Why Is a Photojournalist’s Gender Relevant to Their Work?


I’ve never been able to identify a photojournalist’s gender from the photos she takes. Have you?

When Margaret Bourke-White photographed the Nazi death camps for Life magazine, no one cared if she was a woman or not. Her images told the story and that was that.

So why is it so important for some photographers to define themselves as “women photojournalists,” rather than simply as “photojournalists”?

Creeping Political Correctness

More and more today, I come across cooperatives, workshops and panels for women photographers only. As if gender had something to do with the photojournalistic process.

It seems that political correctness has now started to reach the shores of the previously sexless island of photography. It appears that some people, with a highly developed social conscience, want you to know the gender of the photographer whose picture you admire.

As if it made any difference.

Readers hardly glance at a photo credit, so why would they care ? Photo editors — the good ones at least — are gender-blind as long as a story is well told visually.

An Ill-Conceived Distraction

So who is behind this, and why ?

I suspect it’s an ill-considered effort at self-preservation at a time when our profession is struggling to find its way. Communicate that women photographers are more sensitive to human misery, or more in tune with certain subjects. Persuade women photo editors to hire women photographers.

It’s bad enough that photographers segregate themselves by specialty, calling themselves “sports photographers” or “news photographers” or “celebrity photographers.”

Now women are supposed to label themselves “women photographers,” too? It’s a silly distraction at best.


24 Responses to “Why Is a Photojournalist’s Gender Relevant to Their Work?”

  1. Women are still paid less than their male counterparts. They are also overlooked for many assignments based on their gender especially in the newspaper industry. Additionally, comments degrading to women occur daily at my newspaper and others based on the experiences of friends. Being subjected to this is something you as a man may not understand. Seeking confront from someone in the same boat is a common thing. Women's groups are more about common social bonds than excluding men. Women rarely belittle men like is men push down women.

  2. I find this rant ridiculous on so many levels......first of all a man wrote it. Second of all I'm not seeing how this is a politically correct issue.

    If gender weren't relevant we'd all be either male or female. It is relevant.

    I have to wonder what Blackstar is thinking publishing such drivel....

  3. Is there a category for 37 year old male photographers with blonde hair?

    Completely agree with the article. One thing that I was (naively) surprised at was that some galleries want to feature women photographers over men. Who cares about gender? The photograph is what's important.

  4. Photography has never been "sexless". The fact that this has always been a male-dominated field, the fact that men make more than women, the fact that when women go into combat zones, they are subjected to not only physical assault but also sexual violence, the fact that most women stay silent about sexual assault they face while reporting because they don't want to be seen as weak, makes gender plenty relevant.

    And often, many women are not labeling themselves as "women photojournalists"; that label is often foisted upon them. And if they are labeling themselves as such, so what? How is that political correctness, rather than just a statement of fact?

    And further more, why is political correctness being touted as a bad thing? Political correctness isn't about stifling self-expression, it's about being more sensitive about another person's experiences, which may be completely different than your own. What's wrong with that?

    And not to mention, there actually are certain kinds of stories that women will be more apt at covering, simply because of the nature of the story. For example, the NYT's Lynsey Addario was able to report on Afghan women who had set themselves on fire in part because women trusted her more, and felt more comfortable opening up to a woman.

    And another thing--those women-only groups that rankle you so much have been set up precisely because of the dismissive and willfully ignorant attitude you present here. Those groups were formed, as Karen said, to strengthen social bonds, to network, and to talk about common experiences. Men do this all the time as well, but they're not seen as exclusive. They're just seen as the norm.

    Yes, ultimately the photographs, the work, is what ultimately counts. But to act as though the other factors that come into play while making the work are unimportant strikes me as disingenuous, at best.

  5. I understand your concern that you don't want the industry segregated because of gender, but I don't think you can say that photo editors are "gender-blind" or that photography is sexless. It is 100% not. I think there are a lot of things that affect my gender when I'm working. For example, when I photograph children, it is an easy thing to do because I am a woman — no mother or father assumes I am a pervert taking pictures of their kids. On the other hand, when I'm on the sidelines of a football or soccer game, I feel very much the "odd man out," being a woman in the world of sports photography.

    Just because you do not notice sexism does not mean it does not exist. Women, including myself, deal with sexism almost daily in the newsroom, whether it's in reference to assignments or just their bodies. Just yesterday, I had a fellow male photographer look at my 1D Mark IV and tell me it wasn't "a girl's camera." Says who?

    Yes, I agree that we shouldn't segregate this industry more, but in this age where stories are coming out of Egypt and Libya about sexual assaults on the job and sexism exists daily for female journalists, women collectives and photo agencies do seem to serve a purpose.

  6. Gender has so much to do with the craft of photojournalism. In delicate situations, some subjects simply feel more comfortable around women photographers. Every photographer approaches stories in different ways, and many times we seek out people who are comfortable with us. In countries where mixing of the sexes is forbidden, it is incredibly important to tell both sides. It is as important as the concept of race and diversifying newsrooms to more accurately reflect our communities here in the states.

