On gender and photojournalism: a response to Paul Melcher by Melissa Golden

“It took me too long to figure out that drinking massive amounts of alcohol and putting up with sexual harassment were not tests I had to pass to join the club. I now know it took me so long because I didn’t have a strong, senior female photographer or editor willing to take me in and tell me that ‘there’s another, better way.'” –Melissa Golden

Earlier this week, Paul Melcher, best known to me from the usually level-headed Melcher System blog, posted an article on the Black Star Rising blog, Why Is a Photojournalist’s Gender Relevant to Their Work?, dismissive of exhibitions, collectives, and professional organizations that are focused on women photographers. Thankfully, there was immediate backlash against Melcher’s post. A facebook post from Melissa Golden initially drew me to Melcher’s article, and I asked if she’d be willing to expand her thoughts a bit more. I’m glad she did; I knew from her history that she would have a valuable perspective on the importance of women’s photographer organizations, and I think this perspective can easily apply to other minority-focused organizations and exhibitions. Diversity among the ranks of photographers, editors, and anyone else involved in photography, will only make our craft stronger and more relevant to the public. This is a guest post by Golden, a photojournalist based in Los Angeles. If you don’t already know her work, you need to.

Paul Melcher recently posted a piece on the Black Star Rising blog, raising the question of why a photojournalists’ gender is important to his or her work. It’s not, Paul- except when it is.

On the plus side, I possess a number of advantages over my male counterparts. I can photograph children in a park without adults immediately suspecting I may be a sex offender, I can take pictures of women in cultures where a male photographer would be forbidden, and (I suspect) editors are more likely to hire me to shoot sensitive subjects like victims of sexual violence.. Conversely, I have to put up with some pretty ridiculous things that men do not. I’ve been sexually harassed by colleagues and subjects. I’ve been discriminated against by paternalistic editors who have feared for my safety in the field because of my gender. A fixer I once hired overseas paraded me around his village like a trophy and spent much of our time together propositioning me. I shot nothing useable in that time and I know for a fact this is not an unusual story for women photojournalists working abroad. I know of one colleague whose fixer even arranged to have her arrested after she spurned his advances.

Mr. Melcher misses the mark when he asks what gender has to do with the photojournalistic process. I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that his post is attempting to say that photojournalism transcends gender, and gender should not be relevant. I think he meant that in the best possible way, but saying that is like saying we’ve transcended race in America. I don’t live in a fantasyland where racism doesn’t exist and I certainly don’t live in a society absent of sexism. Sometimes gender has nothing to do with the photojournalistic process, sure, but sometimes it has everything to do with it.

I joined the Women Photojournalists of Washington (WPOW) when I moved to DC in the summer of 2007. I had just begun my freelance career after leaving newspapers and the nascent organization looked like it could provide some good networking opportunities. I wasn’t interested in female camaraderie or girl talk or anything of the sort. I wanted work and I was willing to mask my general disdain for other women to go forth and make nice.

Yes, I was truly a self-hating woman. If I sat down with a shrink, we could probably trace this back to childhood traumas, but my general wariness of other females was certainly reinforced over the years. By the time I started in photography, it was clear to me that it was a boys’ club and if I wanted in, I’d have to earn it. To me, it was obvious that earning it meant hanging with the boys, drinking enough to keep up, shooting brutal assignments without complaint and laughing off sexual harassment. The brutal assignments were the best part. Early on I spent a lot of time in locker rooms and on sidelines. A linebacker ran me over and tore my rotator cuff the first time I shot high school football and I wore the bruises with pride, even though I couldn’t lift my arm for a few weeks. I welcomed the tough assignments and still do.

It took me too long to figure out that drinking massive amounts of alcohol and putting up with sexual harassment were not tests I had to pass to join the club. I now know it took me so long because I didn’t have a strong, senior female photographer or editor willing to take me in and tell me that “there’s another, better way.”

The only other women photographers I knew were my contemporaries and I viewed them as direct competition for space in the boys’ club. The small handful of veteran women photographers who might have helped me seemed distant, and frankly, I was extremely intimidated by them.
That first WPOW meeting transformed my worldview. I found myself in a houseful of women photographers with some of the most distinguished names in the field. Once again, I found myself intimidated. Over the course of the evening, they proved to be friendly, accessible and eager to help a young photographer who just moved to town.

WPOW offers a mentorship program, educational programs, a regular lecture series, and it produces juried shows by its members. The organization doesn’t exist to the exclusion of men. It hosts an ongoing monthly happy hour that is open to everyone. Many of the speakers in the lecture series are men. Besides discussions on subjects like business practices and grant writing, members can talk about issues that affect women like maternity, sexual harassment, sexual violence, gender discrimination, and unequal pay.. It’s a valuable forum where these issues can be broached without outright dismissal, disapproval, or fear of reprisal.

Regarding Mr. Melcher’s suggestion that such groups place an undue emphasis on the gender of the photographer, I disagree. I can’t think of a single female colleague who actually identifies as a “woman photojournalist.” It’s an odd construct and I don’t think that these groups are promoting such a thing. I think these groups, workshops, panels, etc. exist for photographers who happen to be women and as such deal regularly with a set of issues that are distinct from their male counterparts.

I moved to Los Angeles recently and I am no longer part of a women’s photography group, but I must give credit to WPOW for playing an important role in my life and career. It cured me of my misogyny and I wish such a group had been available to me earlier in my career. I’m sure it and other groups like it have been as meaningful in other ways to other female photographers. To consider these organizations to be “a silly distraction” is dismissive and, frankly, disrespectful.

