In college and university photo programs, at portfolio reviews and workshops, and at industry networking events, female photographers trying to build their careers report that they have been subject to inappropriate behavior, including coercion for sex, by editors who control photo assignments and by more experienced photographers with industry connections. More women are now discussing harassment openly, naming perpetrators, and calling on industry organizations to do more to confront repeat offenders.
“More and more people are talking, and [harassment] is something that’s increasingly not tolerated. I think it’s a direct result of women in particular having the ability via private social media groups to share stories in what you might call a safe space,” says photographer Melissa Golden. Victims often feel isolated. “If the harasser is in a position of power, it can lead to a lot of shame and fear that [a victim’s] position in the industry might be compromised, their career might be compromised.” But by talking, victims are finding strength in solidarity. For harassers who have been getting away with their behavior for years, Golden says, “maybe this is the end of an era.”
But more work remains to be done. Advocates say it’s up to institutions—universities and workshops, festivals, seminars and other events—to do more to protect women photographers. “They need to have clear and well-broadcast policies for reporting and dealing with sexual harassment,” and assurance “that there will be no retribution for reporting the behavior,” says Golden. She thinks institutions should use outside consultants “to develop these policies and help them get past blind spots and insure fairness and safety.” She recounts that she was at a loss about what to do in 2014 when a photo editor at a high-profile workshop propositioned her on behalf of a legendary photographer who was teaching there. She says she felt “diminished,” and reported the incident only to friends. “You worry that if you rock the boat, it could have an adverse impact on your ability to get hired. Nobody should have to worry about that,” she says. She says of the incident, “I didn’t blame the workshop for it, but I think that incidents like mine could be avoided in the future if sexual harassment policies were clearer.”
The experience helped motivate her to run for president of Women Photojournalists of Washington and advocate for women in the industry. “I think that the offenders need to know they cannot act with impunity any more,” she says. “This is essential if we want to cultivate a healthy population of women in the industry.”
Photographer Amanda Mustard is a board member of Frontline Freelance Register, a cooperative working to support the physical and mental well-being of working journalists. “I’ve heard a ton of stories. Every one just makes me furious. The industry is not doing what it needs to do to create protocols for handling issues of harassment or violence, but then expects women to speak up about it,” she says.
She believes event organizers can do more to protect women from harassment by putting in place clear anti-harassment policies, providing a safe and confidential way for women to report harassment, and sidelining the predators—rather than letting them move quietly to other teaching positions, portfolio reviews or workshops.
“It’s great that there are all these supportive spaces now for women photographers—it’s necessary and it’s great. But we have to be careful not to segregate and perpetuate the echo chamber” of like-minded women sharing stories only with each other. “I understand how problematic naming and shaming could be, but something needs to be done about these predators,” she says.
Women PDN interviewed say the culture of alcohol at photo industry events contributes to the harassment problem. “I believe the heavy use of drinking as a means of self-medicating against the traumas experienced in [photojournalism], combined with the emphasis on drinking at workshops, conferences, festivals, and other educational/professional settings” exposes young and vulnerable photographers to men “who are often emboldened in their behavior” by the alcohol, says independent photo and video editor Andrea Wise.
Four women PDN interviewed said they were young when they were harassed. When they rebuffed unwanted advances, they said, the harassers threatened them, saying they would be labeled troublemakers and lose assignments if they reported the incidents. “There’s no regulation. We [freelancers] don’t have an HR department,” notes Mustard.
Even in organizations with human resources departments, women who see inappropriate behavior go unchecked assume that harassment is something they have to learn to endure. Photo editor Chelsea Matiash says she experienced harassment several times, but didn’t always report it. “The biggest issue for me, and I think for other women, is that you always go through your head to say: What could I have done to give the wrong impression? What did I do to welcome this behavior? Did I dress the wrong way that day? Do I not get to complain about it because every time they made these lewd comments I laughed it off and tried to keep my head down?”
One incident she did report occurred in college. A professor supervising one of her for-credit, university-run internships asked some students out for drinks to celebrate the opening of an exhibition Matiash had worked on. Afterwards, the professor asked Matiash for a ride home. “I was a student, I didn’t want to say no,” she says. The professor was drunk, and he groped her and exposed himself. When she ordered him out of her car, he tried to coax her to his room. Matiash rebuffed him, and says he threatened to report her for drinking on the job if she told anyone what he’d done. She reported him to the department head (rather than the school’s Title IX department). The professor resigned, but was soon teaching at another school nearby. She learned that a member of student government referred to her as the student “who got a teacher fired,” she says.
Matiash later encountered harassment in some of the places she has worked. But as she gained experience, and worked in newsrooms where sexual harassment isn’t tolerated, “I realized that it’s not normal,” she says. “That’s when I started speaking up…I am very lucky that I figured this out, and I just want to let younger women know it’s just not OK.”
“I think that we owe it to ourselves and to the next generation of photographers to put an end to behavior that has been tolerated or ignored from the beginning,” Golden says. The emerging consensus among women now is: Enough is enough.