The #MeToo of the Photojournalist

Ever since the rise of #MeToo and the murder of the journalist Kim Wall I have been thinking about violence and assault towards female journalists and photojournalists on assignment, especially through the lens of my own experiences. Odds are that you are either a woman who has posted #MeToo, or you are a man who has been blown away by the amount of #MeToo posts. While I know that there are people falling outside of these groups, they seem to be in the majority. Plus, this article is not about the subtleties of the movement but rather a subsection of the movement; female photojournalists who have experienced assault while on the job.

In short, I am here to talk about my experiences and observations.

I have written before about the inequity inherent in the photojournalism system regarding women and minorities, with only about 15% of photojournalists being women as reported by the World Press Photo and Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. The majority are self-employed (about 79%) and make considerably less money than their male counterparts, effectively making the security of female photojournalists on assignment more problematic and putting an already higher risk group at an even higher risk.

Female journalists and photojournalists face a variety of challenges in a system that was not originally made for them. I could talk about this at length, and very much want to talk about this, but as of yet, I have something else on my mind. I keep coming back to one thought that has been bothering me for a few months: With the variety of issues women have to deal with within the photojournalism industry, how do we deal with subjects who sexually assault us while on assignment or while working on a personal project? At this point, I am speaking from my own experience.

For the last two years I have been working on a project in Moldova called, Those Who Remain, which looks at the history of systematic deportation of Moldovans to Siberia and Kazakhstan under the Soviet Union and focus on those who are living out the remainder of their lives in Moldova, their homeland. I have largely worked with older Moldovans for this project and I lived with one of the families I photographed in the village of Vadeni in northern Moldova for two years. It is also worth noting that I was a Peace Corps volunteer throughout my time in Moldova so the family I was living with was my host family.

Video cover for Those Who Remain

Towards the end of my second year with the project and my host family, my subject and extremely close friend, Pasha, died of liver failure and I was there to care for her in her last weeks. The experience was stressful and fatiguing in every way you could imagine and the Peace Corps graciously allowed me to formally complete my service a month early. In the time after my service I still visited my now former host family, feeling very much that it was a place I could call home. However, after I ceased to be a Peace Corps volunteer the male member of the family began making extremely inappropriate sexual advances towards me. Apparently, once out of the Peace Corps system, I was fair game.

The family structure included my two subjects and friends, Ana (the matriarch) and her sister Pasha (them being the oldest members of the family), after which came Ana’s son, Alex and his wife Ludmilla, along with their children who occasionally visited. Ana and Ludmilla were the cornerstones of the home, doing most of the work and bringing in most of the income. In fact, Ludmilla typically worked in Western Europe every three months for three months to insure that the family could meet all of their expenses. Ana was a constant worker, cooking and cleaning in the house and working on the farm every day. When Ludmilla was gone the impetus to care for every aspect of the household and farm fell on Ana’s shoulders. Pasha, being invalid and unable to walk typically performed simple tasks that could be done from her bed such as preparing food for storage and caring for baby chicks. Needless to say, the women of the family were powerful, competent and all around awesome ladies! Ana’s son, Alex, worked on the farm, but was utterly dependent on the women of the house for everything else and was an alcoholic.

At this point I think it is important to paint a picture of Moldova itself. This highly rural and agricultural country is very patriarchal and conservative, the major religions being Russian and Romanian Orthodox Catholicism, a religion not known for its emphasis on gender equality. Moldova is also a former Soviet state, with a history that has endowed the country with similar characteristics to many other former Soviet states including higher instances of alcoholism and domestic violence. In Moldova, the idea of women being second-class citizens is braided into the culture. From a subjective standpoint many of us volunteers saw women and young girls working ten times harder for half of what their male counterparts were afforded. Sexually aggressive behavior from men started early and was unfortunately expected by many women, especially in the rural villages. From an objective standpoint, Moldova suffers from rampant trafficking and domestic violence.

