Women in Photojournalism and Combat
January 2003

by Robert Stevens

As far back as Jessie Beals Tarbox (1870-1942) there have been women photojournalists. She first worked for the Buffalo Courier and later for newspapers in New York City.

After her, many more followed like Esther Bubley who worked for the Farm Security Administration and for Standard Oil and UNICEF around the world. There was also Marion Post Wolcott who cut her career short to raise her family. A common practice in a time when men did not help at home very much. That, of course, has changed today.

There were several great and successful women photographers at LIFE magazine, starting with the legendary Margaret Bourke-White and followed by Nina Leen, Martha Holmes and others.

Marilyn Silverstone working with the agency Magnum covered India at the time of Nehru as well as all of Asia. At the same time other Magnum members like Inge Morath and Eve Arnold was working for magazines around the world.

During the Vietnam War women like Catherine Leroy and Francoise Demulder make extraordinary images of the death, destruction and horror of the war. Their photos were as powerful as any made by men covering the action.

In the 1980’s Susan Meiselas, another Magnum member made many iconic images during her front line coverage of the Central American conflicts.

During the last ten years Alexandra Avakian was in the middle of many conflicts as was Deborah Copaken Kogan, Alexandra Boulat, Corrine Dufta, Ruth Fremson, Kate Brooks, Ami Vitale, Liz Gilbert and others.

Recently at the International Center of Photography in New York Alison Morley gathered together the photographers Susan Meiselas, Nina Berman, Deborah Copaken Kogan and Katy Grannan along with photo editor Kathy Ryan of The New York Times Magazine to discuss women in photojournalism today.

I think the audience was genuinely surprised to hear all the photographers felt they were not discriminated against because they were women. In fact, Kathy Ryan thought women might get more work at the magazine than men. It appears that the reason there are many more men than women in the profession must lie elsewhere. Perhaps some women worry about limitations that don’t exist or simply are not interested in the field.

I recently spoke at length with Kate Brooks, a young photographer from Windsor, Canada who studied Russian and moved to Moscow where she got her start as a photojournalist. The first story she was noticed for was an essay about a women’s prison which was published in Newsweek. After Russia she moved to Islamabad where she covered the Afghan war for Time magazine. She told me she thinks women have an advantage over men because they might less confrontational or aggressive when pursuing stories. This does not mean they are any less prepared than men to be as forceful as necessary in order to get their photo. She says women have the advantage in Moslem countries where men are not allowed to be with women. Kate says that she has never had in trouble in combat with troops of either side. That they respect her and allow her to do her job.

I think the real problem, as expressed by the panel of women is the lack of work in general for photojournalists. In the last few years, rapidly, the wire services and I would include Getty with them, have taken work away from agency and freelance photographers. Getty has been signing contracts to service newspapers. They have also placed photographers around the world covering daily events to transmit to clients everywhere. Also their photographers are all equipped with digital cameras and transmission devices. This is a heavy expense for photographers who want to compete.

A few years ago I always sent several staff, agency or freelance photographers to news events. At that time the wires were not doing color. Later when they started sending color, it was often just one or two photos of events. I needed more than that and the photographers I sent on assignment or guarantee got those extra views I needed.

Today the wires shoot many more photos of each event and they are much better, stylistically. I usually don’t have to pay more than the subscription fee to use the photos. The exception is Getty who can charge more for the exclusive magazine use of a photo.

This has killed the market for photojournalists who used to jump on a plane and fly to a news event. On top of that most newsmagazines do not devote much space to feature pieces. That means contract photographers handle the few features done. Once again, the agency and freelance photographers are out of a job. At the end of last year the distinguished agency Matrix announced is was closing because of lack of assignments.

Today this is the biggest problem facing women photojournalists as well as men and whether a new generation enters the market is open to debate. Maybe a new channel has opened up at local newspapers but I doubt they have the budget to send often send people on foreign assignments. This leaves photographers with the expense of often funding their trips or going into another business.

© Robert Stevens
Contributing Writer


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