Women in Photojournalism

At the time I was reaching out to female photojournalists around the world with the quest of writing a book, two of their male colleagues had fallen in Libya. I worried that my queries were ill-timed. They were coming together in solidarity to mourn their loss. I didn’t expect a response for some time. I was wrong.

Within a day, the replies came. The first was Barbara Davidson who had just found out she’d been awarded her third Pulitzer Prize:

“Sounds really interesting, I’d really like to be a part of this book project. Keep me posted and thanks for thinking of me. Best b”.

Next it was Andrea Bruce.

“I would be happy to be included. Let me know if you want to chat some….at the moment I’m in Mexico.”

On her heals, Holly Pickett —

“Sure, I’d love to be part of your book project. I haven’t read the articles yet, been distracted today by the death of a colleague and I can’t really think about anything else. But if Andrea signed off on it, I know it’s a good thing.”
Soon after, Kathleen Flynn was also aboard and finally, having just won her fourth Pulitzer, Carol Guzy came back with this —

“Hi Kendall, Yes I would be honored to be included in the book project…”

I took it as a sign there were things that needed to be said.

The idea for this book grew from an aching need to remember a life I had once been passionate about. It’s been some eighteen years since I worked in the field as a photojournalist. Any photos framed since this time have focused on the faces of my children. To return to a life of travelling to precarious hotspots is no longer in my maternal make-up. Yet, as my daughters mature, and as I emerge from a divorce, so too has my concern for issues affecting the world our youth will inherit. I find myself at 45 years of age enlivened to reconnect with issues that matter to me and to also show my children the world beyond their own doorstep. Things had been forgotten or perhaps denied for a time in my life. It’s time now to remember and even better, to illustrate how lives can be strengthened when we set our hearts and minds to work with courage, compassion and conviction. I begin this journey holding my daughter’s trusting hands to write about the stories of women and the tool of the camera in their grasp, reminded of the world I pushed aside.

I am passionate about the idea of telling the experiences of female photojournalists who are extracting from war ravaged countries stories that would otherwise go unreported. Were it not for their unique perspective, courage and access to stories, certain issues would never be played out in the world’s media because male colleagues either shy away from them or are unable to gain access. In a piece in the New York Times (NYT) on March 30 photojournalist Lynsey Addario (who was captured in Libya) explains, “In the Muslim world, most of my male colleagues can’t enter private homes. They can’t hang out with very conservative Muslim families. I have always been able to. It’s not easy to get the right to photograph in a house, but at least I have one foot in the door. I’ve always found it a great advantage, being a woman.”

The point is not that men aren’t capable of taking the photos that the women are, but women may choose, for example, to bring another woman into a story; make a connection with her that a man may not be able to. She may be granted access to a home, as Addario expressed, or hospital room that a male colleague would never be able to enter. A man, for instance, would not have come away with the same story as Barbara Davidson on maternal mortality in Sierra Leone – even if he did secure access to the people. These women agree there is a difference to their approach that is difficult to define but one I wish to track through telling their personal journeys and hearing them speak about the assignments they felt the greatest connection with. Added to this, I believe, women are natural communicators, more comfortable expressing their thoughts and emotions. Because of this and because of the challenging nature of their work there is a rather profound voice emanating from these five women who travel the world that needs to be recorded.

These women photograph conflict but often choose to focus on the aftermath of war and violence. As Andrea Bruce relayed to me in an email, “Women often play the role of the survivor, the source of endurance in war time, and so I find myself drawn to the aftermath of war and its consequences more than the fighting itself, although I cover both.”

There are few women in the field, perhaps a dozen now currently covering conflict. What they bring to the world’s attention is both necessary and compelling. These women, in their own way, serve as a bridge of deeper understanding between us and them, here and over there, bringing our world that much closer together.

Holly Pickett was on the same wave length. She wrote back to me a few days after our initial contact. “Just wanted to let you know that I think your idea is a really good one. I think it is so very important to have women photojournalists. We do bring a different perspective and we reach subjects and viewers that our male counterparts sometimes can’t. So thank you. I think it will be an enlightening endeavor for us all.”

Why am I the one to write this book? I worked as a news photographer in South Africa during its transition to democracy. I came to understand the tool the camera is — a passport of sorts that takes an inquisitive mind into places off limits to most. It opened doors for me to the South African townships; political marches and rallies and even executions. From this experience I wrote my first book, “Black Taxi: Shooting South Africa — a photographic memoir. Because of this work, I have the benefit of understanding the character of these women who witness the very best and worst of humanity. Safety is always an issue for them; it is a physically demanding profession that also takes a hefty toll on their own psyche and personal life yet the drive to communicate with their cameras supersedes all.

In a piece I wrote for Tonic, I comment on how we are invited into people’s lives worlds away through images seen in the news and how uncomfortable this experience can be as we bear witness to others often excruciatingly vulnerable moments. The photojournalist interacts with this world absorbing images of life and death, love and hate, war and peace. We can understand the world that much more through her story, the one she has to tell.

With this in mind, I find Carol Guzy’s words interesting. She says, “I don’t believe in full objectivity. I think that’s nonsense. I think everyone is a subjective being, and somehow your thoughts and your feelings and past experiences are going to play a role in how you photograph things, how you view the world, how you interact with people.” This could be considered the core of the book: to know the thoughts, feelings and experiences of these women as they are applied to the job they do as women on the front line of some of the harshest stories in the world.

There are probably no more than a dozen women working in conflict photography in the world today. They have made it in the boys club but also in an economic environment that makes it very had to work as a photojournalist. This is an amazing accomplishment.of These women are artists. For them the camera is more than a tool, it’s a means of expression and they do it with breathtaking grace. Without their stories being known, the picture of the profession of photojournalism will remain incomplete.

I’ve just begun on this journey. Plans need to be made, my kids need to be consulted, research must still be done but I’m ready to peer at the world through the lenses of these women allowing them to pull the focus, allow for more depth, and stop the action on issues many of us have failed to notice. Care to take a look?

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