More Women Accuse Photo Editor Patrick Witty of Inappropriate Behavior

February 1, 2018

By David Walker and Holly Stuart Hughes

Patrick Witty.

Photo editor Patrick Witty, who was allegedly fired December 15 from National Geographic for sexual harassment, is facing two new claims of harassment this week. Photographer Sofia Jaramillo has told PDN she reported Witty to a member of the Eddie Adams Workshop faculty for an incident of harassment that occurred at the workshop in the fall of 2015. Photographer Jenny Dupuis accused Witty of harassing her at the Western Kentucky University Mountain Workshops, also in fall 2015. DuPuis reported her claims in an essay she posted on Medium.

Both photographers decided to talk publicly after Vox reported on Monday (January 29) that National Geographic quietly fired Witty in December following a two-month investigation into sexual harassment allegations. The specifics of those allegations are unknown. An award-winning journalist, Witty was International Photo Editor at TIME from 2010 to 2014, and was director of photography at WIRED from 2014 until shortly before the incidents reported by Jaramillo and Dupuis took place. He joined National Geographic as deputy photo editor in January 2016.

Dupuis, Jaramillo and two other women quoted in the Vox article describe incidents they felt were “inappropriate,” “uncomfortable,” “gross” and “wrong.” As students and freelance photographers, they felt they could not speak out or rebuff an award-winning, well connected photo editor. “In that situation he knew he had the upper hand, because I’m in a position where I didn’t want to make him upset, “says Jaramillo, who had graduated from college only seven months before she attended Eddie Adams Workshop, where Witty was her coach. “It doesn’t really matter the level of sexual harassment. What matters is the context in which it happens, if there’s a power imbalance.”

According to Vox, National Geographic’s human resources department began investigating allegations against Witty in mid-October, 2017. Vox also reported that several unnamed National Geographic employees added pressure to the investigation after Witty’s name appeared on “Shitty Media Men,” an anonymously sourced list of alleged perpetrators of sexual misconduct in the media industry.

A.J. Chavar, who wrote the Vox report, said he based his story on conversations with “more than 20 people” who experienced or witnessed Witty’s inappropriate behavior, or who were told of the details at the time the behavior occurred. Only two—Andrea Wise and Emilie Richardson—spoke to Chavar on the record, recounting contacts with Witty they considered inappropriate. Chavar reported that several of his sources told him that Witty threatened their careers when they rebuffed his advances.

Witty: “Shocked and dismayed” 

In response to the Vox article, Witty issued a statement through his attorney that began: “I’m deeply sorry that some of my past behavior has been hurtful to women.” Witty stated he had never committed “sexual aggression.” “I also strongly deny ever insinuating that I would give someone professional help – or withhold it – on condition of sexual favors or romantic interest. I’ve never been accused of wrongdoing of any kind in the workplace, so I was shocked and dismayed when I first learned of the accusations against me.” He added, “But I’ve also come to realize that my perception of a situation and someone else’s may not always align. In many otherwise innocent interactions I may have underestimated the power of my position.”

News of Witty’s firing from National Geographic broke after contributing photographers received a “Dear all” memo from Rachel Webber, executive vice president of digital, and National Geographic editor Susan Goldberg. The memo began, “We’re writing to let you know that Patrick Witty ha[s] left National Geographic Partners.” It provided no further explanation for his departure. Witty also made no mention of his reason for leaving when he posted a “Farewell, @natgeo!” on his Instagram feed January 3.

Memo from National Geographic to contributors, sent December 15.

In January, PDN contacted several National Geographic photo editors, including National Geographic director of photography Sarah Leen, who had hired Witty. All referred questions to National Geographic spokesperson Laura Nichols. Nichols responded: “Regarding Patrick, I can only confirm he has left the company.”

