We’re living in an unprecedented, crazy time and years from now, people will look back at the reportage photography from early-2020 as they teach the next generation history lessons on how the world was reset. News and documentary photography captures real-life, blemished, beautiful, raw images that depict a moment frozen in time; each image conveying cultural context charged with human emotion.
In this edition of The Female Gaze Q&A, we delve into news and documentary photography through the lenses of female photographers, Jacky Chapman and Ami Vitale. They share their experiences as seasoned photographers who have shone a mirror on the world in hope that it raises awareness of social inequalities, historical moments and reminds us of the beauty and human connection that surrounds us.
Hi Jacky, hi Ami. Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves and how you got into photography?
JC: Looking back, it is regretful that nobody placed a camera in my 13-year-old hands so I could record life while coming of age as a Leeds working class kid in the 1970s! Memories of my teenage years are dominated by strikes, three-day weeks, power cuts and rotting garbage piled high in the streets. My homework was done by candlelight. The miners were striking, and unemployment was huge. My fifteenth birthday fell in the midst of the ‘Winter of Discontent’.
At school, the art room always beckoned. I was known as the arty or ‘odd one’ – wearing home-made clothes, up-cycled charity clothes (ahead of my time) and outlandish make-up! I never discussed my future with the school’s careers department; it was always presumed that I would go to art school. The presumption was not wrong.
My degrees were crossovers between graphic and photographic design. After completing my MA in 1987, I knew already that my passion was photography, not design, but design has always influenced my photography. I had great inspirational role models at Jakob Kramer and at Leicester who were not only great photographers, but also women.
As a result, I never doubted that I could make a living as a photographer and the thought that I was entering a male dominated field never crossed my mind. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to work one-day-a-week on the Times Educational (TES) picture desk. This soon led to my first commission. As a freelancer, the TES became one of my staple clients from 1987 to around 2007.
AV: As a young woman, I was painfully shy, gawky and introverted. When I picked up a camera, it gave me a reason to interact with people and take the attention away from myself. It empowered me, and in the beginning, photography was a passport to learning and experiencing new cultures.
Now it’s much more than that. It’s a tool for creating awareness and understanding across cultures, communities, and countries; a tool to make sense of our commonalities in the world we share. It can be powerful and amplify voices.
What is it about news & documentary photography that appealed to you?
AV: I don’t view travel and documentary work as solely an adventure. Although I get to witness extraordinary things, it’s not simply about jetting off to exotic places. The magic really begins when you stay in a place and give yourself enough time to gain insight and understanding and connection.
All of us have the ability to awaken creativity and shape the world we want to live in. Photography has been my platform to first finding my own voice and inspiring others to use theirs. Photography and storytelling allow us to wonder and when we experience wonder, we fall in love with the world in a new way.
JC: News photography is about ‘being there’ at a historical moment, in the right place, at the right time. The ability to record quickly, to capture the defining moment is key. The job is about timeliness and capturing relevance.
It’s a privilege to act as an eyewitness and to document a historical episode that may serve as a record for posterity. News often requires a single image. The real challenge is to try and capture the defining moment of an entire event in a single frame.
Composition and lighting are the key ingredients for strong images that speak powerfully, truthfully, and informatively to viewers. Pulling all these elements together is always challenging. When it all comes together it creates a great adrenalin rush!
Documentary photography is also about ‘being there’ but it allows me time to research and explore the lives of others that may be very different to my own, but which I find are often easy to identify with.
The social issues that accompanied my childhood clearly have fuelled my desire to document social inequality, injustice and inhumanity. I discovered the powerful world of documentary photography in my second year at De Montfort University. The work of Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers propelled me, especially Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans who recorded the challenges of rural poverty in the USA (1935 to 1944).
During a summer vacation and following in the footsteps Eugene Smith (A Spanish Village, Life Magazine, 1951), I packed up my camera and headed to Spain. My aim was the same – to document daily life in rural Spain.
The learning curve was steep; first time abroad, not enough money, no proper planning. I arrived in Gerona with a map, picked out a village and caught a bus! The result? A few harrowing experiences, but I was hooked! Documentary photography gets in the blood and is obsessive. Social inequalities were all around me and it’s what I saw when I looked through the camera.
In such a fast-paced world, how do you keep your finger on the pulse?
JC: I’m not sure I do! The variety of media platforms and outlets are overwhelming. Coping with it all is a struggle and this may explain why mental health issues are so prevalent among the young.
Personally, I focus on issues, subjects and themes that resonate, and to which I feel a strong connection. I love the Frontline Club in Paddington, London and I’m an avid Radio 4 and BBC World Service listener. I hone in on certain news stories, especially while editing endless images!
Social media is, of course, a great source of innovation raising awareness of ideas, thoughts and movements. I can only take it in short sharp bursts! I also think that Ted talks are worthy of a mention. Recently, I have listened to several amazingly informative and inspirational talks.
