Venezolana Verónica Sanchis Bencomo Started Foto Féminas To Promote Women Photographers In Latin America And The Caribbean

credit: @estacionmapocho / Instagram

Latin America is in the news again. Today, it’s Venezuela. For the first time in its history, the South American country has two presidents, and each one has fierce support on the country’s streets and in neighboring and distant governments. Images capturing local unrest are once again captivating a global audience, but most of the photos broadcast and published in mainstream media, not unlike coverage of turmoil across Latin America and the Caribbean, are being taken by foreign male photographers, not locals or women, whose critical and varied perspectives during crises like this rarely attract international attention. For five years, Foto Féminas, a platform promoting the work of female photographers from the region, has been fighting to change that, and its efforts are increasingly important.

Created in 2014 by Venezuelan photographer Verónica Sanchis Bencomo, Foto Féminas is elevating a long-overlooked demographic. Through its website, Bencomo features a different Latin American or Caribbean female photographer, sharing their work and story through monthly interviews. On Instagram, these visual artists also have the opportunity to engage with Foto Féminas’ nearly 10 thousand global followers through takeovers that expand their audience beyond the confines of their home countries. The founder also uses this platform to help emerging Latin American women photographers, those who might not yet have the experience or acclaim as her monthly features, but whose talent, too, deserve to be recognized.

“We are all of different ages, backgrounds and come from different countries, but we all share photography and feel that’s what’s most valuable, that we are a community and know about each other and discovered each other’s work,” Bencomo, 32, told FIERCE.

(Courtesy of Foto Féminas)

In recent years, the digital space Bencomo has cultivated, which is now 50 members large, has also expanded into the material world, with Foto Féminas hosting several international exhibitions, photography festivals and gallery speaking events, collaborating with art and photography institutions and creating the first-ever library of photobooks by Latin American female photographers, Biblioteca Foto Féminas – María Cristina Orive.

After working in the industry for about five years, as a photographer, editor, writer and archivist, in cities across England and New York, Bencomo was hungry to discover women photographers in Latin America and interested in seeing the way these locals were covering the stories she was reading about overseas.

“Maybe it’s because I felt slightly or somehow isolated because I was in the UK and New York, and most of the people around me were of other backgrounds. The works I saw were interesting and great, but I wanted to know about our women. That’s why I was always searching,” Bencomo, who now lives in Hong Kong, said.

The photographer, it seems, has been seeking this representation since she first fell in love with the art as a teenager in Caracas. An avid reader of National Geographic, she was drawn to the way photography could be used to inform communities and provide them access to different parts of the world. But in the region she resided in, photography jobs were limited to weddings and events, not the journalism she enjoyed. After graduating high school, her father, urging her to learn English, encouraged her to move to Brighton, England. There, her English teacher, who also spent some time living in Venezuela, suggested that she stay in the country, where she could take courses and even earn a degree in photography. She heeded his advice, first getting a bachelor of technology for photography and later a degree in photojournalism.

(Courtesy of Foto Féminas)

During her time in university and in the industry, Bencomo was introduced to numerous esteemed photographers. Some of them even told her about visual artists in Latin America. Her interest was piqued, and she felt an urgency to discover more. During a three-year gig at Ventana Latina, the art and culture magazine of the oldest Latin American NGO in the United Kingdom, Latin American House, she was given the opportunity to highlight the works of Latin American photographers with monthly interviews for the publication. But soon she realized her features were overwhelmingly of men.

“I researched a lot, but I realized while I was doing this that it was so hard to find women photographers. I was more mature and understanding gender issues, so I began to be more conscious about that,” she said.

Bencomo eventually left England for New York, where she began working as a library assistant at Manhattan’s International Center of Photography, a museum for photography and visual culture and a photography school. While sifting through countless intriguing archives on the job, Bencomo had an idea that could bring all of her interests — gender, Latin America and photography — together.

“I wanted to do something about this, a project, a website, where I could archive and share the content of Latin American women photographers. Everything slowly came together,” she said.

(Courtesy of Foto Féminas)

That’s when Foto Féminas was born. Knowing the barriers that exist for female photographers in Latin America, from being overlooked for assignments that are deemed too dangerous for women or not having the funds to take trips where they can show their portfolio or apply for international awards, Bencomo wanted to create a platform that recognized these women’s work. Additionally, she wanted to use this space to highlight the way local female photographers were telling stories that the world usually sees through the lens of foreign, white men.

According to Bencomo, if this is the only perspective people have access to, they will never have the whole truth. “I left home and there’s a lot of negative news about Venezuela. There’s a lot of truth to that, in Venezuela and elsewhere, but I also come from a family that, despite the struggles and the problems happening in the country, have made things work. There are other more positive and inspiring stories or moving stories,” she said.

In addition to images that highlight state violence and civil unrest, she wants to see photojournalism that captures the spirit of mothers who work two jobs or leave their homelands to provide for their children or that show what it’s like for women to carry a nonviable fetus to term because of stringent abortion laws.

(Courtesy of Foto Féminas)

“The photos we see, the stories we hear, that is one side of the truth, but it’s not the entire picture of Latin America. There can also be other stories to tell,” she said. “I’m interested in seeing variety. I want to see variety. I grew up knowing Caracas is dangerous, but there are other sides as well, and I believe it has to be the same in other countries, too.”

In Hong Kong, thousands of miles away from Latin America, continuing the work of Foto Féminas isn’t always easy. Funding this project with her own pocketbook, she doesn’t always have the means to take flights to the Americas for exhibitions and events. But it’s her passion to break barriers, create opportunities, establish community, shift narratives — including those around the ongoing upheaval in her own nation — and leave a legacy for Latin American and Caribbean women photographers that keep the work afloat.

“It’s all motivation. It’s really motivation that’s the drive,” she said.

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