Barred From Studying Photojournalism Because of My Gender Didn’t Stop Me to Pursue My Dream

I grew up cornered by closed borders in a city on permanent lockdown and that was “home” to me. I rarely saw the surrounding concrete walls opening up, but when they did my hardworking middle class single mother was there taking a photo of it. Whenever we would be fortunate to travel around she would take her camera with her, creating her own photo biography.

It automatically registered in my mind, the events you don’t document, never happened and history will remember it as such.

The ongoing siege on Gaza wasn’t on the top of my list to worry about as a young woman growing up in the city. However, the older I get, the longer the list of forbidden taboos I’ve to deal with. The dos and don’ts started to get heavier and the more dreams I explore the conservative side of the culture began to weigh me down.

In a class of 50 kids, I didn’t pick and choose between wanting to be a doctor and a teacher — it had always been photojournalist, until I wrote that word on my University application and saw the resentment on the admission worker’s face.

Photo by Eman Mohammed.

In so many words she told me I can’t be a photojournalist, starting with my high score that magically became a problem and ending with how much shame I’ll bring to my family by doing a “man’s job”.

It was just presumed that women were banned from specific jobs and photojournalism was one of them. I chose to quit being the low key, playing by the rules sort of student and choose my battles, being able to transfer the surroundings of my home, the occasional wars and the unseen mental injuries through the aftermath.

The argument to be a photojournalist grew within me like fire, but unlike foreign photographers’ situations, I was the local who could be the messenger for all the surviving storytellers or what we refer to as “story subject”, as my male colleagues in the field promised.

I failed in studying photojournalism, I was barred from having the opportunity based on my gender and I had to switch lanes and become a self taught photographer. That’s when Google became my best friend and my camera experiments became more regular.

Photo by Eman Mohammed.

While the hardship of becoming a woman photojournalist in Gaza seemed to be growing, the actual local people on the ground were the most understanding to the nature of my work, after all I was translating their everyday struggle into photographs.


Within the first couple of years of my career, I learned how to listen so carefully, give proper attention to the storytellers I’ve met and be quiet until I’m unnoticeable.

I disobeyed the traditions but showed respect to those who believed in it, until the heavy bombing on the city made me realize that my first big story as a photographer is going to be the war on home.

Photo by Eman Mohammed.

In war photojournalism, the various rules are constantly changing as some might save your life and others might cause the death of others. Being around civilians with a camera could possibly put them in more danger if the camera was viewed as a possible threat.

My confusion while covering my first war wasn’t focused on the bloodshed scene I was photographing, but also the family I was leaving behind. Not knowing if I’ll be going back home to dust and ashes.

Even though I worked with some of the best international photo editors, none were able to advise me on how to balance this job. The harsh taboos still categorized me as a “rebel” where all I wanted is to do my job, which I wasn’t better or worse at because I’m a woman but I had more access because of the same taboos that seemed to call to limit me.

Photo by Eman Mohammed.


More unseen stories were coming to the surface within my conservative community. I didn’t seek shelter in civilians’ houses, yet those were the places I was asked to come in to in hope that I’ll deliver their story to the public. My message wasn’t much different than my colleagues, but the delivery was.

Till one rainy morning during the first Gaza war back in 2008 and 2009, while I was wandering in the Northern areas of Gaza strip, a colleague of mine offered “peace”.

He expressed how it’s not any one person’s call to “allow” me to be a photojournalist but it’s more of the common norm in our society. We seemed like we began a new chapter as colleagues and so I asked if I may join the group while moving in the North. He smiled warmly and nodded yes.

I got into the armed jeep with three other local photojournalists I knew. We drove for few minutes before the expected airstrikes resumed. As we parked aside everyone got out including me.

However, the scene wasn’t anything I’m used to. The dust covered everything within my sight and the whistling sound was getting louder. I finally realized the airstrike was targeting our location so I ran towards the jeep as the rest did but as I arrived late, the passenger side door was closed.

I knocked to get it open but my “big brother” sort of colleague looked at me as he shut his door and said: “I don’t have time for you.”

Within seconds, the jeep took off and I drowned into confusion. The airstrike continued so I decided to take the only option and walk through the back allies hoping I’ll make it alive.

A few hours later, as I reunited with other photographers at a nearby hospital, I learnt this was a lesson for me to never cross the line with my male colleagues. Ten years later I must admit it was a successful lesson but not in the way it was intended, despite being a local.

Only that day that I found the answers to several questions I’ve often wondered about, specifically why would photojournalism be a man’s job? Well, it’s not. Why can’t women cover war zones? That’s a myth.

Lastly, why was I abandoned by my own people amid airstrikes just for being a woman photographer? It doesn’t even matter.

On the first day of the war, I remember thinking to myself, I’ll cover it for a week then go back home. When I became my own team I shifted the focus from my personal surroundings and put it on what counts the most and that’s the history being made moment by moment, in war zones.

Photojournalists, men and women, don’t heal wounds and don’t fix what’s broken but they do their job of delivering the truthful story as it is and those stories that inspired my unwelcome pretense in the male dominated field could only be found in the darkest corners of the city.

Women’s perseverance isn’t unheard of, and the resilience of war survivors and victims is also a well known quality spread among those who are affected. So if anything, the unpaved paths women journalists and photographers have to take often make us realize the common grounds we have with these regions and establish a better stage for the news we deliver to be heard, seen and felt.

Eman Mohammed is an award winning photojournalist and TED fellow, currently based in Washington DC. She is a Palestinian refugee, born in Saudi Arabia and educated in Gaza City,Palestine where she started her photojournalism career at the age of 19. Her work was published in The Guardian, Le Monde, VICE, Washington post, Geo International, Mother Jones, and Haartez. You can follow her work on Twitter, Facebook and her website.

