CJR’s Sexual Harassment Report: It’s as Much about Photo-j Culture as the Predators

Posted by on Wednesday July 25, 2018 | Photojournalism

From the Columbia Journalism Review's report on sexual harassment. Photo © Darrel Frost

From the Columbia Journalism Review's report on sexual harassment. Photo © Darrel Frost

The report on sexual harassment in photojournalism published last week in the Columbia Journalism Review shows that not much has changed in the year since PDN reported several women photographers’ accounts of sexual harassment in newsrooms and at industry events. It’s also been eight months since Bill Frakes lost his appeal in a sexual harassment case, seven months since Patrick Witty left National Geographic following an external investigation into allegations he had sexual harassed several women, five months since photographers Daniel Sircar and Justin Cook wrote an open letter calling on photo industry organizations to establish clear codes of conduct and ban anyone who makes industry events unsafe, and four months since we reported Prime Collective had dropped Christian Rodriguez following numerous allegations about his conduct towards women. A lot more people are talking openly about sexual harassment, some alleged predators have been dropped from their agencies or lost their jobs, but the CJR piece also shows that photojournalism has been resistant to the systemic changes it needs.

In the wake of the CJR report, CNN published an article by Women Photograph founder Daniella Zalcman and ProPublica interviewed the author of a 2013 report on the harassment of women journalists. The continued coverage reminds us that sexual harassment isn’t new, and that women photojournalists have been coping with a wide range of sexist conduct for a long time— confronting it, working around it, trying to ignore it. We’re lucky that so many women photojournalists have persisted despite the problem. However, if we want photojournalism to be, as Zalcman says, a “truly representative community of visual storytellers,” then we can’t focus only on incidents that are as outrageous as those discussed in the CJR piece.  I think the culture of photojournalism needs to change. And that change takes more than a few brave women willing to call out the most egregious offenders.

For too long, the industry has been, as CJR puts it, “male-dominated with a culture that glorifies macho, hyper-masculine behavior.” It’s romanticized the image of the swaggering, hard-driving  (male) photojournalist who is creative but troubled, or who likes to work hard, play hard—and expects to play with whoever he wants whenever he wants. Younger photographers learned from their model. Their bad behavior is often indulged, while women who want to call them out risk being marginalized as whiners or troublemakers. With each recent report about sexual harassment in the industry, there’s been a lot of concern expressed about the reputations of successful men, not as much concern for aspiring women photographers who were discouraged or thwarted before their careers could begin.

The photojournalism world is a contracting market with increasing competition. That puts a lot of power in the hands of a few editors. They can choose to indulge talented jerks or work with talented people who are also professional and collegial. Editors, workshop organizers and photo agencies have started paying attention to photographers who have no patience for the swagger and are pushing for change. The same industry leaders need to make sure that speaking out about a problem won’t cost a photographer assignments.

CJR’s 10,000-word report is based on interviews with 50 women. Some of the allegations it reports are old, some are new, some have already inspired an investigation at the VII Photo agency.

The CJR story also discusses a number of people in the photo industry, male and female, who have excused, apologized for, or enabled sexual harassment, or dismissed complaints by women photographers. Also, several women who spoke to CJR writer Kristen Chick about their experience of being harassed asked to remain anonymous, and chose not to mention their harasser by name. “Everyone has their own reasons for why they do or do not want to go public with someone’s name,” Chick said via Twitter, “and ultimately it’s their choice.” But I can’t help thinking that while a few women are willing to go public, many still fear retribution. As one woman photographer told me a year ago, “You worry that if you rock the boat, it could have an adverse impact on your ability to get hired. Nobody should have to worry about that.”

In their open letter to the industry, Daniel Sircar and Justin Cook specifically mentioned the Eddie Adams Workshop, one of two workshops where photo editor Patrick Witty was alleged to have acted inappropriately towards students. They asked that the EAW “lead by example,” and take steps to prevent harassment. Organizers of EAW told CJR that before their 2017 workshop, they instituted a code of conduct. But they also told CJR they have not yet established a procedure for handling harassment complaints.

Eddie Adams Workshop’s slow and indecisive response is just one example of an industry institution that’s having a hard time adapting to a changed industry, much less setting an example of leadership on an important issue. Women are no longer enduring, ignoring or quietly resisting demeaning comments or conduct. They are asking that the industry take a look at its values and culture. They are pushing for changes not only for the sake of their own future careers. They are working to make the industry more inclusive and welcoming of different voices and perspectives—and respectful of the dignity of everyone involved.

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