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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”