From Tina Modotti onwards: women in photojournalism 

Until January 28th, 2024, the exhibition “Tina Modotti: L’Opera” (Tina Modotti: The Work) will be on show at Palazzo Roverella, Rovigo. It is not only one of the largest collections of photographs by Modotti ever shown, but by far the most comprehensive ever seen by the Italian public – with more than 300 pictures, most of which have never been displayed in the country.

The curatorial gaze itself also constitutes a novelty on an international level: curator Riccardo Costantini remarks how the aim, while putting the show together, was to “focus on the work rather than on the photographer’s life,” in order to “rediscover her outside of her biography”. When it comes to an icon like Modotti, in fact, going back to her work more often than not means concentrating on her biography rather than the pictures she shot.

The exhibition at Palazzo Roverella, on the contrary, brings up all of Modotti’s modesty and spontaneity, the immediacy and straightforwardness – in the highest sense – of her way of working. Most of all, what emerges is her stubborn determination to be where you need to be. In a nutshell, it is a representation, in the form of an art exhibit, of what photojournalism should be: being there, where things are happening, to bear witness to events and possibly report on them.

Tina Modotti, Donna di Tehuantepec, Messico, 1929 ca.

Modotti refused to be called an artist: “Whenever the words “art” or “artist” are used in connection with my photographic works,” she once said, “I feel an unpleasant sensation due no doubt to the misuse of such terms. I consider myself a photographer and nothing else.” Her way of being was far more practical. She had a direct and simple approach to the medium. It was about being in the right spot at the right moment, with her camera and her sensitivity at hand – or so it feels when walking through the Roverella exhibition. In Modotti’s case, saying photography was not art was perhaps not to lessen it, but to affirm that it was a form of expression in its own right. Again, the point was simply being there, and telling a story. This way of thinking might also be what allowed Modotti to form such strong connections with the subjects she photographed – and to be able to choose the right details to report on their stories, albeit often finding herself in complex social contexts. The recurring use of metonymy (a figure of rhetoric indicating the choice of showing a part to portray the whole) is a perfect example of her awareness as a photographer.

However – even if one refuses to look at her biography – Modotti today means more than the photographs she shot. She stands as a symbol: one of the first women to challenge the idea of photography, and photojournalism, being a male dominated industry. She was a forerunner – to whom all female photojournalists today seem to owe something. The fight to reclaim the right of women to be where men have been for decades – reporting on wars, crisis, revolutions, the big events of the day – goes on.

Tina Modotti, Campesinos che leggono El Machete, Messico 1929

Today, if we are able to access photographs showing the most critical events of our time, it is also thanks to the tireless work of women photographers and photojournalists around the globe – once again, to their determination to be where one needs to be. As the war in Palestine unfolds, for instance, most of the information that struggles to leave the Strip is owed to the courage of women like Samar Abu Elouf and Mariam Riyad Abu Dagga – who, charging their camera batteries in their moving cars, in a city with no water and electricity, are shooting some of what will become the pictures that shaped our generation.

Photojournalism might or might not be art, pictures shot today in Palestine, Ukraine, Syria or South Sudan might or might not be nicely framed and hung on museum walls one day – but what is sure is that part of what keeps us in touch with our humanity – today as per a hundred years ago, when Tina Modotti started photographing – we owe to the courage of the men and women who choose to be there, taking up a camera.

Matilde Moro
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