From Gerda Taro to Susan Meiselas, 5 female photographers who documented the war

Robert Capa, James Nachtwey, Gilles Caron, Don McCullin… Dominated by men, the history of war photography has nevertheless known many female reporters who worked in war zones, documenting the horror of the world. Unlike men, these female photojournalists had privileged access to the privacy of local families and offered a new perspective on the country.

Gerda Taro, Lee Miller, Catherine Leroy, Christine Spengler, Anja Niedringhaus, Susan Meiselas, Carolyn Cole, Françoise Demulder… These are eight great Western war photographers that the Leclerc Moulin Liberation Museum has decided to highlight in an exhibition that “questions the notion of gender, questions the specificity of the female gaze on war, shakes up certain stereotypes, shows that women are just as much transmitters of images as witnesses of atrocity”.


Over 75 years of conflict, the event presents “intimate glimpses of daily life during the war, testimonies of atrocities, references to the absurdity of war and its consequences” and what happens among others “behind the front” through “more than 80 photographs, a dozen original newspapers and magazines”. On the occasion of this exhibition, spotlight on five great war photographers who marked their time.

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Gerda Taro

Born in 1910 into a Jewish family, Gerda Pohorylle, her real name, spent her childhood in Germany. In 1933, the young woman decided to settle in Paris, in the midst of the rise of Nazism, and began to sympathize with communist ideologies.

It was in the French capital that she met the Hungarian photographer Endre Friedmann, who became her mentor and taught her the basics of this art. Endre Friedmann… Does that mean anything to you? And yet yes, it is Robert Capa, who used, like her, a pseudonym, and who is known as one of the greatest war photographers of the 20th century… So much so that he became invisible and spouse’s work is (often) appropriated.


From 1936, the couple signed together a joint work, under the names of “Robert Capa” and “Gerda Taro”, and posed as an American photographer and his agent. For the anecdote, the pseudonym of Gerda Taro pays homage to the Japanese painter Taro Okomato and Hollywood actress Greta Garbo.

The two closely document the civil war in Spain from 1936 to 1939, and work to fight against the fascist regime. Bodies torn away, explosions, soldiers on the front lines… Their photographs travel around the world and are a great success, such as the “Death of a Republican soldier”even though their true identities are soon discovered.

Determined to portray a “war in motion”Gerda Taro, for her part, attends the training of Republican women soldiers, forges links with young female fighters and follows the “Battalion of 21 nations”, a unit sent to the Cordoba front.


Until today, many images taken by the couple or only by Taro are signed Robert Capa. Having initially chosen to publish her first photographs under her husband’s name, she sees his name for the first time in a publication, in the journal Regards, in March 1947. It was on the front line, in the Spanish town of Brunete, that Gerda Taro died in July 1937, hit by a tank.

Lee Miller

Lee Miller has been a successful model, posing for Vogue, Glamor or even for the surrealist artist Man Ray, before becoming a photographer. Her modeling career and her determination allowed her to pass brilliantly behind the lens, and to make contacts in prestigious publications.

After having cut his teeth on fashion editorials, Lee Miller convinces vogue to send him into the field, documenting World War II and the Nazi concentration camps. The American photojournalist began her mission a month after the Normandy landings and exclusively covered the Allied advance.

She photographs the emaciated bodies of the victims, the corpses, the collaborators in the public square, the executions and the Nazi soldiers who wanted to flee their sentence, then ends her journey in Germany to show the contrast between the peaceful life that reigned there and the ruins. At that time, few were the women sent for this kind of mission. His images stand out as they are more detailed, more contrasting and less factual than those of his male colleagues.


Lee Miller then became more widely known thanks to his portrait taken in the bathtub of Hitler, with the help of photographer David Scherman, in 1945, while the German dictator was hiding in a bunker, a few hours before his suicide. Beside her, a portrait of Hitler contemplates her. We can also make out her boots, still full of dust from the Dachau concentration camp that she has just documented. Behind her, the shower hose recalls the atrocities committed by the Nazis in the concentration camps.

After the war, Miller falls into a depression and suppresses his traumas. She also quit photography. When she dies, her son discovers the extent of her archive and the horrors she witnessed. His visual language, largely influenced by the surrealist current, marked the 20th century. She is now considered one of the greatest photographers of her time.

Susan Meiselas

Susan Meiselas is one of the rare women to be part of the Magnum agency, which she joined in 1976. It was during her studies, in the 1970s, that she embarked on photojournalistic projects and she began to cover the conflicts in Latin America, in complete autonomy. From 1978 to 1979, the American photographer documented the Nicaraguan revolution. She uses color, a rare practice until then when it came to covering such a conflict. Being a woman, she has easy access to the guerrilla camps.


It was his images of the Civil War that brought him public attention. At the end of this report, she was awarded the Robert Capa gold medal and returned to the field to bear witness to the civil war in El Salvador, between 1980 and 1992. This time, she used film in black and White.

Close to the people in Nicaragua, who trusted her, she nevertheless decided to remain distant from the people of El Salvador, for safety. His photograph “The Man with the Molotov Cocktail” is one of his most emblematic works: it still embodies the spirit of liberation struggles in our time. Today, Meiselas lives in New York and continues to work around Latin America.

Anja Niedringhaus

At only 24 years old, Anja Niedringhaus is the first woman to become a permanent photographer for the European Pressphoto Agency. The German photojournalist began her career covering the war in Yugoslavia, from 1991 to 2001. She joined the Associated Press a year later and continued her career by documenting the wars in Iraq, Gaza, Afghanistan and Libya. .


2005 was an important year in her career as she received the Pulitzer Prize for her work in Iraq. Known for her closeness to the local population, she often testifies to the difficult living conditions, humanizes her subjects and maintains an accurate perspective.

Since 2003, Niedringhaus had worked as an “on-board journalist”, that is to say, she followed a particular unit in its movements. The only woman in the group, she had to adapt to life in the community, to the rhythm of the soldiers and “to the directives of the army”, notes the museum.


She immortalized the difficulties of the soldiers on a daily basis without portraying them as heroes of the nation. For example, she wanted to denounce Marines putting bags on the heads of Iraqi prisoners and was fired from the unit, before being reassigned. In 2010, she was injured by a grenade but returned to work after a heavy convalescence in Germany. It was in the course of her duties that the photographer was killed in 2014 during the elections in Afghanistan.

Carolyn Cole

Photographer for the Los Angeles Times, Carolyn Cole began to take a greater interest in conflict zones in the late 1990s. The American reporter was the only journalist to witness the 2002 besieging of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, by the Israeli army.

This event lasted a month and saw Palestinian civilians, law enforcement and fighters entrenched in the place of worship. Being entrenched with the Palestinians, she bears witness to the violence from within, photographing the men killed by Israeli snipers.


It was this report that earned her the Robert Capa gold medal in 2003. The same year, she was also present at the beginnings of the Iraq war and testified, from Baghdad where she worked, to the first bombardments by the army. United States. She places herself more on the side of the suffering of the Iraqi people than of the army, even if she is also commissioned to immortalize military operations.

From the Iraqi capital, she leaves for Liberia to cover the civil war, to report on the violence, the death that is raging, and the refugee camps. A year later, she was twice awarded the Pulitzer and her second Robert Capa gold medal. Today, you can still find the photographer in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, which now focuses on ecology and the protection of marine environments.


“Women war photographers”an exhibition to visit at the Liberation Leclerc Moulin museum (Paris), until December 31, 2022.

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From Gerda Taro to Susan Meiselas, 5 female photographers who documented the war