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.”
I’ve always want to be known as a great photographer who also happens to be a woman. But unfortunately, many in positions of power – the people doing the hiring and deciding who gets what assignment – do see gender.
I was a staff photographer at two different newspapers, and I noticed my gender come into play several times. In one case, I pitched a few stories on Haiti because we were doing a ton of work down there, and multiple photographers had been sent in recent months. To paraphrase, I was told that I couldn’t go because I was a woman and I’d get myself hurt or killed. The memory of that still stings nearly 15 years later.
I went anyway. I sent myself for two weeks, taking vacation and comp time I’d accrued, paid for the trip out of pocket, and took a chance on myself. When I got back, after seeing some of the images, my director of photography – the same one who told me I couldn’t handle it – actually wanted to run the photos.
The second time I remember it coming up was nearly a decade later. At that point, I had established myself as a storyteller and project photographer and had done plenty of work in countries many would consider to be conflict zones, including multiple trips to Haiti, Jamaica, Israel, Mexico and the Gaza Strip. My paper was sending a writer and photographer to work in Pakistan for nearly a month. I was offered the chance to go after two male colleagues (one with far less experience) turned it down. I jumped at the chance. I couldn’t have said no even if I’d wanted to, as it would be read as a sign of weakness.
There is an ongoing texting conversation I have with one of my closest friends, an amazing photojournalist who happens to be a woman. It basically goes like this:
“Did you see the lineup for [insert name of workshop]?”
And the other replies, “Yes … all white males … again.”
Or we’ll simply send a screenshot of the page announcing all the speakers because it speaks volumes.
We’ve both been invited to be speakers/coaches/faculty at photo conferences and workshops and discovered upon arrival that we were the only female faculty members. We talk about it afterward because the attendees, especially at colleges and universities, tend to be about 60 percent women. We’re both curious about what happens to them. Do they go into editing? Do they switch careers and head to PR or advertising? Or do they get scared off completely because they look around and don’t see anyone like them doing the kind of work they imagined doing?
A few years ago, a member of the board of directors of a photo conference I had attended for years called me and asked if I’d like to speak. Before I could say yes, he delivered the kicker: “Because we really need a woman speaker.”
“You can’t think of any other female photojournalists?” I asked.
“No,” he said.
I could have named 20 off the top of my head, and I began to. I rattled off the names of every woman I could think of, both established and emerging, with incredible bodies of work, photojournalists who were absolutely and unequivocally kicking ass.
When I checked the lineup of speakers at the conference a few months later, not a single woman was listed.
My friends and I aren’t the only ones talking about this.
A recent New York Times Lens Blog post about women in photography stated: “Today, women make up the majority of students in undergraduate and graduate photojournalism programs. The top photo editors of National Geographic, Time, The Washington Post, The New York Times and many other American publications are female, as are many if not most of their subordinates. There are, by most accounts, a large number of outstanding young female photographers doing excellent work, leading the way to new directions in storytelling and engagement.”
The post goes on to point out that very few women work for international wire services. About 15 percent of the World Press Photo entries were from women, and most major publications, in their collections of the best photos of 2016, had 80 percent to 100 percent male photographer credits.
As a reaction to this, and editors telling her they would hire women if they knew where to find them, Daniella Zalcman recently launched Women Photograph, a website featuring more than 500 female photojournalists from over 65 countries. “We need to make a better effort to find female photographers and photographers of color,” she told Wired Magazine. “Because they exist. They’re there.”
When asked why it’s important to hire female photographers, Zalcman responded, “It’s just good journalism. We need to tell stories about diverse people from diverse perspectives — from a female perspective, people of color and the LGBTQ community. You make really big mistakes when you don’t have those voices in your newsroom.”
In an article for Time’s Lightbox, Anastasia Taylor-Lind said: “What we celebrate in photography matters. What we celebrate in the lives of photographers also matters because this creates role models for the next generation to emulate.” She talks about how women are often being written out of the narrative of war photography, and her own experiences in cutting her long hair short and dyeing it black and doing anything she could to appear more masculine when covering conflict.
“The stories we tell about male and female photojournalists differ greatly. For both, we highlight failed relationships as necessary sacrifices, but childlessness or single parenting, failures in fulfilling women’s ultimate role of motherhood, are often emphasized in narratives about female photographers,” Taylor-Lind said.
Diversity should be a vital mission for every field, but especially ours, which turns a lens on the world. Adding different voices to storytelling brings richness of perspective and nuance. It also encourages the next generation of female storytellers to stay in journalism.
There are a lot of great photographers out there, many of whom just happen to be women.
Melissa Lyttle is president of the National Press Photographers Association. This column appears in the March-April 2017 issue of News Photographer magazine.