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Never Underestimate the Power of Emotions in Journalism

I cried in my first job interview. ‘Can you list three reasons why we should give you this position?’ asked two of the editors I’d interned for over six months previously – two women with bright vintage jumpers and symmetrically winged eyeliner – two women so intimidatingly funny and cool that I used to stutter when they called my name; who I was so desperate to impress that I would rewrite three-word-long email responses eight or nine times in the hope that they might seem witty enough to make them laugh. I was applying to be junior writer at a teenage girls’ magazine, and I’d worn a Justin Bieber t-shirt underneath an H&M blazer to show just how enthusiastic I was. Still, I clarified it in my response, just in case. ‘I’m really enthusiastic,’ I said. And then my brain blanked, and my eyes welled up with panic, and I started to cry. Enthusiastically.

It’s been five full time jobs and seven years since that interview, and these days I’ve learned a few – <a few> – things. I’ve accepted that winged eyeliner, symmetrical or not, will fall off my face two seconds after application wherever I am in the world – and that bright vintage jumpers just take up unjustifiable proportions of space when you’re living out of a backpack for six months at a time. I’ve discovered that when men stare at you – whether while reporting from a brothel in Bangladesh, or standing in a boardroom in Bermondsey, the last thing they’re expecting is for you to stare back. I’ve proved that no matter what anyone tells you, you don’t have to remain pigeon-holed in one small sector of the industry for the duration of your career – that writing about Justin Bieber (and wearing his facial features on your chest) doesn’t mean that three years, or five years, or ten years later you can’t write about human rights, or gender politics, or Iraq. I’ve discovered that even if and when you do start writing about human rights, and gender politics, and Iraq, you can still write about Justin Bieber. And I’ve realised that while crying in interviews may not be ideal, emotions in journalism are often under-estimated, just like women.

Corinne_Redfern_Frontline

Photograph by Francesco Brembati.

There’s a pressure in this world, of frontline reporting and international freelancing, to not only protect your skin, but to also armour yourself from within. When I started out, I thought sensitivity was synonymous with weakness, and that my feelings were my failings. If you’re working primarily with men – be they journalists, or photographers, or fixers – and they’re more established and acknowledged than you, it’s easy to try to follow suit and embody their behaviours. Their approach to storytelling must be the default way to go, I thought. Their attitude to chasing stories must be mimicked and mastered. I wish someone had told me earlier that they’re often wrong; that the way women are raised to empathise is a strength that we can use to our advantage – that relating to the people we interview can draw out stronger stories, and enable us to recount their histories with humanity and care. That’s not to say that many men aren’t capable of the same – but when women are outnumbered, the qualities we’ve practiced and perfected are easily overlooked.

As a freelance international journalist specialising in women’s issues around the world, I see a lot of trauma, and I hear a lot of tragedy. In Iraq, a nine-year-old recounted running home from school on the last day of term, excited to tell her parents she’d received the highest grade in her year. She was five metres out of the gates when she heard an explosion behind her. When she turned around, her classroom had disappeared; the playground red with the blood of her best friends. In Benin, a mother of 10 listed all the ways she’d tried and failed to kill herself: one method after another after another. ‘And I’ll try again later,’ she said, as I stood up to leave. In Sri Lanka, a woman told me how her husband would assault her and lock her outside, naked – so that she’d be too embarrassed to run away or ask for help. Bound to stay in the shadows by her own shame, she would curl up in a ball in the dirt and pray through the night for death to come. Sometimes, I’m a witness to their pain as well as an earpiece to their experiences. While working on a story in brothels in Bangladesh, I sat with a 15 year old girl and held her hand as she had an abortion – the blood seeping through her knickers and onto the floor as she cried for her mum.

It’s true that you can’t take all these stories on. I’m lucky – I don’t lie awake at night, reliving what I’ve seen and heard. Boundaries are important, and so far, I’ve been able to maintain mine – you’re not there to cry too. After all, the story is never about you.

But it is about <someone>. When people share their stories, they’re sharing a small part of themselves – often for the first time in their lives, and often – by dint of our industry – about the worst thing they’ve ever been through. We’re all working under time constraints, but while rushing a case study along or jumping straight for that pullquote might appear editorially efficient, it’s invariably damaging and generally unkind. Typing this up seems like I’m spelling out the obvious, but I’ve lost count of the number of times when I’ve been working alongside a male journalist who has interrupted an abuse survivor or trauma victim mid-flow – his irritation clear as he clarifies dates that don’t appear to add up, or brusquely questions the order of her narrative. One time, I even saw one yawn and roll his eyes. Our subject saw him too.

And empathy swings two ways. To ignore or repress emotions evoked by another’s experiences is to do them a disservice – be those emotions yours or theirs. As a female freelancer working thousands of miles away from the editors I’m filing to, I’m offered little or no psychological support for the environments I’m placed in and the stresses I’m working under. Tight deadlines and limited budgets mean I jump from one story to the next; barely finding time to unpack my bag, let alone my feelings. But I need to get better at that: because taking the time to process what I’ve seen and heard benefits my work, and benefits my mind, too.

