suffers from leprosy. This is true for many people in Madagascar. Now it is pretty easy to cure in its early stages with medicine. However, the isolation of many villages in rural areas makes access to doctors difficult. Because this woman didn’t receive treatment until too late, she had to amputate her right leg.

But what makes her strong is that despite terrible disease and amputation, life is continuing. She continues to visit her children, which takes several hours both walking and boating. This fantastic strength can be seen in her face. She seems deeply calm and peaceful. When I look closely at her face, I can see a subtle smile and lights in her eyes as she is telling us that beyond hardships, life remains beautiful. At least, that is what I hope this picture is telling us.—Sébastien Desbureaux

Picture of a woman posing for a portrait wearing a white button down shirt and standing in front of a wall that is painted blue on one side and green on the other side
Terra, Cape Town, South Africa, 2012
Photograph by Julia Gunther, National Geographic Your Shot

I photographed Terra while documenting lesbian women in South African townships for my project “Rainbow Girls,” the third installment of my ongoing project “Proud Women of Africa.” South Africa is still home to high levels of violence against women and children, despite a constitution widely regarded as the most progressive in the world and after a legislative overhaul that safeguards women’s and children’s rights. Lesbian women in South African townships are confronted daily with threats of violence. They are constantly intimidated and are often cast out by their own families. In spite of all this, Terra and the other lesbian women of Gugulethu and Khayelitsha township continue to be proud of who they are and the love they represent. Today Terra is a determined and outspoken filmmaker. She wants to tell stories from the townships in order to educate people in her community and empower other young women to speak up and to not be afraid of who they are. Part of my work is to let my subjects tell their own stories, as I feel that only they can bring across what they have gone through. I have included Terra’s below.

“My name is Terra and I was born in Cape Town on April 21, 1989. I got kicked out of the house when I was 16 years old because I’m a lesbian. Up until then I lived a secret lesbian life, and living a lie is very difficult. You have to come out and be yourself. I started then living with my grandparents who were very strict and taught me to be disciplined. Life was hard, but you always have to remember, “If I’m not gonna make it through this, who is going to make it for me?” The name “Terra” is a butch name, and it gives me respect where I live. I’m not safe living in Gugulethu as a black lesbian. I’m not safe in my community. I’m not safe in South Africa, and I will never be safe. I’m living in fear, but with the respect I got I seem to be able to stay out of trouble. There are people who discriminate and criticize me when I walk down the street with my girlfriend. Community can break people’s heart by being harsh with their presumptions, but we all have to fight hate crimes, otherwise I think we will always be the victim. We have our own freedom and shouldn’t live in fear. I’m making a documentary right now about the hidden, untold, and painful stories of lesbian women in the townships that need to be heard. All we have is love! We love each other and they can’t break us because new generations like us are gonna fight. We are able to respect and to love, and people here in our community, in our townships, need to know this. It’s not the apartheid from [a] long time ago, it’s apartheid amongst ourselves in the black community.”—Julia Gunther

Picture of a Sikh woman praying at a temple
Reggio Calabria, Italy, 2014
Photograph by Paula Kajzar, National Geographic Your Shot

I am working on a photography project about religious and ethnic migrations in my city, Reggio Calabria, in the south of Italy. The first community I photographed was the Indian Sikh community. I spent several Sundays in the temple. Here, Sikh women and men prayed in the same room. I loved this portrait. I don’t know a lot about this woman’s life. I only know that she is married and is the mother of two children. I captured this moment when she was in deep prayer. As an outsider, I found her spirit very strong, and I like that she is surrounded by other women, it speaks to family. For me this photograph is about spiritual strength.—Paula Kajzar

Picture of a woman who is far along in years, as she falls asleep with her hands up over face
Kazuko Kurashina, Tokyo, Japan, 2014
Photograph by Hiro Kurashina, National Geographic Your Shot

This was a precious and serendipitous moment. The 95-year-old matriarch of our family, Kazuko Kurashina, had finished eating dinner, which included sushi and sashimi (fresh tuna, her favorite food) served with a cup of green tea. After visiting with her family members, she decided to retire for the night. When I peeked into her bedroom shortly thereafter, I saw her face with her eyes closed and her aged hands over her face. It was a moment when she was just falling asleep, going to visit her private dreamland for the night. My camera was in the living room, and I grabbed it to capture this image of her. Over many years, as the matriarch of our family and clan, she has taught us to “hope for the best, overcome hardships with resilience, and love people with compassion.”

