By Pu Ying Huang
The double screens in Belo Center’s lecture hall, BMC 1.202, lit up with “Kick off Your Heels and Shoot Better Than the Boys.” And I took in the scene: a sea of female faces buzzing with excitement and asking when the morning coffee would arrive. I couldn’t remember the last time I had sat in a roomful of female journalists.
Much of my journey through photojournalism has been a tug of war between diving in or searching for another career. After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 2015, I had to answer the call for filial duty back home. Gone were the days of shooting for my college paper. Instead I was teaching my newly immigrated relatives how to operate a dishwasher, managing investment properties in the family business and enviously eyeing my boyfriend’s reporting career take off as I tended to his laundry. I drew pride from being a good daughter and a loving girlfriend, but my plans in photojournalism seemed to slip further and further away.
From my back-row seat in the lecture hall, I watched a tall, young woman enter the door and head in my direction. Carolyn Van Houten of The Washington Post took a seat to my left. Next to her was Melina Mara, also from the Post.
Being slightly star-struck, I berated myself as a nobody sitting next to these somebodies, then scolded myself for the nonsense. I stuck out my hand to say hello, and Van Houten apologized for her grogginess, asking whether the morning coffee had arrived. I laughed. She’s just a normal person, I thought. I was eager to learn these women’s secrets of success.
Four months earlier, I had moved out of my parents’ home and began the journey of freelance life in Houston, terrified it might be a foolish move. Now I know it can be, at times, an isolating, stressful reality, ever in search of the next assignment, attempting to improve one’s work often without the feedback of editors while hoping that all of the struggle will be worth it in the end. Some nights, one can get too deep in the self-pitying chasm of doubt. At such times, I craved support or at the very least, a sign to keep pushing forward. I found what I was craving in that hall full of women.
From each speaker who took the stage, I soaked in every drop of knowledge, noting hard work and infinite passion as a common thread. Mara’s political coverage documenting emotional nuances — the moments in between the moments — encouraged me to take the photograph beyond composition and light. Equally eye-opening was a photo of Hillary Clinton’s all-female media pool, which flashed a different image of how the news industry could look.
Carolyn Van Houten’s intimate photo project covering abortion rights demonstrated why a woman’s perspective not only contributes to but also can be essential to representative storytelling.
The story that resonated most with me was Melissa Lyttle’s tale of being turned down for an assignment in Haiti as her editor said along the lines of, “Why would I send you? You’re just a little girl.”
I cringed, simmered and was then struck by the notion that I felt so strongly because she was speaking of a shared experience with which I speculate many in the female audience could relate. Such remarks, whether intentionally demeaning or not, can plant the seed of the notion that your gender is a debilitating factor preventing you from doing the work you imagined doing. It creates doubt and rips away self-confidence.
At this conference, these issues were on the table for us to openly dissect, prod and discuss. In the words of Lyttle, who went to Haiti on her own dime: “Proving it to him was the least of my concerns. I was proving to myself that I could do it.”
For me, there was something full circle about this year’s conference being hosted at my alma mater. This is where journalism began for me. And I almost didn’t make it to the conference.
I was coming home from a weeklong trip, stressed about my bank account and had gotten off the very last spot on the registration waiting list. Then I received my first big freelancing paycheck, and I was able to pay for my NPPA membership and conference registration. I took this as my sign to keep pushing forward.
For me, beyond the practical training and knowledge, I left feeling a little less alone, newly aware there is a community of mentors willing to lift up journalists. More importantly, I came away with a stronger belief in myself.
Pu Ying Huang is a freelance photographer based in Texas.