“It took me too long to figure out that drinking massive amounts of alcohol and putting up with sexual harassment were not tests I had to pass to join the club. I now know it took me so long because I didn’t have a strong, senior female photographer or editor willing to take me in and tell me that ‘there’s another, better way.'” –Melissa Golden
Earlier this week, Paul Melcher, best known to me from the usually level-headed Melcher System blog, posted an article on the Black Star Rising blog, Why Is a Photojournalist’s Gender Relevant to Their Work?, dismissive of exhibitions, collectives, and professional organizations that are focused on women photographers. Thankfully, there was immediate backlash against Melcher’s post. A facebook post from Melissa Golden initially drew me to Melcher’s article, and I asked if she’d be willing to expand her thoughts a bit more. I’m glad she did; I knew from her history that she would have a valuable perspective on the importance of women’s photographer organizations, and I think this perspective can easily apply to other minority-focused organizations and exhibitions. Diversity among the ranks of photographers, editors, and anyone else involved in photography, will only make our craft stronger and more relevant to the public. This is a guest post by Golden, a photojournalist based in Los Angeles. If you don’t already know her work, you need to.
On the plus side, I possess a number of advantages over my male counterparts. I can photograph children in a park without adults immediately suspecting I may be a sex offender, I can take pictures of women in cultures where a male photographer would be forbidden, and (I suspect) editors are more likely to hire me to shoot sensitive subjects like victims of sexual violence.. Conversely, I have to put up with some pretty ridiculous things that men do not. I’ve been sexually harassed by colleagues and subjects. I’ve been discriminated against by paternalistic editors who have feared for my safety in the field because of my gender. A fixer I once hired overseas paraded me around his village like a trophy and spent much of our time together propositioning me. I shot nothing useable in that time and I know for a fact this is not an unusual story for women photojournalists working abroad. I know of one colleague whose fixer even arranged to have her arrested after she spurned his advances.
Mr. Melcher misses the mark when he asks what gender has to do with the photojournalistic process. I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that his post is attempting to say that photojournalism transcends gender, and gender should not be relevant. I think he meant that in the best possible way, but saying that is like saying we’ve transcended race in America. I don’t live in a fantasyland where racism doesn’t exist and I certainly don’t live in a society absent of sexism. Sometimes gender has nothing to do with the photojournalistic process, sure, but sometimes it has everything to do with it.
I joined the Women Photojournalists of Washington (WPOW) when I moved to DC in the summer of 2007. I had just begun my freelance career after leaving newspapers and the nascent organization looked like it could provide some good networking opportunities. I wasn’t interested in female camaraderie or girl talk or anything of the sort. I wanted work and I was willing to mask my general disdain for other women to go forth and make nice.
Yes, I was truly a self-hating woman. If I sat down with a shrink, we could probably trace this back to childhood traumas, but my general wariness of other females was certainly reinforced over the years. By the time I started in photography, it was clear to me that it was a boys’ club and if I wanted in, I’d have to earn it. To me, it was obvious that earning it meant hanging with the boys, drinking enough to keep up, shooting brutal assignments without complaint and laughing off sexual harassment. The brutal assignments were the best part. Early on I spent a lot of time in locker rooms and on sidelines. A linebacker ran me over and tore my rotator cuff the first time I shot high school football and I wore the bruises with pride, even though I couldn’t lift my arm for a few weeks. I welcomed the tough assignments and still do.
It took me too long to figure out that drinking massive amounts of alcohol and putting up with sexual harassment were not tests I had to pass to join the club. I now know it took me so long because I didn’t have a strong, senior female photographer or editor willing to take me in and tell me that “there’s another, better way.”
The only other women photographers I knew were my contemporaries and I viewed them as direct competition for space in the boys’ club. The small handful of veteran women photographers who might have helped me seemed distant, and frankly, I was extremely intimidated by them.
That first WPOW meeting transformed my worldview. I found myself in a houseful of women photographers with some of the most distinguished names in the field. Once again, I found myself intimidated. Over the course of the evening, they proved to be friendly, accessible and eager to help a young photographer who just moved to town.
WPOW offers a mentorship program, educational programs, a regular lecture series, and it produces juried shows by its members. The organization doesn’t exist to the exclusion of men. It hosts an ongoing monthly happy hour that is open to everyone. Many of the speakers in the lecture series are men. Besides discussions on subjects like business practices and grant writing, members can talk about issues that affect women like maternity, sexual harassment, sexual violence, gender discrimination, and unequal pay.. It’s a valuable forum where these issues can be broached without outright dismissal, disapproval, or fear of reprisal.
Regarding Mr. Melcher’s suggestion that such groups place an undue emphasis on the gender of the photographer, I disagree. I can’t think of a single female colleague who actually identifies as a “woman photojournalist.” It’s an odd construct and I don’t think that these groups are promoting such a thing. I think these groups, workshops, panels, etc. exist for photographers who happen to be women and as such deal regularly with a set of issues that are distinct from their male counterparts.
I moved to Los Angeles recently and I am no longer part of a women’s photography group, but I must give credit to WPOW for playing an important role in my life and career. It cured me of my misogyny and I wish such a group had been available to me earlier in my career. I’m sure it and other groups like it have been as meaningful in other ways to other female photographers. To consider these organizations to be “a silly distraction” is dismissive and, frankly, disrespectful.