Meet Olga Shmaidenko - photojournalist, storyteller, and the founder of WOW WOMAN. She has traveled to 45 countries and photographed/interviewed over 230 women, we were naturally excited to pick Olga's brain on feminism, female solidarity, and tolerance of varied opinions in today's divided world. (As well as her two cents on some of the questions she often asks others!)
What is WOW WOMAN? WOW WOMAN shines a light on incredible women following their passions across a broad range of backgrounds, geography, cultures, and experiences. As Olga travels she photographs and interviews inspiring women, compiling an intriguing collection of various thoughts/views on all sorts of subjects. She hopes women can use her hard work to learn from each other, broaden their worldviews, and escape their situational bubbles. She recognizes the remarkable commonalities which tie us all together and the beauty in the differences which set us apart.
What inspired you to start this project, and what continues to inspire you daily as you navigate it? Why WOW and WHY NOW?
Initially, I was inspired by the women in roles that were not “traditional” by societal standards. I was in NYC and kept seeing a woman wearing a hard hat, dirty work boots, and a reflective vest, in a coffee shop, then near a construction zone. I was instantaneously intrigued. I had a million questions. It was 2014 (almost 2015). Pre Hilary, pre-elections, pre #metoo. Here I was on my way to an office job, with a diverse set of colleagues, most of whom have gotten a college and higher education. The woman was clearly on the phone talking business and in a supervisory role. This was just too much for my curiosity. I rallied my colleagues to put together a set of questions for her, and I set off one morning to chat with her.
As a side note, what fueled my curiosity were the constant signs that were standing outside the construction zones in New York City: “MEN AT WORK”. So I wanted to know how she felt about that, and much much more. She obliged in answering all the questions, I took photos of her. The first WOW Woman post went up (it’s not as polished, as I was still figuring out which direction to take the project).
What continues to inspire me evolves. It comes in waves of what interests me, from the news cycles, from the geographical areas I visit, from the sports that I get into. Whenever I am excited about a subject (ex. paragliders), I seek out women who are doing compelling work in that area. I also am highly conscious of highlighting women who may be overlooked by the Instagram influencers: for example, social workers, teachers, women working behind the scenes, bringing up kids, students. I also am always, ALWAYS interested in juxtapositions between women’s careers and their hobbies. I’ve seen too many times such interesting hobbies that just show how much people work to play or how much we all need an outlet for our passions and interests (that is different from our 9 to 5).
I think a better question would be Why did it take so long to bring about an international community of WOW Women. Why NOW? Why not earlier?
I like to cater WOW Woman to those who are interested in reading about how women outside their immediate social circle, their country even, spend their time, what they get up to in their every day, and how they think and rationalize their decisions, and think about their future. I, in a way, am catering to those like myself, because for as long as I can remember I have been interested in how others think and live. I have made WOW Woman answer that for me, in a cohesive way.
We briefly spoke about women thriving in “unexpected fields” while simultaneously succeeding and finding passion in polar opposite fields. What are some powerful examples of this that you have seen, and what do you feel you have learned from them?
Where to even begin!
I have featured a top leader in vaccine development, a mentor to many young women, be really into body surfing. I mean, this is one of the women behind an Ebola vaccine.
A woman who is a teacher and is in an incredible burlesque scene in Paris
A wedding/lifestyle photographer who is also into iron man/woman competitions
A writer who is also a DJ
A paraglider who is also an elementary school teacher
An author who is also an ex. Firefighter and a novelist
An extreme long-distance biker who is a doctor (seriously, she biked from Denmark to China)
A Pain doctor who is also obsessed with kitesurfing
A model who is a film-maker
An entrepreneur (owner of her own perfume business) who is also a certified skipper (on a boat)
And the list goes on!
I can relate to and appreciate the marriage of the opposites and am drawn to such stories and the women behind them. I myself have gone from working in a vaccine R&D organization with a degree in biochem and econ to storytelling and photojournalism; all while pursuing mountain biking, kitesurfing, and snowboarding in my spare time. "All life is an experiment," said Ralph Waldo Emerson. "The more experiments you make the better". I try to live by those words.
However, I want to make it clear that these stories of extremes are not the only stories that drive me. I am equally inspired by a mom of a young toddler who manages to be a social worker by day and a mom by night. That, in a way, is one of the more powerful examples that I’ve uncovered.
We also touched on all the different puzzle pieces composing one woman, can you elaborate on how incredibly special this is and all the ways in which it manifests?
I think that more and more we are witnessing just how multi-versed women are. Perhaps this is now more apparent as we see the images of “ordinary” women posting about the various aspects of their womanhood and share various bits about themselves. This is one powerful aspect of social media. We see women achieving. Everywhere. Every day women are taking chances, accomplishing, achieving, climbing, and reaching. Previously, only the leaders of the various fields were visible to us (through magazines and TV).