Mrs. Kurashina was born and raised in northern Japan. The saddest day of her life came unexpectedly when she lost her firstborn son due to illness. If antibiotics had been available, she thinks he most likely he would have survived. It took almost her entire life for her to overcome the untimely loss of her child. She and her husband always said that their children were their true family treasures. They cared for their children deeply, and loved their life surrounded by their children and later by their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The matriarch is admired, respected, and loved so greatly by everyone. Today, she is like a time capsule, embracing her stories and memories from nearly a century of her life.—Hiro Kurashina

On Monday, March 30, at 2 p.m. EDT we will be holding a chat with Sarah Leen on the National Geographic magazine Facebook page. As both the director of photography at National Geographic and a female photographer, Leen will engage in a conversation about strong female subjects, portraiture, and female photographers.

There are 15 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Pepper
    April 29, 2016

    I feel the comment made about the woman in prayer was a little harsh, really he or we doesn’t know what she was doing, the women behind her are smiling and playing with her baby. I doubt she was in deep prayer and I think if she was uncomfortable with a camera in her face, she would’ve let it be known. Other words, didn’t be so harsh to judge.

  2. sonia maria goes
    April 3, 2015

    Amo ver as fotos, e matérias da Revista especialmente sobre Mulheres, crianças, culturas.

  3. abhyuday chowdhury
    April 1, 2015

    personality – well captured, nice photography.

  4. Phyllis Heller
    March 31, 2015

    So powerful on so many levels. Thank you for sharing these important stories and images. I look forward to seeing future work from all of you.

  5. Andrea D
    March 30, 2015

    To Paula Kajzar: You say the Sikh woman you photographed was “deep in prayer.” What gave you the right to intrude on that? How dare you literally ‘take’ that image? I suggest that you think about the ethics of photography, and get off your high horse of presumed entitlement.

  6. Patricia Przybylinski
    March 30, 2015

    Stunning selections. I am in awe. Thank you very much! Patti P

  7. Ksenia
    March 30, 2015

    Wow..These photos are so powerful, inspiring and impressive. I`m deeply respect for these strong women.

  8. Brianne
    March 29, 2015

    Beautiful. Thank you

  9. Jo Ann Farabee
    March 29, 2015

    Magnificent photographs! Your project was wonderful! These entries are elegant, profound and beautiful. They begin the ‘women’s tale.’ Thank you. What excellent photographers.

  10. shirin
    March 29, 2015

    gorgeous photography.
    wonderful expressions on those faces

  11. Ruam
    March 29, 2015

    Powerful,stirring, inspiring & beautifully captured.

  12. Emma Beaufort
    March 29, 2015

    this is just stunning, thank you

  13. Irene McDonald
    March 28, 2015

    Loud and powerful in their silence. Beautiful photographs of beautiful women.

  14. Gretchen Colton
    March 28, 2015

    I found these pictures phenomenal ! ! !

  15. Isabel Hernández tibau
    March 27, 2015

    me parecieron impresionantes todas la fotos y los felicito, pero me sentiré feliz cuando no se tome el tema MUJER, como algo aparte de la creación. No me gusta eso de la igualdad de sexos, porque NO SOMOS IGUALES somos COMPLEMENTARIOS, y eso está bien, lo cual no quiere decir que no seamos capaces unas y otros de desempeárnos ( si la situación lo giera ) de desempeñár cualquier tipo de tarea .Yo me siento cómoda y feliz de ser mujer y me gusta saber que hay tambiénhombres que se sienten cmodos y felices de ser hombres. No tenemosporqué competri, sólo hay que respetarse mutuamente y hacer en la vida lo que nos haga sentir bien y realizados.

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