Lessons from the Women in Photography Meetup

How do we create a safe space for women in the photojournalism industry to report sexual harassment?

The third edition of the Women in Photography Meetup, organised by the World Press Photo Foundation, took place during the World Press Photo Festival 2019. The Meetup gathered over 40 women to exchange thoughts and experiences, and to chart paths towards a more diverse and inclusive photojournalism community.

Anastasia Taylor-Lind was invited as a guest speaker, in conversation with Naina Bajekal, deputy international editor at Time Magazine. Taylor-Lind is a photojournalist who has spent more than a decade documenting women, violence, and war issues. She recently spoke up in an article published in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) that compiled the testimony of over 50 female photographers who had experienced sexual misconduct.

Drawing on her experience, CJR’s special report and Lars Boering’s December 2018 article in Nieman Reports on the need for a #MeToo moment in the photojournalism industry, the debate focused on three questions:

  • Has anything changed since those articles were published?
  • What are the key photojournalism organisations doing to create a safe space for women to speak up?
  • What practical steps can be taken to ensure sexual harassment cases are properly addressed, ensuring survivors have a place to go and their reports are acted on?

Here are the main conclusions reached:

There haven’t been any tangible changes

Over the past year various female photographers have spoken up, hoping to trigger a #MeToo moment in an industry that suffers from gender imbalance, sexism, and discrimination towards women.

Despite this, women in the photojournalism industry feel like there haven’t been any tangible changes. Most harassment cases are still dealt with internally and don’t make it into the headlines. The debate is still happening only in private whisper networks and, while these are necessary, not everyone has access to them - which means many women remain out of the loop, and therefore unprotected. The different actors in the industry need to take a clear stand in denouncing sexual misconduct publicly, in order to encourage other women to speak up with the guarantee that their reports will lead to action, and won’t result in discredit for themselves.

Nonetheless, a culture shift is palpable. Shortly after the publication of the article, many photography agencies and organizations adopted codes of ethics/conduct that defined what harassment entails, created internal female-led reporting structures to report inappropriate behaviour, and set out specific steps to follow when harassment occurs.

While this is positive and necessary, women in the photojournalism industry believe organizations need to take a more proactive approach, instead of reacting to specific cases when there is a risk of exposure or brand damage.

We need international protocols

The urgency of pushing for an international protocol on reporting harassment was clear, especially in an industry where freelancers comprise a large and important part.

Because photojournalism as an “industry” has no governing body that can legislate behavior and sanctions, it is hard to implement international support mechanisms. Currently, organizations are reacting differently according to their own instruments. One of the main conclusions reached during the meetup is that organizations need to be more transparent and make their anti-harassment protocols publicly available so that it serves as a building-block for others. The World Press Photo Foundation will publish this soon.

Ultimately, the key photojournalism organisations in the industry need to come together, debate, and establish an independent body where women can file their claims without endangering their careers, with a clear reporting structure as well as specific sanctions for those who have been accused of sexual misconduct, as well as other forms of verbal and physical assault.

Sexual harassment is a part of a wider issue

Creating a safe space for women in photojournalism is not simply about preventing sexual harassment. This behavior is reinforced and allowed by a sexist and unequal work environment.

According to the 2018 State of News Photography report, almost 68% of women faced discrimination in their work as photojournalists. In the same study, women photographers considered stereotyping (56%), sexism within the industry (54%), a lack of opportunities for women (49%), and social and family expectations (42%) as main barriers to their work. The same feelings were shared in the meetup.

If we are to fight sexual harassment in photojournalism, we need to start by acknowledging and reflecting on how to address these issues that many women have come to experience as routine. Forums like this are essential. However, the conversation eventually needs the commitment, empathy, solidarity, and understanding of our male colleagues across all industries.

The Women in Photography Meetup is an annual event organized by the World Press Photo Foundation as part of the World Press Photo Festival. The next edition will take place in April 2020. Sign up to our festival newsletter to follow our updates.