Now we can follow an ER doc and watch her save lives by day, and then pump and breastfeed her newborn by night. In a way, the superstars have been deconstructed and brought down to earth in our eyes, and also every day women/our neighbors have been exposed as superwomen. It is all wonderful, in my opinion.
After meeting/speaking with so many women, are there any commonalities you see that can pull us all together, vs the special/unique differences that set us each apart in our own ways?
Commonalities, absolutely. From the various countries, the WOW Women I’ve sat down with and photographed have been tough. Each woman has been tough in a very individual way, and with an impressive resolve.
As for differences, I’ll sum it up as … no matter how different we are and no matter what various backgrounds and experiences we have grown up with, we all want to be heard. We want our voices to be heard and for someone to acknowledge us, hear our opinion, our story.
So even if you put two women from completely different political or religious views or opposite views on feminism – they will feel grateful for someone to care enough to ASK what they think, and for someone to listen.
How does speaking with so many different incredible women affect your worldview?
Perhaps it’s the women that I’m drawn to, but I have always connected with women who are decisive and have chutzpah – either in their field or in life in general.
No matter which country or personal circumstances, I have found women figure out ways out of seemingly unimaginable circumstances, figure out dignified solutions to keep marching forward.
This has immensely opened up my optimism in the world at large. It also gave me a glimpse at how similar, at the core, our worries and hopes are, across the world. I see commonalities everywhere (unfortunately some are disheartening to acknowledge): a woman in Chiang Mai (Thailand) who owns her own business and a female Egyptologist in Cairo (also a business owner) are equally worried about meeting a life partner, afraid of being seen as "too independent" by any prospective suitors. Although that worry is absolutely ridiculous and of course points at the sexist societies we all live in. Many more similarities/connections exist between us all than we realize. There are ambitious and capable women in all parts of the world, working with the lot they’ve been dealt with, and making the most of their skills to better their lives and those of their families.
What goals do you have as you supplement mainstream media with the authentic voices of women?
My goal is to expose “the other”. Many of us live in our own bubbles and may never hear what a woman in Bahrain thinks about feminism, for example. Similarly, a woman in Bahrain may never hear a Utah Mormon talk about feminism or hear a conservative voice from the USA, always thinking that US women are all “burning their bras”. Similarly, even in the US, in our divided political climate, there is a constant notion of “the other”.
I want to show that in the coastal cities and in middle America there are tough women who are taking on their own version of patriarchy, just dealing with it in their own way.
I have spoken with an absolutely devout Christian woman, as feisty as they come, in the middle of Texas who in her younger years took on mostly male plant nursery owners in order to sell her own type of plants across central Texas. She is a staple in her small-town community and would never otherwise mix with the coastal female CEO of a biotech or a fashion brand. However, they share so much in common it’s crazy! Truly, you have to read this interview and tell me you have not fallen in love with Hazel Jane Tuttle McCoy.
Additionally, there is also such an opportunity to learn from the young, and not only the more seasoned women. Both can learn from one another (case in point Hazel McCoy who is approaching the all-knowing centennial milestone) and lives in Texas, vs. someone like Sinesipho (Sine) Njeza, in her early 20s, an entrepreneur from South Africa.
You often ask, “Knowing what we know now in a current political climate, can women be "all that we can be" in today's world? What is the way forward, as you see it, for "feminist values"?” Based on the myriad answers you have heard, what is your answer to this question at this current moment?
As a collector of voices and opinions – it depends on the country and the culture I find myself in. I’ve heard many women say that nothing is holding them back from achieving their goals. They say they have never felt that their opinion was discounted nor have they felt unheard. “Don’t focus on me as a woman, but as a hard worker”, they say. I have heard this opinion from women of all races and religious backgrounds. However, I have also heard the opinion of those who feel like patriarchy is ever-present and we need to keep fighting on a daily basis to eradicate the often-obvious or often-subtle control of female bodies and actions. I would say that before I started traveling, and being a loud-mouthed feminist New Yorker at heart, I have related more with the latter camp. But after traveling and hearing women speak up and out for themselves about this question – I feel like perhaps the reality may lie somewhere in the middle.
I want to highlight the fact that as we are progressing in our "equal rights" struggle, there is still plenty to fight for as so many women face incredibly difficult issues (relating to speaking their truth and getting punished for it). Even from my own experience with featuring women on WOW Woman. I've had two women contact me post-publication, asking for redaction of their full name, for the fear of retribution from their family (on speaking the truth about their life experiences), I've had a male family member of another woman contact me to try and smear a woman on speaking up about her childhood experience, I've had two other women separately contact me post-publication to also redact their last name as they alluded to their age in their write up. They strongly felt that potential employers were finding their reference to age and were not allowing for a chance for an interview (despite plenty of qualifications). These examples were disheartening, but even further highlighted to me the importance of projecting female voices of all ages, their truths, and struggles. The real and diverse stories need to be told and these women need to be seen, for anything to ever change in today's society.