Journalism is a male-dominated world, and as such it’s one that continues to teach both genders to feel shame should we embrace our emotions and allow ourselves to feel. One Iraq-based evening’s attempt at decompression was recently marred when a man remarked – with discernable derision – of another female writer who ‘looked like she was about to cry’ after four days on the frontline. When I once recounted a particularly grim day’s work in Bangladesh over WhatsApp, I received a lengthy message from a friend back home, questioning whether I was ‘too thin-skinned’ to sustain this career. And when one of my colleagues, a brilliant photojournalist with a decade’s experience – a woman who I count myself privileged to work with – broke down on our way home after a particularly long day of working with teenage trafficking victims, she felt the need to apologise, again and again. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I never normally let it get to me.’ But the photos she took that day are beautiful. They’re sensitive, and they’re full of feeling. When I watched her work, she did so carefully and kindly. And when we talked about that day’s events later – with wry laughter and warm whisky and wet eyes, we didn’t pretend it hadn’t been horrible to see.

I got that job, by the way. My editors were women empathetic enough to know that while tears might be a sign of inexperience, emotions are a strength, not a weakness. Whether recruiting from behind a desk, or reporting in the field, it would serve us all well to remember that.

Corinne Redfern is a multi-award winning freelance international journalist with a decade’s experience specialising in women’s rights and human interest stories from around the world. In the last year she’s filed from four continents, including the epicentre of the Zika outbreak in Brazil, the frontlines of the Mosul offensive in Iraq, and the decks of a particularly unstable boat in a waterlogged district of Benin. As the former Features Director for Marie Claire magazine, she’s also written for the Guardian, Telegraph, Sunday Times, Stylist, Grazia and ELLE among many others.

Currently working on a longterm project in brothels across Bangladesh, she’s given up trying to plan her life more than two months in advance – but also can’t seem to stop Google Image searching pictures of the Philippines. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram and corinneelizabethredfern.com.

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From the Midwest to the Middle East

Alex_Kay_PotterI knew I wanted to be a photojournalist after organic chemistry lab my Sophomore year of university, soon after being accepted to the nursing program. What I was studying at the time seemed so intangible and unrelated to what I set out to do – what use did I have for building mini-models or charts of the immune response pathway, and what did that have to do with how much I cared about other people? I’d always been one for discovery and adventure, but also one for reconciliation and building bridges.

While I loved traveling to new places, learning new languages and about other cultures, I cared just as much about fixing a fight between family members or being there for a friend who was down. Photojournalism to me, through the eyes of photographers I looked up to like Jonas Bendikson, Alex Webb, Lindsey Addario, Ron Haviv, Ed Ou, Carolyn Drake, and Susan Meiselas, seemed like the perfect career, a combination of the forces that drove me.

After I graduated in 2011, the photo industry wasn’t in great shape. So I finished my degree in nursing, as the daughter of a practical farming family in the Midwest should, and proceeded to do almost nothing with it. I was stubborn, I wanted to be a photojournalist, so I moved to the Middle East. This is the first quality I believe all photojournalists, but women in particular, should possess – a drive that manifests as stubbornness to drown out the critical voices saying that it’s impossible to achieve what you set out to do (however ambiguously the criticism is disguised).

Obstacles aren’t always in the form of colleague criticism or editor rejection: financial struggles are one thing the photo industry rarely talks about: how to make it in this media climate, not being able to photograph only what you enjoy, having to take commercial or other assignments to pay the bills. Photography is increasingly a career for the privileged: and while there are increasingly more grants, it is difficult to not have a “side hustle”and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. Many people teach, hold workshops, edit others’ portfolios, or do commercial work to supplement what they love to do. In the last year I’ve gravitated back towards nursing in between assignments. And I don’t think photojournalists should feel bad about having to do something outside just photography – if anything, it supplements your reporting.

The last thing I feel like photojournalists need, maybe because I’m feeling it now, is to know when to take a breath. You can’t always be producing work, you grow in the in-between times (some advice I really needed at the time from Diana Markosian. When you’ve hit your limit physically or emotionally, your work suffers. Taking time, giving yourself space, not pushing at full speed for years on end – this will help develop your storytelling voice in the long run. It took me this year to learn that.

Alex Potter is a photographer and journalist from the Midwest working mostly in the Middle East. Her work explores conflict and trust, loss and isolation within communities and relationships. Alex aims to bridge the gap between the foreign and familiar by creating thought-provoking and emotional images. Potter recently received the Pulitzer Center’s grant to return to the Middle East to photograph families whose lives have been disrupted by ongoing conflict. Her work has been published in The New York TimesHarper’s,and The Washington Post, among others, has done work recently in Yemen that focuses on Yemeni civilians and identity during instability and fighting. You can follow her on Twitter and her website to stay updated on her work.

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Overcoming the Challenges of Being a Woman in Journalism Abroad

I’ve started as a professional photojournalist in Egypt. Indeed, in 2012 I had the opportunity to have an internship at the local newspaper Egypt Independent just out of school and only one year after the Egyptian Revolution. I couldn’t wish for a better opportunity.

Nevertheless, I was terrified to live in that area as a 24-year-old single, young woman with no concrete experience in the field. I’ve followed the Arab Spring thoroughly and what struck me from the events in Cairo was the sexual assault on Lara Logan, a correspondent for the American network CBS.  

In the wake of this assault, other cases came out in the news, describing it like one of the many problems of Egypt: sexual harassment on women. Doing my best to mask that notion, I did my best to overcome my anxiety and started my first day of work on at the same time of the first anniversary of the revolution on January 25, 2012.

Of course, I wasn’t alone. I was accompanied by male photographers. I knew that mass sexual assault mainly happened in crowded places, but as a photojournalist I couldn’t avoid the gathering of Tahrir Square. Two colleagues protected me from the crowd, but I could still feel hands groping me below the waist once I started to take pictures in the square.

Immediately I turned back to see who it was, but it was impossible to know who it was in the turmoil and crowds. My first day as a professional, it was very frustrating and scary. I couldn’t imagine myself working in those conditions everyday. On that day, I was lucky. It didn’t go further than “just” hands on my behind. I’ve lived and worked in Egypt for two years and half since that day. I faced situations of sexual harassment, but it never went further than touching but that itself is something already serious.

