“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.
Paul Melcher recently posted a piece on the Black Star Rising blog, raising the question of why a photojournalists’ gender is important to his or her work. It’s not, Paul- except when it is.
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.