Up Against It

Three ambitious women photojournalists and their struggles for great shots — and greater acceptance

Sierra Bein
Apr 7, 2017 · 10 min read
Photo by Meredith Holbrook

By Sierra Bein

MEREDITH HOLBROOK has a very particular morning routine. Before heading out onto the streets of Jerusalem or nearby Gaza, the freelance photojournalist lays her clothes on her bed and chooses the ones that will best cover her body. Then she puts them on, layer by layer—first, a dark pair of pants, and then a tank top and two baggy shirts. Rather than the red lipstick she used to wear while shooting night clubs and concerts in Vancouver, she applies a shade of nude and a dash of concealer. A backpack and a sturdy pair of boots complete her ensemble.

The idea is to subdue as much of her femininity as possible. In a part of the world where gender equality is still a novel concept, she doesn’t want to risk attracting undue attention. It’s happened to her before—show a little extra skin and, suddenly, she’s the story. “These are things that men don’t have to think about,” says Holbrook. “They don’t have to think about desexualizing themselves.”

For Holbrook, “desexualizing” herself is worth it if it means she gets to tell the kinds of stories that no one else is telling. Today, she’s on assignment for Save a Child’s Heart, an Israeli NGO that gives free heart surgeries to children in need—often including Palestinian kids who feel particularly vulnerable across the border in Israel. The organization, founded in Toronto, also operates in other countries. Today, her subject is a little Tanzanian boy named Juma, who wasn’t expected to survive. But now he’s smiling, giving Holbrook a post-op thumbs-up as she clicks away with her camera and chats with his mother. Had Holbrook been back in the Middle East, this kind of moment with Juma’s mother might not have been granted to a male photojournalist.

As far as Holbrook is concerned, stories with this kind of women’s perspective aren’t being told nearly enough. And no wonder: in September 2015, the Reuters Institute surveyed 1,556 international photojournalists, finding that “professional news photography is dominated by men.” In fact, just 15 percent of respondents in the Reuters survey were women. The 2016 report says that the divide is “almost identical.” Here in Canada, the situation is grimmer. Last year, the News Photographers Association of Canada (NPAC) conducted a survey of its own and found that just 12 percent of Canadian photojournalists identify as female.

And yet, Canadian journalism schools are full of women. The 2015–2016 Ryerson undergraduate journalism class was nearly 75 percent women. At University of King’s College in Halifax, the 2016–2017 photojournalism program was 66 percent. At Belleville, Ontario’s Loyalist College, the photojournalism program has been about 60 percent women for the past few years. “It’s still a topic of conversation,” says Patti Gower, a Loyalist photojournalism professor. “Why do so many women study photojournalism and it doesn’t end up being their primary source of income?”

For one thing, photojournalism has traditionally been considered a macho field. The dearth of women photojournalists means that, for those who are still determined to break into the business, there are fewer mentorship and networking opportunities for fellow women. Compounding the problem is the decline of staff journalism jobs in Canada. “There aren’t that many places for women to insert themselves, because there aren’t that many staff jobs,” says Gower. “I know quite a few women who have left the field.”

More and more young women are going freelance, taking it upon
themselves to get to where the news is happening and then trying to sell their photos after the fact. Nearly five years ago, that’s exactly what Holbrook did. Since then, she says, “I rarely ever see other females, and when you do meet them, they’re hard as fuck. They don’t take shit at all. I think that because you have to deal with so much more than just the job, it can be very, very discouraging because you have to break through this glass ceiling.”

EREZ CROSSING, ISRAEL MARCH 20, 2012 | MEREDITH HOLBROOK: “Many children have surgery before the age of three and then they go periodically to these free clinics. And depending on the relations between Gaza and Israel, sometimes they’ll be permitted into the country, and sometimes they won’t. “I was walking with them to the terminal for them to cross over into Gaza and one of the mothers said, ‘Oh! Why don’t you just come over with us and I’ll cook you dinner tonight,’ like it was the most casual thing ever. One of the things we overlook is that these are people living a life — and why not invite someone over for dinner? Whereas we look at that as a westerner like, ‘That’s so crazy, that’s a war zone, that’s so dangerous,’ that’s their regular life. I’m sure that, if I was a male, that would never have happened. I’m almost very certain that, if I was a guy, then there would be absolutely no way she’d be inviting me over for dinner at her house. These women were probably only a couple years older than me. I guess, for me, taking this picture was like two worlds coming together in a very rare interaction.”

Think about some of the most iconic images of the twentieth century—photos that changed the way people see the world—and chances are they were taken by a male photographer: “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” (Joe Rosenthal), “Napalm Girl” (Nick Ut), “Tank Man” (Stuart Franklin), “The Falling Man” (Richard Drew). Of course, there are exceptions, including Margaret Bourke-White’s haunting photos of Buchenwald concentration camp survivors and Dorothea Lange’s photos taken during The Great Depression. But ultimately, we have largely seen the world through a male gaze. You have only to look to pop culture to see a reflection of this reality: historical action and drama flicks like The Killing Fields, Salvador, The Bang Bang Club, Under Fire, and The Year of Living Dangerously—all focused on intrepid men venturing into danger zones, armed with nothing but a camera and a ton of guts.