In Cairo, I’ve learned to react and never stay quiet when it happens. So did my other female friends. Some say that Egyptian men react like that to dissuade women to go down the streets and protest. Others say that it’s a social problem linked to financial issues and the frustration of men not able to get married. In Egyptian culture, it is not seen positively to have sexual relations before being wed.

I don’t know why we try to find an excuses. It’s a crime that should be punished immediately. I’ve learned to find solutions to this issue: be careful and direct in my reaction whether I am Egypt or any country. Women are typically seen as more vulnerable just because we’re doing work mainly surrounded by men, especially in a conflict zone.

What I want to say out of this testimony is that even if we feel weaker and more vulnerable, there are ways to be stronger. We should never give up and let it go. Each time a man touched me in the crowd or touched a friend, I would always scream and defend myself. We need to show all men that we are not weak prey. They will never dissuade me to do my work. This strength brought me to where I am now.

I did not let my frustration from January 25th overcome me. As the time passes, I realize that being a female photojournalist has many advantages. For example, we have more access to the intimacy of a family being a woman. A man alone would struggle to photograph the daily life of a Muslim family if the husband is not at home. For this access, I feel relief to be a woman and never wish to be a man for the work I’m doing.

Our vulnerability, we can make something about it, either by ourselves or by raising awareness around us. But the access we have as women, men can’t do anything about it and maybe this is why I feel that a story realize by a woman will always have something more intimate with more emotions than the same story made by a man.

If you look at Stéphanie Sinclair’s work, “Too Young to be Wed,” would a man be able to do the same? Same with Brenda Anne Kenneally’s work, I don’t think it will communicate the same emotions if a man was given the same task.

I’m Virginie Nguyen Hoang. I am 30 years old and I’ve been a professional photojournalist since 2012.

Virginie is as photojournalist currently based in Brussels. She studied journalism at IHECS (Brussels) as well as training in photojournalism at the Danish School of Media and Journalism (Denmark). She has previously worked for the French news agency Wostok Press, the Studio Hanslucas and became the co-founder of the Collectif HUMA. From January 2012  she settled in Egypt as a freelancer for local newspapers Egypt Independent and Mada masr. She’s received the Nikon Press Award Benelux in 2012. You can follow her work on Facebook.

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Branding Your Unique Perspective

Trishna Patel

Photo by: @Sifuentes (Instagram)

When I saw the editor’s reply to my pitch, I could feel a tiny knot form in my stomach. The anticipation, however, was short-lived. Another “No, thank you.”

But I’d expected this. Not because searching for an old winemaker in Saint Emilion or retracing my father’s ancestry in Dar Es Salaam wouldn’t make for an incredible story, but because my experiences didn’t fit the “editorial mold”.

Traditionally, travel articles published in major publications serve as a step-by-step guide, oftentimes providing the reader with a fool-proof, risk-free experience. In other words, a reader must be able to retrace your exact steps and (if they so chose) mirror your recommended itinerary.

But therein lied the problem, or perhaps the opportunity I was searching for. My adventures have always been fueled by my desire to immerse myself in different cultures and get hopelessly lost in translation. The uncertainty of mustering up the courage to share a drink with locals or wandering off the beaten path is what inspires me as a journalist.

French Adventure Trishna Patel

Photo by: @trishlist (Instagram)

In sharing my travels, I found that people wanted to hear less about the names of hotels and restaurants but actually craved stories about the colorful personalities and surprises I’d encountered along the way.

I’d connected with an audience that had an appetite for aspirational content; stories and photographs that would not ostracize people because they were unique to one person; but would entertain, inspire, and resonate with others, particularly women.

My perspective had value.

Truly believing those four words was a turning point for me. I realized that what I said, how I said it, and why, mattered more than a byline; that I could also inform and engage with fellow-travelers independent from a publication.

Writers often ask how I got started in freelance travel writing. Though, there’s no one way to do it, here are 3 general takeaways based on my experience:

  1. Develop a unique narrative: Social media branding is to editorial as entrepreneurship is to society. It is the great equalizer. You’re not the Creative Director at Conde Nast? Or a travel editor at National Geographic? That’s okay. What matters is committing to your own discernible identity, voice, and aesthetic.
  2. Refine and repeat: The best in this business aren’t those who travel the most, but those that are original in their storytelling. Believe it or not, I was assigned a project simply because of my disdain for avocado toast (and the hipster sham that it is).

Own your authentic point of view, whatever that may be, and share it with the world. Be consistent, take notice of what’s working and who’s responding. Then do it again. And again.

  1. Never blow out anyone’s candle to make yours brighter.”Early on in my career, I was given an opportunity that I believe would’ve changed my life, only to have it taken away by an editor. The politics behind the situation left me feeling helpless and I began to compare myself with other colleagues, most of whom were women that I cared for and respected.

I quickly learned that drawing comparisons is unproductive, unattractive and irrelevant, especially given the capricious nature of our industry. Social media may make it easier to have “FOMO” but it’s also created an infinite space to share what makes each of us extraordinary.

So let go of what you can’t control, work hard, and find what lights your candle because there’s room for all of us to shine.

Trishna Patel is a cultural curator and photographer specializing in travel and the human experience. A former Los Angeles Times video journalist, she now works as a branding expert– writing and crafting social narratives for some of the travel industry’s biggest brands. She is also the Founder of @She_Only_Lives_Once, a travel brand empowering women to explore solo in pursuit of adventure and self-discovery.S.O.L.O.’s contributor program, combined with her personal blog, The Trishlist and both their social platforms, connects a network of 20K+ travelers, storytellers, and tourism insiders from around the world. Keep up with Trishna’s latest exploits on Instagram @trishlist and @she_only_lives_once.