Other employers deny hearing any reports of harassment about Witty. Mountain Workshops executive director James Kenney told PDN in a statement he “did not receive any complaints during or after the workshop” that Witty participated in as a coach in 2011. TIME magazine has issued a statement saying: “We do not have a record of any complaints of inappropriate conduct made against this former employee.”

But women who have now come forward to report incidents of harassment say they felt too fearful to report Witty’s behavior at the time those incidents occurred.

“It felt really gross and totally inappropriate but what could I do?”

Photographers Emilie Richardson and Andrea Wise both described their encounters with Witty to Vox. They’ve also provided additional details and perspective to PDN.

Richardson detailed her 2014 encounter in a letter she sent to a lawyer who was investigating Witty on behalf of an unnamed National Geographic employee. She declined to name the employee or the law firm, and it is unclear what that employee’s involvement may have been in National Geographic’s internal investigation of Witty.

But Richardson sent the letter to the lawyer December 14—the day before National Geographic fired him. She wrote that she met Witty at a co-worker’s birthday party and that he introduced himself as a photo editor for TIME Magazine. “He began flirting with me, speaking uncomfortably close to me, and touching me,” Richardson wrote. “He also placed his body in a position where I was pinned against a wall. I tried to move away from him, but he kept moving closer to me. I told him that I was just beginning my career as a freelance photographer. He then told me that he ‘loved mentoring young female photographers.’ I responded, ‘Well then why don’t you hire more of them?’…

“Mr. Witty then became visibly angry and aggressive. He screamed, ‘Maybe I would if the women could shoot as well as James Nachtwey’…Mr. Witty continued, ‘Some people matter in the industry, like me, and some people don’t, like you,’ and stated that he had slept with many women in the industry, and I was not ‘special.’ He then screamed that ‘you’ll never work for TIME Magazine. I’ll make sure you don’t!’ He even took out a pad of paper and asked for my full name, so that he could write it down and ban me from working in the industry. Mr. Witty’s tirade was aggressive and scary, my friend thought it was best we left at that time.”

That friend told PDN he saw Richardson in an altercation with Witty, and that he hustled her away from Witty and out of the bar to protect her.

Freelance photographer and photo editor Andrea Wise also told PDN (and Vox) about an uncomfortable encounter she had with Witty in April 2017, at The New York Times Lens blog portfolio review. Witty was at the event as a portfolio reviewer. When Wise was passing him on a stairwell, she recounted to Vox, “He grabs me around the waist and plants a big wet kiss on my cheek. I’m stunned. Totally mortified.”

Wise told her partner and friends about the incident, but didn’t report it to the organizers of the event. In recounting the story to PDN, she said: “It felt really gross and totally inappropriate but what could I do? I was there to show my work and try to make a good impression that would hopefully lead to more work. I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize that.”

She says, “Even though my allegation is considerably less damaging to him than what others have alleged, I’m one of only two people who were named [in the Vox story] and I’m afraid of being a target for retribution.”

Workshop student: “I couldn’t say what I really wanted to say, which is: ‘That’s not ok.’”

The Vox story motivated Jaramillo and DuPuis to go public with their stories, too.

Jaramillo, who spoke anonymously to Vox, told PDN that Witty was her coach during the 2015 Eddie Adams Workshop. At a party following a late-night editing session, he sat near her on a couch, then after a few minutes of conversation, “he scooted uncomfortably close to me and got uncomfortably close to my face and said, ‘You know you’re really beautiful right?’  He didn’t kiss me but it felt like he wanted me to kiss him or flirt with him back.”

Jaramillo says she respected Witty and adds, “I felt lucky to work with him during the workshop. It made me feel that I couldn’t say what I really wanted to say, which is: ‘That’s not ok.’” She walked away. She also reported the encounter that evening to other attendees. At least one woman photographer told Jaramillo she had had an uncomfortable encounter with Witty. A male photographer, however, said, ‘I can’t believe you have to go through this. This is just a fun workshop for us,’” Jaramillo recounts. “It just pissed me off. “

After she returned to Washington State, she talked about the incident with some women mentors. “They were like: No, that’s not ok, no one can make excuses for that.” She reached out to a member of the EAW faculty who was “a trusted role model.” The faculty member told Jaramillo she would report the incident to the organizers, and Jaramillo asked at that time to remain anonymous.

