Gaslighting in Photojournalism:
Revisionist history threatens to whitewash The Silent Generation — women who paved The Way.
“For a very long time, we’ve been predominantly looking at the world through the experience and vision of male photographers,” wrote photographer Daniella Zalcman.
This is a sexist and ageist quote. It was published in a piece on NationalGeographic.com that also showcased the work of younger female photographers. The text included a reference to a male-dominated “status quo” working world that purportedly is only now starting to change. This is inaccurate and why I decided to write a response.
The impression given does not represent my 35 years of experience in the field of photojournalism. My recollections reveal a different, more complete narrative.
The article, which was posted on International Women’s Day, failed to mention all women photojournalists, like those who paved the way at the venerable National Geographic Magazine — talented National Geographic photographers who’s work I remember: Karen Kasmauski, Melissa Farlow, Joanna Pinneo, Alexandra Avakian, Alexandra Boulat, Lynn Johnson, Susie Post, Maria Stenzel, Sisse Brimberg, Jodi Cobb and Annie Griffith Belt. Instead, the writer highlighted a crop of relative newcomers to the field and magazine and glossed over any reference to the past. This false narrative is beating a drum that ignores the talent, sacrifice, and accomplishments of their predecessors who now make it possible for today’s women photographers to stand tall.
It’s shocking and disappointing to think this article was printed in a publication that considers itself a mainstream journalistic institution. Sadly, this seems to be a trend, as an entire generation (and more) of women photojournalists have been ignored, forgotten or made to simply disappear through a prism that paints only the younger contributors as those who have supposedly broken through a glass ceiling in photojournalism.
Stunningly and inexcusably, the editors behind this piece seemed unaware of Cathy Newman’s book that documented 100 years of contributions by women photographers to the pages of National Geographic. The book, “Women Photographers at the National Geographic” was published by the National Geographic almost twenty years ago!
Photographer and educator Todd Bigelow reacted to the article best and I agree:
“The narrative has been hijacked to some degree in an effort to make it seem like the male barrier has just now been pierced…that’s simply revisionist history. It’s just not true, but it serves the two-minute cycle of those with big social media followings. I grew up in this profession looking up to all the women listed here BECAUSE they broke through by creating incredible bodies of work. And have continued to lead the way as well.”
We –- the women who have preceded our younger sisters in the profession — have fought the good fight for diversity, equality and opportunity for over 35 years.
I remember 1997 was a breakthrough year for women in photojournalism. Looking back now, we established that women stood firmly on an even playing field across the entire industry. We had a collective voice that was raised and listened to by dint of the power and quality of our work.
Women swept awards that were previously bestowed largely to a field of men. It was the year Carol Guzy, Gail Fisher and I dominated the NPPA/Pictures of the Year competition (I won Magazine Photographer of the Year — only the second time it was awarded to a woman; the first time, 42 years earlier!). Corinne Dufka won the Robert Capa medal. Women swept the Overseas Press Club awards and top categories within the World Press Photo — the industry’s highest honors at the time. This story by Sherry Ricchardi retells what women faced then.
Today, we’re faced with a different and much sadder kind of battle: our history and accomplishments are being diminished and whitewashed, as quotes in the NG.com piece by a market-savvy younger generation with a social media megaphone and by gatekeeper-editors who aid in promoting this false history.
“I think the current narrative about the lack of women in photojournalism ignores the reality that there has been a significant number of talented, successful women photographers in the industry the past few decades. There has been a notable female presence at newspapers and magazines for a long time, both on the shooting and editing side. Women have played a big role in how stories are told, which stories are told and who is telling those stories,” said photographer Radhika Chalasani.
Women have always played roles telling stories throughout the greater realm of journalism for years. A good photojournalist is able to transition between covering important women’s issues, as well as navigate other assignments not always deferential to women.
The women who I came up with — photographers who were my comrades and closest friends remain to this day, strong, independent, courageous, fearless and dynamic but with empathy that shows in our work across a range of assignments and stories. They were mavericks, that fought tooth and nail to get better assignments. Photographers such as Janet Knott, a Boston Globe staffer, had guts and gumption. I remember her photographs to this day and her work is not represented on the internet because she worked in pre-digital days.
