Walking in their shoes

Women photojournalists break new ground

In the Intensive Care Unit of a California hospital, a distraught mother holds vigil for her young son after his surgery for a grave head injury. The woman, Malalai Rafi, is an Afghan refugee resettled to the Sacramento area with her family. The photographer, Renée C. Byer, spent two years chronicling the ordeals facing Malalai and other Afghans who risked their lives to support US and coalition forces in their native country. Granted special visas because of their service, these refugees arrived full of hope, only to find danger and heartbreak in the United States, their country of adoption.

Describing her long journey to record No Safe Place, Byer shared her many challenges, including barriers to photographing at the hospital. She was allowed two frames, then ushered out.

Malalai Rafi watches over her son Omar, 8, at UC Davis Children’s Hospital after an operation to repair a deformity in his skull. The surgery was not successful and he had to wear a protective helmet until they could operate again many months later. Credit: Renée C. Byer/The Sacramento Bee

Compassion. Sorrow. Anger. Inspiration.

Experiencing our world through the lens of contemporary photojournalism is truly an emotional roller coaster. The venue for this deep dive, Visa pour L’Image, is France’s premier annual photojournalism festival. Held in the Mediterranean town of Perpignan, news and documentary photographers gather to exhibit their stories — witnesses to our turbulent world. They also grapple with the dramatic changes upending their industry: so many opportunities to share images, such an uncertain future.

During Visa pour l’Image, the city of Perpignan opens up its historic places for free viewing of photojournalists’ exhibits. Here, its grand Dominican Church. Credit: Ruth Landy

Photojournalism is still a man’s world. Between 80 to 100 percent of major publications’ significant images of 2016 carried male photographers’ credits.

But this is changing. In the US, the top photo editors of National Geographic, Time, The Washington Post, The New York Times and many other American publications are now female.

What does visual storytelling through women’s eyes look like in these gender-focused times? At Visa pour l’Image, three award-winning American photojournalists shared what it takes to shoot their complex and compelling subjects in the U.S. and around the world:

  • Based in Caracas, Meridith Kohut is a regular contributor to The New York Times covering the collapse of Venezuela and other hard-hitting stories in the region:

“ Because I’m blonde and female, the soldiers in Caracas don’t think I’m as tough as them. Venezuela is a very machista culture but they don’t see me as a threat whereas male photojournalists might get caught up. I try to really feel the story so it comes across in my work. It’s a story that is so unseen. I draw a lot of strength knowing what I’m doing is actually making a difference.”

At Visa, Meridith Kohut comments her powerful images of Venezuela in crisis. Here, a schizophrenic patient in a psychiatric hospital which faces chronic shortages of food and medicine like the rest of the country. Credit: Ruth Landy
  • Photojournalist Amy Toensing is a regular contributor to National Geographic magazine. At Visa to present her reportage on Widowhood, Toensing shared her experience covering the intimate stories of women in India, Bosnia and Uganda:

“One cool thing about being female and traveling is a certain camaraderie that happens. You don’t have to speak the same language and you can make that connection with body language. It’s such a collaboration to tell their story. What I have experienced with these women is ‘we did it, we worked together and told my story.’ That in itself has been powerful.”

National Geographic photographer Amy Toensing discusses her story “Widowhood” at the Visa festival. In the background, Toensing’s Uganda image shows the backlog of cases in a local court, where widows turn to the law to battle abuse and property grabbing. Credit: Ruth Landy
  • Renée C Byer, a Pulitzer prize winning photographer for the Sacramento Bee, came to Visa to present her searing witness of Afghan refugees’ experiences striving to make a new home in California:

“ Photojournalism is about telling stories. As a photojournalist, I spend a lot of time with my subjects. We are all more the same than we are different. We all have the same emotions, want the best for our children. Many of the Afghan refugees just want an opportunity, they don’t want a handout. I just want their story to be told, in their own words. ”

Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Renée C Byer after commenting her exhibition No Safe Place at the Visa festival. Credit: Paul Kitagaki, Jr.

Much of Byer, Kohut and Toensing’s photojournalism embodies best practices of the profession which they share with their male colleagues:

  • A fierce commitment to a code of journalistic ethics — accuracy, context, no manipulation of images.
  • Deep engagement with those they are photographing — before, during and after they put down their cameras.
  • Mentorship of young photographers, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Yet their work also reveals the contours of a new visual landscape in the making: our world seen through women’s eyes, a gender lens keenly attuned to social exclusion, but also to signs of social transformation as women and girls come into their power in the 21st century.

The word photography comes from the Greek, meaning “writing with light”. As Byer, Kohut, Toensing and other women blaze new trails in their profession, their fearlessness, determination and empathy illuminates the path ahead:

Meridith Kohut, on managing feelings while photographing tough stories:

“A lot of photojournalists will block out trauma when shooting difficult subjects. When I was at the funeral of the four kids with the moms crying, I was bawling right along with them. Whenever I have strong emotions, I feel them in the moment. Maybe that’s easier for me because I’m a woman, but I try to use whatever I’m feeling not only for my mental health, but also for my work.”

Renée C. Byer, on what it takes to make it in photojournalism:

“There aren’t as many women in the profession, but their involvement is growing in leaps and bounds. If I were to give advice to young women aspiring to be photojournalists, it would be about the determination you need — about shooting every single day. It’s not something where you just pick up a camera and become a great photographer. You have to go the extra mile.”

Amy Toensing, on the value of educating girls in low-income countries:

“It’s important to look to the future, and that’s the essence of this. It’s about girls’ education. And these places really need to start prioritizing that.

“You give these girls something to work with, empower them and this (the social exclusion experienced by widows) won’t happen.

When you educate girls, look out - because they’re going to kick ass!”