Tara Todras-Whitehill ’95 needed Darth Vader. And, after sprinting through an abandoned Star Wars
set, she finally found him: fist-bumping next to his Tunisian-flag wearing girlfriend as an unusual rainstorm pelted the strobe-lit desert sand.
She had been sent to shoot Tunisia’s Dunes Electronique festival. Besides boosting a devastated tourism sector, the festival—held in abandoned Star Wars
sets—was meant to show that despite corruption, income inequality and security force violations, Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, was inching towards peace.
But when a rainstorm and blizzard shut down most performances, and the Charlie Hebdo tragedy led to tourist cancellations, Todras-Whitehill found that the thing she was meant to photograph (Star Wars
fans partying in Star Wars
sets) wasn’t there.
This only made her more determined.
“I was never a normal child,” Todras-Whitehill says. “I showed up to my Spence interview wearing a band uniform. I didn’t even belong to a band.”
Todras-Whitehill was a Penn engineering major when she realized that she loved photography. Undeterred by pressures that discourage female risk-taking, she abandoned a profitable career track to assist photographers in New York.
She became interested in women’s rights after doing a series on abortion. Her subjects—wearing T-shirts with “I had an abortion” across the front—sat at eyelevel, gazing straight at the viewer. Todras-Whitehill even got to photograph Gloria Steinem, who “describes her abortion as the first time she acted in her own life, rather than let things happen to her.”
In 2005, Todras-Whitehill moved to the Middle East, quickly becoming an AP staff photographer with a focus on women working to improve their communities. She photographed female militants in Gaza; female candidates campaigning for gender equality in Egypt’s male-dominated, post-Mubarak Parliament; and, most recently, the Arlanskoy Theatre Group, “an all-women’s Turkish troupe that goes to tiny towns and puts on plays about issues of domestic violence and lack of education,” according to Todras-Whitehill.
In 2012, she cofounded Vignette Interactive, one of the few Middle Eastern media companies specializing in interactive experiences and data visualization. In addition to letting her pursue long-form work (an increasing rarity “now that no one in journalism has money anymore”), being her own boss helps her combat the media industry’s ingrained sexism. While men are lionized for working 24/7, “women inevitably try to strike a work-life balance earlier,” Todras-Whitehill shares. This means working fewer hours, and retiring earlier to start families, “which is unfortunate because it gives you fewer role models to look up to,” she adds.
While working without role models (and trying to be one) is certainly difficult, Todras-Whitehall is pulling it off. In addition to AP, her work has been featured in the New York Times
, Vanity Fair
. Her series on the Ebola Survivors’ Football Club
, commissioned by the New York Times
, won her a 2016 World Press prize. She shot the project in Sierra Leone during her most recent Spence reunion, and, as she points out, of this year’s 45 World Press winners, only six were women.