What does a photojournalist look like? Apart from anything else, almost always male. A report from Oxford University's Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, based on an online survey of World Press Photo entrants (2007-2018), found that only 15% were female. What's more, those women earned less than their male counterparts, were more likely to work part-time and were less likely to be employed by large news organisations. Why do men still outnumber women in news photography? The reasons are tricky to untangle. Here we explore whether the gender disparity is a symptom of sexism in wider society or an issue specific to the job.
While there are undoubtedly barriers to overcome, there are signs that progress is being made, thanks in part to initiatives such as the annual Canon Female Photojournalist Award, which recognises talented women in the industry, and Women Photograph, an online directory of female and non-binary photojournalists that offers mentoring, grants and workshops.
At Visa pour l'Image 2019, the international festival of photojournalism in Perpignan, France, we talked to a group of female photojournalists and photo editors about their own experiences working in a male-dominated world and their ideas for making the industry more accessible in the future.
"I've had an editor ask me what my family situation is like, and if I'm planning on having children. I'm sure they wouldn't have asked a man that," says Canon Ambassador Ilvy Njiokiktjien.
Washington Post photo editor Chloe Coleman says that, even when working with a diverse staff, there are challenges. "I feel lucky to be at The Washington Post because our newsroom, on the whole, is very diverse. I think being a young, female photo editor can be challenging no matter where you are, and for the same reasons it's challenging for young women working in any industry. How do I get people to listen to me? How do I get people to be open to my ideas? I want people to respect my voice and my vision. I think that is just difficult, unfortunately, for young women across many industries."
"Many women are much less self-confident, and I think that starts even in school," says Magnum nominee Nanna Heitmann, recalling an occasion when a male student in her class asked for $2,500 a day to shoot a commercial job. "He didn't get the work," she says, but she can't help but compare this approach to a female photographer who "so often just accepts the first amount of money she is offered because she's afraid if she asks for more, they're going to say no".
"People think if you employ a female photographer, they'll produce a more sensitive story," says Ilvy. "I don't agree. Most of my mentors are male and they're the most sensitive photographers around."
"Maybe it helps to be a woman because people don't take you seriously, maybe they are less afraid," says Nanna. "Sometimes I walk around with my little camera and people don't think that I'm a journalist. And then, of course, it helps when you're entering a woman's world, especially in Muslim countries." Ilvy agrees: "I photographed in a female hospital in Afghanistan – a male photographer could never have done that."
One possible way to encourage more women to get involved is the use of specific grants, such as the Canon Female Photojournalist Award at Visa pour l’Image, which marks its 20th year in 2020.
"Female grants are very useful," says photojournalist Camilla Ferrari. "Women don't apply as much to [open contests]. Female grants push women photographers, and they should be encouraged." But you have to be careful to avoid positive discrimination that feels "forced", she adds. "I want to be appreciated for my work, not because I'm a woman. That's worse than not winning at all."
Nanna offers a different view: "So many people are against quotas, but maybe you need them in the beginning, just to get some change in the industry, and maybe then the industry changes itself."
"Ultimately," says Chloe, "the goal should be to move towards grants not being something that we need, then men and women and people of all classes and colours can compete for the same grants and the same competitions on a level playing field."
"I don't actually think a lot of the discrimination that I felt as a woman was intentional," says 2018 Canon Female Photojournalist Award winner Laura Morton. "I think it was subconscious. And I think now that it's being talked about, people are a lot more conscious about their decisions, who they're hiring, and maybe they're thinking more about what their inherent biases might be and trying to overcome that.
"My very first job was an internship at the Seattle Times," Laura continues. "During our intern orientation, they handed us a sheet of paper with the ethnic breakdown of the city. They said, 'If you're covering community events, and your photos aren't reflecting that, you need to think about your own bias and correct it'. I thought that was really interesting."
"I think it's a lack of effort to push beyond the people that everyone knows to find new voices," says Chloe. "They're out there and they exist, it's just how do we get those voices published? How do we make those voices household names?" It's about editors' judgement calls as well as the individual photographers that they are commissioning, she stresses. "An image might not resonate as being stereotypical or pejorative to one photo editor, but it does to another with a different background and a different experience. You need that diversity of voices in editors just as much as in photographers."
"It used to be that photojournalists were mostly men, and western men," says Magdalena Herrera, Director of Photography for GEO France and 2019 Canon Student Programme mentor. "Now it's much more diverse – photography has developed in regions like South Asia, Latin America, Africa... There are local photographers on the ground, and magazines are working with them for all kinds of reasons – some economic, but also because we need other views. In terms of class, photojournalism remains something you do when you are middle class or wealthy. Not so much in the western world, but the rest of the world. In Latin America you are not a photographer if you are not from a wealthy family. A poor family will spend money on a profession that helps you climb the social ladder. That's changing, but it takes time."
"This is not the easiest career to get into financially, and that's a really big problem," says Laura. "I shot society events for 10 years to pay the bills while I was building my career. My parents can't necessarily support me, but I know if something really bad happens, I can count on them. We need more people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, different ethnic backgrounds, in this industry. That's really important. It's the way the world views the world."
The portraits in this article were taken by Laila Sieber and Aliona Kardash under the mentorship of Canon Ambassador Daniel Etter as part of the Canon Student Content Creation Programme at Visa pour l'Image 2019 in Perpignan, France.
"In this photo series we were dealing with the topic of visibility and representation of women in the industry. As Visa pour l’Image and Perpignan itself play a big role in the debate about women's representation (and because women photographers are still underrepresented there), it was important for us to use natural light, and to use spaces in the city as a backdrop," say Laila and Aliona.
"To capture the portraits we wanted to work with a visual tool that on one side would draw attention to our protagonists and on the other side would unify the portraits of female photographers, who are all facing the same or similar problems. We decided to work with a small pocket mirror, which allowed us to put a focus on the women’s gaze in quite a gentle way while at the same time building a visual narrative."