On sexual harassment in the photojournalism field

Katie Jett Walls, Editor 

My initial vision for Confluence Magazine was two-fold. First, the magazine is an effort to aggregate and celebrate the good documentary work being made by photographers who are outside the traditional photojournalism field. And second, by aggregating good work, draw the attention of gatekeepers and get this work out to wider audiences.

But in the weeks that I’ve been at work on Confluence, my vision has deepened. I’ve come to believe that the traditional routes to professional photojournalistic work are, perhaps, outmoded and full of deep ruts that simply aren’t properly navigable. In fact, rather than repair those blighted routes, I feel emboldened to suggest that we need to set our sights on altogether new routes.

Let me take you back a few weeks, and show you how this belief developed.

On July 16, 2018, Columbia Journalism Review published a bombshell special report by Kristen Chick, a freelance journalist who covers, among other things, women’s issues. Her report outlined in depth a number of disturbing accounts of sexual harassment and predatory behavior by top male photojournalists. The report spawned a storm of “statements”  - from Alyssa Adams (widow of Eddie Adams), from VII agency, from female members of VII, and from female industry leaders like Daniela Zalcman of Women Photograph. Feelings ran deep, but the evidence was clear: many of the pillar institutions of photojournalism were places where some women were routinely forced to navigate sexual exploitation in the pursuit of their career goals, and leaders (including, sometimes, even other women) helped to protect the reputations of the men accused, and of the agencies and organizations that represented those men.

On September 7, 2018, freelance photojournalist and Visuals Editor for Vox, Kainaz Amaria, published a piece following the quiet statement from VII that member Antonin Kratochvil  - one of the accused in the CRJ report - had resigned from the agency. Amaria’s article summarizes details from the CJR report and the ensuing backlash. Then it shifts to a deeper exploration of the problem of gender imbalance in photojournalism. Her entire article is worth a careful read. Particularly once she shifts from male dominance in the field to what it means to be shown the world only through the male perspective. The dominance of male photographers has resulted, writes Amaria, in a “homogenization of visual language”, reducing the photographic coverage of the important stories of our time to “repetitive visual tropes” and glorification of images of abjection and violence, combined with a sense of moral separateness from the subjects. She hints that the wholesale purchase of the idea that the photographer of society’s ills is innately noble in his selfless pursuit of these images could be at the heart of why photojournalism cannot rightly reckon with the abusers in its ranks. “After all, aren’t we the good ones?

Amaria’s piece hit home with me, as a call for change.  

There is ample talk in the industry about improving conditions for women*; ample talk about making room for diverse voices. As Amaria suggests in her Vox article, correcting the gender balance is one step toward countering predatory behavior, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. I think it could do much more than that.  Shifting the gender balance could shift the way we approach photographing stories altogether. It could make way for more kinds of stories to be covered, by more kinds of people.  If the industry truly wants greater diversity of voices in both the photographers and in the stories being told, it is going to have to adapt to the ways in which those new artists develop their craft, and make their work.

If there is only one template for forging a career in documentary photography, then only one kind of photographer (and a handful of outliers who can contort themselves enough) will be able to succeed in the field. 

Do we really want broader female representation in documentary photography or photojournalism? We can’t fully accomplish that by merely welcoming women into the routes made for males – that only brings you the women who can tread those paths, most often the young, single and childfree (and then they run a gauntlet of groping and exploitations in that path). But that’s only a small number of us.  Truly representing women in the field requires accommodating the approaches necessary for adult women who are also caregivers. It means that the traditional approach of hustling for assignments won’t work for some sets of voices. By all means, let those who can, hustle for assignments and take the breaking stories. But not every story needs to be a breaking news moment. There are slower stories to be made. Let those who can’t do the hustle in this season of life tell those slower stories, make the time to listen when they speak, and make room for their work in publications online and off. This is how you make room for diverse voices in documentary photography.

I speak specifically of the needs of female photographers who are also mothers, because that is what I know. But there are other underrepresented groups**, and I am committed to actively seeking input from all communities whose voices need greater representation. I hope to bring you more from those perspectives very soon.

*Though precious little talk about solving what’s wrong with those men.  

** For starters, explore the Lit List 2018.

Katie Jett Walls is documentary photographer, creating visual stories for families in the Washington DC area, as well shooting documentary projects that give voice to those in marginalized communities, and witness to the human experience. Katie began her photography journey when she inherited her grandfather’s old Minolta SRT201 film camera when she was 25, ran away to photography school when she was 26, and took her first wedding client when she was 27. She has never looked back.