Ilan Godfrey Gets Imagery of Female British Ambassadors for The Sunday Times Magazine

Mar 4, 2020
Photographer Spotlight

One of the few things that developed and developing nations have in common is that they are behind when it comes to legitimate gender equality. To say that one country is ahead of another in this regard is a specious argument because the fact remains that we’re simply not where we need to be as it relates to issues like gender parity in politics or equal pay for women.

That isn’t to say, however, that things aren’t changing around the world. Slowly but surely — emphasis on slowly — they are. Last fall, South African Ilan Godfrey completed an assignment for The Sunday Times Magazine that discusses how, on Prince Harry’s most recent royal tour of Africa, three of the four ambassadors who greeted him were female. One of those ladies, NneNne Iwuji-Eme, became Britain’s first black female ambassador in 2018 when she stepped into the role of high commissioner to Mozambique.

Ilan Godfrey's photography of NneNne Iwuji-Eme on Sunday Times Magazine cover

The portraits needed to engage with a readership of all ages, especially young women and girls, so they can feel like they can aspire to be like them someday.

It’s becoming increasingly more plausible for young girls in the United Kingdom to make their diplomatic dreams a reality. Consider these statistics: over the last decade, the number of British women who serve as heads of missions worldwide has essentially tripled (22 to 65) and half of the United Kingdom’s African ambassadors are female. After hearing of this assignment a week before the first part of the shoot, Ilan made all of the travel arrangements himself and ventured off to Mozambique for a quick session with NneNne.

Going beyond simply arriving for the shoot is becoming an essential requirement for the job, but I generally have complete creative freedom on editorial assignments. All that was requested was that I shoot environmental portraits and, where possible, incorporate a sense of place in each shot.

Ilan Godfrey's image of British ambassador to Mozambique NneNne Iwuji-Eme

The first flight out was to Maputo, Mozambique. The meeting was brief, as is usually the case with subjects who have very tight schedules. It was arranged that I meet Her Excellency High Commissioner NneNne Iwuji-Eme at her private residence. The shoot took about 30 minutes, and then I made my way back to the airport for my return flight to Johannesburg.

Ilan has been working with The Sunday Times Magazine for about 12 years now, continuing to land work with the publication even though its photo editor has changed. Back in 2008, a fresh-out-of-school Ilan submitted some of his personal work to the Times’ then-photo editor, Monica Allende, who was drawn to the South African’s approach to portrait creation.

Whether shooting on medium format film or digital, I hope to always achieve a similar outcome stylistically within the documentary genre. At the time, Monica had seen only personal projects mostly shot on 6x7 format film in South Africa, which incorporated multi-layered narratives and intimate portraits. I would assume it was these approaches to storytelling and portrait photography that got me my first commission with the magazine.

The consistent quality of Ilan’s work is a big part of why The Times’ new photo editor, Russ O’Connell, brought the documentary photographer on board for this two-pronged gig. The second phase of the project took Ilan to Zimbabwe to meet Melanie Robinson who, like NneNne, understood value of this story.

It was my first time visiting Harare, Zimbabwe, even though I am less than two hours away by plane. The shoot with Her Excellency High Commissioner Melanie Robinson was arranged for the end of the day at her private residence, so we had more time.

Ilan Godfrey's portrait of British ambassador to Zimbabwe Melanie Robinson

Melanie personally felt it was crucial that she be portrayed in a way that inspires the next generation of female leaders.

Perhaps that’s why the two ambassadors gave Ilan enough time to make images befitting an article of this magnitude. Or maybe the reason they were so helpful and hospitable is because they’re mothers, and that’s just what mothers do.  

It was important to get a sense of who they are and the challenges and responsibilities they face in what is still a very male-dominated field. Of course, this is changing — hence the feature — so I was mindful of wanting to find a balance by portraying them as strong, independent, and influential women who are also loving mothers with family responsibilities. And since both NneNne and Melanie are mothers, their accommodating natures shone through. Although they were both on tight schedules, they gave me all the time I needed to produce portraits we were both comfortable with.

One of the most telling quotes from Christina Lamb’s excellent write-up comes from Jane Marriott, who became Britain’s first female high commissioner to Kenya last year. It speaks to how much more work lies ahead in terms of achieving genuine equality in all social arenas. When Jane arrived for diplomatic meetings during the early part of her career, she was often met with unspoken skepticism that manifested itself thusly: “I’m used to people looking behind me for the man as I enter a room.”

Ilan Godfrey's image of British ambassador Melanie Robinson in the Sunday Times Magazine

The piece notes that Jane said this with a laugh — and has since garnered the respect and admiration of her peers and colleagues — but it’s a profoundly disheartening sentiment nonetheless, one that transcends the socioeconomic standing of a given country. Nations rich and poor are grappling with the reality that old men continue to rule the roost, alienating entire generations in the process and forcing young people to speak up about it.   

I was reading an article that relates to Jane's quote poignantly. It comments on the continued dominance of elderly male presidents and politicians across Africa and how this needs to change. Governments are completely disconnected from the youth and the next generation of voters that, in many African countries, hold the majority share of the population. The youth are the catalyst for change and women in particular across the continent are increasingly vocalizing their opinions. They are empowered to make a difference not only within politics but also in business. 

It’s this parallel that drives the story, the twin developments of women coming into power in the United Kingdom as well as in Africa (and elsewhere). Not only are women winning these important seats, they are using their influence to help fellow females, especially the underprivileged individuals in rural communities.

This change can be seen with the announcement of Sahle-Work Zewde becoming Ethiopia’s new president. She is the first female head of state in modern Ethiopia. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka served as South Africa’s deputy president from 2005 to 2008 and is now serving as the Executive Director of UN Women. And Sharon Wardle, whom Christina writes about in the article, became high commissioner to Gambia two years ago and brings to the fore the very reason why women in these influential roles are beneficial, as she says, ‘Here in West Africa, there are things I can do to champion issues for women that a man could not.’

It takes time to change institutionalized norms and leave something as nonsensical as “gender roles” in the past where it belongs. But Ilan has been on the frontlines covering the societal shifts occurring across his home continent and sees the necessary transitions to true equality happening in real time.  

This is not the first story that I have covered that focuses on female empowerment. Non-profits are increasingly drawing attention to the discrimination of women in developing countries. Their dedication to changing people’s ideologies has seen a dramatic rise in the dismantling of stereotypical authoritarian traditions where the man makes the decisions and the woman rears the children. Across Africa, independent, resilient women are going out and building financial independence through business ventures and farming enterprises. This has begun the transition to a more equal and balanced societal structure that benefits all genders and ages.


Picture Editor, Sunday Times Magazine: Russ O’Connell
Chief Foreign Correspondent, Sunday Times: Christina Lamb

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