What’s a Woman Doing Here?

Lew Lowery, 1958

“Be sure you’re the first woman somewhere,” an editor in New York advisedDickey Chapelle– and that she did.

Working as a war correspondent since 1942, Dickey had reported on dozens of conflicts, soon becoming the only woman authorized to jump into combat with paratroopers in Vietnam. She was told in training that there’s no reason to close your eyes during a jump, where she took a similar approach within her photography, living by the motto “only fear can frighten you”. She made the jump into Vietnam, where America’s longest war continued for another 20 years. The small woman with the large Speed Graphic Camera didn’t realise that the “insects” she could hear flying past her were infect sniper’s bullets, becoming the target on the frontline. 

At sixteen years of age, Dickey was attending aeronautical design classes at MIT. She later moved to New York, where she met her future husband Tony Chapelle and began working as a photographer along his side. Putting aside her standard photographic credentials, she became a war correspondent photojournalist for National Geographic, an occupation of which practically no women pursued at the time. 

After the war, she planted herself with military units around the world, working as a photographer for publications including National Geographic, Life and Reader’s Digest. She went to extreme lengths to photograph a number of war zones, and in 1956 during the Hungarian Revolution, was held captive for nearly two months. In 1962, Chapelle photographed a US Marine in uniform, surrounded by Vietnamese soldiers as he was combat-ready in the door of a helicopter. This won the 1963 Press Photographer’s Association “Photograph of the Year”, as it was the first published photograph of an American in combat in Vietnam. 

Chapelle wades through mud on patrol with the Sea Swallows, a militia of Chinese refugees who sided with the Vietnamese government.

Chapelle was one of the most brave and experienced female photojournalists of her time. Known for her signature uniform of an Australian bush hat, black rimmed glasses and pearl earrings as a visual cue that she wasn’t one of the boys, she adventured where other photographers refused to go. Her daring nature eventually came back to bite her, becoming the first female American war correspondent to be killed in action in 1965. She died on assignment in Vietnam as a result of a tripwire booby-trap.

Her photographs were later published in the book ”Dickey Chapelle Under Fire: Photographs by the First American Female War Correspondent Killed in Action”. Author John Garofalo presents Dickey’s work in a way it had never been seen before, as a result of curating an extensive archive of negatives, journals and photographic prints. The aim of Dickey Chapelle Under Fire is to present her work from the historic archives, acknowledging not just her contributions, but all those people we won’t recognise who put their lives at risk to document such life-threatening events. The book acts as a visual representation of her life’s work, of which photography became her life making it impossible to present her images without placing them in the context of her life. The associated Press photographer Henri Huet captured Chapelle’s last moments, representing the same life and death notion that she spent her life capturing. In a role reversal, the woman behind the camera became the photograph. The photo features a small glisten of her pearl earrings, as her bush hat lies nearby, as well as a small bouquet of pink flowers she tucked in its band earlier. 

U.S. Marine Corps chaplain John Monamara of Boston administers the last rites to war correspondent Dickey Chapelle, Henri Huet, 1965

“She ventured where angels and men twice her size and half her age feared to tread, not with any aura of bravado but simply because she felt that if a newspaper or radio chain hired her to cover a war, it deserved war coverage, not a rewrite of a headquarters mimeographed handout,” Bob Considine wrote, a fellow correspondent in a tribute for the Milwaukee Journal. “Dickey was one heaven of a woman.”

There were no other female photographers working in Vietnam, although when a general tried to ban women from the frontlines, a young and eager French photographer Catherine Leroymade her way, following Chapelle’s footsteps. She parachuted into combat, and similarly to Dickey, won the George Polk Memorial Award for courageous coverage. In an interview, Chapelle once claimed “There’s no question” that war is a place for a woman. “There’s only one other species on earth for whom a war zone is no place, and that’s men. But as long as men continue to fight wars, why I think observers of both sexes will be sent to see what happens.”

A Vietcong prisoner found with Communist propaganda walks in front of his captors.

Chapelle used photography as a motive to do good, being concerned with the consequences of people who not only fought in wars but the civilians who were caught in the crossfire. Despite being not very welcomed with open arms by many throughout her career, she continued to push past all the objection’s she met, against all odds of being a woman within the war zone. 

Chapelle’s photography and ability to defy expectations can be seen as an inspiration for many women today, who face gendered expectations as a result of wanting to pursue a graphic design career in this current day and age. Jane Connory discusses in her piece Plotting the Hisorical Pipeline of Women in Graphic Designthe obstacles than many women face today, being rendered invisible within the industry for so long. Much like Chapelle who would commonly hear the phrase “What’s a woman doing here?” when on the battlefield, females within the graphic design history would often hear employers voicing their concerns of hiring female designers, as they may become pregnant and be unemployable. 

