The moment I knew I wasn't going to be a conflict photographer
The Cohort is Poynter's bi-monthly newsletter about women kicking ass in digital media.
I remember the moment I knew I wasn’t going to be a conflict photographer. I was a freelance photojournalist based in Mumbai, India, and in New York for a week visiting prospective clients. All assignments mattered, but there was one publication that I held to an unattainable standard — The New York Times.
I managed to get a face-to-face meeting and found myself sitting across from a news editor on The Times’ international desk. I remember anxiously watching as he flipped through my carefully crafted images, with the occasional head nod. He was kind, said encouraging things, then walked me over to the travel section editor and said, “I have a great feature photographer I want to introduce you to, she’s based in Mumbai, India.”
My portfolio didn’t have conflict, natural disasters, or extreme stories of human suffering. My male counterparts had stories of underage-heroin addicts, scenes of severe flooding and images from nearby Pakistan — all work they produced on their own dime or on spec to fill their book. Basically they paid their way into someone’s worst nightmare to get future assignments.
Ethically, I refused to do that. It’s not that I couldn’t make the images or handle the logistics. It’s that I couldn’t justify asking someone to tell their story if I wasn’t sure I had an outlet to publish in. And because I didn’t have that work, I didn’t get international news assignments. Those went to the expat men in our small photojournalism community. And I made portraits, worked on business stories and took whatever travel assignments I could get.
How many times have you looked back on a moment, interrogated it with fresh eyes and realized — that it wasn’t an anecdote specific to your story, but representative of a larger structural problem?
Here are some facts about the news photography community:
- Professional news photography is dominated by men, with 85 percent of the respondents to the 2015 Word Press Photo Contest survey identifying as male.
- Today, women make up the majority of students in undergraduate and graduate photojournalism programs.
- And even though the top photo editors of National Geographic, Time, The Washington Post and The New York Times are female...
- There are still very few women working on assignments for major international news and wire services.
- The facts are grimmer for women of color, according to Akili-Casundria Ramses, the executive director of the National Press Photographers Association. “I literally know every black woman photojournalist in the U.S., and I can count them on both hands.”
But wait. It gets worse:
- The 2016 New York Times Year In Pictures featured about 145 images, of which only 16 were credited to women. And of the 120-180K images considered, women didn’t even make the 15 percent they represent in the industry.
- Of the women that have managed to break through, they are constantly being written out of the narrative. As Anastasi Taylor-Lind recently wrote for Time magazine, “Women have photographed war for almost as long as men have … However, women are widely overshadowed by the iconized narratives of their male colleagues and feature less prominently in the recounting of photojournalism’s history.”
- Of the 45 photographers recognized by the 2016 World Press Photo Contest, the most prestigious photo prize in the world, only five were women.
- Vogue’s 125th Anniversary piece on women in the media was, you guessed it, photographed by a man.
- And the mere mention of broader representation gets many folks very, very angry.
It’s important to understand our most prized images documenting today’s current affairs are predominantly made by men, and that is by design.
So, what else can we interrogate? Was there a similar moment in your story? I’m embarrassed to admit for the longest time I believed in meritocracy. A lot of us first-generation immigrant kids were spoon-fed this American fallacy.
I thought I had decided I wasn’t going to be a conflict photographer. But as it turns out, that decision was made for me.
Things worth reading, watching and listening to:
The personal: Another Round’s interview with Remy Ma was one of the most intimate conversations I’ve listened to in a long time. She talks about her time in prison, why there is no logic to sentencing and details on her ectopic pregnancy. TL:DR — WE NEED TO TALK MORE ABOUT THE HARD SHIT.
The professional: You know that feeling when you get home and you have nothing more to give? You are so tired but you can’t put your finger on it. Well, there’s two words for that — Collaborative Overload. And turns out women bear more of the burden. This read is over a year old, but I still find myself sending it to friends who are exhausted from leading folks at work, being the main income earner at home and making sure their household runs on time. And just this week a companion piece on how to be an effective giver. Spoiler alert: It’s not about dropping everything and losing yourself.
The visual: Our team started an inspiration Slack room at work, where we post links to stories we want to share and talk about. The goal is to foster a place to critique storytelling. Here are a few recent stories we shared and discussed: 16 Children — 16 Photos, The Truth About The Gender Wage Gap and one story done two different ways: NYT/CNN (and yes, both by male photographers; we have work to do).
Jennifer Pritheeva Samuel fell in love with photography in college, had a moment where she thought she was going into development work, but then came back to work in documentary film and photography. She co-founded a local photo salon hosted in her Brooklyn home, which brought together a community of emerging and established (mostly) photographers of color to commune, critique and look at photography.
Today she works at the intersection of visual media, fine art and social justice. She is currently an associate photo editor at National Geographic magazine.
She knows what’s happening. She knows what’s good. And she knows how to bring people together.
Which is why I thought she was the perfect voice to expand on advocating for diversity in the visual world. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can read it here.
“Representation is fundamental to what we expect from our culture,” he said. “When people don't feel represented, you get extremism, division, and lose out on our full potential. Things can get very ugly very fast. Let's step up, and REPRESENT.”
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The Cohort is part of Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media. The 2017 class meets next week! Special thanks to Megan Chan and Kristen Hare for their editing help this week.