Similarly, Carol Guzy, is a rare combination of vulnerability and incredible inner strength. Not only is Carol the best woman photojournalist of all time, but one of the best journalists period. Many of her greatest photographs are not found on the internet for the same reason as Janet’s, but I remember her work indelibly. You should see her work in the field. She’s relentless, yet is also the antithesis of a bull in a china shop.
Equality was important to us then, just as it is now. I know, because I fought for it. I risked my life on many occasions so others would never dare to think that a minority or woman couldn’t cut it in the field; I saw it as an additional challenge to set the record straight.
Many American newspapers started to push for diversity and equality in the early 1980s. The staff I worked with at the Boston Globe early on in my career was diverse. We were largely working and middle-class photographers who went to work and competed with each other on daily deadlines, men and women alike. Many of the top photographers practicing today came up through these newspaper staffs, including many National Geographic photographers.
The threat of extinction hangs over working and middle-class photographers today. As the industry continues to nosedive, many seasoned pros have been forced to abandon it. The business has been taken over by a younger generation, many of which have alternate sources of funding, such as trust funds.
Washington Post Director of Photography, MaryAnne Golon in a recent interview with LensCulture seemed to lay it on the line:
“I like to remind people that at the very start of photography, the only people who could afford to pursue it were very wealthy men…It was so prohibitively expensive for anyone else to afford. It may yet swing back in that direction for some time before it evolves again, and I say that because it seems to me that many of the most successful people doing photojournalism right now tend to have alternative sources of money than standard assignment rates or the ability to solely rely on grants. Right now, if you want to be a successful photojournalist, it’s very helpful if you have a trust fund!”
With budgets slashed and paltry fees offered, editors have sought out these self-funding talents. They had little choice. The new photographers didn’t mind, they needed the validation the publications offered and in the case of trust-funders, they didn’t need the money.
Young photographers came into contact with some male editors and older photographers who, sensing an opportunity, behaved shamefully (to say the least). Some of these men were rumored to be predators in the portfolio review circuit, or in their jobs as editors, for years. It was hard for the younger generation to call them out, as they had power to make assignments and help careers. It was easier to just brand all male photographers as predators. Many photographers actually detested this circuit that consumed much of the industry’s oxygen over the past 10 years.
Some editors who historically did not showcase women or ignored diversity now sing the diversity tune. They survive today because they’ve been able to jump on the bandwagon of equality and travel the festival/review circuit. The same circuits that have become a haven for photographers with alternative sources of revenue.
Women photojournalists from the film era are what I call the Silent Generation. This is primarily because we got ahead and made a place for ourselves in this business by doing the work and letting our pictures do the talking for us.
Many older photographers’ work has not been broadly digitized. Some former newspaper and wire staffers no longer have access to their work. This hole in the historical record has opened the door for the revisionist history we’re seeing today. There’s no need to rewrite or erase the history of women photographers to empower the women of today. When you are empowering based on revisionism, you are, in fact, not empowering but perpetuating victimhood!
We aren’t defined by the noise on social media, which is largely coming from those whose knowledge of the industry is limited to the past five or ten years.
Our experience and our lives have been rich; our memories too. We are defined by our work, and the craft of our storytelling, less so by the public inflating of it. Instagram and Facebook may be necessary evils today, but that doesn’t mean we need to let them define us.
I saw, and continue to see men as equal colleagues. I welcome the opportunity to work with them in the field where people are judged on their manner, visual skill, their professional instincts, and ethics.
I am here to attest to the historical fact that there were legions of passionate and heroic women photographers who paved the roads you are walking on today. Respect.
Part Two: Update
Full list: *TrailblazersOfLight.com: Pioneering Women of Photojournalism*
- Other stories highlighting womens role in photojournalism: 10 World Press Photo Awards, 10 Backstories and One Piece Of Advice.
- Copyright to the photographer Credited. All rights reserved. Photos given by each photographer.
- Yunghi Kim has been a photojournalist for 35 years, is a member of Contact Press Images and Yunghi gives back to photojournalism in Yunghi Grant. Follow Yunghi on Twitter: @Yunghi. Instagram: Yunghi.Kim