The EAW faculty member told PDN (and Vox) on condition of anonymity that she shared with the organizers reports from a total of three women of incidents of “creepy” behavior by Witty at the 2015 workshop. She did not provide details, however.

EAW organizers Alyssa Adams and Mirjam Evers have not responded to repeated requests for comment. An EAW board member has confirmed to PDN that EAW received complaints about Witty in 2015, and has not invited him back to teach at the workshop as a result. Jaramillo says she’s “thankful” to EAW “that they listened to me” and took action after her complaint.

(National Geographic director of photography Sarah Leen, who was on the EAW board of directors in 2015 and hired Witty at National Geographic, declined to talk to PDN about the allegations against Witty.)

Jennifer Dupuis: “That shame won’t go away.”

For her part, Dupuis posted on Medium January 29 about her “#MeToo moment” with Witty. She wrote that she attended the 2015 Western Kentucky University Mountain Workshops in Frankfort, Kentucky, several months after she graduated from college. Witty was attending the video workshop as a student. He introduced himself to Dupuis at the start of the workshop, and described his work history at The New York Times, TIME and WIRED. DuPuis writes, “I remember thinking, wow, someone of this caliber is actually talking to me.” At an after-party when the workshop sessions ended, Dupuis wrote on Medium, “I remember him getting too close to talk and inviting me, with a sense of suggestiveness, to his hotel room…I started to feel a strong sense of discomfort.”

Dupuis tried to quietly retreat to her hotel room. She writes, “Then he tried to follow me up to my room. Twice. The second time I made it to the elevator without him noticing. After pushing the up button, I had to abort mission because he found me again and tried to convince me further. Thankfully, the friends I made helped me get to my room unseen on the third attempt. Though the situation ended in my favor, I still felt wrong.”

The next day Witty notified her via Facebook that he wanted to connect. She replied, and they had a short, polite back-and-forth conversation. In retrospect, Dupuis wrote, “I never forgot how dirty I felt typing back to him…However, at that time, I didn’t want to lose an important contact. I didn’t want to risk damage.”

With her Medium post, Dupuis included a screen grab of the conversation she had with Witty, and said she’s embarrassed and ashamed by it. Every time she’s looked at it, she wrote, “I’ve been ashamed with how I handled myself—like a little girl not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings.” She adds, “Unfortunately, that shame won’t go away.”

She told PDN that she had put the incident out of her mind until the #MeToo movement made her reexamine it. “Through whisper networks I heard that other women had experiences with [Witty] and I thought that maybe I was repressing this,” she says. She didn’t contact Chavar when she learned he was writing for Vox about Witty. “I didn’t think my story was strong enough, and I didn’t want to take any chances” that talking publicly might hurt her career. But the Vox article “brought up emotions in me, and I wanted to write it all down.”

She notes, “These stories need to be told no matter how miniscule, and we just need to keep talking about them.”

Jaramillo believes the issue is not the scale of the harassment, but the imbalance of position and power between Witty and women like her. “I think that’s something that we need to focus on: ‘Was I put in an unfair position?’ and not ‘Was this that big of a deal?’” She says of Witty, “He didn’t kiss me, he didn’t jump on me, but it was the context where it happened that made it wrong. And I hope that’s something men will pay attention to going forward.”

Dupuis believes more people in the industry are paying attention. “I see some changes happening, and it’s really gives me a lot of hope.” That hope, she says, is “that workshop organizers, college boards and event organizers will take great care in selecting their staff and making it mandatory for the chosen persons to sign a no-tolerance contract along with their agreements. Even the participants. We, as an industry, need to take action to do better.”


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