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Lynsey Addario on assignment with the 173rd Battle Company, on a battalian-wide mission in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan. (Courtesy of Lynsey Addario)

Behind the lens

Courageous photographers shed light on their industry’s glaring gender disparity

By Katie Booth on April 5, 2016

In the past quarter century, few photographers have made the lasting impact on our visual history that Lynsey Addario has.

In 2000, she first traveled to Afghanistan to document life under the Taliban’s oppressive regime. There, navigating a culture rigidly segregated by gender, she was able to discover a wealth of compelling stories, despite the Taliban’s restrictions on photography. A year later, the fallout from the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States brought her to Pakistan, to document the volatile atmosphere there in the months leading up to the war in neighboring Afghanistan. Her first series to be published by The New York Times Magazine, Women of Jihad, ran in November, 2001, and provided a gripping look into the lives of women beyond the anonymity of the burqa-clad stereotype that dominated media images at the time.

“Before I shot a single image, I spoke with them at length about their political and religious beliefs”, she wrote. “I knew that if the only image people saw in American publications was of women in head scarves and long black robes reading the Koran….it might be easier to dismiss their beliefs as something completely foreign and bizarre. But if readers could get a sense of who these women really were — if they could see them in their homes, with their children….it might offer a more complete picture.”

Fifteen years and many conflicts later, her photographs continue to offer perspective, dispel stereotypes, and shed light on some of the most pressing issues facing the world — from the civil war in South Sudan and the recent advance of ISIS into Iraq, to the experiences of Syrian refugees. On Wednesday, April 6, Addario will take the stage at the Women in the World New York Summit to discuss the pressing needs of refugees fleeing Syria.

The remarkable arc of Addario’s career as she came of age as a photojournalist on the front lines of the U.S. “War on Terror,” is chronicled in her recent autobiography, It’s What I Do. She has become an icon in the world of photography — her level of success, paired with her deep commitment to boundary-pushing and humanitarian-focused work make her a figure who photographers will read about, and be inspired by, for years to come.


Lynsey Addario in Darfur. (Courtesy of Lynsey Addario)
Lynsey Addario in Darfur. (Courtesy of Lynsey Addario)

But among those working at the helm of news photography, there are not many women doing what Addario does. “Most often when I go to war zones, I look around on the front line and in social situations, wherever I’m covering, and it’s usually men,” Addario told Women in the World. “I thought that was a dynamic that would change over time, and it hasn’t really.”

Though no comprehensive research has been done about the total number of women working as news photographers, let alone in conflict zones, a 2015 study by World Press Photo, that canvased 1,556 photographers from over 100 countries, estimated that only 15 percent of professional news photographers were women. Women were also less likely to be employed by major media companies: only 7 percent in comparison to 22 percent men. “I think we’re closer to achieving gender equality in the newsroom or the editorial office, but out in the field, women are still hugely underrepresented,” according to documentary photographer Anastasia Taylor-Lind, who has worked on issues relating to women, population and war, and recently published MAIDAN – Portraits from the Black Square, a book documenting the 2014 Ukrainian uprising in Kiev.

Anastasia Taylor-Lind at the Maidan anti-government protests, February 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine.
A self portrait by Anastasia Taylor-Lind, made in her make-shift studio inside the barricades on Hrushevskogo Street, Kiev, during the Euromaidan revolution, Feb 2014. (Courtesy Anastasia Taylor-Lind)

Perhaps more heavily today than ever before, we rely on photographs to deliver news, tell us stories, and give context to complex and difficult situations. So, what is at stake when a disproportionate number of women are bringing visual stories to major media platforms?

Over the course of Addario’s career she has gained access, unique among many of her male colleagues, to the world of women. In 2000, for example, when photographing in Afghanistan, she entered women’s madrassas (religious schools), where men weren’t allowed. More recently in March, 2016, Addario photographed a heavily pregnant rape survivor named Ayak for the cover of TIME International. Of the experience, during which she worked alongside TIME’s Africa correspondent Aryn Baker, Addario wrote, “For two days, we all shared deeply personal experiences, which often culminated in tears, and sometimes, oddly, in laughter. Photographing Ayak and listening to her story was a privilege – and an extremely positive, intimate moment amongst three women who had all, in fact, experienced some form of rape or sexual assault as a weapon of war in our lives.”

Gender and personal experience have been instrumental among the many avenues Addario has found to connect with her subjects. “A photographer has a very intrusive job. We walk into people’s most intimate moments, and we try to be a fly on the wall, but that’s not an easy thing to do, and in my opinion it’s almost impossible,” said Addario. “Whether people like to admit it or not, it’s the truth: if I’m covering women’s issues, and the story is very intimate, or I’m photographing women giving birth, I’m much more likely to have access than my male colleagues.”

But gender isn’t the only factor that can influence where and how a photographer points his or her lens. “Everyone always asks, do men and women see differently? I don’t think it’s fair to say that women are more sensitive, because that’s basically, to me, what everyone’s really asking.” said Addario.

“It’s not that a woman’s lens is a unique one; every individual’s lens is unique,” said American documentary photographer Susan Meiselas — a member of Magnum Photo Agency since 1976, and a pioneer in the field of documentary photography. “Women can perform under incredible stress and in difficult circumstances along with men.”

“The argument for having an equal amount of women in photojournalism in 2016 is not because I could necessarily get access to some things easier than my male colleagues,” said Anastasia Taylor-Lind. “We should fairly reflect the world that we are photographing, and if 50 percent of the world’s population are women, then it’s our responsibility to fight to have 50 percent of photojournalists as women.”