    As the previous commenter said, as women, we are paid less for the same work. We endure lots of unnecessary comments. We are vastly outnumbered. We have to work harder to be taken seriously.

    This is not a trend in political correctness. It is an appropriate distinction. We are not segregating ourselves, but celebrating our strengths. In an age where anyone who picks up a camera calls themselves a photographer, specialization is necessary to build a successful brand and identity.

    Since when is photography sexless, anyway?

  7. It's a difficult one this ... One only has to attend an news event being covered by a large number of photographers to see the ratio of male to female (a ratio that is changing), at the moment it is still largely male. This leads to 2 things (IMO).

    First I think the common image of a PJ is male (in the eye of the viewer) and there is probably an assumption here that the image they are looking at is taken by a male (the number of peeps that actually realise that many of the photos that came out of the death camps were taken by woman is very small).

    Second the industry is still very masculine (sorry guys, it is). Over the past 3 years I have had comments about skirts, "having made an effort tonight", "you should smoke - you would look sexy". To fit in i have to be one of the lads. I can stand up for myself quite well thank you (I this job you have to) but in a office environment the day to day comments would just not be allowed....

    But going back to the first point (which is the important point), this industry continually enforces this image of the male photographer; look at all the "pro" magazines and books in your local newsagents..... the covers are more likely to attract male readers (if you know what i mean)..

    I don't want to be treated differently of have any special treatment, I want my work to stand on its own but i don't want a viewer to picture me as a 6'5" burly bloke as they view it.. maybe the industry should be doing more to promote the fact that it is sexless/genderless...

  8. (oh and btw, im a photographer - not a female photographer)...

  9. This is more of a social issue that a photography one. The only people who care about gender or even race are the same ones making it a blurb at every opportunity. For some reason, they can't seem to understand that by "raising awareness" all they do is keep the cycle going.

    Photographers (and people in general for that matter) should be judged on their own merit, not their gender or the color of their skin.

  10. I'm female and I agree with the article! It is insane to consider a photo after the gender of it's maker...

    I know that usually women photographers don't get the same salary but I don't experience it myself... yet.
    In general I decide the price of my work, my pictures.

  11. Interesting topic. I've seen the same thing in so many other fields - yoga, backcountry skiing ... you name it. What I've heard is, women want an atmosphere where they're not competing with men. I have mixed feelings. On one hand, if women want to be among themselves for whatever reason, well, why not. On the other hands, I think we need to all be more "human" together and focus on what we have in common rather than our differences.

  12. This article is ridiculous.
    I never use that miraculous words "Female" or "Women" photographers as my brand identity...

    But please, this issue is brought up by you--who say male photographers or who say that photography should be sexless.

    I only photograph what I love, what attract me, and as a women, some issues will be easy to be photographed because I'm a woman. That's it!

    And I think I need to share with other women (who bring camera, too) just because I enjoy to share with them--with the same language, the same thoughts, and maybe the same problem. I wear veil, so does it matter if I feel more comfortable to talk with another 'veiled photographers'???

    Ah come on...
    This article is ridiculous, anyway...

  13. Excuse me but this reads like a rant of somebody who has been offended by female-preference in/of/for certain sectors and/or tasks. Yes, I agree that in the output, one may never be able to read the gender of the photographer, but during the taking of the picture, the gender may have made a lot of difference. Different cultures, different norms. I don't think one really needs to explain this. But thank you very much for bringing this out in the open. I hope many will get to read and reflect on this. Cheers! :-)

  14. i'm almost sick of only meeting serious photographers who are predominantly entitled, priveleged white men. as nice and cool as these white men i meet are, i still wish there were photographers around that looked like me, who are immigrants, who are women, who are more likely to be profiled by police, who get it as to why we might cringe at white men photographing black suffering. photography has its colonial roots. the act of shooting the natives. i wanna redefine photojournalism and it matters to me that this industry has representation from people of color, women. at this point the dialogue around women inclusive photographers is for the most part accepted. i wonder what photographers would think about an all inclusive people of color collective? fit for controversy i'm sure. photojournalists should be taking courses where they get race, class, gender, sexuality in complex ways. ofcourse for the most part this means educating the white man.

  15. Interesting article, however, I photography especially in a social context has to reflect the realities of the world.

    The truth in a matter is, there are places where female photographers can go and males are forbidden for cultural/religious reasons, and other ways around. Women are also susceptible to assaults, such as rape. In that regard, dedicated workshops are a must. Women may also not be able to move as freely as men in some cultures. Should documentary suffer? No.

    What is expressed in this article is deeply westernized view of the world. A big part of it does not adhere to this philosophy, but coverage still has to find an audience.

  16. hi,

    a "cliched"-world and out-dated view.

    there are no typical male/female-topics anywhere, it all depends on interest and your views cum interests, which are influenced by culture, family, home, upbringing, ... but in the end everyone can cover each and every topic he decides to take a special interest in, even the so called no-go topics of women related themes, if you take the proper approach.