Women’s freedom to pursue graphic design over the years has been a constant battle against the societal norm and gendered expectations, regardless of the increasing number of female graduates in universities across Australia over the years, of which Connory discusses. Although like Chapelle, this hasn’t stopped the voices and continued success of female designers, even after going through a number of gendered hurdles. Dickey’s feisty personality and fierce dedication to her work is a huge inspiration to spark success and determination within female designer’s, including myself. Before the days of shaky smartphone footage and images uploaded to Instagram acting as photojournalism, Chapelle went against gendered norms and put her life as risk for her work, seeing more fighting in Vietnam than any other American. “The importance of the pictures she took in Vietnam lies in the fact that they were made where nobody goes—BEYOND the telegraph lines and jeepible roads.” I encourage you to break your silence and not let gendered expectations within the design industry or elsewhere, hold back your potential and success. As Dickey Chapelle ventured where men twice her size feared to tread, I encourage you to provoke that spark within you and do the same. 

Reference List

Connory, Jane, “Plotting the Historical Pipeline of Women in Graphic Design.” Dharn, 2017, http://dharn.org.au/plotting-the-historical-pipeline-of-women-in-graphic-design/

Strochlic, Nina, “Inside the Daring Life of a Forgotten Female War Photographer.” National Geographic, 17 Aug. 2018, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/2018/08/world-photography-day-dickey-chapelle-female-war-photographer-combat-vietnam/

Selwyn-Holmes, Alex “Dickey Chapelle, the Lotus Eater.” WordPress,10 Nov. 2010, https://iconicphotos.wordpress.com/2010/11/28/dickey-chapelle-the-lotus-eater/


Lew Lowery, Dickey Chapelle, 1958, https://www.cjr.org/united_states_project/dickey_chapelle_female_correspondent_killed_in_combat.php

Dickey Chapelle, Nat Geo Image Collection, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/2018/08/world-photography-day-dickey-chapelle-female-war-photographer-combat-vietnam/#/01-dickey-chapelle.jpg

Henri Huet, 1965, https://iconicphotos.wordpress.com/2010/11/28/dickey-chapelle-the-lotus-eater/

Dickey Chapelle, Nat Geo Image Collection,https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/2018/08/world-photography-day-dickey-chapelle-female-war-photographer-combat-vietnam/#/01-dickey-chapelle.jpg

2 thoughts on “What’s a Woman Doing Here?

  1. Although a story of the past, the message is still so relevant. It’s women’s stories like Chapelle’s that need to be heard more often. If it wasn’t for this blog post, I would never have known about her triumphs and her success as a women. It’s these kind of stories that need to be heard more than ever, women need to know and learn that we have been pushing the boundaries as a gender for years. We have come such a long way with gender quality but still have so far to come. We need to keep pushing for change for not just ourselves but for women like Chapelle that kick started the push for equality all those years ago. These stories inspire and continue to ignite that power, that determination in women to continue to go beyond the ‘gender barriers’. Thank you for sharing this story and educating us that women have been proving society wrong for years – Chapelle should be an inspiration not only to the design/creative world but all for women who are fighting for their equal opportunities in this male dominated world. – Jemima Fullagar


  2. Unfortunately, I believe a lot of people have similar thoughts to your title, ‘What is a Woman Doing Here’. Paula Scher, a partner at Pentagram, the world’s largest independent design firm, said; ‘I’ve gone to meetings with my partner Michael Beirut and if he’s in the meeting, the eyes go to him. I see it and I feel it in the room.’ I feel that your title summarises the gendered inequalities faced by women in today’s modern world. Your article allowed me to become aware of the very talented Dickey Chapelle and her role in challenging the patriarchy. Both her design practice and work has inspired me to continuously redefine gendered stereotypes imbedded into today’s design cannon. Dickey provides a positive role model for all to inspire too. I like that you noted in the article, Chapelle didn’t try to hide her femininity, instead she really celebrated it. This is inspirational to me, as masculine characteristics are often shown as more powerful. This has allowed me to have both a powerful and feminine role model to inspire to.

    However, I believe that the inequalities experienced by females are more complicated than simply a woman’s ability to become pregnant. I believe the gendered pay gap is about deeply patriarchal issues imbedded into society. Women often face discrimination and gendered stereotypes, that impact hiring and pay decisions within the design cannon. It is within human nature to hire people alike, thus limiting women’s career opportunities. We must strive to achieve equality in who is in charge and change stereotypes on a female’s working abilities. This in turn, will greatly change who is hired, recognised and appreciated within design.

    As you encouraged, I too will strive to challenge the design expectations within the design cannon. I believe, if all designers strive to confront traditional notions we can begin to change and challenge the patriarchy.


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