Honoring women who 'don't have the advantages we do'

womens-conf-iris1.jpgThe panel by Iris Schneider.

In honor of International Women's Day on March 8, the Annenberg Space for Photography coordinated a panel discussion with three impressive women: anthropologist/primatologist Mireya Mayor, Margaret Aguirre of International Medical Corps, and photojournalist Marissa Roth, moderated by filmmaker Penelope Spheeris. The discussion was a call to action, and to pursuing your dreams, and a chance to honor the women across the globe who, Aguirre said, "don't have the advantages we do: clean water, husbands who don't beat them and a good education."

Each participant added another note in what amounted to an impressive symphony of activism, idealism and social consciousness. Spheeris was the perfect moderator who never mentioned her own impressive credentials (director of the documentary trilogy "The Decline of Civilization," on the punk scene, and "Wayne's World" among others), but rather spent an entertaining and inspiring hour examining what or who inspired the panelists as they were growing up, and kept them working. Each of the three women has a noteworthy resume:

Mireya Mayor is a scientist with National Geographic but began her work life as a cheerleader for the Dallas Cowboys. She went on to a Fulbright scholarship, and once she realized what she was really interested in, research in the field of primate study earning her Ph.D. in anthropology. She had 5 children along the way and spoke with humor and authority about the difficulties of being both smart and feminine and having to counter the stereotypes her professors used against her once they found out about her pom-pommed past. Everyone in the audience was right there with her as she described her adventures in the wild. "For me, glamour is in the waist-deep swamp," she said.

Margaret Aguirre is Head of Global Initiatives for International Medical Corps, the LA-based humanitarian organization that operates in 30 countries. She has traveled to Syria, Congo, South Sudan, Haiti, and the Philippines - to photograph, write, and speak publicly about crisis zones and the people being impacted. Aguirre and IMC were in the Philippines within 24 hours after the recent typhoon--the first aid organization to get there-- administering aide with support from the U.S. Navy ships off the coast. Aguirre began her career working for Associated Press and eventually became a producer for CNN. But she realized that being in a control room was not why she got into journalism. She eventually discovered "humanitarian journalism" and now "gets paid to go places I want to go anyway." She has no idea where she will be next, but savors the thought of making a small contribution and helping those stigmatized populations in the most need.

Marissa Roth is a freelance photographer whose exhibit,"One Person Crying: Women and War," looks at the effects of war and conflict on women all over the world. The work is currently touring internationally. Roth began as a freelance photojournalist in Los Angeles working for both the Los Angeles and New York Times as well as Time Magazine. But her self-financed personal documentary project took her 28 years to complete and from Yugoslavia to Vietnam, Cambodia, Japan, Germany, and the American midwest. She found that "even in times of crisis, people do want to speak." Roth photographed and interviewed the woman left behind to maintain the home while fathers, husbands and sons went off to fight. Although it was difficult to be immersed in others' pain, both Roth and Aguirre said they wouldn't have it any other way.

Marissa Roth by Iris Schneider.

"Life is painful and beautiful. The things I've seen are in my pores. It's part of having a full life," Aguirre said.

The young women in the audience--and it's too bad there weren't more of them--wanted to know how to work on stories of their own, noting that these women traveled the world, but aren't there are stories in any neighborhood that need to be told? Roth agreed: "Start small by telling a small story, one picture at a time. It won't take 5 minutes...it might take 5 years. But eventually you'll start stringing your pictures together. Pick a story and go after it. The hardest thing is to just start."

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