By Renee Blackstone
Don’t tell Patti Gower, one of Canada’s most respected photojournalists, or Erin Elder, who steered the Globe and Mail’s photo desk as photo editor for 10 years and is now manager of business development in digital media for the paper, or Stefania Seccia, a freshly minted J-school graduate who envisions a National Geo gig at some point in her career, that they can’t shoot as well as men.
Loyalist College’s newest full-time photojournalism facility member Patti Gower (R-seated) is seen in class with some of the 2008 graduating class. Photo by Anne-Marie Jackson
They’ll tell you that gender has as little bearing on a person’s ability to take great photographs as does race or hair colour.
But what they can’t tell you is why there are so few women in the profession.
“I don’t know,” says Elder bluntly. “Maybe it’s more attractive to certain personalities. You have to be aggressive, determined, organized, intelligent, be able to analyze a situation, have great communication skills. You have to have a fairly determined personality in order to succeed in it.”
Gower, an award-winning documentary stills photographer and now a full-time instructor at Loyalist College in Belleville, Ontario, also struggles for an answer.
“I don’t see much difference between men and women when it comes to what they shoot. Guys maybe tend to be more involved in photojournalism and there’s no doubt the profession is dominated by men,” she says.
“This is a generalization – and I hate generalizations — but I would say you have to be fairly strong-willed to survive in this profession. It’s not an easy one. It’s very competitive, your deadlines are always short and quick, and you have to adapt to a lot of different situations. That may be more of a male thing,” says Gower.
Although hard numbers on a national level are nearly impossible to come by, a quick survey of NPAC membership reveals a division that is reflective of photo departments at most major Canadian newspapers. Of NPAC’s 315 members, 257 list themselves as professional shooters. Of those professionals, only 31 are women.
Yet journalism schools are full of women. Kevin Udahl, a photojournalism instructor at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), says his photojournalism major class is equally divided between men and women. And recent Langara College journalism grad Seccia says there are six men and 11 women who finished the two-year program at the Vancouver institution along with her. Newsrooms, too, count far more women among their reporters, editors and managers than they did even 20 years ago.
But it’s a different story for Canadian newspaper photo departments. With very few exceptions, they have been, and continue to be, dominated by men. The Vancouver Sun has seven full-time male photographers and one female, says Photo Assignment Editor Cheryl Shoji who points out that the Sun has made few new hires, and one opening that was posted last year was filled by a woman. The posting drew 130 applications, about a quarter of them from women, says Nicholas Palmer, Senior Editor at the Sun.
Kevin shooting on assignment when he was a staff photographer at the Calgary Sun. Photo by Frank Shufletoski/SAIT
A survey of some of Canada’s biggest papers shows the gender ratio in the photo department at the Vancouver Sun is pretty standard elsewhere. The Edmonton Journal has 11 staffers, only one a woman and she works part-time.
“I don’t think there’s any specific reason why there is only one female,” says Journal Photo Assignment Editor Jennifer Parker. “I suppose fewer women have come knocking on our doors as opposed to the number of men. Also, keep in mind that there are no actual staff photographers being hired these days. Besides our multimedia shooter in 2007, no photographers have been hired at the Journal since our union drive about 10 years ago.”
The situation is similar at the Toronto Sun, where 11 photographers — one a woman — produce the paper’s visuals.
“We had two women on staff until last month, when we went through downsizing,” says Toronto Sun Photo Editor Jim Tomson. “We eliminated her position, which was society photographer.”
The same imbalance exists at the Winnipeg Free Press which has seven staff photographers, only one a woman. And even the Calgary Herald, which has had a more woman-friendly photo desk than most, now has six full-time male photographers (one, to be fair, replacing a female photographer on maternity leave) to one full-time and two part-time female shooters. The Herald’s Chief Photographer Grant Black says he went through the applications for a new hire last fall and “three-to-one were from men. Frankly, the women who applied — the skill set wasn’t there. The top three candidates were all men. We did have one more female photographer but we lost her to the (Vancouver) Sun.”
The only exception seems to be the Globe and Mail, with nine photographers, four of whom are women, and you might think that’s because Elder — a fine arts grad who turned to photography under the mentorship of Peter Bregg at Maclean’s — was in charge of the photo desk until 2008. But she points out that there were few hires during her tenure.
“At the Globe, we’re very cognizant of diversity, but at the end of the day, we want the best people for the job. We’re more evenly weighted now but that’s because we’ve had more recent hires.”
Former Globe and Mail Photo Editor Erin Elder edits pictures during a power outage which struck across Southern Ontario forcing The Globe and Mail staff into makeshift production centre August 15, 2003. Photo by Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
What about those women who are successful photojournalists? Do they have to work harder at what they do? Are they passed over for some assignments, and sent to others because they are women? Do they think there are challenges facing women shooters that men don’t face? Are there advantages to being a woman photojournalist?
Well, yes and no.
Although their answers were as varied as the personalities behind them, the seven women interviewed for this story all agreed on one thing: they love the business and are passionate about it. Some went through journalism school, others got degrees in related fields then learned on the job, while others still were self-taught. Many had mentors — all male, it should be noted — early in their careers, and all feel that, now that they are established, they are treated with professional courtesy and respect by their male colleagues in the business.