Fact sheet provided by ATIP Moldova

In 2013 it was ranked 6th on the Global Slavery index (though has gone down to 37th) for sex trafficking. Of its approximately 3.5 million people, around 10,400 are being trafficked, 68% of which are adult females and 13% of which are children. Domestic violence is also a huge problem in the country, though one that is little documented or addressed, the prevailing opinion in the country being that it is a private matter that should not be addressed by public entities. Regardless, as reported by Stop Violence Against Women,

The U.S. State Department’s 2010 Human Rights Report on Moldova found that 40 percent of Moldovan women had experienced at least one violent act in their lifetime. Furthermore, 51.3 percent of women who had a sexual partner had been victims of psychological violence and 24.2 percent of women reported being victims of physical violence in their lifetime. Most victims of DV receive little response from government or society, with many viewing it as a normal part of private life. Few women report domestic violence because of these views, as well as the lack of legal forms of redress. From January to November 2010, according to the Ministry of the Interior, 1,997 cases of domestic violence were reported. However, because of endemic underreporting, more accurate figures are believed to be much higher.

In my village, I was forced to create a rather aggressive fuck off persona so as not to invite any unwanted attention from men. Even still I was groped or received unwanted kisses from time to time, each action I addressed loudly and publicly, further emphasizing the idea within my village that I was not to be bothered. I frequently walked around Moldova with the look that I would unhesitatingly fight anyone who bothered me. There were also a number of micro aggressions in the country to impress women’s second class status; I experienced men telling me women should sit in the back of a car, never the front, women should not drive, women’s work was in the house, men’s work was outside (despite the fact that women also worked outside), women should not drink but men could — little things here and there. The village life was full of highly distilled patriarchal suppression of women and while the urban centers of Moldova were progressing, many of the rural areas were still stuck in the dark ages.

When volunteers are trained prior to their service, they are provided with the necessary statistics regarding sexual violence. The statistics sadly said that women were at a way too high likelihood of being harassed or assaulted and quickly into our service the statistics were realized by many of us female volunteers. But in my home I had always felt secure, which is why when Ana’s son, Alex, began making sexual advances I was even more put off than I might have normally been.

It started off relatively inconspicuously when Alex asked if I would have sex with him since we had lived in the same house for two years. At this time, Ludmilla, his wife and a woman I considered my friend, was out of the country. This request was met with the most succinct and firm NO I have ever given. I was taken aback and very uncomfortable, but had suffered not harm or even invasion of my personal space. Over all, it was a damn awkward situation that I was not sure how to internalize.

After a bit of travel around Western Europe I returned to Moldova and Vadeni for a memorial dinner for Pasha and had planned to visit my former host family for three days. Given previous events with Alex, I experienced trepidation, trepidation that was unfortunately proven right. I arrived to the house to find that the memorial dinner had already happen, an annoying realization made more annoying by the fact that Alex had got drunk during the event. I headed up to the room I typically stayed in and Alex asked how long I would be staying, to which I replied three days. He then became very excited and said, “That’s great! Do you want to know why that’s great?” To which I jokingly responded that it was of course because I was so great. His response is what quickly changed the tune of the conversation. “No,” he responded, “because…” at which point he slap-grabbed my ass, implying that we would be spending the next three days having sex.

I do not get angry often, but when I do it is typically loud and aggressive. I responded by screaming at Alex and pushing him out of the room until he was falling over onto the floor. It was all I could do not to punch him in the face. I shut the door and refused to speak to him, only telling him in no uncertain terms that he needed to leave. I was extremely flustered and upset by the event. I later proceeded to inform the entire house that I would not be staying the three days, that I would be leaving on the next available bus out, and informing them in no uncertain terms of the reason I was leaving. Talking to Ana was the hardest, she was upset and embarrassed and asked me to try and forget the event. I refused to speak to Alex for the remainder of my time there despite his attempts to apologize. I was 100% uninterested in any apology.

