Where do we go from here?

In light of Vox’s recent article, “Exclusive: National Geographic investigated a top photo editor for sexual misconduct. He left quietly, but women are speaking out,” I’m overwhelmed and compelled to finally write about my #MeToo moment.

Actually, what I’m feeling the most is ashamed. Ashamed that it took me three years to type the words out, ashamed that I ignored a good friend’s nudge to contact the writer for this article, but mostly ashamed about how I handled the situation. This is the headlining reason why I haven’t come forward. I’ve told friends and other photojournalists, some with similar experiences with the same editor, but never to family. Never out loud.

Another contending hindrance, echoing some women in this article, was that my career would suffer. No one likes a complainer. No one wants a loose cannon. I was worried that these labels would be given to me if I were to speak my truth- no matter what evidence I had or witnesses I could conjure up. I’m still worried about the same consequences as I write this now.

Kentucky

It was my first taste of the illustrious photo world. I remember I had this crazy anxiety to perform and network and not seem like I didn’t know what I was doing. During my time at the Western Kentucky University Mountain Workshops in Kentucky’s capitol, Frankfort, I stumbled into an unpleasant encounter that I couldn’t have predicted.

In May 2015, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and public relations. However, along the way I discovered that photojournalism was my higher calling. The workshop application opened the following summer. First of all, I felt it was a miracle that I was even accepted into the workshop. For this particular workshop, you have to apply with your portfolio and resume- which I considered to be less than other photographers my age.

So, there I was, in Frankfort, Kentucky. With my mind spinning, I headed to my car after a morning of introductions, speakers and excitement to go meet with my assigned subjects for the workshop. This was when the first interaction happened.

Patrick Witty was standing in the parking lot. He introduced himself as the Director of Photography for Wired, and previous editor for Time magazine and The New York Times. I remember thinking, wow, someone of this caliber is actually talking to me. He gave some advice, probably because I mentioned how nervous I was, and off I went.

An image from my story about a hardworking father who owned an antique vehicle restoration shop.

After a week of testing my limits, going through a transformation with the help of group leaders, teammates and writing coaches, little sleep and mental toughness, my story was finally finished. Everyone shared their stories on the last night, it was one of the best experiences. The Mountain Workshops was a time and place where I fell even more in love with the support and community bond that photojournalists cultivate.

The moment

After the showings, it’s a tradition to have an after-party. I remember the party starting at 2 AM or something crazy late like that. It’s not out of the ordinary for photojournalists to do something like this. It was in the lobby of the main hotel that participants, professionals and organizers stayed at.

Running on fumes, we continued until the early morning hours. I made a few friends at this point that I was comfortable hanging around. We were happy to stay up chatting.

During the party, we noticed that Patrick was being a little weird to a few girls, one being me. I remember him getting too close to talk and inviting me, with a sense of suggestiveness, to his hotel room (thankfully, he wasn’t staying in the main hotel).

I started to feel a strong sense of discomfort. The situation reminded me of going to a bar with girlfriends in college, being on the dance floor and collectively waiting to push away some overeager, unwelcomed and immature men off our backs. I instantly thought of my significant other. Should I go along with this? Definitely not. Should I tell him off? Probably not. Should I get help? I was exhausted, a few beers in and I knew my place.

I figured it would be a good idea to just turn in for the night. If nothing happened, then I wouldn’t risk a detrimental step in my gentle career.

Then he tried to follow me up to my room. Twice. The second time I made it to the elevator without him noticing. After pushing the up button, I had to abort mission because he found me again and tried to convince me further. Thankfully, the friends I made helped me get to my room unseen on the third attempt. Though the situation ended in my favor, I still felt wrong.

When it became a mental game

The next day, I’d planned to leave as early as possible because I had to drive eight hours back home. During the drive, I received a Facebook notification that Patrick Witty would like to connect with me. This short string of messages made me question my ability to fight for myself for years.

You might see this and think, that’s innocent. Yes, sure it is. You might’ve read the above story and thought, well, nothing really happened. Well, that’s what I thought too, when I was 22 years old. However, I never forgot how dirty I felt typing back to him.

“I’m just that cool I guess, have a good week!”- what even was that?! And the amount of exclamation marks? However, at that time, I didn’t want to lose an important contact. I didn’t want to risk damage.

Since the #MeToo movement started in 2017, I’ve come back to this conversation a few times, seeking it out through my Facebook messages. Every time I’ve been ashamed with how I handled myself- like a little girl not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings. That screenshot is so embarrassing to me. I let myself down responding the way I did. Back then, I probably shouldn’t have said anything at all. Maybe that would’ve helped.

But why should I be ashamed? I can’t blame myself for acting as I thought I should. Unfortunately, that shame won’t go away. I can do things to help it, like try to be confident and do the best work I can. But this unfortunate instance, along with other common instances women in my industry face, however minute, will always be with me. Now, I have the choice to let them bring me down or use them as fuel. I’ve chosen the latter.

Moving on and forward

The Mountain Workshops, apart from the after-party Patrick episode, was beyond amazing. I’ve recommended it in the past and will continue recommending it.

My only hope is, considering the amount of #MeToo voices, that workshop organizers, colleges boards and event organizers will take great care in selecting their staff and making it mandatory for the chosen persons to sign a no-tolerance contract along with their agreements. Even the participants. We, as an industry, need to take action to do better.

Now, it’s my turn to ask you, reader, no matter what industry or gender or age or whatever. Where do we go from here?

*This is a personal experience reflection article. A diary page never written.