Is it a “Truly ‘Male'” Profession? Women Photojournalists in the Soviet Union

In 1974, Sovetskoe foto published its first (to my knowledge) article featuring women photojournalists. While women photojournalists’ images were featured in Sovetskoe foto, and there were occasional publications about specific photographers or particular images by women, the March 1974 issue of the journal featured a roundtable interview of nine women who significantly contributed to the Soviet press.

The participants were as follows:

Ol’ga Vsevolodovna Ignatovich was the younger sister of Boris Ignatovich, and both were leading members of the modernist Oktiabr’ Group in the 1930s. At the beginning of her career, in the early 1930s, Ol’ga Ignatovich worked for the daily peasant newspaper Bednota (Poverty).  In the mid-1930s she, along with her brother and sister-in-law (Boris’ wife, Elizaveta Ignatovich) while associated with Oktiabr’, formed their own collective of sorts known as the “Ignatovich brigade,” which provided images for a number of publications, including Vecherniaia Moskva (Evening Moscow), Komsomol’skaia pravda, Ogonek and Sovetskoe foto. Ol’ga Ignatovich was a frontline photojournalist for the newspaper Za chest’ rodiny (For the Honor of the Motherland) during World War II. After the war, she worked as a correspondent for APN and for the publishing house Sovetskii khudozhnik (Soviet Artist).

Maia Stefanovna Okushko began her career working for Komsomol’skaia pravda as a secretary in the illustrations department during World War II and her first photograph for the newspaper was published in 1945. She continued to work for Komsomol’skaia pravda after the war, and was invited to manage the photo section of Vecherniaia Moskva in 1964.

Luiza Kalinina, like Okushko, began work in the Soviet press prior to becoming a photojournalist. She worked as a courier for the magazine Sovetskaia zhenshchina (The Soviet Woman) in the early 1960s, before she became a photojournalist for the same publication.

Galina Zakharovna San’ko began working as a photojournalist in the 1930s, accompanying expeditions to the Arctic and the Far East. During World War II she worked for Frontovaia illustratsiia (Front Illustration), photographing the pivotal Soviet victories at the battles of Kursk and Stalingrad. She was later awarded the Order of the Red Star for her service as a photojournalist. After the war, she worked primarily for Ogonek (see my post about her career and work here).

Rimma Likhach contributed to a number of different illustrated journals, though in her work as a correspondent for magazines and journals she photographed “only once in a while, and according to inspiration.”[1] There is little available information about her life and career trajectory, but she primarily photographed cultural activities.

Nina Sviridova often collaborated with her husband Dmitrii Vozdvizhenskii, who was also a photographer and the editor of Kul’tura i zhizn’ (Culture and Life). Their collaborative work was featured in a number of magazines and journals, including Sovetskoe foto, and the couple traveled extensively in the Baltics, Belarus, the Urals and Transcarpathia. Sviridova and Vozdvizhenskii worked for Uchitel’skaia gazeta (Teacher’s Newspaper) and the journal Sem’ia i shkola (Family and School). Later in her career Sviridova worked for Televidenie i radioveshchanie (Television and Radio Broadcasting).

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Nina Sviridova and her husband Dmitrii Vozdvizhenskii, c. 1960s

Elizaveta Mikulina worked as a photojournalist for Ogonek, and was a former member of the Russian Society of Proletarian Photographers (ROPF), an organization in the 1930s that adhered to realism in photography in opposition to the Oktiabr’ group.

Ol’ga Aleksandrovna Lander was a student of Mosei Nappelbaum and David Sternberg. She worked as a photojournalist for Komosomol’skaia pravda and was a war correspondent during the World War II and was awarded a number of medals for her work as a photojournalist, including the Order of the Red Star.  She later worked for the newspaper Sovetskaia rossiia (Soviet Russia).

Galina Vasil’evna Kmit began her career as a journalist, working for Moskovskii komsomolets (Moscow Komsomolets) before becoming a photojournalist. She also worked in radio and television in the late 1960s and 1970s. In 2003, she became an honored artist of the Russian Federation.

