Self Confidence, Empathy and a Break

When asked about what is the biggest challenge of being a female photojournalist, people generally might expect me to talk about safety. It´s true that being a journalist or a photojournalist means many times being at risk, as our profession request to be in certain places at certain moments where probably most of the people would never be. And it’s even more true that, not just as journalists but also as women, we are more vulnerable to violence, as we live in a male dominated world.

But challenges come in a wider spectrum. This isn’t an easy job. It isn’t an easy life. It is complicated to get your work published, to build a network, to get assignments. Journalism is a very beautiful passion inside a very competitive industry, and it requires from the journalists, more often than not, a daily struggle to make it financially sustainable. And specially working in long-term projects, sometimes there is no other option than rely on self-funding.

As if all these, let´s call them, “external obstacles” were not enough, sometimes one more is added into the equation: a lack of self-confidence. Having doubts about your abilities is a condition that can be experienced by both genders, but there is something I have recently observed.

In several occasions in conversation with my female friends – some working in the field of journalism and some with careers in a variety of sectors as well, a common concern always comes out in the talk: the feeling that, as women, we have to prove more than men that we are capable of the work we are doing.

And this starts from the hackneyed – but sadly still common — situation where a woman has to prove that she is not there because of a pretty face but because of her capacities, and lasts to the inner feeling that you have to demonstrate intensely, even to yourself, that you are good enough in what you are doing.

As the world has been dominated by men, women have been raised, even in most equal societies, with the inner feeling of self-questioning.

The time when women started getting out from the roles that society expected from them and adopting “typically men professions” are not so far ago. These brave women had to prove to the world that they were “as good as men” to do their jobs. This feeling still remains. And even if we are lucky enough to belong to societies where gender-equality laws are enforced, women have to live with the certainty that they will be questioned.

Self judgment has been imposed, making us believing that we are never skilled enough, qualified, experienced or legitimized to do what we are doing. And most of the times this feeling comes unconsciously. I have seen in several occasions female colleagues doubting if they are doing right in a way that I´ve never seen male colleagues.

And that is, after all, insecurity and self-distrust. So do not doubt yourself. Do not doubt what you are capable of. This profession has already enough to make it not easy, so do not be your own barrier. If you are where you are, it is because you are doing something right. Trust yourself, your capacities, your attributes and your virtues.

Journalism, and especially photojournalism, has always been considered a profession for men. What is needed to do this job has always been measured through the abilities typically attributed to men: strength, fortitude, courage…

The image of a lonely an adventurous guy has always been associated with a journalist, and was far away from what it was expected from a woman. But fortunately, these virtues are changing and other values, such as empathy or sensitivity, are starting to be considered as essential for being a journalist.

During my career as a freelance photojournalist, I have learned about how important sensitivity is. We have been taught that getting emotional during an interview is unprofessional. Yes, it might be considered that way for some. But when you are in front of a person who opens up a painful episode of his/her life, sharing their suffering with you, I find almost impossible not to get emotional.  

Empathy and sensitivity have been considered typically female attributes (what does not mean at all that men cannot feel empathy or been sensitive), and that’s probably the reason why both characteristics have been usually seen as a sign of weakness. They are not. They are actually a strength, a magnificent gift.

If you develop your journalistic work based on empathy and emotions, do not try to stop it, because it is a great virtue. Journalists should not be afraid of getting touched by the people they work with or to get involved into their lives.

Commitment is seen as a must to develop long-term projects, and in my opinion, commitment to a story cannot be separated from commitment to the people to whom that story belongs.

Don’t underestimate your feelings. Never. But as important as to let them out it is to let them go. And this is a lesson I am learning now: to take a break whenever your body asks for it. You cannot work 24/7, especially when you are working in high-dramatic stories.

The idea that as journalists we are mere observers of history and that we do not feel anything I think is simply not true, and again, is a consequence of seeing the profession from a macho-I-can-handle-everything point of view.

As witnesses of suffering, the suffering remains on us. So getting that break is not just necessary, but healthy. Sometimes it would be enough with a one-week holiday on the beach or a weekend in the mountains or in a spa, but other times you might need a disconnection: a physical and emotional disconnection.

It does not mean that you care less about the people your work is about. Listen to yourself, take care of yourself. Love yourself. And if you need to make some distance for a while, just do it, because only when you feel strong enough you would be able to do a useful work.

Elena del Estal is a Spanish freelance photographer and journalist based in India from 2013 to 2016 where she has worked in different stories about health care, the eradication of polio in India in 2014-2015, and women’s rights violations. Her photography work has been published in The Wall Street Journal, CNNPhotos,, Revista 5W, El País and El Mundo among others. As a writer, she is a frequent contributor to El Confidencial and Público, Spanish Media. 

She was selected 30 Under 30: Women Photographers, Photo Boite in 2017. She attended the Eddie Adams Workshop XXVIII 2015 and was nominated for the Joop Swart Masterclass in 2015 and 2017.

You can follow her work on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and her website

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