Through women’s eyes: A decade of solidarity in DC

Members of Women Photojournalists of Washington (WPOW) share images from the Women’s March on Washington and discuss the importance of supporting each other in an industry dominated by men.

From top left: 1. Aisha Bain of Baltimore has the names of African Americans who died from violence written on her face. She was marching with the organization Move to End Violence at the Women’s March on Washington. Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post 2. Signs at the march. Photo by Kate Warren/The New York Times en Español 3. Hundreds of marchers hold signs as they fill the streets of Washington D.C. Photo by Kate Warren/The New York Times en Español

Last Saturday thousands of photographers covered the Women’s March on Washington. Allison Shelley was one of them. And while women outnumbered men that day, Allison is used to being the only female photographer in the room. About 10 years ago this inspired her and two of her colleagues — Sarah L. Voisin and Melina Mara — to start a group to support women in photojournalism.

The gender disparity doesn’t only exist in the U.S. capital. In a 2015 study — The State of News Photography — 85 percent of the respondents were male. The study also found that women earned less and were less likely to be employed by large media companies.

“We love our [male] colleagues,” Allison says, “But we did notice that when it was a small group of women photographers on assignment, the conversations were very different.”

What started off as casual potlucks is now a non-profit organization –Women Photojournalists of Washington (WPOW)– with 250 members and counting. The group has quarterly meetings with guest speakers, photography workshops, a mentorship program, monthly happy hours and an annual juried exhibition. Through its activities and network, the group has built a strong community of photographers in a competitive field in a competitive city.

From top left: 1. Native American activists join many thousands during a ceremony in front of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian during the Women’s March on Washington. Photo by Allison Shelley 2. March participants exit the Archives Metro station on the morning of the march. To accommodate crowds, the down escalator was turned off, allowing all three escalators to transport people out of the Metro. Photo by Becky Harlan/NPR 3. Chris and Susannah Kisrarday traveled to D.C. from Lewisburg, Pa., with their kids Zoitan, Ceili, Catherine and Ellie. Photo by Becky Harlan/NPR

Photographers, photo editors, multimedia producers, students and other industry professionals make up the group, which boasts former White House press pool members, World Press jurors and Pulitzer Prize winners.

Former member and photographer Jenna Isaacson Pfueller says she would have never survived her years in Washington without WPOW. Other members helped get a press pass for the Hill, set up her business and find freelance work. They were also pivotal supporters of her Kickstarter campaign All Thrifty States that took her throughout the country to document thrift culture and what Americans throw out.

“In a field that can be very competitive, WPOW empowers members because they know when one of us succeeds, we all do — and that’s a special thing these days,” Jenna says.

Jenna now works as the Retail Marketing Manager at Goodwill Industries of Northern New England. “Even though I’ve moved away from both D.C. and photojournalism, WPOW helped me figure out my next step,” Jenna say. “It gave me confidence to keep going. I’ll forever be indebted to these ladies for propping me up when I needed it and showing me I could succeed too.”

From left: 1. Demonstrators walk past the Capitol during the march 2. A couple embraces during the march. Photos by Gabriella Demczuk/CNN

Gabriella Demczuk joined the organization when she was in college and says that, as a young female photographer interested in politics, she was intimidated by a field predominantly covered by men.

Through WPOW Gabriella met women who covered politics on the Hill everyday that gave her the confidence to keep going. “How can we tell stories of social injustice and inequality, if we do not have it within our own community?” Gabriella asks.

From left: 1. Kara Frame films the Women’s March on Washington for NPR. 2. Becky Harlan gets a boost onto someone’s shoulders to get a shot of the crowd.

WPOW treasurer Kara Frame joined the organization in 2013 because its members were where she wanted to be professionally in the next five years. As she befriended other members, connections were made. Two years later, an introduction during lunchtime tacos turned into Kara sharing her work on the Open Society Foundations’ Instagram account.

In addition to connecting each other to jobs and editors, WPOW also puts emphasis on helping photographers to better their craft. In a time of social media censoring and “fake news”, ethics in journalism is increasingly important. Organizations like WPOW play a vital role in teaching new photographers ethics and reminding veteran photographers of their role as photojournalists.

Ethics on the day of the march meant showing up as a photographer and not as a marcher, Allison says. “If am documenting what is happening and putting that out there, it’s showing how important this issue is to much of our country.”

From top left: 1. Rosa Plume traveled from San Francisco to take part in the Women’s March on Washington. 2. A march participant holds up a sign with signatures on the back as she marches up 15th street NW, passing the White House. 3. From left, Melissa Breen, Laura Jamison, Sandy Cuza and Kathryn Wehrmann traveled over night on a bus from Illinois to participate in the march. Photos by Becky Harlan/NPR

Since the creation of WPOW, Allison says she has seen an increase in female photographers in D.C., but she also says she hopes the field of photojournalism diversifies beyond gender.

“I want everybody to feel comfortable in the field beacuse we need all of those voices,” Allison says. “We need such a diversity of voices because we are a diverse people.”

A video filmed by Kara Frame and a team at NPR during the inauguration and Women’s March on Washington last week.

Kara and Gabriella echoed this sentiment.

“We strive to create a safe space for not only women journalists, but women journalists of color,” Kara says. “Most newsrooms in the district are primarily white, and I hope during my time with WPOW we continue to evolve in the direction of inclusive events so we can be a forefront of change.”

Gabriella, who comes from a long line of strong, politically engaged women, is up for this challenge. Her grandmother was one of the original female members of the Christian militia in Lebanon who walked the street in pants before it was socially acceptable. Her mother survived the Lebanese Civil War. Now Gabriella is in D.C., adding diversity and vision to the mainstream media. She says in addition to documenting, a photographer’s job is to create dialogue rooted in empathy.

“The greatest stories pull at the heart, and it is through our own individual experiences and willingness to listen that we can tell such stories. That’s why I believe in a photojournalism community that includes photographers of all backgrounds and a ratio where women are equal to men — a community more representative of the world we live in.”

The Women’s March on Washington brought out a diversity of people, including feminist Gloria Steinem (bottom left). Photos by Kate Warren/The New York Times en Español

All photographs and video included in this article were created by members of WPOW. Follow them on Facebook and check out their website for more information about future events and ways to get involved.