Girls learning how to swim in the Indian Ocean on Zanzibar’s coast — a beautiful and calm image. It’s also striking if you know the backstory: For these girls — who for years were prohibited from going in the water by their conservative Muslim culture — learning to swim is a revolutionary act. They are not only acquiring a potentially life-saving skill but also gaining access to a new space.
“It was phenomenal to watch their facial expressions and body language shift from total fear and utter trepidation to peaceful, and then to what ultimately revealed itself as confidence and joy,” says photographer Anna Boyiazis, who was chosen as one of the Leica Women Photo contest winners for her work documenting the swimming lessons.
The contest, in its second year, gives a platform to female photographers like Boyiazis who chronicle long-term, change-making projects.
“These artists engaged with the communities they were documenting in a respectful way, with the intent of empowering the young people in their images,” said Elizabeth Krist, contest judge and former National Geographic photo editor.
When Boyiazis’ first visited Zanzibar many years before she started this project, the local people told her, “Girls don’t swim” — to which she replied, pointing to herself, “This one does!”
Years later, Boyiazis learned from a fellow journalist that a nonprofit organization called The Panje Project was teaching children in Zanzibar to swim in an effort to stop the high number of drownings. The organization helped break the “girls don’t swim” taboo by providing burkinis — a swimsuit that covers the entire body except face, hands and feet — so the girls could be in the water while following their culture’s dress code.
“It was fulfilling to photograph alongside a group of women swim instructors who are supporting positive change for women and girls in the archipelago,” says Boyiazis.
“By encouraging long-term cultural change — the acceptance of women learning to swim in an Islamic community — Anna Boyiazis’s project Finding Freedom in the Water could literally save lives, says Krist.
During the summer of 2020, Karen Zusman rode with a Black Lives Matter bicycle group and photographed onlookers’ responses. She was particularly struck by how youth of color responded to the protest bike ride.
When the group’s route stopped in Brighton Beach, New York, there was something about the place that held her attention. She made the beach the backdrop of her next project: photographing kids of color and then running a poetry workshop with the same kids (Zusman has an MFA in poetry) where they get to write poem-captions to go with their pictures.
The idea was to give the children the chance to respond and make the work more collaborative, “feeding on each other’s energy.”
“It’s my camera and my framing, but it’s their spirit, gestures, intelligence, creativity, confidence and, most important, their strength that gives the images their potency,” says Zusman.
Ultimately, she says, she hopes to stage the project as a large-scale outdoor exhibition.
For Zusman, it’s not only what she is doing for the kids, but the positive effect they’ve had on her. “They’ve taught me how to smile more. To trust myself more. To go for it. I mean, really go for it. It’s as if my own powers have been revealed in the process of celebrating theirs.”
Matika Wilbur, a visual storyteller and licensed primary school educator from the Swinomish and Tulalip peoples of coastal Washington, has spent a decade traveling to more than 400 tribal nations.
Through her research as both a photographer and educator, Wilbur found that many state history standards fail to cover Native Americans post-1900 — an oversight she says is “damaging to native and non-native youth.”
What little documentation of contemporary native communities that does exist is often “poverty porn,” says Wilbur. And that’s not what she wants her students — or any students — to think of Native American culture.
She hopes her continued work through her Project 562 — dedicated to photographing the more than 562 federally recognized tribes in the United States — will help inspire native peoples and counteract problematic stereotypes.
“I remember thinking: I’m showing contemporary representation of indigenous people to my students that is traumatizing them. And I’m not doing the work. I can’t be a part of the problem that’s causing harm to the students. My job is to inspire them. My job is to give them hope,” says Wilbur.