The last frame made by UGA photographer Chamberlain Smith before she was knocked unconscious on the sidelines during the Georgia vs. Auburn football game in November. Photo by Chamberlain Smith
Eyes on Research, is a column that will digest academic research on still and video photojournalism for the professionals who can put the research into practice. Research needs a real-world audience. This column is the result of discussions between Kevin Moloney and Martin Smith-Rodden, two long-time photojournalists who recently switched over to the academic world. If you have research that professionals can put into action, with results that can be outlined in 700 words, we would love to hear from you at [email protected] or [email protected]
By now you may have heard or read about Chamberlain Smith, the photographer on the football sidelines who got knocked unconscious on live television Nov. 16, 2019, during the Georgia vs. Auburn game. She’s since recovered from the hit and absolutely nailed the photo of Georgia running back Brian Herrien before he was pushed out of bounds into her.
There’s been some talk about the way the commentators laughed about the injury when it happened, but something else bothered me about the moments after she was hit. The commentators immediately assumed a man was injured and then, once realizing it was a woman, began questioning if this “young lady” was paying attention.
They also continued to use male-centric words like “cameraman” as they discussed the danger of the job. Even though they corrected themselves later, apologized and commended Smith for “doing her job,” the initial reaction of the commentators reminded me of something that several scholars in our field have been studying in depth for a while: the gendered expectations and assumptions about women in photojournalism.
Though we know that there is a gender imbalance in our field, researchers have helped us understand some of the deeper layers. My goal here is to showcase some of that work and summarize their findings to help professionals understand and correct the gendered expectations and assumptions about women in photojournalism.
Scholars have found that women are still assumed to be less skilled than men in photojournalism and are expected to conform to a stereotype. Not that any of this is new, but it’s helpful to apply the rigor of academic research to help better define it. We need to work beyond simply making sure that women are properly represented in photojournalism. Notably, most of the research still only focuses on gender and excludes race. Future work in this area should correct that.
First of all, there is an assumption that women, in general, are less skilled than men. In 1979, Karen Slattery and Jim Fosdick used a survey to test professionalism among NPPA members and found little difference between genders. Yet, nearly 30 years later when Margaret Frances Thomas interviewed female photojournalists for her dissertation at the University of Texas at Austin, she found there are still underlying assumptions in the newsroom that women are weaker, less skilled and will eventually leave the field to raise a child.
In 2018, Adrian Hadland and Camilla Barnett at the University of Stirling found women in photojournalism had more education and higher levels of training compared with their male counterparts. Hadland and Barnett used a survey of 3,500 photographers (including 545 women from 71 countries) to show statistical evidence that despite these facts, women still get assignments that conform to gendered biases. They’re less likely to be assigned news and sports than men, something we saw clearly in Erin Schaff’s Nov. 14, 2019, front-page photo in The New York Times of the predominantly white male visual journalist pool at the presidential impeachment hearings.
This happens in the field as well, something that Rachel Somerstein, assistant professor at SUNY New Paltz, reveals in her work on interference. In 2018, through surveys and interviews, she found female photojournalists are significantly more likely than men to be blocked by communication/PR departments. Additionally, in her interviews, Somerstein heard numerous examples of on-site interference by men in general, whether via direct sexual harassment or through general disruption such as asking questions about their equipment and project.
Female concert photographers I’ve interviewed for my research tell me the same thing. They’re harassed by men in the photo pit, and their presence and skill are regularly questioned, such as being asked if they need help with their camera settings, as if it’s their first time taking photos. These all reflect the assumption that the woman’s presence can be called into question and that her ability is less than her male counterparts’.
When Chamberlain Smith was hit on the sidelines, it was immediately assumed that she was a male photographer and, once identified as a woman, assumed that she wasn’t doing her job and paying attention. Though these subconscious cues seem innocuous and quickly correctable, they reflect what scholars like the ones above have been finding for years: there are unfair gendered expectations and assumptions toward women in photojournalism.
There are many great organizations and individuals doing work in this space to elevate the status of women in the field, such as Women Photograph. But the researchers I’ve mentioned here show us that there’s much more to be done, especially in how we need to work against our conscious and subconscious gendered expectations of women in photojournalism. Melissa Lyttle wrote about this in News Photographer’s March/April 2017 issue and hit the nail on the head: “I’ve never wanted to be described as a female photographer, as though I needed a qualifier. It sounds condescending: ‘Yeah, she’s good ... for a girl.’
It’s important to create a diverse newsroom, but we have to go beyond that and stop using gender as a qualifier in how we develop our expectations. ■
Kyser Lough, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of journalism at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. He has 18 years of experience as a photojournalist and reporter, which he uses to help bridge the gap between research and the profession. His research in visual communication focuses on how news images are made, selected and interpreted, as well as the photographers themselves in how they define and operate within their field as they fight for legitimacy and job security. He also studies constructive and solutions journalism, with an emphasis on visuals. Email him at [email protected].
With the exception of the first research link (below) by Margaret Frances Thomas, these links are behind paywall journals for anyone not within an academic institution. However, scholars are generally willing to share their work, so you are encouraged to ask by emailing the authors.
Through the lens of experience: American women newspaper photographers
(Doctoral dissertation, 2007)
Professionalism in photojournalism: A female/male comparison
(Published in Journalism Quarterly, 1979)
By Karen Slattery and Jim Fosdick
“Stay back for your own safety:” News photographers, interference, and the photographs they are prevented from taking
(Published in Journalism, 2018)
By Rachel Somerstein
The gender crisis in professional photojournalism: demise of the female gaze?
(Published in Journalism Studies, 2018)
By Adrian Hadland and Camilla Barnett