AV: I pay attention to how I consume information. I don’t spend much time on social media or TV but instead use that time to read. I make sure to look at a variety of sources and I’m aware of the information silos we often put ourselves in. So for example, I’ll read news from at least 4 different countries to get a global perspective on the same stories.
Who are your photography influences?
AV: I’m profoundly inspired by so many of my colleagues but also authors, artists, musicians and poets. I think a multitude of influences and viewpoints gives us a broader vision of what the world looks like. It’s not one person or one genre. Diversity of opinion and thought and inspiration is the wellspring of creativity!
JC: Too many to mention is my first reaction! As mentioned, the FSA photographers, especially Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, are important. But my hero must be Don McCullin who once wrote: “Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.” All his work is inspiring, including war images, urban poverty, right through to his recent landscapes and still lifes.
Eugene Smith’s photo essays are also inspirational as a medium for social change. His final photo essay Minamata recorded the devastating effects of mercury poisoning. The images and book helped raise awareness of, and bring justice to, the victims. Minamata was premiered as a film at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival with Johnny Depp in the role of Eugene Smith. Definitely one to see!
As a news photographer, Weegee (Arthur Fellig) is worthy of admiration. He worked in the Depression era New York as a freelance news photojournalist. Talk about thinking outside the box! In 1937, he was the only civilian allowed to fit a police radio in his car, giving him instant access to crime scenes, allowing him to capture the scene before other reporters arrived!
These images, usually shot at night, were gritty, harsh and used a bare flashbulb (think early Martin Parr) but they were composed carefully and depicted the reverberations of wrongdoings very compassionately. He was not a police photographer, nor voyeuristic, but had the ability to record life in the slums – the poverty, the gangsters, indeed the whole array of life in the 1930s and 1940s. He had a great one liner: “I have no inhibitions and neither has my camera.”
Contemporary influences would be Lynsey Addario, Michael Christopher Brown, and Salgardo. I would also add Waad al-Kateab – the young documentary filmmaker who stormed the film world last year with her film For Sama. Filmed from a female perspective, al-Kateab depicted everyday life in Aleppo during the years of siege and bombardment.
What has been your favourite project or shoot to work on?
JC: I cannot single out an all-time favourite project. My theme is ‘people in their environment’. I enjoy shooting where passion about a cause, a person or a theme is evident. If protesters are impassioned about their cause, this passion emits its own contagion, excitement and exhilaration.
For example, I felt the need to cover the March For Our Lives demonstration in 2018 in DC – a student-led protest following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. To engage with the biggest youth-led protest since the Vietnam War era was something – a crowd of 800,000 unified in their fight for a common cause.
Favourite is not the right word to use in documenting the 2017 Grenfell Tower Fire in London. The collective shock emanating from the local community standing in total disbelief and bewilderment as they watched the tower burn was palpable. The emotions over those few days was overwhelming and I witnessed the coming together of people from all walks of life to help out on that fatal June day.
My true indulgence, though, is in the opportunities to photograph in different countries. Africa, Beirut, Borneo, Bosnia, South East Asia, Russia or the USA, the privilege of varied cultural experiences and meeting people from all walks of lives is my ultimate guilty pleasure.
AV: One story that did have a powerful impact was covering the world’s last Northern White rhinos. After learning that this ancient species could not survive mankind and is functionally extinct with just two of them alive today, I shifted my focus to some of the world’s most compelling yet least known wildlife and environmental stories. Losing one part of nature impacts all of us.
Today, I use nature as the foil to talk about our home, our future and where we are going. There is a universal truth and we’re in this intricate web together. There is so much that connects us all to one another. Whether we understand it or not and the loss of any species has a ripple effect on other animals and on all of humanity too. The future of nature is the future of us.
What current or future projects are you working on?
AV: I’m continuing my NatGeo work but also doing a number of talks and workshops this year. I’ll be speaking at the Storytellers 2020 Photo Conference in Miami Beach in May. I’m also teaching a Multimedia Storytelling class at Santa Fe Workshops in July where Students will document a short story and edit it into a cohesive whole. And I’m speaking at the National Geographic Live series in April and May.
JC: From childhood, I’ve been fascinated with America. I grew up watching Starsky and Hutch, Dallas, The Walton’s, CHIPS, Happy Days as well as John Wayne movies with my dad. America looked and sounded so exciting that I knew I had to experience this country first-hand. Vanishing America is a long, ongoing project seeking to capture remnants of the 1950s and 1960s; a time of drive-in movies, highway motels and Route 66. Perhaps a better title would be ‘Homage to an American Dream’.
More recently, I’ve been documenting ‘The Wall’ and life along the Texas-Mexico border, especially poverty and environmental impacts in the shadow of Trump’s security fence. My approach is somewhat new for me, concentrating more on environment and landscape, rather than people. For me, avoiding people is difficult, since that’s what I’m naturally drawn towards. Perhaps it’s good to push beyond my comfort zone. Hopefully the project continues in the coming months in California.
