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Meet Katy Tartakoff: Photographer for Social Reform

Photography gives us the ability to capture a moment to hold long after it’s time has passed. In an age of snapshot photography, Katy infuses her photography with meaning and emotion, communicating beyond what is immediately visible. In Fall 2017, she joined the WRN delegation in Antigua, Guatemala to consult with a group of activists from the Americas to document the international meeting of powerful women leaders, and served as the photographer at the University of Denver’s Inclusive Global Leadership Initiative (IGLI), which WRN member Abha Bhaiya participated in. Here, we explore her gift of seeing and how she uses her art form to build peace and empathy in her community and abroad – what she calls ‘photography for social reform’.

What inspired you to become a photographer?

I grew up in a unique home environment with many people looking upon each other as brothers and sisters through The Experiment in International Living based in Putney, Vermont. My favorite brothers and sisters were from Africa. They, and all the other students living there, had a huge impact on my life by opening me up to a broader world view. I grew up being very open to different cultures and ways of eating, ways of being, ways of dressing, praying and worshiping.

My upbringing created an interest in an idea of “one world, one people” which drives my belief that we must strive to be kind to each other. All over the world, not just here. It is not contingent on where you are from or if you are in my tribe. We are all One.


"I feel I was given a gift in the way that I see and sense people; I always felt that I was good with people."


I started doing photography when I was 10 years old. In those days, it was black and white film. Color film has just come out, but it was not very affordable. I started out with black and white and still prefer black and white. However, when you are in countries like Guatemala or India or Cuba you have to shoot in color! I think color is so much a part of who these communities are. It is a way of showing that through all of life challenges and adversity there is still color, this pride in their lives. It isn’t just black and white. I think it is good invitation for us to pay attention.

Your work includes nature photography and landscapes, but portraiture is your specialty. You capture people in a very intimate way; non-intrusive but close. Can you tell us about how you use photography, especially capturing faces, to tell a broader story that is unfolding?

I have been doing portrait photography for 43 years – a lot of faces, a lot of stories! I do much better in life with intimate relationships than I do in a big crowd, so the camera is a way that I can get closer and connect with people. There is an intimacy in making photos that reveals people’s essence, especially for women who have such weird images and perceptions of who we are. I love making photos that show their heart and soul that they can look at it as say, “Oh, I love that.”

There is a global conversation going on with #MeToo, women’s equality around the world, women in positions of leadership, feminism not being just for women but also for men, and the gender liberation we are trying to secure. Tell us about what inspires you to work with women activists and on other social justice issues.

I call this ‘photography for social reform’ and it is probably my biggest passion in life. Right now, I am doing some work for Organizing for Action documenting one of the DACA protests outside a state representative’s office and at the detention center where they are holding people to be deported. I am also working for the Women’s Foundation of Colorado for women grantees who have new opportunities with the Foundation’s support, as well as for the Women’s Regional Network!


"Being able to put photos together to tell a story is a powerful educational tool."


I think documenting these moments and being able to put photos together to tell a story is a powerful educational tool. For WRN, I envision beautiful portraits of the women in the Network with text below it detailing their work and stories. Ideally, I want to work with them in their own spaces to make images that show the soul of what WRN does. Those photos can be shared to educate people about the work being done, why we are doing it, and how it is affecting change.

How does being a woman behind the lens impact your work?

It is interesting because, up until the last several years, photography has been a male dominated field. A lot of the work I have done in social reform has been in situations where males are the leaders and, ironically, I get treated more like one of the men than a woman.

When I was in Africa working on a book about HIV and AIDS, the women always got fed last at gatherings and I was fed with the men. The same thing happened when I was in Thailand working on a different book about HIV and AIDS. I sat with the men while the women served everyone. After all the men ate, the women could eat. It felt weird in a bad way! But, I also know that it was out of respect for me. Without the respect and approval of the men, I would have never been allowed to be there photographing, and thus share women and girl’s stories.

Does being a woman give you access to things that you wouldn’t be able to see or participate in as a man? Are you ever overlooked because of your gender?

Yes, I absolutely get access to certain things that I wouldn’t be able to see as a man. To your second question – there are certainly times when I am invisible or am treated like a servant. There are times that I am made to feel like the hired help. I don’t see this as a problem though - my motto is “I live to serve.” I said to Pat in reference to our experience in Antigua that I don’t need to be adored or adulated, but a simple thank you is enough. We all like to be seen for who we are and what we are contributing.

Big thank you to Katy for speaking with the Women's Regional Network and using her gift for socail good. See more of Katy's work here on her website!


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