Mariana Greif Etchebehere, 28, became interested in photojournalism after applying for a study abroad program in Singapore when she was just sixteen years old. Because she didn’t speak the language, she turned, instead, to imagery to bridge the divide between her and her fellow students. “There was a huge language barrier, and the only way that I could communicate or get inside was through taking pictures or writing blog posts,” she tells me. “Since then I knew that photography was the way that got me closer to people, and it was a way for me to understand the world.”
When Mariana and I first meet, we immediately start chatting about our shared passion: women’s rights. As a female photojournalist now working for La Diaria and Reuters in her home country of Uruguay, Mariana knows what it’s like to be a woman working in a man’s world.
“You know how in Spanish we have different words [for different genders]?” she asks me, expressively waving her cheerfully-painted turquoise nails as she speaks. “Photographer is photographera o photographo. And the word photographa doesn’t really exist, so on my press card it says photographo, like male photographer.”
Mariana says it can be frightening to be the only female photojournalist in a room of all men. She often questions whether it is safe to be pushing herself to match strides with her male colleagues.
“You’re at a demonstration, and it’s getting rough, and you see that your male colleagues are still there, and then you think, ‘I can do it, I can do it, I can do it,'” she says. “Then on the other side, your mom is in your mind and your mom is like, ‘no you have to take care of yourself.’ That’s something I struggle with, and you just have to overcome it.”
But Mariana has also learned that being a woman can open doors and give her access that her male colleagues could never hope to gain. During her year working in Greece with refugees on the transit island of Lesbos, she was often invited into the refugees’ tents to capture intimate portraits of their lives, while her male colleagues waited outside. Mariana didn’t have a commission for that project: she spent her own time and money working on stories about refugees purely based on passion. Her dedication to the project, and the time she spent fostering close relationships with the families, is a reflection of Mariana’s empathy. During her time on the island, one of the refugees she was photographing, a young Afghan teenager, committed suicide rather than wait for an uncertain fate.
“That really broke me,” she says candidly.
Mariana is learning Persian, and hopes to travel to Iran where many of the Afghan refugee families she met had transited through on their way to Europe.
“Almost everywhere in photojournalism schools, in a class of 20, 18 are women. But at the end when you’re in the field, they’re all are male. So there’s definitely a problem there that they get demotivated and they think that it’s not for them, and gender is definitely a part of that,” she responds. “I would tell her to keep going and to not get discouraged.”