A few weeks ago, Daniel Sircar and Justin Cook asked men in the photojournalism community to sign a public letter asking for better policies and procedures to prevent assault, harassment, and discrimination in our industry. The letter was signed by over 400 men (and a few women). PDN’s editors reached out to them to write about why they started the petition. This is their response, directed to the men in the photojournalism industry.
Many of us woke up on January 29 to see Vox report that yet another high-ranking professional in our photo industry had been accused of using his position to harass and demean women at workshops, conferences, and industry events.
It’s no secret that this sort of thing has happened in our industry for a long time. We have lionized certain photographers, editors, and figures — but some of those cherished figures routinely discriminate, harass, demean, and abuse women and minorities.
Let’s be clear: This is unethical and wrong. It’s also against the law.
The behavior described in Vox’s reporting has to change. But the problem isn’t just that a few high-profile men in photojournalism use industry events as their personal dating grounds. It’s that our culture is broken. From journalism schools, to workshops, to newsrooms, we still don’t do enough to give everyone a fair shot. The status quo in our workplaces and professional events doesn’t adequately protect our female and minority colleagues. We’ve all had a part in this problem even if we don’t immediately recognize the ways. We all need to be part of the solution. That’s why we started this petition.
For every man we celebrate and also shield from the effects of his misdeeds, there’s a woman who’s left the industry because of all the harassment and undermining they’ve faced. This isn’t a hypothetical. We know women who have. They’ve given up their dreams. They’ve given up on their careers. Their mental health suffers. Who knows how many important stories have gone untold because they’ve left the industry. The total loss from this toxic culture is incalculable.
Our hypocrisy is also maddening. Journalists cannot speak truth to power if we aren’t truthful to ourselves. We cannot comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable if we continue to afflict our colleagues. We’re supposed to be professional listeners, but half of us aren’t listening to the other. Our mission is rendered empty.
A healthy journalism industry requires it being safer and more equitable for its women and minority professionals. The public we serve deserves it. Why? Because our public is diverse, and we need talented professionals with diverse backgrounds and experiences to tell the complex stories of our times. An informed democracy depends on it.
We aren’t the first to say this. Women have been leading publicly and privately on this for years. They’ve helped draft anti-harassment policies for workshops. They’ve proposed ways to handle reports with due process, with trained professionals and legal experts. They’ve developed college curriculums to emphasize and celebrate women and minority photographers. They’ve created platforms for women and minorities to get hired based on the merit of their work, not on whether they flirt with their workshop coach or stroke the ego of powerful gatekeepers. The women in our industry just want one simple thing: to be taken seriously.
Men need to act now, too. It’s easy to agree that our industry should be safer and more equitable for everyone, but we too need to put in the work to get it there.
The letter we asked men in photojournalism to sign asks for three simple things:
1. We want organizations to put out public statements condemning harassment and discrimination.
2. We want organizations to publicly state what they’re doing to ensure a safe environment for their upcoming events.
3. We want organizations to ban people who make their events unsafe.
These should not be controversial requests; they are the bare minimum. They won’t change the industry overnight, but it is important to start somewhere. The culture, laws and corporate policies in our industry that allow predators to remain unchecked need to change, and that will take time.
For far too long we’ve heard horror stories from our women colleagues about this toxic culture, and we’ve seen its other effects first-hand.
I, Daniel, have heard story after story from my friends in the industry about how they’d been screamed at behind closed doors, do all of the work on a project and have a man take all of the credit, or get propositioned for oral sex when all they wanted to do was take a business meeting. When I keep hearing similar stories over and over again, it’s hard to say they’re isolated incidents. Women experience the photojournalism industry completely differently than I do. And what they experience is awful.
And I, Justin, went to The Eddie Adams Workshop in 2007, and while I have fond memories of my time there, I also remember it as workshop drenched in alcohol and unchecked egos. My team leader was talented, but acted like he could get away with anything. While I never witnessed or experienced sexual harassment or assault, women have since made me see that experience as part of the same culture that fosters harassment and abuse. So when I read about the recent allegations in Vox, I was saddened, but not surprised that some of the incidents allegedly took place at EAW.
We need preeminent organizations like EAW to lead by example. We need more than just lip service to sexual harassment on workshop websites — we need them to urgently communicate that they care about this problem and what steps they are taking to prevent it. Instead of being hush-hush, we need our leading institutions to handle this problem publicly and transparently because sunshine is the best disinfectant even for our own industry. And if any workshop can’t ensure a safe environment for participants, not attending or even boycotting it is a reasonable response.
In our day-to-day lives, we must listen to what women have been showing and telling us for a long, long time now. We must reflect on our own behavior. We men have less to lose than our women colleagues. So we need to stop being afraid, and wield our privilege for change. From our workshops to our workplaces, from our daily assignments to our daily lives, we must discourage predatory behavior and stop it when we see it. We must police each other. We must get uncomfortable.
Some critics may say that the men who need to sign this petition won’t. We hear you, and that completely misses the point. Some predators will sign the petition because they want to continue to hide in plain sight. Others still are comfortable in their power and won’t bother to push for reforms. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t.
Others might ask “why does the letter ask for only men to sign?” We are trying to call men in, not just call men out. Our women colleagues are better suited at calling out predators on their own terms, in their own time because those are their stories to tell. But we’d like to identify the men who want to work with each other, and with women on solutions. The people who signed the petition want to volunteer for and donate to existing efforts and groups. They want to find new ways to talk about what is happening. We want to have those conversations and do our part, while not taking over the floor and elbowing out the women doing the work.
Some of us think it’s just a few bad apples, and not as bad as women say it is. Let’s start by recognizing that these abusers are not just bad apples, but are just one symptom of a larger toxic culture that our industry enables, that affects us men too. We especially need the older generation of photographers to see this, hear the complaints of a younger generation and stand with us.
Others think it’s a problem, want to speak up, but are afraid of saying the wrong thing. This can feel discouraging. Learning a new vocabulary and way of seeing things may seem intimidating. And we might be afraid that if we look too closely at our own behavior, we will see our blind spots and failings and need to make uncomfortable restitutions. But this paralysis only perpetuates the status quo. We will make mistakes as we work together to make things right. This work will not be easy, but the discomfort is worth it. It’s the beginning of real change.
Daniel Sircar & Justin Cook
Daniel and Justin would like to thank all the women who encouraged us to write this letter, helped us edit it and shared their stories with us.
You can read the petition here: An Open Letter Against Sexual Harassment in the Photo Industry.