Melissa Golden

15 Responses to “On gender and photojournalism: a response to Paul Melcher by Melissa Golden”

  1. Claire

    Great article, completely agree; I just wrote a piece on the topic as well!

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  3. Franklin

    This article is 100 percent on-point. I’m glad there are people like Melissa out there fighting the good fight.

  4. ciara

    Great post Melissa – I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. The male advances bit is something I’ve experienced a number of times myself and it’s really, really tricky. I wrote about it a few months ago
    all the best

  5. Ana Elisa Fuentes

    Your post in spot on. Your fixer experience is such a frustrating one – not only does is an experience of being paraded like a trophy demeaning, loosing time and money, and the most painful part of all your credibility lost because the assignment did not work out.

    Add the dimension of being a woman of color to the scenario, and believe me it is all the more difficult.

    What happens if you are not allowed entree into their circle? Then this circle can work against you – Numbers, the pack mentality, and they can be quite mean and lie. Yes lie, in a business where facts count. Just the fact that you are different is threatening.

    My life has been threatened twice by a newspaper editor – once in the newsroom.
    I’ve been elbowed in the ribs by a very large Reuters photographer, hit in the face by an AP photographer. HIt in the face because I was in the front waiting for the subject to arrive. Why was in front? Because I arrived earlier than everyone else. I earned it. This male AP photographer thought he was entitled. To my defense, TV camera-man spoke up, and offered to put his camera in his face.

    And people think professional photography is sooo glamorous. HA!

    It can be quite a mean-spirited, competitive, and cut-throat business.

    And if you are Independent, it even all the more difficult.

    I’m happy you wrote your piece. Cleared the air, otherwise, thing will not change. We like to think as a society we are so enlightened. We are not. As you point out. Racism and sexism still exist.

    You are a brave person!

    Finally, I would like to add that I have worked in the field for many years. I have worked with Paul Melcher. Paul was my Photo Editor at Gamma. I loved working with him. He is one of the fairest, direct, and progressive editors I have ever worked with. His sense of humor has calmed me many a times while in the pinch of the deadline. Honestly, I miss working with him.

    Reputation is the currency in this business. You are only good as your last frame or award. I do not believe Paul should suffer the fall for the plethora of unethical male conduct in the field and newsroom.
    I know Paul writes to do just this, to stir the pot, to get people thinking. And he has does a marvelous job at it. I’m happy you give him the benefit of the doubt.

  6. benjamin@duckrabbit.info

    Nice article, but I’m wondering how much to believe you.


    Because you write

    ‘I know of one colleague whose fixer even arranged to have her arrested after she spurned his advances.’

    Isn’t this bullshit?

    I’m confident (although you will probably deny it) that the photographer in question is Allison Joyce. She was arrested by her own admission because she was working illegally in a protected area in Bangladesh. She was not working with a fixer but on a joint project with a Bangladeshi photographer who she dropped from the project when she no longer felt she needed him.

    He reported her to the police for working illigally. What else was he supposed to do when she so royally screwed him over (basically getting him to work for free until she no longer needed him)

    After being arrested she started putting out stories on Facebook and Lightstalkers that he was some kind of sexual pest. This is despite the fact that the wife of the Bangladeshi photographer was supposed to be her friend and had given her considerable help. Instead of speaking with his wife (her friend) she choose to publicly humiliate her on Facebook. All this in the pretense that she was ‘protecting’ other photographers from working with this man (who incidentally is highly regarded and has never ever been accused of anything like this before)

    It has transparently been an attempt by Allison to cause as much damage to the person as possible, including breaking his family and destroying his reputation.

    Rarely have I held a photographer in such contempt.

    • benjamin@duckrabbit.info

      Just to add, despite the qualification above, this is an excellent article and an important debate.

      And by way male photogs get paraded round the village by their fixers too! Often though I think a lot can be learned by these encounters.

  7. Melissa Golden

    I’m really glad to see that this post has provoked discussion. I’d like to respond to a few of the comments.
    First of all, thank you to the folks who have been supportive in the wake of this little essay. The thought of it being published gave me pause, but ultimately I’m glad these issues are being addressed. Honestly, I was expecting more hate mail than anything else, but the general response has been fairly positive.
    In response to Ana- I’m glad to hear you personally vouch for Mr. Melcher. I don’t know him and I was trying to avoid any sort of character attack in my essay. I did feel it was important to respond to his points and tried to do so primarily by speaking to my own experiences.
    That being said, to address Benjamin@duckrabbit’s comment, I would like to say that while I will not name names, I’m a generally trusting soul and tend to take it at face value when I hear a story from a fellow photographer. I certainly don’t want to get in the middle of any sort of imbroglio, so all I can say is that I do know my own experiences to be true. That’s fair, right?
    -Ciara, I read that blog post of yours a while back. Yeah, that sort of thing is unnerving and can definitely affect how we do our jobs. It’s easy to say “don’t let it get to you” but that takes a tremendous amount of personal strength. Then again, just being a photojournalist, male or female, takes a tremendous amount of personal strength. The only thing easy about our jobs is spending money like we have it.

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  10. benjamin@duckrabbit.info

    Hi Melissa,

    Absolutely that’s fair and to be honest I would have done the same if I was you. You just got my frustration at the behaviour of the photographer to damage someone careers, which outraged me.

    Thanks again for your openness.

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