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Get Paid What You’re Worth: Disrupting a Broken Industry

As journalists, we are not supposed to talk about our political affiliations, religious beliefs, share any strong personal opinions. These are the rules. These rules have emerged since the U.S. positioned itself as a global beacon of free press for the rest of the world to envy.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, few people envy American journalists these days. The president of the United States openly, regularly attacks the press. He also makes sexist remarks about women and pursues anti-immigrant policies.

In a world where the government is not ensuring equal pay for men and women as they do in other countries and the newsrooms struggle to stay afloat, why are the U.S. journalists not fighting for their rights?

I was born in the Soviet Union, in an environment that could hardly called conducive to activism, confronting the status quo or even embracing ideals of outspoken feminism. But somewhere along the way in my career as a female financial journalist, I began to notice things.

My newsroom experience and the stories I was telling my friends were not the same as my male colleagues’.  My starting salary was not the same as theirs, and this was true across continents and newsrooms. After years in the industry, I knew I was still not paid the same for doing the same work. It was an institutional pay gap.

Then I realized this experience was not limited to me.

The Wall Street Journal reporters are still waiting for a response to their March 28 letter demanding equality in the workplace. The latest independent analysis found that “a significant gender pay gap in every location, in every quarter, and within the largest job single category: reporter.”

The Wall Street Journal journalists are not alone either. The pay gap between male and female journalists in the U.S. evolved somewhat since the 1970s, but then all progress pretty much froze around the 1990s when women’s salaries stayed at 80-85 percent of male journalists’ salaries. A recent Poynter survey found the news business is also unfair to journalists with children.

The women at the top news organizations who bring us the stories of the rich and famous, the financial scandals and inequality gaps are consistently underpaid themselves. At Dow Jones, women with up to 10 years of years of experience are paid six percent less on average than male journalists with up to five years of experience. Seems fair, right?

This is an industry-wide problem, not limited to one organization or media establishment. Once you start looking, examples are everywhere: the pay gap, who gets promoted to the most senior roles, whose voices are heard and whose are overlooked.

Surely there has been some progress. And many of these challenges are not limited to women: minorities, both men and women, face tremendous obstacles that should not be compared or contrasted. What’s important is to recognize them and not to pretend that we as a global society, as humans on Earth, are “over it”. We are not.

We still have a lot of work beyond the pay gap: we have to learn how to promote and support women in the workplace, how to cover stories like rape that don’t blame survivors, how to allow women to thrive at the highest levels of their organizations, how to quote and incorporate more female voices in stories and cultivate these new sources rather than turn to a handful of trusted “guys” over and over again.

This is not rocket science: all it takes is being aware and taking the time to educate, inspire others, start doing something.

For me it meant launching a media platform that is dedicated to women as news consumers, a platform that puts female readers first and focus on stories they are most interested in. I launched ellaletter.com with the hope of featuring more female voices, welcoming female journalists and offering a platform for more nuanced, smart storytelling. My goal is to recruit the best female (and male) reporters and offer them a competitive market salary they deserve.

What’s important is not to stay complacent or choose the safe, comfortable option in a corporate environment. It’s always more comfortable not to rock the boat, speak up or buckle down and negotiate a higher salary.

As a woman, a journalist and a first-generation immigrant whose family came to the United States in the late 1990s, I see Trump era as a particular kind of triple threat: to women, to the freedom of speech and to a new generation of immigrants and their families eager to enter the United States in pursuit of better opportunities. The initial outrage after 2016 election has subsided and hasn’t translated into consistent political activism or more women running for office.

With the democratic institutions and the news industry fighting their own battles for survival, nobody is going to fight for equal pay on our behalf. We can no longer afford to accept anything that makes us feel uncomfortable or unfair as “normal”.

It may make take a serious conversation with your boss or a job change. Or, in countries like Iceland, it took a legislative decision requiring companies to prove men and women are paid the same.

Silence, complacency or hoping for the best are no longer enough.

Daria Solovieva is a Russian-American journalist based in Dubai. She is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and has written for leading publications around the world, including the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Fast Company, USA Today, International Business Times, and Bloomberg News. She was featured as Achieving Business Woman of 2017 in Entrepreneur Middle East magazine in May. You can follow Solovieva on Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn to stay updated on her work.

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How a Network of Females in the Journalism Community Helps Me Do My Job Better

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my time in the journalism community and if I have what it takes to hang on. It’s a tough time to be a journalist for all the obvious reasons — ad sales declining, cutbacks in newsrooms, and of course our president’s never-ending hatred of everything we do. But I realize it’s also an important time to be a journalist. Now, more than ever, finding the truth matters. I mean, it really matters. The work we produce, what we uncover, will impact the way this country moves forward. The problem, though, at least for me, is finding a way to wade through all the mud, all the gook that is the bad pay and unsustainable lifestyle, while still doing important work.

I’ve come to a conclusion: I can do this if I have people to lean on. Sure, I have family and friends that are always going to be there for me. But that’s not the kind of support I am talking about. I am talking about having support from other people in this industry who will go to bat for you. I’ve found that group of people — all of them young women like myself — and with their advice and guidance, I can produce my very best journalism. And it’s a mutual support, of course. We all promote each other’s work on social media. We talk about things like navigating delicate sourcing relationships and dealing with unbearable bosses. Most importantly, though, we can talk about things that no one else likes to talk about in the newsroom. We talk about things like unfair freelance contracts and how to negotiate them, misogyny in the workplace, and making sure our voices are heard in editor meetings.