  17. My initial, knee-jerk reaction to this article is that it's a load of horse shit. I don't get it. I'm not even sure I see the point in the article. I couldn't get it out of my head though and I thought I missed something, so I broke it down on my blog. Conclusion is, I still don't get it. If anyone is interested http://bit.ly/kceCWP

  18. The title poses a question - Why is a photojournalist's gender relevant to their work?

    I disagree with Mr. Melcher's answer.

    And I think the answer is obvious in the photographs of Margaret Bourke-White and, recently, Stephanie Sinclair and Rania Matar - Gandhi at the spinning wheel, child brides in Afghanistan, life behind the veil. The example given of a Nazi death camp? That's a specious example. The subject is going to overwhelm almost anything a photographer does. But Bourke-White's photograph of Ghandi, I think is different. Could a male photographer have had the same access to and relationship with Ghandi that made that picture possible? Possibly, but not likely. I think Bourke-White being who she was, made a difference.

    To pretend that the one's self and life experience doesn't impact the photos one takes is weird.

    And something else - why be upset? I mean, are you not getting work? I don't get the need for a reaction.

  19. I borrowed this from my favourite bike co-op's old myspace page:

    Q: Isn’t separating a group of people based on race, gender, class, etc. called segregation, which is a bad thing?

    A: Think of society like a big ladder, with the people who control resources, labor, money, politics, etc. (people with power) at the top and the people with no power at the bottom. People with some power are in the middle. Men are higher up on this ladder than women (see government and income as examples in first world societies, women’s health in third world societies). When a group that is higher on the ladder tells a group that is lower on the ladder to go away, that is called segregation. When a group that is lower on the ladder tells a group above them to go away, that is called “organizing.” When and ONLY when a group has the initiative to organize can they gain power by helping each other.

  20. I find it interesting that people keep using Margaret Bourke-White and Dorothea Lange as examples of women who made it even in a time they shouldn't have. People cast aside the struggles both of the women went through to get where they did. Bourke-White was initially denied her request to shoot war and ride in the bomber planes but with persistance she was eventually allowed. Lange was known later in her career for her work capturing images for scientific research. She lost that job after she trained her male assistant and they fired her for him.

    I think what you need to take from all of these responses is that one of the main reasons we women like to have groups and conferences that have our gender in the title is not to exclude men but to have a place where we can share our common experiences and gain inspiration from other women in the field. I'm 22 years old and I've already experienced and witnessed gender inequalities that shocked me, that I thought had been long dead until I entered the field and saw that many of these practices are live and well.

    By the way, I have never been to a conference for women in photojournalism or journalism where there have been no males present.

  21. There is definitely a male bias, specially in areas like editorial photography here in India and from the looks of it, everywhere else too.

    I agree with the view that the story/photograph should matter and not who took it. Yet over and over it's been completely opposite. So it's not anything to do with political correctness.

    I know of women photographers who have been questioned why they are even in this field based purely on their gender. On the field situations where women photographers have been pushed out, BY THEIR MALE COUNTERPARTS, based purely on their gender. So yes, totally understandable why there is this tag of "woman photographer". It's the push back from a silent injustice that repeats over and over.
    Unfortunately photography IS very afflicted by this gender bias. I'm not sure what will change that. It seems like this gender problem exists across all boundaries, geographical, ethnic, profession. Maybe it's a deep rooted insecurity in men that if women have as many opportunities, men won't be necessary anymore? i don't know. But it is some insecurity.
    On that basis i am not at all surprised gender bias exists in photography which is already such a thin profession with so much competition, no matter how much we'd like to hope it is not.

  22. Lets be clear here - the current western 'bias' is heavily in favor of women photographers. If you don't know this, you are either not in the game or living on a different planet. Please do not frame this is in terms of equality either, this is reflective of the fact that half the paying audience is female and it's a nice angle for the sellers to pitch. This is commodification disguised as equality and you should be quick to question it.Personally I find this meme of patriarchal oppression difficult to take - you're going to redress it by shutting out male photographers now ? Is more discrimination all that you have to offer ? I thought we were going to progressively attain equality ?
    Not all white men are alike, I was brought up in a single parent household, raised by women who worked hard, joined trade unions and took no prisoners on the way.You're going to tell her that her son got marked down, passed over for the job slot because he's a white male representative of the patriarchy ? Look at the stats, look at who's being brought up who. This is not the 1950's.Equality is a given now, please let's not pretend its not.

  23. I still get called SIR sometimes after they look at my website images and portfolio. Hence the need to sometimes refer to myself as a female photojournalist. :-(

  24. hmmmm...funny how the author thinks that we can just wish or ignore gender inequity in the industry away...kind of like the only people who insist that we now live in a post-racial society are white..."equality is a given now." Only someone completely entrenched in their own privilege could have the nerve to suggest as much. What a joke.

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