I imagine that there must be a few people out there who wonder, what is the big deal? To which I can honestly respond that, for me, the assault by Alex deprieved me of a home that I had had for 2 years and of an easy way for me to stay in touch with Ana, a woman whom I loved dearly — because if I needed to contact her, it would have to be through him since she did not have a cell phone of her own. It also created an extremely problematic situation for me as a photojournalist and documentarian. How would I continue this project in the future if I could not feel safe near one of the main family members attached to the project? After the event happened, one of Alex’s 20-something children opened the door to my room in the middle of the night, not knowing I was there. With my already nervous mindset I was not sleeping well and the opening of my door in the middle of the night immediately ignited my fight-or-flight response. I knew that I could no longer comfortably sleep in the house. I now wonder if or how this will change my method of telling the story as I complete the final editing and writing.

But when we get right down to the root of the issue… I am fucking tired of this shit!

It makes me angry. Why am I up against yet another barrier to work due to the fact that I am a woman? Why am I putting up with bullshit for a story that few publishers seem to care about telling and seemingly no funders seem to care about funding? I watched over a friend and subject while she was dying, wrote without getting grants, got very few responses from publishers. Being sexual assault from the son of a subject very well threatens to be the hair that breaks the camel’s back. And the sad thing is that I highly doubt I am the only one. We women photojournalists, we the mere 15% of photojournalism, not only have to fight out sexism at work with less pay and less confidence, but also have to fight assault on the front lines of our own work. Where does it end?

We all know the statistics; get in a room with three other women and statistically one of them will have dealt with some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Ask all three of them if they have been harassed and I would be amazed if even one of them said no. The statistics from UN Women is equally depressing;

  • It is estimated that 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate violence from their partner or sexual violence from a non-partner at some point in their lives. However, some national studies show that up to 70% of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime.
  • It is estimated that of all women who were the victims of homicide globally in 2012, almost half of them were killed by intimate partners or family members, compared to less than six per cent of men killed in the same year.
  • Worldwide, almost 750 million women and girls alive today were married before their 18th birthday. Child marriage is more common in West and Central Africa, where over 4 in 10 girls were married before age 18, and about 1 in 7 were married or in union before age 15. Child marriage often results in early pregnancy and social isolation, interrupts schooling, limits the girl’s opportunities and increases her risk of experiencing domestic violence.
  • Around 120 million girls worldwide (slightly more than 1 in 10) have experienced forced intercourse or other forced sexual acts at some point in their lives. By far the most common perpetrators of sexual violence against girls are current or former husbands, partners or boyfriends.
  • Adult women account for 51% of all human trafficking victims detected globally. Women and girls together account for 71%, with girls representing nearly three out of every four child trafficking victims. Nearly three out of every four trafficked women and girls are trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation.
  • Twenty-three per cent of female undergraduate university students reported having experienced sexual assault or sexual misconduct in a survey across 27 universities in the United States in 2015. Rates of reporting to campus officials, law enforcement or others ranged from 5 to 28%, depending on the specific type of behavior.

And those are just the highlights!

You know the sad thing about this article? I am not sure what to do to improve the situation. #MeToo is invading social media and the vast majority of men are responding by being uncomfortable AGAIN! I have only seen two men within my social media group who publicly started discussing their role in systemic misogyny, acknowledging their role and wanting to become better. Furthermore, still very few men are comfortable in acknowledging their own experience in assault. This is still a women’s debate and it is damn frustrating.

How does it affect photojournalism? It continues to silence female voices and our ability to push stories that matter, and promote real change.

How does it affect society? It supports male violence on women. There is a reason why a quote that arose within social media shortly after #MeToo took off, is so poignant:

If you’re a man, don’t say anything to a woman that you wouldn’t want a man saying to you in prison.

It is less about the words coming out of your mouth and more about the violence they represent. Sex is still a tool men use to control women across the globe. There is quote about this by Margaret Atwood:

Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.

I am tired of walking around in constant fight mode. I am pissed that this happened to me in the context of my work because photography and documentary work are sacred to me. And I am frustrated because I still do not see a way out.