As a reporter and photojournalist, my role is to listen and serve as a loudspeaker for the women’s voices, diverse voices, voices of the women of color, and those who feel under-represented.
As a woman myself, my opinion is that for the foreseeable future, I will need to continue to fight for my body to be valued, respected, honored, protected by law, and for my voice to be heard and respected in the same regard as a man’s voice.
What is the best piece (s) of advice you have been given?
The best advice was not so much as a piece of advice, as an attitude adjustment, I’ve internalized after talking to so many women. 90% of the women I’ve spoken with have said to me “Why me? I’m not WOW. Are you sure you want to single me out as a WOW Woman?”
There were a few that said, “Absolutely, I’ll talk to you. I AM a WOW Woman and I’m fabulous”. The best advice I’ve been given was more of an observation in myself, to project WOW energy, not doubt my gut instinct and go for it. Ignore the imposter syndrome. I AM a woman with experience, with my own voice and opinions.
One of the goals of my features is to show self-doubters just how incredible they are. I've received such positive feedback from the women, who seem to all of a sudden see themselves in a new light, with all their accomplishments in one place, next to positive images. It brings me joy!
You use the word “woman” in your project, what does this word mean to you? Who is your desired audience? And how you feel about including nonbinary and queer folks in your work?
I have featured queer folks in WOW Woman and also took care to be respectful and not put an emphasis on anyone’s orientation if they didn't wish me to shine a spotlight on that. However, if they did, I have been more than happy to help magnify their voices and experiences. I continue to do that, try to include a diverse set of folks.
What does it mean to be a woman to you? What does girlhood mean to you or how is it relevant today for you?
To be a woman in today’s world means a complicated menu of choices, opportunities, difficulties, fights, setbacks, and triumphs. Girlhood is something that seems harder than ever to navigate, given the menu of choices above. It feels that girls will need to be exposed and prepared for those choices and experiences at a younger age. I do feel that every generation of women paves the way for the next, and we have so much to be thankful for, to the women in the previous decades that helped us feel empowered. I do think that our generation will also help elevate girls/young women to the heights we never experienced. That trend is something that I hope will continue forever and always.
I also believe we have to be gracious and kind to the girls and teens, for the new set of challenges and setbacks they experience growing up may be something we may not ever relate to or understand. So, the learning and understanding should continue going both ways.
Most important/lasting lessons learned from this project so far?
The main lesson, which I think I’ve covered in all my answers above, is how much value there is in stopping and listening to the diversity of voices and opinions. Active, non-judgemental, open ear/heart listening. It is invaluable and priceless and it breeds understanding and empathy.
Can you please highlight several women from your project (they are all so amazing ) maybe there are some that can be brought forward?
I encourage folks to take a tour around the world with me by zeroing in on this WOW Woman map and zooming in on a country and take it from there by clicking on the stories. Otherwise, a beautifully random (but fun) sample here:
Ha Ta Boss, Hotel Manager, Go-getter, Sa Pa, Veitnam
Vinita Kumar, Social Entrepreneur, Co-Founder, Nurturer, Center for Kids With Special Needs, New Delhi, India
Emmanuelle Manouchka, First Mate, Pohnpei, Micronesia
Meke Naemi Namutenya, Chef, Entrepreneur, Divundu, Namibia
Divania Fortes, Entrepreneur, Single Mother, Innovative Thinker, Santa Maria, Cape Verde
Rosabelle Selavy, Burlesque and Trapeze Artist, Paris, France
Diana, Student, Fashion Design, Dreamer, Survivor, Beirut, Lebanon
Lidiya Terpel, CEO, Founder, Skyworker, Kiev, Ukraine
Lucie J, Adventurer, Biker, Kitesurfer, Cumbuco, Brazil
Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir, Minister of Justice, Reykjavík, Iceland
Kirsten Schmidt-Pedersen, Artist, Entrepreneur, Pattern Breaker, Disko Island, Greenland
Philippa Hughes, Social Sculptor, Creative Strategist, Cle Elum, USA
Mandi Camille Hauwert, Correctional Peace Officer, Writer, Activist, San Francisco, USA
Elena Aprile, Physicist, Research Scientist, Professor, Columbia University, New York City
Ona Gonsalves, Operations Manager, Self-Driven Perseverer, Bali, Indonesia
Nini Beltran, Engineer and Tattoo Artist, Hanoi, Vietnam
Brittany Trimble, Pilot, F-16, Flight Commander, Misawa US Air Base, Japan
Check out Olga's Playlist:
A collection for all the moods and women that have inspired me, from across the world!😊
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All Photography by Olga Shmaidenko
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