Holbrook knew that becoming a photojournalist wouldn’t be easy, not least because she failed photography while attending school in Vancouver. Growing up in Toronto, she was a bit of a tom-boy—the girl who idolized Indiana Jones and always hung out with the “dudes.”

“I love whiskey, I drink beer,” she says. “It separates you from a stereotypical female.”

She got her start as an event photographer, shooting Vancouver’s nightlife and artists like Calvin Harris, Steve Aoki, and Rick Ross. “There were one or two other female photographers, but none of them were doing the downtown clubs in Vancouver,” she says. Holbrook knew she wouldn’t have been given the same access in these clubs had she been a man, and she used that fact to her advantage. “It goes both ways for event photography and when you’re doing news: a lot of people feel more comfortable around women.”

But despite being able to “channel a certain masculinity,” as Holbrook puts it, she has still faced hurdles her male colleagues haven’t. It started when, at just 16 years old, she took her first trip to Israel—while on a guided trip in a touristy area, she narrowly avoided being kidnapped.

Although she now walks past this area regularly, she remembers that day well. “I was walking down this alleyway, taking photos, not really paying attention, and this car pulls up in front of me,” she recalls. “They chased me down the street, and I basically just jumped into the crowd.” For years, she didn’t tell anyone about the incident, afraid that they would blame her for putting herself in danger.

Once, Holbrook encountered a woman reporting who, while returning from an assignment in Africa, had put her video camera in her checked baggage rather than taking it with her on-board. Her camera was stolen—along with everything she’d shot while travelling on assignment. She arrived at her publication in Israel with no material. “You know there’s so much more emphasis on the fact you’re a female,” says Holbrook. “Obviously she shouldn’t have done that. But again, it becomes this representation of everyone, of all females, like, ‘Ah well, maybe she’s on her period.’”

“It takes a lot to break that barrier,” she adds.

Amber Bracken, a freelancer and the current president of NPAC, wonders if there are so few women in the business partly due to what she calls the “confidence gap.”

“There’s sort of that social conditioning, where guys are more likely to have a little more bravado,” she says. “So even though they might be feeling the same things the women are feeling, they act like they have it totally figured out.”

This bravado can be particularly daunting for young women who may not have any mentors to turn to for that boost of confidence. “It’s just little things,” Bracken continues. “Some guy assumes that he knows what I’m doing and whether it’s good or not. I’ve come far enough now to where I can be like, ‘Screw you, bud.’ I’m over it, but there was a time where I would have been like, ‘Am I doing something wrong?’”

Holbrook knows the feeling. “I will definitely say that there are some cases that, as a female, you do get treated as a kid, like you don’t know any better.”

KIEV, UKRAINE, JANUARY 26, 2014 | MARTA IWANEK: “It was so long ago … The protest was getting more heated and people were getting angrier, but it still hadn’t reached a critical clashing point. But you could tell that things were getting worse. So there was a sense of uneasiness, of course. But you just try to work around that and gauge the crowds and keep yourself as safe as possible.” Usually, clashes happened at night, and although Iwanek interacted with a lot of men, she says she noticed many women taking pictures of the protest. “I’ve always tried to make sure I was with people. I was with other photojournalists, Ukrainian ones who knew the area a lot better than me, so I made sure to take cues from them. It’s always safer to be with more people in situations like that. “I think that, in those situations, everyone feels danger.”

For women who choose to pursue a career in photojournalism, there are fewer routes to full-time, stable work than ever before, and fewer mentors to teach them how to make it in today’s freelance-driven market. But for many women, freelance is still a career option that allows them creative freedom and the ability to carve their own space in the industry.

Marta Iwanek graduated from Loyalist College’s photojournalism program in 2013 after finishing Ryerson’s journalism program in 2012. She’s completed multiple internships, including at the Toronto Star, the Waterloo Region Record, and the Canadian Press. She also spent a summer on contract at the Star after one of her many trips to Ukraine. “I was the only female photographer working at the paper,” says Iwanek. She was replacing Tara Walton, who was on mat-leave at the time. “And I remember sometimes I would show up to an assignment and a reporter would be looking for the photographer, and then they’d realize it was me. And they’d be like, ‘Oh! Usually I’m looking for a man.’ It wasn’t like they weren’t supportive or anything — it’s just what they were used to.”

For Iwanek, a full-time position never appealed to her. Newsrooms have been cutting staff positions for years, and more cuts are coming — which means that there’s no more ladder to climb from internship to permanent staff.

In 2011, the International Women’s Media Foundation published the “Global Report on the Status of Women in the News Media.” Among the 522 companies surveyed, women represented just a third of full-time journalists and only 23 percent of illustrators, designers, and photographers.

