Female Photographers in Conflict

With death rates increasing for reporters and media personnel in conflict areas around the world,[7] there is a need for non-profits and news media outlets, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the International News Safety Institute (INSI), to fund training seminars and projects devoted to training international journalists in self-defense, first aid and casualty prevention, and cultural awareness courses. But what about specialty training for female photographers on the frontlines of conflict, who face unique challenges that simply aren’t an issue for males? As female photographers who shoot in conflict areas are becoming more and more of an asset, having access to sensitive subjects and unique cultural accessibility, there must be a discussion of how female war photographers are treated, the gender norms they face, and what standard safety measures are not adequate for women to use in the field.

First of these challenges comes in the form of expectations as a woman and a mother. Some of these women who photograph conflict up close, novice or experienced, are also mothers and many face pushback from male colleagues in the field who say, ‘What are you doing here? This is no place for a woman!”[2] Heidi Levine, an American photographer who has documented the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for over 30 years, raised three children in Israel during her career photographing in conflict. She repeatedly thought of herself as a mother, and could not separate that identity from her work in the field. It affected how she related to her subjects and the people she would meet.[1] Being a mother has only helped her understand her subjects at a deeper level.

In 2005, INSI published a two-page brief outlining “recommendations and guidelines”[4] for women reporters, managers, and editors and their in the field operating in conflict with their male counterparts. These recommendations for women include carrying a personal attack alarm, wearing a wedding band, packing a chador or headscarf if going to a Middle Eastern country, or even making sure hair is not wet so as to avoid signaling unintended sexual innuendos.[Ibid, page 1] Interestingly, it is notable that a gendered safety measure, such as donning a burqa, allowed BBC television reporter, John Simpson, to be the first to broadcast from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in 2001. But what about flack jackets and other safety equipment that are not made for women, so they don’t fit correctly and in fact cause more danger? Nevertheless, whether these training methods are able to be an effective safety measure amidst an emerging trend for freelance photographers to take risky, dangerous assignments without much support or experience is yet to be seen, as the deeper issues lie in gendered perceptions of certain topics getting male coverage versus female coverage, and for accessibility of female photographers in the field of conflict.  

According to experienced photographer, Alixandra Fazzina, “[As] staff correspondents and photographers are being pulled out [of conflict areas] because of the dangers, it is left to freelancers to cover without the support or the experience, it’s very worrying.”[8] Female freelancers are drawn to the field for reasons that are no different than men, conflict itself seems to be an equalizer in this regard. BBC chief international correspondent, Lyse Doucet states that, “Journalism is defined by the kind of questions we ask and those questions come from our perspective on the world. We each walk into a room, we take notice of different things, we ask different questions. But I know as many men who are interested in the human side of war as I know women who are more interested in the ballistics and the bombs and the aircraft.”[3]  While reasons for pursuing coveted stories in war-torn areas are not different for men and women, other restrictions come into play such as insurance and physical security in the field.

Many freelance photographers do not have adequate pay, nor insurance for safety in the midst of conflict zones.[11]   The gendered component of this issue lies in accessibility of women photographers, freelance or staffed, to document stories in conflict areas, and to acquire insurance which can reach up to $1,000 per month, according to Francesca Borri, an Italian freelance photographer documenting conflict in Syria.[2]   Adding to this is the physical danger of attracting attention by having a male partner in the field. There are both benefits to having a male partner on the frontlines, but also risks for female photographers as they cover sensitive subjects in these regions.

Heidi Levine asserts that, “When you cover conflict you do need someone with you. You need partners who can rescue you if something goes wrong. At the end of the day, you also need someone to talk about your experiences, because it’s horrifying to witness what we do.”[1]   The trouble is, many freelance female photographers do not have partners, nor have access to assignments that are stereotypically assigned to men, such as sports, conflict, and journalism.[9]  However, since assignments amidst conflict often include documenting sensitive subjects, like women, children, and atrocities committed upon these subjects, would women be as successful accessing these sensitive stories if they had a male partner who had been assigned to “protect” her? For experienced photographer of conflict, Stephanie Sinclair[8],  being a women gives her access to stories that her male colleagues don’t have.

So why not encourage females to continue their good and noble work of documenting conflict worldwide by installing specialty safety equipment especially made for women, not equipment that is “traditionally” made for men, such as flack jackets that actually fit well and are not cumbersome? Why not install accountability measures for editorials and news outlets who purchase photos and stories from these photographers? Some outlets such as Christian Science Monitor will not purchase a photo from an inexperienced freelance photographer in a conflict zone because they feel a responsibility throughout the entire distribution process.[11]

These female photographers who are brave and bold enough to go and cover these sensitive and hard subjects through a unique lens, should be adequately trained, have a greater and easier access to insurance, and not be forced into dangerous living situations because of an unregulated market for photos covering conflict. Let’s not forget that while this issue is very real to male freelance photographers as well, the gendered aspect comes into play when women are uniquely able to gain access to women and children’s stories in conflict areas, and safety measures actually attract attention or are ineffective because they are made for men who traditionally take these positions.

—by MPH

Works Cited

[1] Bartlick, Silke, “War Photographer Heidi Levine: ‘I could cover conflicts and make it home for dinner,’” Top Stories: Photography. DW: Made for Minds, June 25, 2015. Paragraph 11.

[2] Borri, Francesca, “Woman’s Work: The Twisted Reality of an Italian Freelancer in Syria,” Archives: Feature, Columbia Journalism Review, July, 1, 2013.

[3] Deller, Hellen, “Women from the Frontline: Life of the War Reporter,” Politics. Daily O, April, 16, 2015.

[4] “Frontline Reporting- Women Working in War Zones: Guidelines for Reporters, Managers & Editors,” Gender. International Federation of Journalists (IFJ): The Global Voice of Journalists, 2005.

[5] IJF Staff, “IFJ Report Highlights High Levels of Gender Discrimination and Violence Against Women in the Media,” News Single View. International Federation of Journalists (IFJ): The Global Voice of Journalists, March, 7, 2016.

[6] “Journalists & Media Staff Killed in 2016,” Casualties. International News Safety Institute (INSI), 2013.

[7] “Killed in 2015,” Data & Research. Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 1981.

[8] McVeigh, Tracy, “Women on the Frontline: Female Photojournalists’ Visions of Conflict,” War Reporting: The Observer. The Guardian, May 24, 2014.

[9] Morris, Lee, “[Editorial] Photography: Is It Still a Man’s World?” Contributed Videos. FStoppers, February 26, 2012.

[10] “On This Day: 22 September,” On This Day: 1950-2005. BBC News. Accessed March 12, 2016.

[11] Spinner, Jackie, “Freelance War Photographers: On Their Own in Danger,” American Journalism Review, November 18, 2014.

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