Egyptian photojournalist Heba Khamis, one of the five women awarded at the World Press Photo 2018. © Frank van Beek / Hollandse Hoogte

The world needs more women photojournalists

The lack of women photographers working for news agencies and covering international conflicts has made inevitable a masculinized vision of the world.


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Let's take a test.

Close your eyes and think of what image comes to mind when you hear the words "Russian prostitute." Do you already have it? Whether you are male or female, you have probably visualized a young woman, blonde, blue-eyed, rather thin. Sexy. Attractive. Am I wrong?

This image is conditioned by the "masculinized" vision of the world we have, fostered by the media. A masculinized vision - literally and objectively - because 85 percent of the photojournalists who work for the major international news agencies, such as the Associated Press, AFP, EFE and Reuters, are men. And most of the world's media use the images provided by these agencies to illustrate their covers and web page headers.

"The audience has little awareness of who is behind photojournalism, whether it is women or men. But the truth is that we have built the twentieth century based on images made 85 percent by men and the 21st Century looks like it is going to be the same," said Silvia Omedes, director of Photographic Social Vision, a nonprofit organization committed to outreach and empowering the social value of photography, during a panel held recently in Barcelona.

According to Omedes, the lack of women photojournalists, in addition to the growing thirst for impact photos - the bleeding child, the corpses after an attack, the woman who has been sexually abused - have helped to spread an image of the woman as being vulnerable, a victim, which is conditioned by the male gaze.

"The abuse of these stereotyped photos generates a tremendous social anesthesia. They are impact images, which do not look for depth, but headlines," said Omedes. "And, of course, it's the image that all the media will choose to spread".

But photojournalism goes further, and that is why it is important to explain the world from a gender perspective, said Omedes. She gave as an example how the Russian photojournalist Tatiana Vinogradova has treated the drama of the prostitutes in her country in her latest work, awarded in the World Press Photo 2018, one of the most important photojournalism contests in the world. In her photographs, she portrays nude women sitting on the couch in the privacy of their homes.

"You do not know they are prostitutes until you read the caption. There is no stereotype of the body, it could be any woman, these are photos that do not sexualize bodies," Omedes said.

"Yes, in the photos there is a sad atmosphere, you know something is going on - but little else. That is how a woman journalist decided to portray a reality in Russia that affects many women. She does it without victimizing or sexualizing the body of women, without portraying them as women objects," she added. "For me (Vinogradova's work) is a clear example of how a woman wants to focus on a topic."

Tatiana Vinogradova was one of the five women awarded at the World Press Photo 2018, one of the photojournalism organizations that is most concerned about the lack of women in the profession. Only 15 percent of the professionals that take part in this prestigious contest are women, and the percentage has not changed in recent years. In 2018, despite efforts to launch a series of programs to stimulate female participation in the contest, it has only increased from 15 percent to 16 percent, Omedes noted.

The exhibition of winning photographs of the World Press Photo -an itinerant show in different cities of the world, and also available on the web - is an interesting chance to observe how women treat subjects differently from men. Besides Vinogradova, Omedes noted the work of Egyptian photojournalist Heba Khamis, who decided to document rape and sexual abuse against women in eastern Cameroon. Instead of looking for the impact photo, Khamis went inside the family homes and portrayed the horrible methods by which mothers "iron" their daughters' breasts so that they are not raped when they go out to the street.

"They use very painful methods, wood sticks, hot stones... but the treatment of the photo is of such delicacy and intimacy, that they prevent us from judging unilaterally and say 'these mothers are committing an atrocity,'" said Omedes.

"These photos don't pretend to judge, but to question," she added. Is it admissible if they do it following their protective instincts?

"The best journalism is not the one that informs, but the one that puts us to work, to question things," concluded the Barcelona activist.

A cocktail of reasons

If the feminine gaze of the world is so necessary, why are there so few women in contests like World Press Photo, or in photojournalism in general?

The reasons are many, according to Omedes. In the first place, there is the factor that many women say they are not willing to go to conflict areas and war zones. "Some will say: 'but I do have the conflict here right in my house, in the next room,'" argued Omedes. She believes that "it does not seem to be the natural drive of women to go to an area of conflict".

On the other hand, she blames international agencies such as the AP, AFP and EFE for not hiring enough women photojournalists. And international agencies "are the ones that are documenting daily what is happening in the world." 

"If the newspapers nurtured their covers of images made by women, our view of the world would probably change," she said.

Anna Surinyach, a Spanish freelance photojournalist focused on migration and refugees, agreed with her. Her personal experience as a humanitarian photographer and editor - portraying refugees rescued on the sea while trying to cross from Africa to Europe, taking photos of the indigenous communities displaced by paramilitaries in Latin America, or the wounded of the conflict in Syria - led her to conclude that photojournalism should not be limited to "look for the photo of the bleeding injured and that's it. I want to get deeper in the story," she explained during the same panel held in Barcelona.

In Syria, for example, Surinyach had the opportunity to follow closely the case of a woman wounded in the civil war and left requiring a wheelchair, who was requesting asylum. When she began interviewing the woman, Surinyac understood that she had suffered domestic abuse from her husband, so she reached the conclusion that she could not summarize her life in just one photo session, in a single day.

"So I decided to spend three days with her. Three days is a very short time in a person's life, but at least she and I, too, could feel more comfortable," Surinyach explained.

Surinyach, who is now co-founder and graphic director of 5W Magazine, added that her experience with the Syrian woman also served to raise another question: should domestic violence be considered a reason to ask for political asylum?

"As there are few photojournalist women, there are issues that are not being addressed, that have no visibility and are ignored by the media and political agenda," observed Omedes.

Surinyach has been working in the Mediterranean sea for three years, rescuing migrants who shipwrecked in attempts to reach Europe. Last year, when she was aboard the humanitarian rescue ship OpenArms, she saw lifeboats with corpses, people killed by gasoline burns. She and her team took pictures of the dead and sent them to the Associated Press, although for her they were "very cold" photos.

"I preferred to explain the story through the pictures of Sara, a little girl who lost her mother and brother in the boat, instead of showing the corpses," she explained. However, AP only "bought" the photo of the dead bodies. "They know that the media will put it on the front pages," she explained.

To make herself more clear, Surinyach asked the participants on the panel to compare the photographs published on social networks by two journalists - a man and a woman - aboard the Aquarius, a humanitarian ship that rescued more than 600 African immigrants in the Mediterranean in June. The photos taken by the man, a young photojournalist from Spanish newspaper El País, showed no women, "as if there were no women immigrants in the shipwrecked boats." Instead, the photos taken by the woman photojournalist, a correspondent of the National Spanish Radio, showed several images of African women making braids in the cabin, giving each other hugs. 

"It is true that, as a woman, it can be easier to get closer to the women immigrants onboard. Many of them have been victims of rape, human trafficking, domestic violence... and are afraid of being photographed by men. But if you compare the photos of one and the other, it seems like they are in two different boats," said Surinyach, convinced that women photographers are able to offer a more "hopeful and optimistic" image of the world.


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