Fewer than one in seven of every main front page photographs published by the world’s best-known newspapers is taken by a woman.
It is an extraordinary statistic in an era where good quality cameras are available to everyone with a smartphone and when women constitute more than two-thirds of users of the most photo-friendly social media platform, Instagram.
And it raises the likelihood that the news media is exacerbating gender disparity by viewing and portraying the world almost exclusively through masculine eyes behind the lens.
Research by Women Photograph recorded bylines for 2,835 lead front page photographs published last year by eight leading titles (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Toronto Globe & Mail, Le Monde and The Guardian). Only 379 of the pictures (13.3%) were taken by women.
The balance was especially bad in business, with the Journal using women for only 6.2% of lead pictures. The Guardian, a champion of equality in its editorials, had 7.6%. The San Francisco Chronicle commissioned women for 23.4% of its lead photos.
The situation has barely improved in the first quarter of the year, with 103 (14.7%) out of 699 lead pictures in the eight titles taken by women.
A distorted picture of news
Daniella Zalcman founded Women Photograph a little over a year ago to help to address these inequalities by compiling a database of female news photographers. She estimates that just 15% of the world’s photojournalists are women (a figure based on multiple metrics including entries to World Press Photo, the leading global competition for news photography).
She is convinced that this gender imbalance gives media audiences a distorted view of the news.
“Women absolutely have a different lived experience than men, women have a different way of seeing than men, we think about the world differently and have different personal experiences and so our work will be different, inherently, than the work of men,” she says. “Making sure that that balance is shown in the mainstream media is critical and unfortunately that’s not true right now. We have prioritised a very specific way of seeing that unfortunately is very masculine and very Western.”
The picture agency Getty Images has recognised a need “to promote gender diversity within professional photojournalism and elevate the work and the voices of female visual journalists”. It is partnering with Women Photograph in offering a $10,000 grant to a professional photojournalist who can demonstrate a “long-term commitment” to an ongoing documentary project. Entries close on 15 May. Getty has also established a London-based mentorship programme to help young women to enter the field of sports photography.
Sandy Ciric, director of photography at Getty Images, says that although she dislikes generalising about male and female photographers – “there is far too much nuance involved” – no visual journalist can detach themselves entirely from a story. “All photographers’ work is informed by life experience and identity. Despite journalism training, photographers, like everyone else, will, to some degree, interpret the world through that prism.”
According to Ciric: “If I assigned a woman to document female Marine recruits going through basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina, the pictures would look very different than if a man shot the story. And If I assigned a former Marine (male or female) to shoot that story, the photos would look different still, and so on. That is why diversity behind the lens is so very important: we don’t want to see only one rendering of the world. Varied experience results in more robust and nuanced storytelling.”
Bringing female photojournalists into focus
Zalcman, a working photojournalist herself, says she set up Women Photograph as a database in frustration that picture editors were claiming to be unable to even find female photojournalists. “I was frequently hearing from people in a hiring capacity that they would try harder to hire women but they just didn’t know where to find them. That always struck me as a slightly hollow excuse so I figured: ‘Well, here’s a list so now that excuse is invalid’.”
The database has quickly expanded to 720 women photographers and has been embraced by news outlets including Reuters, the BBC, The New York Times and Chicago Tribune. The database includes key details such as languages spoken, hostile environment training qualifications and expertise in working in particular regions.
“The response has been overwhelming,” says Zalcman. “There are two distinct groups of (picture editors) in the industry; there are those who were already inclined to want to diversify their hiring practices and for them this database became a tool to make that easier. For a second group of people, who said things like ‘Well, I don’t think about gender or race when I hire a photographer’, this has allowed them to question that.”
While fewer than one in six photojournalists are female, women have been making big strides as picture editors. As well as Ciric at Getty Images, the directors of photography at many of the biggest American news operations are women, including Kathy Ryan at The New York Times, MaryAnne Golon at The Washington Post, Nicole Frugé at The San Francisco Chronicle, Kira Pollack at Time and Sarah Leen at National Geographic. The Guardian’s head of photography is Fiona Shields. “You look at almost every single major newspaper and magazine in the United States and most publications have a female director of photography – that was the place where we started to see a shift in gender first and hopefully that means it will follow in the workplace,” Zalcman says.
But that might take time. Zalcman says there is a clear pattern of women photographers being driven towards softer assignments. “Often women are told that they cannot and should not put themselves into dangerous situations – the fact is they are dangerous for the men too, but [that is] much less frequently questioned,” she says. “It’s assumed women are more interested in covering feature stories than hard news, breaking news.”
While she also dislikes “making generalisations based on gender about what people like to cover”, she sees subtle differences in how male and female photographers cover stories. “You can say roughly that women tend to be more interested in human stories on the edges of conflict rather than the conflict itself,” she says. “But editors assume that women…don’t want to be in the thick of things and that’s just categorically untrue. There are many incredible women conflict photographers.”
Stories that men couldn't tell
Allison Joyce, a photojournalist represented by Getty Images Reportage, has been based for the last five years in Bangladesh, where she has covered the plight of Rohingya refugees, and the lives of young girl beach vendors in the coastal town of Cox’s Bazar, among many other stories.
“I think women do see the world a little differently by default of their experiences and I think some women do more off the beaten path; quieter stories that men might not necessarily be drawn to,” she says. “A huge part of the world is comprised of very conservative societies, and by default these are spaces that men have a very hard time accessing. Very often it’s not just a matter of a woman being able to tell these stories more powerfully or empathetically, it’s often a matter of being able to tell them at all.”
She says that the news media would be “more balanced” if photojournalism had gender parity. “There are a lot of stories which aren’t being covered right now.”
But much progress has been made, she says, since she started her career in New York, where she would be the only woman on a news agency’s list of freelancers and where female photographers would be outnumbered five to one by men when reporting from big news scenes. “I think now is an exciting time to be coming into photojournalism as a woman,” she says of the Getty-backed grant and mentorship programmes.
Daniella Zalcman teaches photojournalism as well as practising it. She says that in some university photojournalism courses female students make up 95% of the class. But in the age of Instagram many are still struggling to turn their degrees into media careers. “The interest is absolutely there, there is just something in that pipeline that is broken,” she says. Her pioneering database, and the Getty Images Women Photograph Grant, are at least helping to fix the pipe.
Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell