Iliana Kanellopoulou’s Violent Women

Young Greek photographer Iliana Kanellopoulou says ‘guns are for women too.’ Against the backdrop of the anti-austerity protests in Athens, influenced by images of female Kurdish fighters, Iliana wants to photograph a ‘fictional feminist army’. She’s teaming up with other female photographers to create a photo-pamphlet filled with different visions of what this might look like.


Terrorism seems to be considered a deeply male activity. This is true of fighting generally, and freedom fighting in particular. Men fight for a feminised homeland (the motherland, Britainia in her robes) and for their women. This is a (mis)conception: women do fight, are fearsome, dangerous. Fights that can be violent, but are just as often made up of small victories against various oppressions. As the Filipino poet Joi Barrios-Leblanc writes ‘To be a woman is to live in a time of war.’ And yet, the image of a woman, with a gun, a bandana, a slouch or reproach, still arrests the eyes, causes shock.

The young Greek photographer Iliana Kanellopoulou wants to explore this: ‘I’ve always been fascinated by women who are actual fighters and risk their lives to change the way they live, or to take what they deserve. In a patriarchal society women fight for the rights every day, to not take only what men have been willing to “provide” them.’

But, she adds ‘there are different scales of fighting, or oppression. A woman living in the west has such a different experience to one living under, for instance, the Islamic State.’ And because of this, physical violence – or defence – can be necessary.

‘I saw a documentary about women who joined the YPJ (the Women’s Protection Units, an all-female Kurdish military organisation, predominantly active in Syria’s North, around Rojava) and felt really proud, grateful. Women like this are fighting for all of us, really – the violence they use is necessary. ISIS wants to keep women at home, to stop them from participating in society, to control their lives and their bodies. They say ‘it’s them or us’ and this is totally true.

‘So, I want my photo-pamphlet to depict women like them, but on a wider scale. To have girls become the fictional soldiers of a feminist army; and though it’s not going to be a documentary, it’s super relevant to the protests I saw in Athens last year.’

Iliana now lives in London, but before that she lived in Athens – at a time when the city was awash with direct action and mass protests. In Athens, she saw women fighting too, protesting – for every day needs, against oppression. ‘There were protests against the political forces every day, and this had a massive influence on me. I was mesmerised by the thought of forming an independent army of women who’d fight to free themselves from the violence the government’s economic measures.’

But the army did not come, and she decided to turn to art. ‘In the end, it became a photographic vision of mine. Almost intuitively, I took friends to Exarcheia, where I lived at the time, to photograph.’

Exarcheia is sometimes called Athen’s anarchist district, and has a long history of struggle and protest. In 1967 it was home to the first student protests against Greece’s military junta, in 1973 a tank sent to suppress the protests crushed students and ‘signed the regime’s death warrant.’ After the return of democracy, it became the home of Greece’s far left, including terrorist groups, and has been the scene of the most violent clashes with the authorities. After the financial crash, it has played host to the some of the most heated anti-austerity marches. Iliana says ‘It was the perfectly scenery for my work.’

The impotence of the Greek people in the face of the Troika, even after the election of the far-left (now neutered) Syriza Party, could be responded to with few things, perhaps only the violence seen in the Greek streets, by the police and the protestors. Iliana sees a parallel between this and the lot of women generally. ‘I’ve always believed that guns are for women too. Violence is the means when dialogue is forbidden. Women’s actions cannot be simply symbolic: they must reclaim their role in the world but not in relation with men.’