More women are studying photography than ever before, but the numbers entering photojournalism remain low – just 15% of photojournalists are women, according to research by World Press Photo. At Visa pour l'Image 2018, Canon Europe sat down with three leading photojournalists to find out why.
Joining chair Hilary Roberts, curator of photography at London's Imperial War Museum, were three past winners of the Canon Female Photojournalist Award: Ilvy Njiokiktjien (2011), Catalina Martin-Chico (2017) and Laura Morton (2018).
In this topical discussion, the three professional female photojournalists explain the barriers they've had to overcome, and point to possible ways forward for women in the profession.
Hilary Roberts: "What are some of the issues that you've faced in your careers as professional photojournalists, either consciously or subconsciously?"
Laura Morton: "In our society, there is still this idea that men are the primary breadwinners. American women on average get paid 80 cents per dollar doing the same job. Earlier in my career, I went to New York and had a good meeting with an editor. At the end, he said: 'Well, you know, I really like your work and it'd be great for you to work with us, but I have a lot of guys in San Francisco, and they really need assignments to pay their bills.' And I remember thinking: 'What about me? I need to pay the rent too!' I went back and looked at his section and who he hired, and he only hired men.
"There's a lot of that. I don't think people even necessarily realise they're doing that, because it's so ingrained in our society. I don't think a lot of the gender discrimination that I've experienced is malicious. It's not just our industry but society. And there are places that are more gender equal than America."
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: "I think there's a difference between Europe and America. I've noticed that when talking to editors here in Amsterdam. I once gave a talk in New York. There is an editor who, afterwards, told me we'd had similar experiences. And then he said: 'But what is your family situation like?' In other words, do you have kids? And I was so nervous at the time, and so baffled by the question, that I seriously started answering it.
"And I thought, why am I doing this? Why am I making apologies for wanting to do this job? It's outrageous, actually. I've mostly worked for Belgian, Dutch and German media. Europe is huge and there are a lot of places I can't really speak for, but in those three countries, I can say that it really doesn't matter if you're male or female. Really, not at all. We get equal chances."
Hilary: "I once heard an English photographer in a radio interview say photographers need upper body strength, the kit is so heavy. Do you find the amount of equipment has really tested you?"
Ilvy: "No. I've heard this before and I actually got asked this question myself. You do have to be fit, because it is a tough job for your body. But then I started going to the gym. So no, I think there's no difference between male and female, just that it takes strength to do this job because there's a lot of travelling, lack of sleep, a lot of jet lag."
Hilary: "For any photojournalist, it's a life on the move. How have you found it?"
Laura: "I was lucky to have a partner who's been supportive towards this awesome profession. So that helps my conservative father. In fact, during my father's speech at my wedding, he talked about how he'd been concerned that I cared so much about work, and that I was never going to get married because of this. But then I found someone who cared about my career as much as I did.
"It's a strange double standard. I know that a man can have a child and he can be the primary caregiver, but I see female photojournalists constantly get asked: 'Oh, how do you your job and be a mother?' Men are really never asked that. Fortunately it's declining now, but I think these questions still get asked."
Ilvy: "I get asked this question a lot. And I've always thought, 'Why are you asking me this?' Once, I was in an organised a talk with women about photography – in a whole room full of women – and the subject of children came up right away in the panel. And after 10 minutes I realised we were talking about kids the whole time. We were there to talk photography... and that would never have happened if it had been a room full of men who also have kids."
Hilary: "Tell us about your experience in South America, Catalina."
Catalina Martin-Chico: "I started last year working on covering FARC in Colombia. It's a revolutionary army that was at war with the government for 53 years. They finally made a peace agreement in 2016. I really wanted to talk about the transition between civil war and peace, and I found out that 40% of the FARC fighters had been women, which is huge.
"We didn't know about that, because they were unreachable for half a century. When the peace opening was found, almost all the women were pregnant. So it was kind of an open door for me to tell their stories, and how they transitioned from being pregnant to when the babies came."
Hilary: "How did you find that the subject matter of women was something that you were drawn to?"
Catalina: "I don't define myself as a photographer who shoots women's stories. I think these are interesting stories that we're hearing. But it's true that being a woman there allowed me to have access to 50% of the stories. So obviously I took advantage of telling that story and that was really interesting for me, as a woman."
Hilary: "There are obvious risks, so some safety training has been particularly oriented towards female photojournalists. Is that useful?"
Ilvy: "I think that kind of training is very important. I think it can be helpful to be well prepared for some of the countries that I've been visiting in the last couple of years. But I don't think this kind of training necessarily has to be defined as gender-specific. I think it should be more mixed."
Hilary: "Ilvy, I was looking at your photographs. Had they been featured without your name in a mixed exhibition, I would not have been able to guess your gender. There was one particular shot, of men sitting in a sauna..."
Ilvy: "I was doing a story for The New York Times about refugees coming to Finland. I was reading outside at the refugee centre and this group of about 20 refugee men walked up with towels around their necks. I wondered, where are they going? So I asked one of them. He told me: 'We're going to take a shower in a local sauna – because of the sauna, they let us take showers for free.' I was a bit afraid to ask them: 'Can I join you guys in the shower?'
"Luckily there was one guy who jokingly said: 'Hey, do you want to join us in the shower?' I said: 'Oh yeah, I'll join you.' That of course wasn't what he meant, I'm pretty sure, but it was fine. It was super hot, of course. The camera was having trouble focusing because of the humidity, so I actually had to sit with them in this sauna for about an hour before my camera adjusted properly.
"I wanted to be respectful because they were naked; I was not going to be naked, but I asked to take my jumper off. And I did. It was a turtleneck, and I was standing there sweating. And then I took this picture of these refugees in the sauna, which to me was great, because it was a Finnish sauna in Finland. That's what you saw. I think maybe a man could also have done this, because it was all men. But I think it was just quite lucky."
Hilary: "What should the community be doing to support women in the field?"
Laura: "I think the discussion is really important. A lot of the times when I felt I was being discriminated against because of my gender, it was subtle. The people who were doing it maybe didn't even realise that they were doing it. It's so ingrained in our society. But I think just talking about it will bring it into people's minds. I've seen a lot of change in the past two years in the way people act towards female photojournalists."
Ilvy: "I think you're obligated to look around and ask what the gender balance is. In big companies, for instance, it should be moving towards 50/50."
Hilary: "Is mentoring the best way to go?"
Ilvy: "I do think mentoring is very important and I would really like to mentor someone. I do think if I'd had a mentor going through all of this, it would have made a big difference. Mentoring doesn't have to go on for years and years. I mean, that's great, but I've also met women who gave me advice over a beer that was critical. They would say something that would totally change my mind on something."
Hilary: "What purpose do awards serve? Is it a way of producing work that would not otherwise be done?"
Ilvy: "I do a lot of portfolio reviews, and there's a huge difference between how men and women show their work. Most women will open up their portfolio and say: 'Yeah, this is not really my best work'. While the men will open up and be like: 'Yeah, I went Venezuela and I shot this, this and this.' There is a big difference. It's a bit of a stereotype, but there is a bit of truth in it as well. So I think female photography awards can be good because, who knows, maybe some 19-year-old girl watches this award online and she's inspired."
Find out more about the Canon Female Photojournalist Award and all the Canon-related stories on our Visa pour l'Image event page.