Does Being a Woman Make it Harder to Be a Photographer?

On balance, not so much.

That was the consensus of the women photojournalists who participated in the panel discussion “Groundbreaking Women in Photography,” organized by the International Center of Photography in New York on January 10. The first in a series of annual “Spotlight” events ICP will hold to raise funds for its programs, the panel was made up of photographers Mary Ellen Mark, Gillian Laub, Samantha Appleton, Stephanie Sinclair and The New York Times Magazine director of photography, Kathy Ryan. NBC anchor Ann Curry moderated the discussion.

Photo © ICP. Left to right: Mary Ellen Mark, Stephanie Sinclair, moderator Ann Curry.

Gillian Laub, who has photographed intimate portraits of young people on both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian divide, noted that being a woman has often helped her gain access to people’s homes. “I’m not an intimidating person,” she noted. When she enters strangers’ homes, “People feel comfortable with me” in a way that they may not if she were a man.  Being a woman can be an “asset, depending on the kind of work you want to do,” said Stephanie Sinclair, who has photographed in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon and covered gender issues such as female circumcision and the problems faced by child brides. Luckily, Sinclair said, “I like to do intimate work.”

Samantha Appleton, who covered the war in Iraq, said that early in her career covering conflict, “I worked hard not to be classified as a woman photographer. I fought to be one of the boys.” Over time she’s let go of that battle. “There are a thousand things in your personality that affect how you tell a story. Being a woman is a part of it.” Ryan concurred. While noting that in certain countries or political situations, sending a woman photographer can be risky, Ryan said that when she has to choose the right photographer for an assignment, she first considers their vision and eye, then she considers their personality and what it might add to the assignment.  “Some women are forceful, some are quiet,” she noted.

With the discussion of gender out of the way, the panel proceeded to other topics.

Noting that each of the photographers on the panel have documented “profound suffering,” Curry said to the panelists, “You have to have suffered some PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder].”

Sinclair said that people she has photographed have suffered far more than she has. “When people have suffered so intensely, you think to yourself: How can I feel bad?” At time, she has photographed “through tears,” she said, “Or you’re so blocked off, you have nightmares later.”

Sinclair said in 2011 she sought therapy for trauma. “It’s been really helpful. It’s helped me appreciate my job more. It’s made me more patient in the field.” Since then, she has been vocal in encouraging other photographers to ask for help. “You have to be healthy,” Sinclair said.

Appleton noted that the military has recognized the importance of  talking about a traumatic experience immediately after the event, and photographers should follow suit. “You debrief with the people you are with. Most of my best friends are people I’ve worked with in the field.” Photojournalists who claim not to have PTSD, she believes, are going from one dangerous place to the next. Appleton noted as long as a photographer continues to work in dangerous situations, the signs of PTSD are harder to detect. “You don’t know you have it while you’re there. You realize you have it when you stop,” she said.

More information about ICP’s lunch-time Spotlights, which will support ICP’s exhibits, education programs, publications and community outreach, can be found at

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