Breaking Barriers: Women in Photography

Mellow guitar chops, sounds of change clanging, and laughter: a Calgary’s Starbucks hasn’t changed its daily playlist, which satisfies those who escape their offices to find inspiration over a hot cup of coffee.

A photography intern Della Rollins was sipping her Americano and watching a woman flipping through the pages of a Calgary Herald. Rollins quit her public relations job before she went on a year-trip and she didn’t have to escape her office anymore. No more high heels and crazy hours, she thought, continuing to watch the woman.

Suddenly, the woman stopped flipping through and looked at a page with a man with a bike. Rollins heard her heartbeat: the photo was her first publication. This is amazing, she thought gazing around the shop. All these people looking at my picture!

Since then Rollins has been freelancing for the Globe and Male, National Post, and Maclean’s. Work, life, and travel were finally balanced. However, the dream job had its own challenges. Rollins realized it was not only precarious but also not women-friendly.

Photo by Sveta Soloveva

At Ryerson’s journalism conference on April 6th, Rollins and three other female photographers (Meredith Holbrook, Sarah Palmer, and Laurence Butet-Roch) discussed the key problems women face in photojournalism and gave some advices on surviving as a freelancer in Canada.

Last year World Press Photo conducted an online-survey of 1,991 photographers that showed that the field remains persistently male-dominated — 85% — despite recent photo-grads being more than 50% female. According to the News Photographers Associations of Canada (NPAC), only 12% of Canadian photojournalists are women.

“There is a lot of talented men,” said Rollins. “But women are winning awards like Photojournalist of the Year… They do brilliant work. So when you hiring, they should be on top of mind.”

There are not many networking opportunities for women in photojournalism, and, once they are are included, they tend to be assigned to cover exclusively women-oriented issues and events like the Women’s March.

Meanwhile, women’s voices are an integral part of diversity, said Butet-Roch, who has been photographing the indigenous Attawapiskat communities for seven years.

“Our journalism is just going to be better if we have more diverse voices,” she said. “Giving people the opportunity to report on what they want and not just assign the woman issue to a woman photographer or Indigenous issue to an Indigenous photographer. A woman Indigenous photographer being assigned a story on football would be wonderful.”

Freelancing is a job with no guarantees. But today, when the institutions primarily hire men, it seems to be the best career option for a female photojournalist.

“You have to really hustle,” said Holbrook, who has been photographing Palestinian Territories and Israel for The Jerusalem Post and working on different projects with National Geographic. “There are so many things you wanna do and other people won’t do. And you have to keep going and show people that you are still around, even if they are not answering. There are so many freelancers out there. You have to really show why you are different than anyone else.”

All the participants of the panel agreed on the positive sides of freelance jobs, such as choosing their schedule and subjects they are passionate about.

Butet-Roch, who used to be a stuff-photographer for four years in France, said she quit the job because she couldn’t get in-depth photography experience sitting “behind the desk.”

“There were […] stories that I felt I was missing out [on],” she said. “I wanted to be a freelancer and take time to actually get to know the story.”

Currently working on Virtual Aamjiwnaang, an interactive storytelling platform befitting Indigenous practices at Ryerson, Butet-Roch said that she is happy with her decision.

Rolliins, the contributing photo-editor at Maclean’s, said freelancing allows her to travel and work at her own pace. “Freelancing is a blessing that I didn’t expect,” she said.

The photographers shared some techniques that helped them to succeed in freelancing. One of the advices was building multiple skills in photography, videography, and writing “to have the door open” and be able to tell the story in different ways. However, it’s important to focus on one area.

“Have all kind of skills but specialize in one,” said Rollins who also writes. “They want you to do a little bit of everything. But if you are too spread out and not great in one thing, it’s hard to be hired for that one thing.”

A graduate from the Ryerson’s photography program, Palmer, who just got a grant for her project Drunk on Trump, suggested that freelancers keep their websites “light and clean,” featuring photos that represent only topics of their specialization.

Holbrook added that each photo should “speak to the audience” through its description. She also highlighted the importance of social media, saying that many photographers and organizations get connected to each other through Instagram. “It’s [Instagram] is a realistic way of branding yourself,” she said.

Having real photojournalism friends is effective for exchanging skills and, sometimes, equipment. “Find your small group of photo or journalism people who are constantly pushing you and teaching you,” said Rollins. One way to build that network is to attend photo conferences. One of them will be organized by News Photographers Association in the first week of May. All photographers will have a chance to review their work with photo editors from the Globe and Mail, National Post, and Maclean’s.

The discussion ended on a positive note inspiring freelance women photographers to keep following their passion. “As a photographer or journalist, you already have that type of skills that people are attracted to,” said Holbrook. “There’s something important, something that drives you into this area, so hopefully someone will pick up on that.”

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