“Every picture that we take is, in a way, a self portrait. There’s a reason why we go there in the first place and turn our camera to what’s on the left instead of what’s on the right. Everything you are attracted to, or fascinated or disgusted by, or what you feel, that’s what you take a picture of,” said Mads Nissen, the winner of the 2015 World Press Photo of the Year for his image of Jon and Alex, a gay couple in Russia. As a man working in the industry, he’s also been keenly aware of the gender constructs at play. As younger generations continue to redefine gender, however, Nissen is hopeful that the industry will follow suite. “I want to be a different man than a lot of the ‘macho’ male photographers before me. A lot of my work deals with subjects that are difficult to process emotionally. In the end, you’re stronger if you dare to be vulnerable, and I think that’s a new way of defining gender.”

Mads Nissen. (REMKO DE WAAL/AFP/Getty Images)
Mads Nissen. (REMKO DE WAAL/AFP/Getty Images)

Far beyond gender, there’s a glaring lack of overall diversity when it comes to race, geography, and cultural background among top documentary and news photographers.  “I rarely see people of color as photographers. I think that’s a huge issue,” said Addario. “It is a very white, male profession and that’s something I do take issue with.”

Having witnessed the consequences of leaving out the voices of women and people of color from written history, the implications of leaving out those points of view from photographic history is, for many, deeply concerning. “If there was a fair representation of geography, people from different religions, parts of the world, and ethnicities, then maybe the way collectively that stories were told would change,” said Taylor-Lind. “As photographers we make so many choices on who we follow, how we compose a photo, what stories we think are really worthwhile to cover, and how we cover them. If we had as many women as men, and people of color covering stories, I think it would really benefit our profession,” said documentary photographer Andrea Bruce, co-owner and member of the photo agency NOOR, whose work has focused on those living in the aftermath of war.

Mourners during a funeral for Abu Layth, a 24-year-old lieutenant in the Syrian army, in the village of Daqaqa, Syria, Sept. 30, 2013. Layth was the first soldier to fall from the village of 125 people, two years into a war that has only recently come close enough for the sounds of shelling to be heard. (Andrea Bruce/The New York Times)
Mourners during a funeral for Abu Layth, a 24-year-old lieutenant in the Syrian army, in the village of Daqaqa, Syria, Sept. 30, 2013. Layth was the first soldier to fall from the village of 125 people, two years into a war that has only recently come close enough for the sounds of shelling to be heard. (Andrea Bruce/The New York Times)

Given the lack of research on gender disparity in the industry, it’s difficult to pinpoint a reason why more women aren’t among leading news and documentary photographers, but it seems to have little to do with their interest in the profession. “When I go to teach workshops or presentations at universities, I’d say at least 75 percent to 80 percent of the people in the classroom are women,” said Bruce. “But they don’t tend to make it beyond that. When women hit the freelance world, people don’t hire them, or they don’t have encouragement to go forward, and I think that’s such a shame.”

For Taylor-Lind, reflecting on how gender has impacted her career has been eye-opening. “It took me 24 years to really understand that one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced as a woman is myself. It’s the way I talk about myself, downplay what I do, or don’t value myself. I’ve been brought up, like many women, not to put myself forward, not to be seen as arrogant, not to advocate for myself, in the same way that my brother has, or my male colleagues. And that’s a result of being born a woman and understanding my value in society as a woman, and interacting with my industry in a different way.”

Another roadblock in building a career as a female photojournalist can be the pressure the job places on mothers. “A lot of women are terrified that when they get pregnant, they won’t be able to work again. Their work changes, it becomes slower, it becomes closer to home, and that’s not really valued,” said award-winning documentary photographer Nina Berman, a member of NOOR photo agency, whose work has focused on women’s issues around the world, as well as the consequences of war and militarism in the U.S. “I have an 11 year old, so I can’t always do work that’s going to pull me out of my home. That has been a great barrier for women continuing their careers in a way that might earn them a place among the kinds of people you read about when you study photojournalism.”

Addario, too, has a son, Lucas, born in 2011, and emphasized how crucial her support system has been in continuing to pursue her work and assignments alongside raising a child. “Being a mother is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I don’t think I could have done it without my husband. I have incredible respect for women who do this alone, I just don’t personally think I could do it,” said Addario.

Nina Berman poses next to portraits of US soldiers wounded in Iraq on display at her exhibition at a gallery in New York, 23 August 2007. Berman began taking portraits of US troops wounded in Iraq shortly after the 2003 invasion, choosing to shoot them not in hospital wards but in their homes, often in small town America, far from the media glare. (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)
Nina Berman poses next to portraits of US soldiers wounded in Iraq on display at her exhibition in 2007. Berman began taking portraits of US troops wounded in Iraq shortly after the 2003 invasion, choosing to shoot them not in hospital wards but in their homes, often in small town America, far from the media glare. (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

Making lasting documentary photography demands an incredible amount of perseverance for men and women alike. Important though, stressed Taylor-Lind, is awareness of gender disparity on the part of industry leaders, mentors, and editors. “Women need mentoring and supporting. If there is any group of people who are underrepresented in an industry and in a given field, then in order to rectify the imbalance that has been caused, we need to pay attention to working with those groups of people,” said Taylor-Lind.

“I have deep respect that some people feel a kind of discrimination that I don’t feel or see. If they tell me that they’re experiencing certain unfairness and inequality, I believe them,” said Nissen. “If someone has experienced that being a woman, or trans, LGBT has worked against them, the beautiful thing about photography is their uniqueness, or the thing that makes them a minority, can really be their biggest advantage.”

Crucial too is the exact kind of visibility that Lynsey Addario has offered in sharing her story, not only with those inside the industry, but with all of us. For young women looking towards a career in documentary photography, there’s immense value in seeing their gender reflected at the top. “Visibility is key. Women need to see what they can become. Women need to see their heroes, that is how we will change it. It’s very important for women to see women doing the things they want to do,” said Taylor-Lind.