How “Women Photograph” Created a Different Year in Photos

How “Women Photograph” Created a Different Year in Photos

The end of the year brings a deluge of “Best Photos” and “Year in Pictures” compilations from major media outlets and wire services. The predictable rhythm of the galleries (domestic tragedy, international tragedy, tight sports photo, uplifting feature, etc) provides a perennial, highly trafficked page that consumers and publishers crave.

I have been a fan of the format since inception in the early aughts, but as time goes by, I’ve detected a staleness. There are, of course, incredible images being made every day by talented and dedicated photographers, but there’s a visual sameness – a way of seeing – that makes adjacent years indistinguishable from one another (specific events aside).

This is why I was fascinated by Women Photograph’s 2018 Year in Pictures – a compilation photographed and edited by women and non-binary visual storytellers. The collection of images felt qualitatively different to me. It’s not that the individual images were “better,” but I found myself surprised at what I was seeing in a way that I found both challenging and inspiring.

I reached out to Women Photograph Managing Director Mallory Benedict, an editor at National Geographic, to find out more about her approach to editing the year’s collection.

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I’m trying to figure out why this curation of photos stood out for me compared to other “year in photos.” I think the images feature many more women and people of color than most western-based slideshows. I also think the collection exhibits a kind of tenderness – less reliant on graphic death and destruction – but I’m not sure if I’m projecting an imagined femininity. Thoughts on my male perspective?

First of all thank you! And I don’t think you’re wrong. Daniella [Zalcman, Founder of Women Photograph] actually collected and shared data on this via the @womenphotograph twitter account, comparing the representation of men and women in our slideshow compared with that of the Reuters Year in Pictures. Of the 100 Reuters pictures of the year, 15% were taken by women. Of the 87 images in that slideshow that show people, 64% of the photos featured men as the main subject, and women 26% of the time. Looking at the Women Photograph slideshow, out of 86 images with people, men were the subject 29% of the time, and women 62%. So this data really speaks for itself — if you have a more diverse pool of photographers working for you, you’re going to see more diversity in the subject matter and more diversity of people represented in the photographs themselves. We don’t believe women should only cover women’s issues, but this is visual evidence that women are more likely to cover issues related to women and gender than men, which is why it’s so important to include more women and non-binary photographers in our publications.

I don’t think you’re projecting an imagined femininity. I think it’s evident from this group of pictures that women are able to photograph a variety of topics, some at the front lines, and others at the side lines. The femme gaze means many things, I think, but if we’re inherently covering stories we feel a certain closeness or tenderness to, perhaps that manifests itself in the aesthetic of the work. In some of these pictures I see an ease that could only come with the comfort of being photographed by someone who feels familiar, who gets it.

Obviously you were trying to feature women and non-binary photographers, but where there other objectives as you assembled the gallery?

It was interesting to me to go through the images our members submitted. We had an open callout allowing our members to submit 3 images taken in 2018. I was trying to give a scope of all that happened in 2018. I wanted to highlight some of the more publicized issues, and also those that went overlooked, the tiny sadnesses and triumphs of everyday life. This year the world witnessed war and displacement, but it was also a year of enormous resilience, especially for women. It was a year where women continued to speak up for themselves, their rights, and for one another, so I wanted to evoke that feeling through the edit as well. It was also important to me to make sure that there were a variety of perspectives included. 47% of the photographers in the edit identify as people of color, and we have a wide range of nationalities represented here as well.

It’s a massive compilation. How did you go about whittling it down?

We received about 700 photos. I started by just tagging everything I liked instinctually. Once I started comparing photos from similar situations or from the same photographers, I just started cutting it down. When I got closer to the 100 we published, I was looking closely at who the photographer was and what the event or situation they photographed was in the interest of representing a diverse array of situations from a diverse group of photographers. Being a photo editor is challenging, and all the more challenging when you’re curating an edit from such a talented group of people.

I’ve argued before that photo editing is an under-appreciated discipline. What do you think the average photographer and average consumer don’t understand about editing?