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First column: Ol’ga Ignatovich, Maia Okushko, Luiza Kalinina. Second Column: Galina San’ko, Rimma Likhach, Nina Sviridova. Third Column: Elizaveta Mikulina, Ol’ga Lander, Galina Kmit. Sovetskoe foto 1974, No. 3: 10


The introduction to the interview, conducted by Sovetskoe foto contributors A. Sergeev and N. Parlashkevich, commented on the profession of photojournalism as a whole: Photojournalists “do not spare themselves, they generously give their time and energy to their favored business. In any weather, at any time of the year they are shooting and going on business trips. They have a hard, nomadic life, it is a truly ‘male’ profession. Therefore, it is a career women rarely choose.”[2]

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Ol’ga Ignatovich, N. K. Krupskaia i M.I. Ul’ianova na vstreche s rabochimi “Krasnnogo bogatyria” (Nadezhda Krupskaia and M. I Ul’ianova [Lenin’s sister] at the meeting of workers of “Red Bogatyr,”),  c. 1930s
The implication is that women, were “naturally” more inclined towards domesticity and life at home, and careers that did not involve extensive travel or frequent deadlines. Yet, as the women stated in their interview, one of the biggest issues they confronted was lack of female role models and access to positions as photojournalists. Some, despite their love for and interest in photography, entered low level positions at newspapers and journals, only later becoming photojournalists either based on the needs of the publication they worked for, or becoming mentees of other press photographers. In the interview, Galina San’ko thanked Ol’ga Ignatovich and Elizaveta Mikulina because “it was their photographs, seen in Ogonek and Prozhektor (Spotlight) that led me to the pleasant thought: since there are already female reporters, I can become a reporter myself…I was lucky, I learned the basics of photojournalism under the guidance of such masters as Shaikhet, Kudoyarov, Loskutov, Grinberg…”[3] Nina Sviridova and her husband benefitted from mutual artistic and creative vision. Rimma Likhach likewise added that while “Galina San’ko was helped by the experience of her predecessors, her work helped me to become a photojournalist.”[4] Thus, the presence of previous generations of successful women photojournalists played a significant role in their decision to enter the profession.

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Zdravstvui liubov’ (Hello love), Nina Sviridova and Dmitrii Vozdvizhenskii, c. 1960s-1970s

In their roundtable discussion, the photojournalists delved into a number of issues, but primarily talked about their favorite images and themes. They nearly unanimously agreed that they preferred shooting people over any other subject, though not necessarily portraits, but rather snapshots of everyday life. Sviridova noted that apart from set subjects from editors, she preferred to document “human happiness” in its various forms, “manifestations of optimism, joy and bright depictions of the surrounding world.”[5] Rimma Lickhach agreed. They shared their anxieties and frustrations with their work: Ol’ga Lander explained that on shoots she was regularly concerned with tight deadlines set by editors which often did not take into account how much creativity was involved in shooting successful images. Ol’ga Ignatovich lamented that the majority of her negatives from before the war had disappeared from newspaper and journal archives. Each of the women agreed with Luiza Kalinina, who explained that “passion and diligence” were the most important qualities in a photojournalist.

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Ol’ga Lander, c. 1941-1945

In their contribution to the article, Sergeev and Parlashkevich appear not to have registered the content of the interview. Their tone in both the introduction and the conclusion was decidedly patronizing. “There was a lot of talk that evening at the ‘roundtable’… talking about the profession, talking with colleagues and friends – what could be better and more useful for those who know what a hard [profession] it is.”[6] Only a small fraction of the interviews focused on the difficulties of the profession. While some of the women interviewed noted that there were aspects of the profession that were disheartening, only Galina Kmit deigned to admit that “photojournalism is difficult, it’s hard to carry equipment at times…in a word it is not a woman’s profession.”[7] Instead, overall, the interview demonstrated how supportive women photojournalists were of one another. Ignatovich congratulated Okushko on her photograph “The Bride,” which won second prize at the World Press Photo exhibition in 1963. They thanked one another for their service and dedication to the press.  Perhaps Luiza Kalinina put it best: “Of course it is not easy work…but it is the same for any correspondent, regardless of whether you are a man or a woman.”[8]

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Maia Okushko, Nevesta (The Bride), 1963


[1] A. Sergeev and N. Parlashkevich, “‘Za kruglym stolom’ – zhenshchiny-reportery: o professii i o sebe” Sovetskoe foto no. 3 (March), 1974: 15.

[2] Ibid, 11.

[3] Ibid, 15.

[4] Ibid, 15.

[5] Ibid, 11.

[6] Ibid, 16.

[7] Ibid, 16.

[8] Ibid, 16.

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