Photojournalism is having a long overdue #MeToo moment

A special report ...

Posted: Jul 19, 2018 8:19 PM
Updated: Jul 19, 2018 8:19 PM

A special report published in the Columbia Journalism Review this week exposed the photojournalism industry's long-time problem with sexual harassment. Writer Kristen Chick interviewed more than 50 people over a period of five months, compiling testimony that details rampant sexual misconduct in all corners of the business.

The piece has sparked an inevitable period of handwringing, but the solutions here are remarkably simple. We do not need to discuss this with panel talks or podcasts. We do not need to dissect every incident in voyeuristic detail. We just need to do better.

And the stakes for doing better could not be higher.

According to a recent study, an estimated 15% of working news photographers are women -- a ludicrous figure in this day and age. This is a huge problem, not just from an equality standpoint, but also because photojournalists are responsible for helping to shape how the general public sees the rest of the world.

Journalism has long been an industry anchored by the colonial Western male gaze -- and it's only with a truly representative community of visual storytellers that we can hope to responsibly and accurately report on the breadth of human experience. If women are half of the world's population, they should make up half of the photojournalism industry. But how can you fix a gender imbalance in a business where harassment and assault have become a codified part of the landscape?

The behaviors highlighted in the CJR article are categorically unacceptable. There is no nuance here, no shades of gray. Do not touch women's genitalia in a professional setting. Do not chase women around photo festivals and try to kiss them. Do not make vulgar, suggestive innuendo about women's bodies or their sex lives. Do not promise professional advancement if a woman engages with you sexually. Do not threaten professional harm if she does not.

It is 2018, and we should be several decades into understanding that these actions are revolting. We should also be several decades into holding destructive predators accountable for their actions, but hopefully that reckoning is around the corner.

So much of this conversation has been framed around the notion that men don't truly understand what constitutes misconduct -- that the lines are fuzzy and poorly drawn. This is an excuse. Men know exactly what misconduct entails -- they're just so used to getting away with it in broad daylight that they've forgotten there might, one day, be consequences.

Photojournalism's sexual harassment problem needs to end now. Men -- whether they're photo editors with hiring power, established photography icons in charge of mentoring students at workshops and universities, colleagues out in the field, fixers, curators or assistants -- need to pull themselves together and treat their women colleagues like grown adults who deserve respect and bodily autonomy. This is such a mind-numbingly simple concept, and yet it is only in the past year -- with the dismissals of Patrick Witty and Bill Frakes, and now the allegations against photographers Antonin Kratochvil and Christian Rodriguez (which both deny) in the CJR piece, alongside allusions to half a dozen other unnamed men -- that we have begun to truly see these behaviors recognized as toxic.

This only gets better if we work toward a safe, respectful and equitable industry together. Companies, collectives and educational institutions need to create real pathways for women to safely report sexual misconduct without fear of retribution or inaction. Individuals who witness their friends and colleagues behaving badly need to call them out. Organizations who find themselves harboring men who engage in sexual misconduct need to fire them. Not in private, or with a quiet internal demotion meant to minimize embarrassment and liability, a silent dismissal or a suddenly vanished web page.

It's time for swift, meaningful acknowledgment: this heinous thing happened, and we do not condone this behavior. We will not allow anyone affiliated with our organization to do these things ever again. That is the first real step toward accountability and reconciliation.

We all need to work together to end this status quo that allows men to wreak havoc on the professional and personal lives of the women in their orbit and walk away unscathed. Stand on the right side of history. Enforce zero tolerance. Take ownership for your role in perpetuating unsafe, misogynist spaces. This is not just the responsibility of human resources departments, or men in the industry -- it's on all of us to take care of this small, tight-knit community.

Make this about the collective good. No more fretting over how allegations of misconduct might impact an abuser's career, his work, his legacy. Think instead of the women who have been bullied out of the industry and have had to walk away. Think of the voices we've lost to selfish predators. Think of the work that will never be made. It's time to hold ourselves to a higher standard and make sure that, as we seek to illuminate injustice in our work, we aren't perpetuating injustice within our own family. We deserve better than that.

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