Yet for some, being a novice female shooter meant being a target for a bit of male chauvinistic behaviour. Catherine Farquharson, a Toronto-based freelance photographer whose work has had international exposure and acclaim, says that she has never felt shut out of any job because of gender. In fact, when she first began shooting, she saw there were advantages to being a woman.
“I can physically fit into places better than a man. I can slip to the front of the line more easily. I can tuck into places where only a woman might fit. When I was young and green, some of the male photographers would get upset about this and when it came to a photo-op, for example, they would try and block me. Some of them were intimidating and rude. My first reaction was to cower but I learned to deal with it by sitting where they couldn’t. There was an advantage to being smaller than they were. It doesn’t happen any more but I have more confidence now, too. There’s no more flak. I haven’t felt that in a long time.”
“Certainly, I have been treated differently in a cultural context, such as at mosques, where I’m not allowed to enter certain areas simply because I am a woman,” says Yvonne Berg, a Toronto freelancer who counts Maclean’s, The Globe and the Toronto Star among her clients.
“But it also goes the other way. Being a woman, and a petite, non-imposing one at that, comes in very handy when trolling for feature shots. Just the other day, I had to shoot a group of kids playing in a park. I was even hiding behind some trees to get just the right angle and no one said a word to me. When I went to the parents to get IDs, there was no hint of suspicion or apprehension at my motives. Not once have I ever been asked for staff ID by a parent wondering who it is pointing a camera at their kid. I would venture to say that, these days, a guy doing that would be much less successful.”
Seccia, who grew up in a household that always held the latest issue of National Geo, says she recently had a discussion with several male photographers on whether women take different photos than men. “They said yes, their pictures are softer, not so gutsy. I find that kind of thinking ridiculous, stereotypical, when it’s not really true. When you see pictures in National Geo taken by women, they’re just as powerful as those taken by men.”
“Women may have the advantage in some areas, while men have the advantage in others,” says Udahl. “In certain sensitive situations, women may be more able than males to gain the trust of people. Women are generally perceived as less threatening, and therefore they can sometimes gain access to people or areas that men might not. On the other hand, men are generally larger and more aggressive, which can help them gain access in other situations.”
Gower, who didn’t come to photojournalism until her late 20s after abandoning a career as a kinesiologist — she was working at a hospital and decided “I didn’t want to look at four white walls for the rest of my life” — felt the cold breath of gender discrimination when she first began shooting, she says. “In 1991, when the Iraq war was on, I was specifically not sent there because I was a woman. I took it. I was angry in my head, but I didn’t say anything.”
And, yes, there are times when women are at a disadvantage with certain assignments, says Gower. “There are challenges. I did a lot of travel abroad. Now, I’m not 36-24-36. I’m very sporty, I wear jeans and T shirts and even I got cat-called just because I’m a woman. It made me feel uncomfortable. As a woman, it’s also sometimes more difficult to travel alone in other countries. It doesn’t feel good, it’s not pleasant. I look North American, I have white skin. It made me not venture into places where I would have liked to go.”
Kat Arnett, a Vancouver community newspaper freelancer who gave up a “lucrative but soul-sucking” job to pursue her passion for photography, says she has never felt her gender has worked against her with any of the editors she’s worked with or the assignments they’ve given her. But she says she did feel shut out of one opportunity.
“I’m fairly sure that I lost out on an internship to a guy because it was sports related. While my photos were great — not to brag, but they were — I know I didn’t get it because I couldn’t talk shop.”
Still, “it’s a lot more complex than just a division of gender,” says Berg, who originally set out to be a filmmaker before discovering photojournalism.
“There are so many factors that affect what kind of shooters we are: aggressiveness, skill, sensitivity, street smarts, technical knowledge, intuitiveness. These are characteristics that transcend gender. If I’ve been passed over for a particular assignment, I think it would have more to do with lacking a characteristic necessary for that type of job, such as technical knowledge for high-end pro sports, not just because I’m a woman.
“Perhaps I have been passed over for assignments because of gender. Honestly, I don’t really know. But I do know that I have been given specific assignments because of characteristics, let’s say, ‘peculiar to the female gender’. Since my daughter was born, I seem to do a lot of assignments involving kids — which I love doing. When editors choose me for a particular assignment, it’s because I possess certain skills and qualities that they know will help me get the job done well. It all balances out in the end.”
Kim Stallknecht, a Vancouver freelancer, had the happy experience of beginning her career at the High River Times, a rural weekly about 45 minutes from Calgary, where the entire editorial staff was female.
“Woman editor, woman staff writer, woman staff photographer. Who would have thunk? We absolutely had the times of our lives. I was shooting regular essays, writing a column and commuting everywhere.”
Yet even at the Calgary Herald, where Stallknecht applied for, and got, an internship then a full-time job in 1982, “I always, always, always felt at home in the ‘man’s world’. I had many opportunities, including the LA Games in ’84, Olympia, Greece, for the torch lighting, the ’88 Olympics and three years full-time as feature/essays photographer for the Sunday Magazine. We had the best graphics designers in the ’80s. They respected images and gave them pages and pages of real estate. Those were the days.”
