The local newspaper listed the number of countries that have women presidents. What attributes got them the job? There was a time when a woman needed courage, determination, and perseverance to become successful in a man’s world. At that time society felt women belonged in the home.
One woman who couldn’t be found in the kitchen was a unique photojournalist.
Margaret Bourke-White was born in 1904. She learned photography as a hobby until it earned her a salary. Her own studio quickly proved that photographing elegant homes and gardens was not her thing. Adventure was.
White would go anywhere to get her pictures. She was charismatic so people gave her story leads. She also had a sixth sense about who would be useful to her and she was charming, persuasive, manipulative and persistent. White did this because she considered a photographer to be a witness and getting a story a privilege and a duty. She did it at a time when there was no television and no satellite transmissions to get word out to the whole world within hours.
There was no limit to how far White would go to get a photograph. For example, White was living in India and knew Gandhi. She had photographed him many times and before leaving India, took one last picture of him. She said her goodbyes but before she left the country, she heard he had been assassinated. She rushed to his house and was welcomed by his family and friends, who were her friends too. They asked her not to take pictures. She smuggled in a camera and using a flashbulb, actually got off a shot before her friends threw her out of the house. That didn’t stop her. She tried to get back in. If there was a conflict between loyalty to friends and the demands of her work – work came first.
And speaking of firsts – White had many. She was the first female industrialist photographer in 1927 and in 1929, the first photographer for Fortune Magazine. She was the first westerner to enter Russia in 1930 where she made the first complete documentary of the newly emerging Soviet Russia by traveling for five weeks capturing dams, factories, farms and workers. She later photographed the Russian people. Her photographs and six articles were published by The New York Times Sunday Magazine.
In 1935, White was the first photojournalist hired by Life Magazine. She photographed everything from the New Deal towns in the Midwest to the growing conflict in Europe. Her assignments took her around the world – to the Arctic Circle, Europe, the Soviet Union, India, South Africa and South Korea. She made history with her haunting photos of the Depression.
In early 1941, tensions were high in Europe and Life Magazine asked her to return to Russia to make a comparison between the current Russia and the one she saw ten years before. When the first bombs fell on Moscow, White was the only foreign photographer present.
White was the first female war correspondent and the first to work in combat zones during World War II. She traveled with General Patton’s troops through Germany. She flew in American bombers on their raids, taking pictures of the destruction. She was one of the first photographers to document the death camps.
She managed to get an incredible number of opportunities, to get where the action was, and to be there when it happened by working hard and using her intelligence and intuition. She was able to sense the potential of a great story and convince the editors of Life to transport her to the hot spot on time. This talent combined with her photography led her to a great achievement in her own life and a place in history.
In 1956, White was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Experimental brain surgery was successful and she wrote about the ordeal. When Parkinson’s returned, she had another operation. Although considered successful, it left her unable to speak without great difficulty. She wrote her autobiography.
In 1971, she was badly injured in a fall. While confined to a hospital bed, complications caused her death on August 21, 1971 at the age of 67. Margaret Bourke-White was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1990. She was and still is one of the most important photographers of the 20th century. That’s better than being president.