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NUJ Women Photographers, 2019

11 July 2019

According to the University of Stirling’s 2018 report, The State of News Photography, almost 70 per cent of women photographers face discrimination in the workplace.

They struggle to get their work published in the press. Another study by Vietnamese-American documentary photographer Daniella Zalcman, concluded that only 15 per cent of photojournalists were women.

Women disproportionately drop out of the photography industry, even though photography degrees usually have more female than male students.

Two years ago (2017) Daniella Zalcman set up Woman Photograph database of women photographers which aims to persuade picture and commissioning editors to look beyond their usual, mainly-male contributors. The organisation also raises money to fund project grants and bursaries so women can attend festivals and workshops and it also runs a mentorship programme.

Lynsey Addario is a Pulitzer-prize winning photojournalist who works in dangerous situations – she and three colleagues from the New York Times were captured and held by the Libyan Army – and she won an apology from the Israeli government when the country’s border guards stripped searched her and forced her to pass through an X-ray machine despite being pregnant. She said:

“The romanticised ideal of a photojournalist has been a rugged white man with a scarf around his neck and 3.5 on the electric razor. Our job is to challenge that view and put more and more women into the field if they want to be there.”

The NUJ’s membership reflects this picture, with the photography sector being one of its most gender-unbalanced with about only 17 per cent female members. This prompted a motion at Delegate Meeting instructing the union to investigate ways to understand the challenges women face and to look at how the union can support women photographers and videographers. The issue was taken to the TUC’s Women’s Conference with a motion which said:

“Men and women experience life differently and have different perspectives to offer, yet the view of what constitutes ‘good photography’ has largely been defined by the work of men. Little has changed, despite several outstanding female photographers leading the way to new directions in storytelling. Stories from marginalised communities from a female lens will not be seen unless women photographers have access to career opportunities. To remain relevant and authentic, the photography industry must seek to become more diverse to fairly reflect the communities it reports on.”

The union gathered a group of mainly women photographers at its London headquarters in June to examine the evidence and work out ways the NUJ can help women photographers in their careers. The basement meeting room was crammed full of female talent. A glimpse at many of the website portfolios of the women attending attested to the fact that the lack of representation isn’t because women cannot take good photographs. Natasha Hirst, the union’s first female chair of the NUJ’s Photographers’ Council, led the proceedings and introduced Professor Adrian Hadland.

NUJ Women Photographers
Professor Adrian Hadland

His work with Camilla Barnett, an analysis of a survey of 5,202 photographers from more than 100 countries who took part in the World Press Photo Contest between 2015 and 2018, is one of the definitive reports on the state of news photography. Almost two-thirds of the respondents said their gender was a barrier in their career and more than a quarter said their age was. When asked what were the main obstacles for women succeeding as photojournalists, more than half (54 per cent) said sexism, a similar number said industry stereotypes and practices and almost half (48 per cent) said the lack of opportunities offered by photo agencies and media companies. The demands of family life were also a major factor. When Professor Hadland asked what could be done to improve the situation, the replies were: more assignments; funding and grants; mentorship; more female editors/directors; and family support. He said: “The global figure shows that 80 per cent of news photographers are men and my study concluded that women have been disproportionally affected by the shift to the digital era, leading to greater precarity in an increasingly freelance world. One way to survive is to develop more diverse practices and sources of income, but women are clearly facing sexism and discrimination in the industry which affects their progression.”

But does it matter who is behind the lens when a news story breaks? As part of his presentation, Professor Hadland showed a series of slides showing the photographic coverage on the day of the 9/11 attack on New York’s twin towers. The narrative was of dust-covered, all-male rescue teams; women were totally invisible. Brenda Berkman, former New York City fire department captain, said the picture was not only inaccurate “but threatened to discourage young women from considering careers in the emergency services”.  Natasha Hirst said:

“We all bring our experiences and backgrounds to bear on the choice of a shot, and women will have access to areas that men cannot reach. I am deaf and that informs the way I work and how I approach photography. That is why having more diversity in the industry is so important, it broadens the perspective of how the world is portrayed.”

The panel discussed how picture desks often fell into making decisions based on stereotypes, such as women being sent on jobs involving nursery schools. Sports journalism has been particularly tough area for women to get work. As an NUJ report on sports journalism commented, you are more likely to see a woman on the frontline of a war than on the touchline of a football or rugby match. Even where women make decisions, for example as curators of photographic galleries, men’s work predominates.

NUJ Women Photographers
                           Charlie Booth

Charlie Booth is is programme producer at Redeye, the photography network based in Manchester. Of the network's members, 43 per cent identify as women, 55 per cent as men and 2 per cent either not disclose or said they were  non-binary. Redeye offers support for those starting out and networking opportunities for those further in to their careers. Charlie said members’ stories reflected Professor Hadland’s work – women said they experienced sexist and patronising behaviour from men in the industry and that child-care issues often held their careers back. “It’s hard. Of a group of women students who won photography awards, only one of them has carried on with her camera. The others say they have lost their love of photography because it is too hard to make a living from it,” she said.

Celia Jackson joined the conference via a link to Cardiff. She is co-founder of Phrame, a photography collective based in South Wales which focuses on promoting and supporting women photographers. It sells itself as an inclusive and welcoming space for everyone, regardless of age, gender, race, class or creed. She said: “We run portfolio reviews where women can come along and bring their work and ideas in a friendly environment, put on exhibitions for women beginners and we raise funding for grants and bursaries and put on skill-sharing events. Photography has always had a very gendered language; up until the 1980s the photographer was always referred to as a him. Remember the Kodak campaign which said its camera was so simple even women could use it?”

Pennie Quinton, chair of the London Freelance Branch, who has recently worked in Palestine, said she had experienced male colleagues pushing her out of the way on jobs she had been sent to. But she had also been helped by men – particularly on her trip to Palestine when male photographer colleagues looked out for her.

After the panel discussion and Q&A session, those attending worked in groups to discuss what support would help women photographers. The need for a course on confidence-building was most popular, as was more training on the business side of freelance photography and the development of mentorships. There was a call for the union to work with commissioning editors to encourage them to increase the diversity of their pool of freelances. One group said they would like information on how make them and their equipment safe, another advocated more opportunities for networking and the sharing of positive case studies.

Tags: , photographers, videographers, photographers' council, discrimination, sexism, Lynsey Addario, redeye, charlie booth, london freelance branch, pennie quinton, adrian hadland, Phrame