Despite these missions, the ultimate ongoing project is scanning and archiving images dating back to 1985! Literally, a ton of black and white grainy scratched negatives requiring reinforcement of the flooring in our attic workspace!
Recent studies have shown that 69% of female photographers have faced discrimination in the workplace? Have you experienced or witnessed any inequality or limitations in the industry?
JC: Personally, I have to say that during my career as a photographer, I feel that I have not witnessed, or been subjected to inequality within photography.
In press situations, male photographers do tend to stick together and often ignore you. That has always been the case and it has not really changed. That never troubled me because I never really conformed to any pack. I follow my own instincts, aiming to get shots that differ from the others.
Being a female in a traditionally male profession can actually have its advantages. Women on the whole are patient, better prepared to listen, and typically have tremendous compassion. I’ve cried with people that I’m photographing (Grenfell Tower fire, murder in Mexico, aids in Uganda, poverty in Russia). Women have a different set of sensitivities.
My first newspaper commission back in 1987 was to photograph a male author. We had a great time chatting about life as I photographed. The photo was printed full size (very exciting as a newbie). The feedback from the author? “I can’t believe she got such a great picture of me!” Was he surprised because I appeared hopeless, too chatty, too young, too incompetent, or was it because I was female? Surely we can’t be saying that being female is a limitation?
Having a child in 2001 definitely slowed my work for a good few years. Even though I was available six months after our son was born, I was ‘off the radar’. The phone rang less often, and I had to seek work far more proactively than before. Looking back now, I also think that taking time out to raise our child meant I lost some confidence in my ability.
Commissioning editors, art directors and other clients may feel that female photographers could let them down with little notice due to a last-minute childcare crisis. If this is indeed happening, then women (or men if they are the main stay-at-home child carer) should not be singled-out for punishment, and efforts should be made to dispel any such perceptions that may exist across the industry.
AV: It sounds romantic to travel the world, but the reality is that you must be emotionally self-reliant. I look back on experiences I had and now wonder how I got through some of them. They were sometimes unimaginable, often lonely and occasionally utterly terrifying.
I’ve had malaria, but you expect to get sick. It’s the psychological dangers that scare me the most. I’ve been harassed, threatened and learned quickly as a woman that I have to be thoughtful about how and where I work. No picture is worth my own personal safety.
I know we all have obstacles in life, and I choose to focus on the positive. I found my voice by using my so-called ‘weaknesses’ as my strengths. I used the fact that I was an introvert as my hidden superpower. By first listening, I was able to gain the skills I needed to become a storyteller and then use those skills to empower others and amplify the things that connect us all.
Only 18% of The Association of Photographers’ accredited members are women. What more could the industry do to ensure aspiring female photographers get the same opportunities as male photographers?
AV: I think the answer is to create a culture that is welcoming to women.
JC: Most photography is freelance. It can be a lonely business and not everyone is cut out for it. There is little security, no maternity or parental benefits, no holiday allowances, no pensions and we have to carry camera insurance, public liability insurance and technological advancement means that our equipment is obsolete almost as soon as we buy it.
It’s a difficult business. Maybe more financial aid needs to be directed towards helping females start their photography business and for the first few years as they establish their career. Perhaps there should be mentoring opportunities between those commissioning work and those delivering the work so as to generate a greater awareness of one another’s needs and concerns.
Not all mothers are the main child-carers; in fact, men increasingly do share this role. However, on the whole it tends to be the female that faces the main role of caring for the family, their own children and their elderly parents. This is something that should to be addressed.
Men and women also provide inherently different sensitivities and perspectives on their subjects – differences that might be used to good effect. Maybe the industry needs to give female photographers a chance to prove themselves rather than commissioning the same (possibly male) photographer?
Women who find themselves in a position to commission work should be proactively considering talented and aspiring females for commissions, if not already doing so. On a very positive note, Emma Tucker became the first female Sunday Times editor since 1901 – a great way to start 2020.
Maybe we need to teach and encourage women to feel more confident, to value our self-worth and how to negotiate fees. Personally, even now I’m far happier doing the job than quoting for it! Surely this is compelling evidence that educational institutions could play a greater role in promoting equality and preparing women to compete effectively in the industry if they’re not already doing so.
The way we talk about ourselves does us no favours and we’re not helping the next generation of women behind the lens. We should stop undermining our abilities as women, our success and our authority about our profession. We need to quit the self-doubt and stop thinking we will fail before we even try. I can be very guilty of this!
Obviously I’m generalizing here. Of course there are tons of female photographers working on par with their male counterparts and pulling in great commissions and top fees. And equally there are many male photographers not getting the work that they used to.
That’s the nature of our business – it’s flooded by everyone now having access to a camera in their pockets. The visual market is over-saturated and photographers these days are not regarded as having a ‘skill’ like it used to be in the 90s.
However, these are simply a few of my thoughts and observations that will hopefully promote a bilingual conversation between all genders (not forgetting race) whether it’s photographers, editors, curators or art directors…. Let’s keep talking and continue striving towards eliminating any barriers.