I think one of the most important things for women in this industry to be talking about, especially women in my generation, is the fact that many of us are continuously overlooked for staff positions. I can’t tell you how many times outlets have passed by my application and hired a man either my age or slightly older who has less experience and less education. What this has taught me: Middle East conflict reporting is a man’s game. I think any woman out there working in this field will tell you that they have to work harder and longer than their male colleagues in order to prove themselves to their bosses. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Women have done this since the age of time in America. But it seems like we are in a time in history, especially in the journalism industry, where women, no matter how well we do are work, can’t get ahead. We continuously find ourselves running up against a brick wall and falling back sometimes to jobs we held when we were just out of school. (I’ve thought about applying to unpaid internships and I am 28).

To all my ladies in the industry out there, know this: There will always, always be men that are threatened by what you are doing. Sometimes that manifests itself in really destructive ways like them trolling you on social media. Other times they will call you out on live TV or treat you inappropriately on the ground in far flung places like Iraq or Afghanistan. It is always better to stand up for yourself and fight back, no matter what other people say. In the end, your reputation and your work is in your own hands. You have to claim your own future. Speaking up and back at those who treat you poorly or speak to you in either sexist or degrading ways is important. Even if those people are your superiors.

The other thing my comrades and I talk about is freelance contracts and negotiating with intimidating individuals. What we’ve come to vocalize on our many many conversations is that both women and men to stand up to their superiors and ask for what they deserve. This includes asking for proper protection and payment. I know not only freelancers but also staffers that have to continuously beg their publications for funds for simple things like drivers and fixers in Iraq and Afghanistan. I remember one time when I was working in Turkey, I had an editor tell me that I “didn’t deserve the perks that people at the New York Times get” because I hadn’t yet proved myself. I had asked this editor for funds to pay for things like fixers and translators while I was covering the battle against ISIS in Syria from Turkey. The email I received my editor was long and filled with reasons why I didn’t deserve protection. I’ve kept this email and periodically look back at it for inspiration.

I’ve gotten better at negotiating freelance contracts. But honestly, it gets exhausting. I’m tired. I’m tired of continuously having to ask editors to pay me the standard day rate. I’m tired of having to tell my editors that I won’t go into the line of fire unless they give me proper protection. Why do we always have to ask for things that should be considered standard? I’ve started saying “no” to publications that offer laughable payment terms. I’ve started telling editors that their demands are unrealistic. I’ve come to understand that keeping peace of mind by saying “no”, even if that means I don’t make as much money that month, is worth it.

Lastly, I talked with my female support “sisters” as I like to call them, about the need for more people in the journalism industry to talk about mental health, especially those that reporting in conflict zones. I’ve dealt with a lot of health issues in my times reporting in the Middle East, some of which I have written about on Narratively. I’ve also been diagnosed with PTSD and had to deal with that. I think these are issues that a lot of people don’t feel comfortable talking about. There needs to be more discussion about the issues, especially mental health struggles, that both men and women face working in this field. I overcame these issues by simply relying on my family and friends, and a really good psychologist!  

I don’t claim to have everything figured out in this at times crazed journalism industry. I still struggle day to day in thinking about whether all the bad gooky stuff I mentioned above is worth it. On bad days I’ll reach out on our group’s WhatsApp thread and vent. And other days I think back to the beginning of my career as a campus editor at The Daily Cardinal at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was a full-time job. And it is where I learned how to be a reporter. It was fun. We put out a paper every day. We stayed some nights until 11 p.m., drinking skunked beer and copy editing with red colored pencils.  We did serious reporting, too. We broke stories the state papers didn’t even have on their radar. I need to remember that fun. I need to remember that despite all the BS that we have to deal with, our stories can end presidencies. That is a power, and privilege, that should be protected and nurtured.

Erin Banco is a Middle East reporter whose first book is Pipe Dreams: The Squandering of Iraq’s Oil Wealth, which will be published by Columbia Global Reports in November 2017. Banco has been covering armed conflict and human rights violations in the Middle East for six years. She covered the revolts in the region and the war in Syria. After graduating from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, she was a fellow at The New York Times and then the Middle East correspondent for International Business Times, breaking stories on the rise of the Islamic State group and on the Free Syrian Army arms program. Banco also traveled to Gaza to cover the war with Israel in the summer of 2014. More recently, Banco began covering the Islamic State group’s economy by tracking illicit oil sales in Turkey and Iraq. You can follow Banco for more of her work on her website and on Twitter at @ErinBanco.

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French Female Pioneer is My Role Model in Journalism

My role model is a woman that died 67 years ago.

First French war correspondent and investigative journalist Andree Viollis started her career during the first World War, she traveled to Afghanistan in the 20’s and extensively to Indochina to expose the dark side of the French colonization. She covered the war in Ireland, the Spanish civil war and World War II.  What an incredibly adventurous life. She was well-known and respected. Always the first to interview the powerful leaders of Europe. As famous then was Albert Londres, who is a myth for all young French journalists.

Two years before dying at 80 years old, Viollis was still travelling to South Africa to write stories about segregation there. She even planned to cover at 80, the war in Korea that had just began. She was a mother and a practicing journalist throughout her lifetime, even when quite old! This is everything we are told that is not quite possible when you are a woman. Sadly, very few people remember her and her name is almost completely forgotten.

And in good old paternalistic France, that’s very unfortunate. Young French female journalists need to know her. Working in dangerous zones or being a war journalist for a woman is, in fact,  an old story, “not something we should always prove we are entitled or competent enough for…”

I wish I heard about her earlier in my career, especially ten years ago. I was working for a French production house where the boss was openly discriminating women. “No females on the frontline,” he used to say. Younger and less experienced male staff would be sent to the best assignments from Ivory Coast to the West bank. I stayed and struggled for three years because it was still an exciting organization to work in and the team was wonderful. Also, because I was a young and stupid, I suppose.

