Posts Tagged ‘Womens Series’


Staying Emotionally and Mentally Strong Is Important as a Photographer, Take Breaks When You Need It

As a high school senior, in lieu of going to college, I decided to travel. With money earned through various jobs, over the next four years, I would travel to more than 30 countries, with my camera as a window into different societies and cultures. As a citizen of one of the world’s richest countries, I was disturbed by the lack of access to education, collapsing infrastructures, and limited technologies in many of the places I saw. Shocked by the disparity, I continuously asked myself, “What will make a difference?” After meeting a photojournalist in Ghana, I realized photographs can expose injustice in a way that humanizes suffering and provokes positive action by compelling people to respond. After years of working, saving, and exploring, I knew I wanted to be a photojournalist. To achieve this goal, I decided to pursue a university education to learn about the world in a different way. I returned home in 2009 to pursue a dual degree in photojournalism and Spanish in Austin at The University of Texas.

As a student I pursued opportunities that not only honed my technical skills through professional experience but also shaped my ethical practices and beliefs. To this day I strive to live and work by the advice of one of my college professors and now my mentor, Donna De Cesare: “You are a human being first and a journalist second.” This belief is most evident in my years-long work with transwomen in Lima, Peru, where I developed close relationships built on trust, allowing me to photograph sensitive subject matter such as death, violence, and substance abuse. This ultimately helped me show a more accurate picture of what trans women face due to societal discrimination and stigmatization. My work in Lima was my first long-term project and it taught me a lot about storytelling. Because ethics and trust are the most important things to me, I spent the first few months simply getting to know the women I would photograph and the neighborhood where they lived and worked. I was always clear about who I was and my intentions, but I wanted to develop a two-way relationship before documenting their lives. Eventually, they opened their doors to me, and because of so much time invested, my foundation and relationship with these women are still incredibly strong.

Working on this project was also the first time I encountered really difficult situations, such as death. The first transwoman I started photographing, Tamara, passed away this year and it was a deeply painful experience. We had grown so close and even called each other “hermana,” or sister. While it felt strange to photograph this part of her life, I knew that I had to in order to show the extent of the life-threatening consequences of transphobia. Sadly, many transwomen share a similar fate throughout Latin America, with most not living beyond 35. I continue to work on this project, but it was necessary to distance myself a bit from it because it was becoming emotionally overwhelming. It’s important to be emotionally and mentally strong as a photographer documenting difficult stories, so when you feel that you need a break, take it.

I have since continued to focus on stories about human rights issues, women, identity, and health, and am currently based in Istanbul. While navigating the photojournalism industry is incredibly difficult, especially as a freelancer, there are some lessons I’ve learned along the way that has helped me tremendously. Make friends. You will have a thousand downs and hundreds of ups; it’s your friends who will help you through the hard times and be there to celebrate with you through the good times. Without the support of friends and family, this profession would be impossible. Be interested. Study and be inspired by photographers and their work, get involved with group projects, start an initiative. This profession is only as rich as you make it. Lastly, don’t give up. You will have thousands of lows and know that you’re not the only one. I try to see the low moments as the times that push me, that makes me re-examine myself and my work, that makes me say “I can do this.” The more you get through the hard times, the easier it gets. Believe in yourself and your love for people and humanity and your passion for sharing that with others. If you can feel the love for what you do and believe in that love, you’ll survive even the darkest hours.

Danielle Villasana is an independent photojournalist whose documentary work focuses on women, identity, human rights, and health. Her work has been published in The New York Times, the Washington Post, National Geographic, PRI’s The World, PBS News, ABC News, News Deeply, and Al Jazeera. She is currently based in Istanbul, Turkey, and contributes to Redux.

You can follow Villasana and her work on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and stay updated on her latest projects on her website at daniellevillasana.com.

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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, Narrative.ly, 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 elenadelestal.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.

 If you or someone you know would like to share your narrative, please fill out the following form and a member of the International Community will contact the nominee. 

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