(Left) Vancouver freelance photographer Kim Stallknecht shoots alongside Vancouver freelance photographer Darryl Dyck at a CFL game. (Right) Stallknecht poses with the Stanley Cup.
Are there strengths women bring to the job? Are women better at handling some assignments, not others?
“Women aren’t specifically better photographers, but there are advantages,” says Farquharson, who majored in sociology at McGill, taught herself to shoot, then attended journalism school at Ryerson. “There are times when a certain kind of intimacy is required, and I think women do better at this — though there are men who are good at this too. It’s a huge advantage across the board with both male and female subjects. There’s the woman-to-woman trust, and for men, they just feel differently around women, more relaxed and open.”
“Compassion is a great quality to have if you are doing any kind of social documentary work,” says Berg. “Some would argue that most women, by nature, are more compassionate than men. But if you look at the breadth of social documentary work across the globe, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a skew to one gender or the other. Everywhere you look, both women and men are doing social documentary work. So, no, I don’t think women are better at any particular aspects of photojournalism than men. And I certainly don’t think they are weaker at any aspects either. If you see a skew towards males in, say, sports photography, it’s not because women can’t do a good job in sports, I think it’s because they don’t gravitate towards that speciality as much as the guys.”
“I think there are some stories women can do better than men,” Gower insists. “There are stories women can do, places they can go that only women can go. Conversely, there are men who don’t think women can do this job. They’re usually from different cultures. But I find there’s always a way into a story, regardless of your gender,” Gower insists.
“My attitude is that I’m just as good as any male photojournalists. I do not feel intimidated by male photographers. I don’t think women are necessarily better at covering sensitive issues — like stories on a person dying of cancer, sick babies, and so on — but I do think they see the story differently simply because women tend to be more emotional,” says Jenna Hauck, staff photographer for the Chilliwack Progress in Vancouver’s Fraser Valley. “I know women, including myself, who have cried while shooting an assignment.”
Chilliwack Progress staff photographer Jenna Hauck smiles while on the bench during a roller Derby match where she was a guest skater for The Oil City Derby Girls in Sherwood Park, Alberta on May 10, 2008. Photo by Tom Braid/Edmonton Sun
“I don’t think women are better or weaker than men when it comes to photography,” says Seccia, who will begin working as a part-time shooter at Vancouver’s 24 Hours in the next few weeks. “It comes down to the person holding the camera, your experience, what you look for, your skill set, what kind of talent you have. A woman can be just as gutsy as a man. I’ve noticed that women photojournalists in Afghanistan and Iraq are taking the exact same photos as the men.”
Arnett says she’s “amazed at how so many of the ‘tough guy’ photographers seem to brush off assignments that are really heart wrenching.”
“I had one of the hardest days last summer, about five events in a row full of death, dying, tragic stories, cancer,” she says. “The final straw was when I photographed a man in his 20s who had organized a breast-cancer awareness event and was donating his hair to the cause. His mother had cancer and looking through my lens was like being nose to nose with him as he cried. At the end of the event, he came up and hugged me and thanked me for being there. I immediately went back to my car and broke down.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say that women are more emotional, and that’s why photojournalism is so tough for them. After that day, I was almost willing to believe that until a photographer I greatly admire told me that connecting with people is what made me good at my job,” Arnett recalls.
“I think that the photojournalism community for many years has had a ‘tough guy’ policy. While women might be more expressive of their emotions, I’m sure that male photographers are just as broken up when they have tough days. My hope is that the more females come into the industry, the more we can begin to speak openly about these tough assignments.”
Then there’s one of the toughests assignments any woman can have: motherhood, particularly for freelancers.
“I used to think photography was all that mattered. Then I said, ‘Whoa! Calm down. There are other things in life.’ Being a parent changes you for the better, I think, and it affects your photography. It brought about a huge change for me. You’re not the same person, and you expect the rest of the world has changed along with you, but then you realize that’s not the case. Having kids gave me a chance to reassess my life,” says Gower. “If you’re determined to carry on with your career, you can do so. Yvonne Berg is a good example. (After having a child) she’s back into freelance, she’s going full-bore. She’s got a good freelance career going.”
“Having a child certainly has changed my business,” says Berg, who admits to being worried about her career before plunging into mommyhood.
“I took leave of my freelance career for 10 months in 2005-2006 to have my daughter. I was very concerned that it would be the end of my career, which is probably why I waited so long to get pregnant. But it was very important to me to spend that much time with her. I knew it was going to be a long haul getting back to the level I was when I left the market. To my surprise, it worked out better than I could have hoped. I took the opportunity to make a fresh start and ended up with more clients than before. I think a combination of reputation and luck helped make it happen for me.
“I used to be available 24-7 and now it’s more complicated. There’s daycare schedules to consider, meal times, bedtimes, sick days. But I have a very supportive and flexible husband, a very flexible daycare and understanding editors to help it all come together – most days.”
- Renee Blackstone was with The Province newspaper for 20 years before taking a buyout in 2008.