Eventually, in 2007 I won a prestigious award known as the Albert Londres prize for a documentary about the murder of a French NGO employees in Sri Lanka. I then left the production company.

As a freelancer, I never again was openly exposed to this kind of discrimination. The downside to that is the insecurity that comes with being independent.

The lesson I’ve learned in my career so far is to find a new employer when you are told, “this is not a story for women.”

Anne Poiret is a filmmaker and investigative broadcast journalist based in Paris. In 2007 she won the prestigious Albert Londres Prize in France for her film shot in Sri Lanka “Muttur: a Crime Against Humanitarians”. Her work with Welcome to Refugeestan (2016) on refugee camps all over the world was selected in European documentary festivals. Her latest film, The Envoy: Inside Syria Peace Negotiations focuses on the work of Staffan de Mistura, the UN Special Envoy for Syria. Stay updated on Anne and her work on Twitter @Annepoiret.

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How Comics Empowered Me

I read a lot of comic books when I was a kid and it’s fair to say that they influenced my decision to become a journalist.

Lois Lane and Clark Kent have a lot to answer for. I might be in mid-thirties but I still have my trusty worn-out Superman sweatshirt I curl up into after spending intense days either working on investigations or sharing remarkable stories in ways that will make them interesting to a global audience. My job as a journalist at the BBC is a varied one and everywhere I go, I pop a pen and a notepad into my bag – because you just never know when a story is going to unfold in front of you. It’s a lesson I picked up at an early age thanks to roving reporter Lois Lane.

I wish I had her fashion sense but for now, I’m just pleased that she helped me find a career that I quite enjoy.

It’s not to say I didn’t have other female journalist heroes. Much like Donatello, Raphael, Leonardo and Michelangelo from the TV series the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – I too was a little bit in awe of “determined TV news reporter” April O’Neil. She was always getting up to adventures and helping them out. Surely that’s what being a reporter was about? These were strong women and I admired them.

Elizabeth Wakefield in the Sweet Valley High book series, Lynda Day in the British children’s television series Press Gang; these were accessible role models whose love of journalism and telling stories and being powerful female figures were all influential as I hit my teenage years.

I moved on and started devouring newspapers and books. I loved Mary Wollstonecraft’s writing. I was lucky that I wasn’t a shy adolescent – at least when it came to being curious about the world. In everything else, I felt like I was on the fringes of whatever “normality” was. But if there was anything to do with storytelling in whatever medium then I’d put myself forward. Work as a children’s bookseller? Yes please. Help set up a youth magazine for my borough so people my age can tell our stories? Of course.

When I got older, my local paper asked me to write a column about what life was like for a girl from a working class background to study English Language and Literature at the hallowed halls of Oxford University. It was there I saw first-hand how if I was to succeed in a highly competitive environment, I needed chutzpah. I needed to take ownership of my writing and believe in my capabilities. I also soon realised I needed to learn the art of networking – something incredibly key for any journalist to be good at. It’s through our networks we find out opportunities, are able to help each other, and get our stories the exposure they deserve.

What drives me is telling a good story. I began my career in local newspapers where I would go to court, inquests, carry out death knocks, write features, columns and learn how to make people accountable to the community around them. It was the best training any journalist could have. I then worked for an independent production company specialising in human rights stories – Insight News Television – where the documentary makers instilled in me an importance of remaining passionate about the story and the difference one journalist can make to the lives of so many others just by giving them space and a platform to share their experiences.

And then I ended up at the BBC, where I’ve been for the past nine years. I’ve worked in a variety of departments, on youth programmes, investigations, the website, World Service radio, digital newsgathering, the business unit and partnership projects. I’ve won awards and worked with the best in the industry – people whom I am in awe of everyday. I am a digital storytelling specialist and I’m glad I’ve moved across departments and allowed my passion for finding ways to stories in creative ways to drive my ambitions. One day I’ll be a verificationista – debunking fake news and investigating emerging breaking news stories; the next I’ll be figuring out the best way to get people to share a story focusing on economics and making it relatable to their lives. Then again, perhaps I’ll be popping up on a Facebook Live or researching inspirational stories of innovation.

Of course it’s difficult to be a woman working in this industry; especially when you begin to realise the importance of having a degree of a work/life balance. Life and its associated challenges doesn’t stop. We’ve all got families and commitments. But journalism is a profession which is hard to fit into a normal eight hour slot. Stories emerge at any time; or you have to follow up at times convenient to the person you need to interview. It’s key to build a strong support network around you who can help you achieve your ambitions as well as make sure you don’t sacrifice everything for work. Here at the BBC, I tried to be involved with the organisation’s pioneering Global Women in News network at its founding stages. It’s an amazing support network. I’m surrounded by amazing women producers and journalists whom I learn from every day. Women who are juggling families, caring responsibilities, multiple projects at work but still produce some incredibly creative interviews and ideas because they love their jobs so much despite its demanding nature.

And of course it’s hard not to be affected by some stories that you work on. I started at the BBC’s User Generated Content Hub when the Arab Spring kicked off in 2011.  I have extensive experience working on disinformation, of working on stories of school shootings and murders; terror attacks and other traumatic reports; of seeing unspeakable acts. But that’s when the art of resilience plays a role. I took my experiences and made them into something to learn from.