The lack of regular gigs means many young photojournalists are turning to freelance—a world that is more competitive than ever before. “There are a lot of freelancers out there,” says Ron Hartwell, who recently took a buyout from the National Post after 12 years as photo editor. “Even among the freelancers we use, there are very few women.”

Iwanek remembers standing in her kitchen after her Waterloo Record internship ended, wondering, “What do I do now?”

Her answer: Apply for a few grants and then catch a plane to her family’s native Ukraine. Ukraine is still a patriarchal country, which means she got a lot of questions: “Where’s your man? How are you not travelling with a man?” She ended up working with Lana Šlezić, an award-winning photographer and filmmaker. Iwanek later shot the 2013 protests of the Euromaidan shortly before she was due to fly home. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t leave,’” she says. So she stayed for three months, selling her photos and videos to Maclean’s, Maisonneuve, and CTV. Last year, her work, “The Maidan,” published in Maisonneuve, helped her win two National Magazine Awards, for best new magazine photographer and best photojournalism essay.

“I think it’s great to support female photographers and to highlight them and the stories that they do tell because, as a unique photographer, you’re attracted to unique things that are unique to you,” says Iwanek.

Peter Bregg, her former Ryerson professor, lauds Iwanek for being a role model for other young photographers. “There aren’t that many jobs available for staff people. Newspapers would rather hire freelancers,” says Bregg. “Marta is in the best position.”

Bracken was the last woman photojournalist on staff at the Edmonton
before she was laid o in 2014. “What I learned in two months at the Sun was probably worth two years in school,” she says. In hindsight, she says, the layoff was probably good timing—she was ready to be a freelancer. Between working on personal projects with Indigenous youth in her home province of Alberta, she now shoots for Maclean’s, the Canadian Press, and BuzzFeed, among others. In a Maclean’s spread published this past summer, she portrayed Fort McMurray evacuees and the objects they took with them in the wake of the massive forest fire that devastated the community.

“As a journalist, when things are going down, you want to be there,” she says. “It was also really amazing to talk to all the evacuees and figure out a different way to tell that story.”

EDMONTON, MAY 31, 2013 | AMBER BRACKEN: “The fight picture’s really good, too. There’s literally blood flying everywhere. And they’re both coated in it, like all over their bodies, and their sports bras, and their faces. It’s every- where. But I like this because it captures a moment of her regrouping. I chose this image because
I really like the quiet reflection of it; it’s like that mental regrouping after she just, like, poured out everything. She poured everything on the floor and, for just a moment, she’s alone in her thoughts. Even her trainer’s looking at the other fighter. I like that idea of mental resolve. She’s tough, obviously, she’s physically tough, but she’s mentally really tough, too. “I, personally, was inspired by the visual — seeing a woman kick ass so fast. The visuals of that are so dramatic. Blood flying everywhere, it’s very untraditionally feminine, a really badass presentation. I like quiet moments, and I like something that feels like it reflects some part of the human experience and some part of that person … something universal that we can all relate to.”

Visual storytelling is a tough gig, so much of it is about whom you know. This is why photographers like Bracken, Holbrook, and Iwanek have turned to the internet and social media to get their work in front of otherwise inaccessible photo editors and forge connections with other women photographers. There are over 5,500 members in the invite-only “Riot Grrrls in Journalism” Facebook group. The discussion board is filled with questions about everything from buying the best cameras to finding specific sources to persuading editors to create a gender beat. There have even been discussions about how to carry heavy photo equipment properly and how to quickly recover from a gear-related injury.

Riot Grrrls is just one of the unofficial mentoring and support groups that have cropped up to help women photojournalists get their work into mainstream publications. Whenever Iwanek is back in Toronto, she tries to meet with a group of fellow women photojournalists to swap stories, help one another with grant applications, and help edit each other’s photos. When Iwanek returned to Toronto from working on a project in Poland and was scrambling to get ready for a New York Times portfolio review the following day, two other girls helped her edit, “and I was like, thank God I have you,” Iwanek says.

Slowly, she’s seeing more women photographers, and her network is expanding. “You can see change—it’s just going to take time,” she says. Meanwhile, editors should be urging the process along; they stand to gain just as much as the photographers do. “Everyone can benefit from having a diversity of perspectives, whether you’re hiring someone in the newsroom or hiring for assignment,” says Iwanek. “Everyone needs to see what their piece of the pie is and how they can bring gender parity to the industry.”

Sierra Bein is a Ryerson Journalism School 2017 graduate and has had bylines appear at The Eyeopener, RRJ, VICE, VICE news, Thump, and The Plaid Zebra. Follow her on Twitter or contact her on her personal website.

Ryerson Review of Journalism

The Ryerson Review of Journalism is an award-winning magazine that twice a year casts an unflinching look at the practice of journalism in Canada. It is produced by final-year students in the magazine stream at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism in Toronto, Canada.

    Sierra Bein

    Written by

    Ryerson Review of Journalism

    The Ryerson Review of Journalism is an award-winning magazine that twice a year casts an unflinching look at the practice of journalism in Canada. It is produced by final-year students in the magazine stream at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism in Toronto, Canada.

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