Thank you! I agree! I don’t think people really have any idea what a photo editor actually does. I think people probably suspect that we sit around and photoshop pictures all day. I’d like to think I have very good relationships with photographers I work with frequently, as well as photographers with whom I’d like to start working with more. For me this looks like a lot of transparency and communication, and collaboration on a story from its conception to publishing. Still some photographers may not understand that editors are the middle person a lot of times. Trying to meet the expectations of their supervisors and publications, all in an effort to make the photographer succeed. Conversely though, I think editors have a lot to learn from photographers when it comes to doing their jobs. I include myself in this, but as someone who has never worked in a conflict zone and, frankly, as someone who doesn’t have a desire to work in the field right now, I think it’s easy for editors to forget the day-to-day trauma of working photographers. I think editors need to have more empathy and ask more questions.

Now, the average consumer likely has less of an idea of what photo editors do than photographers. I think, once they realize that “photo editor” is actually a profession, I don’t think they realize we craft the visual narrative in a similar way that text editors craft the narrative of words. It’s all storytelling, and it takes many people on a team collaborating to make the best story and product possible. In many ways, I don’t think they realize that someone chose the pictures they see that are flooding their subconscious and making them feel things and ask questions they didn’t know they had.

M Neelika Jayawardane wrote an op-ed for Al Jazeera and made some accusations about western (and by association, white) perpetuation of stereotypes of the African continent. Perhaps most damning was Alice Gabriner’s statement from the NYT’s Lens blog that she hadn’t found “completed bodies of work” that would allow her to say, “this is work I can pick up.” By my count, the Women Photograph’s list only has three images from Africa. Do you have any thoughts as to why there isn’t more work from the continent?

There are 6 images from African photographers, as well as 6 photographers from the African diaspora, and 8 photos taken in Africa in this edit. Still I agree we do not have enough African photographers in our edit here. And the broader issue is a good one to raise. I think the simple answer is that there’s a lack of resources in some places in the world to match those of who have been allowed to dictate what good and bad pictures are and what qualifies as good or bad storytelling. Obviously we’re still seeing the white colonial gaze in stories around the world, yet I think the discussion of de-colonizing the white gaze is happening and healthy. The notion of a “lack of resources” goes deeper than just photography, however. We’re talking about the notion that having more privilege = the right to have a voice, and that needs to be deconstructed.

It’s easy to say an entire continent or country doesn’t have the tools, and therefore doesn’t have a place in the storytelling space. What I hope photo editors are doing more of is doing the work to find photographers in places they don’t work with often enough and start having conversations. Editors have an enormous amount of tools at our disposal and have already been given a microphone, it’s our actual job to make sure the mic is being passed between a diverse group of people, and then to listen to what people say.

We need to push ourselves, our publications, and our industries to be more proactive in reaching out, mentoring, forming relationships and elevating voices who are different from our own. As a white woman photo editor at a prominent publication, I recognize that I have enormous privilege, but with that is a responsibility to change storytelling from the inside out. I also think the “big publications” typically publish work that’s aesthetically homogenized, which doesn’t leave much room to bend outside of traditional photojournalism, traditional ethics, and traditional aesthetics, which I hope changes.

Women Photograph will be focusing our attention on non-western countries in 2019, and really trying to make WP a space for a vastly more international group of photographers.

Many pundits have said that a large issue with representation in photography comes down to the photo editors and DOPs who are assigning the work. Have you seen any appreciable movement on this front?

I have seen movement, even though it feels slower than a lot of us would like. I think this is a pretty substantial paradigm shift for a lot of people in our industry, and it’s going to take time for people to re-wire their brains and form new habits. Nevertheless I think there’s more conversation happening out in the open, whether it be in the workplace, on social media, or in conversations in the photo community, where people are challenging their colleagues to think beyond the photographers and stories they might usually gravitate towards. Unfortunately it’s not going to be perfect every time, but the missteps are an opportunity for constructive criticism and conversation. In the efforts of making our hiring practices more inclusive, we can’t condemn or bully the people who are trying but might make mistakes. Having a conversation about the colonial gaze and inclusive hiring practices is critical. The last thing we need to be is more divided.

Update: We previously identified Mallory Benedict as a co-founder of Women Photograph. She is the Managing Director. We identified Danielle Zalcman as a co-founder, she is the sole founder.

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Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

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