I was selected for an Ochberg Fellowship focusing on trauma journalism at the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University. My interest in that and wanting to be a better storyteller led to another fellowship, this time a Rotary International Peace Fellowship focusing on peace and conflict – something that underpins everything we do as journalists. I took a career break to do this professional development course because it was important for me to embark on this path and meet with non-journalists who worked in this field. If I understood why people worked in war zones; took up careers as peace activists; I felt I would be able to tell their stories better. I’d have more context. It’s important to defend press freedom but first I felt I needed to understand more about whose voices were the ones that people in positions of power want to suppress and why.

I’m back in London right now and currently am with the BBC’s Business and Economics Unit helping to demystify the world of business so that people understand how it affects their daily lives no matter where they are.  It’s a challenge, but then again, every role I’ve ever done has been.

In my career at the BBC I’ve been fortunate to work on big projects. One of which was called What Does Freedom Look Like? We asked the world to share their images of freedom. The season had a massive effect on me. Everything I do now I think about how as a journalist at the BBC, I am in a privileged position; able to give people a voice. When I worked on that project, I came up with the idea of creating a superhero especially for our season. We eventually commissioned a wordless comic which was shared across the World Service and our language services focusing on the idea of freedom. It was a success.

And me – I still read a lot of comic books and they still help me be a better journalist.

I have a dream – shh – that one day I’ll make it into a comic book. Maybe other kids, who don’t quite fit in will see my story and understand that it doesn’t matter what they look like, what they identify as, or what their background is; if they want to be storytellers too and they’ve got the determination to succeed, they can do it.

It won’t be easy but they can do it.

Dhruti Shah shares her story with the SPJ International Community as part of the women’s series for #PressFreedomMatters. She is an award-winning journalist, 2017 Rotary International Peace Fellow, 2015/2016 Ochberg Fellow and strategizes and produces the social media output for the BBC’s Business and Economics Unit. You can follow Shah on Twitter, Facebook, website and personal blog to keep up with her work.

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Daring to be Courageous in Work ‘That is Dangerous For Women’

Jodi_headshotFrom childhood I always believed I would be an artist, like many of my relatives. My paternal grandmother was a printmaker, my grandfather, an architect and an amateur bronze sculptor. My uncle was an accomplished painter and my mother a potter. But sometime near the end of my time as a college art-major, I veered off the art path.  I got interested in street photography and made a series of black and white prints from my travels along the U.S. –Mexican border.  My interest in the social and humanitarian dimension of the border and immigration led me to wonder how to best tell the stories I had experienced en route.

Long story short, I asked my mentor, a man who ran one of the best art-printing labs in the country, what he thought of my idea to become a photojournalist. Here was a prominent man, trusted by the best art photographers to handprint their portfolios, and friend to many of them as well.

My mentor told me that photojournalism was dangerous, and maybe not a good choice for a woman.

The last part stunned me. After all, I was raised to the “Free to Be You and Me” soundtrack, songs that championed the idea that girls could do anything boys could do (and vice verse). My mother is good with a drill and a belt sander and my father has no problem managing a load of dishes.

Riot police fired tear gas against protesters in Taksim Square in Istanbul on June 11, 2013, the 11th day of the Gezi Park anti-government protests engulfed many Turkish cities. Photo by Jodi Hilton

So, I dismissed my mentor’s advice, and took it as a dare: I would prove him wrong. I would be daring and courageous. During my first years as a photojournalist, I worked in newspapers. Interspersed with the more mundane assignments, I chased ambulances, photographed fires, floods and other disasters. In Ecuador I photographed street protests, in Honduras, ultra-violent Mara gangs. I eventually relocated to Turkey, where I covered many more protests, including the Gezi uprising that often featured violent conflict between protesters and police. I traveled across the border to Syria where internally displaced people were camped near the Turkish border and gunshots rang out in the distance. In Northern Iraq, I visited the Peshmerga frontline and through binoculars took a look at the black flag-bearing trucks that marked the ISIS frontline.

 

Fljurija Katunari, 18, with her two month-old daughter Elvira in a shack on the outskirts of Belgrade. Seventeen years after the war in Kosovo ended, many Kosovar-Roma families lack the documents, including a simple ID card, that would entitle them to social benefits, health care and the right to work. Photo by Jodi Hilton

My courage grew alongside my portfolio, and I thought that being in the middle of the action was actually a good choice for a woman, at least for a woman like me.

And then something happened. I’m not sure exactly when it started. But somehow over the last years I stopped longing to feel the thrill and adrenaline of an escalating situation. I had proved that I could be courageous in the face of danger. I needed a more compelling direction. It came to me shortly after I got rid of my gas mask; I rediscovered my initial keen interest in documenting human rights stories, and in particular, the plight of refugees, who are forced to leave their home as a matter of survival.

So now, my work is mostly focused on the everyday lives of people struggling to survive. I try to transmit empathy through my photographs, so that others may also see their humanity. Rather than capturing peak action, I’m trying to make nuanced images that initiate questions and encourage viewers to put themselves in the shoes of someone different than themselves.

Jodi Hilton photographing during a riot at the Hungarian border checkpoint in October of 2015. Photo by Maciej Moskwa

I’ve found that my art background is increasingly informing my work, too, as I look for any possible angle (using light, color, composition) to draw attention to the situations I’m documenting.

Now is the time to go back to my mentor, and tell him he was right, but that he was also wrong.

Because photojournalism isn’t only about covering battles, and the requisite courage needed to face down danger. It is just as much about empathy, expressing nuance. And art.

—–

Jodi’s is a photojournalist currently located in Sofia, Bulgaria. Her work has appeared on The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Time, Vocativ, GlobalPost, National Geographic, Der Spiegel, PRI and National Public Radio. You can see more of her work on her website. You can also following her on Twitter or Facebook.

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