Every General Election, there’s one story that you’d find in almost every paper. That of first-time voters. Similarly, every year when the Delhi University opens for the new academic session, there’s a routine story in the city pages of all papers on freshers.
If you look at the accompanying pictures to these stories, you’d notice that first-time voters and first-year college students are almost all women.
Search for the words “Delhi University freshers” from The Times of India website on Google and these are the images you’d find.
Look up first-time voters and similar results come up.
While inadequate representation of women reporters in the newsroom can often mean fewer stories on women in our newspapers, a lack of women photojournalists has meant quite the opposite: more pictures of women in our newspapers. It is worth wondering if male photographers naturally gravitate towards clicking women in such soft settings as fresher photos, or whether they do it out of a more problematic reason: satiating the gaze of the male reader.
“I have always wondered about this. It’s not like there aren’t first-time male voters. I think I would have just clicked them too,” says Ruhani Kaur, freelance photographer, who’s previously worked with Indian Express and Open.
Image: Ruhani Kaur
But beyond questions of sexism in photography, women photojournalists have to contend with a more real glass ceiling: rarely, if ever, do they make it big in the male-dominated world of photojournalists.
Ruhani (38) is the only photojournalist I spoke to during the course of my story who managed to make it as a photo editor in a newsroom (at Open). Currently, the Delhi bureaux of mainstream newspapers have about three women photographers – one each in Hindustan Times, Mint and Indian Express.
‘Go to Express, they hire women photographers’
Sarvesh, 59, has been a photojournalist for over 25 years. Her six-year stint with a mainstream daily says a lot about how difficult it can be for a woman to negotiate a largely male-dominated photo desk. Especially, if she is single.
Sarvesh survived an abusive marriage for about 10 years before she left it — the reason why she uses only her first name. She took to photography after she was gifted a camera by a friend. Sarvesh has covered the 1991 Uttarkashi earthquake and Kargil War as a freelancer. Close to 100 of her pictures from the Kargil War were published across newspapers and she also won an award for one of them.
“I have done more work as a freelancer than when I was in a newsroom,” she says. Sarvesh worked for Hindustan Times and she does not speak fondly of her time there. She joined the company as a Senior Photographer and remained so at the time of her leaving the organisation. She says she was not promoted in the six years and had marginal increments.
What bothers Sarvesh more is that at Hindustan Times, she wasn’t allowed to pursue the work she wanted to. “The Kedarnath calamity happened when I was there, but I wasn’t allowed to go despite the fact that I am a mountaineer. I was game for challenging assignments but somehow I was never thought fit for it,” she says, adding that people aren’t very comfortable with “bold women” and that there is a tendency to demoralise them.
Being kept away from “hard news” is something that most women speak of. Renuka Puri, 46, who has worked with Indian Express for more than 25 years, says her early years were spent on small city assignments. “I wasn’t given hard news or late-night assignments. So I used that time to start my family,” she says laughingly, adding that all she had to do was sit in a car, move around the city and click pictures of piles of trash. “By the time my son was one, many of the boys had moved on to other organisations and I was now senior. I pushed for late-night assignments and got to do the Fashion Week. I had seen how photographers had shot the previous Fashion Weeks and decided since no one had covered the greenroom, I would start my shoot from there.”
Image: Renuka Puri
Puri’s first news assignment was the famous meeting in Lucknow in 1996 where Bahujan Samaj Party Chief Kanshi Ram slapped journalist and now Aam Aadmi Party leader Ashutosh. “One of the photographers was on leave and I was sent to cover the meeting. My camera flash also got hit in the commotion; that was my first actual taste of news,” she says, “I realised news was more thrilling, more challenging.” Renuka has since stuck to covering Parliament, politics and political features including a photo feature on former President Pratibha Patil. She is Deputy Chief Photographer at The Indian Express. She says it is her patience that kept her going.
The Indian Express has been the first stop for other photojournalists too and most attest to having a good run at the organisation. Apart from Ruhani, Blouin ArtInfo photo editor Paroma Mukherjee (33) and Mint Assistant Photo Editor Priyanka Parashar (37) started their careers at the Express.
Image: Priyanka Parashar
Parashar remembers the time she went looking for a job fresh out of a photography diploma in 2003, and was told quite frankly at The Hindustan Times that the paper does not hire women photographers. “I don’t know who the person was; it was someone at the reception I guess. He told me quite matter-of-factly to apply at The Indian Express,” she says. Priyanka did apply at the Express and got an internship. She later worked with Business Standard and then joined Mint, run by HT media.
By now the idea of women photographers was not alien to the industry. “There is an effort now to try and have at least one woman on the photo desk for it to be gender neutral. But it shouldn’t be taken as a token representation but done with a far more inclusive attitude,” says Ruhani. But many look at it as a reserved seat to fill.
Image: Paroma Mukherjee
Paroma recounts being told by a photo editor of a prominent daily that he would not hire a woman because the organisation already had a female photojournalist. “One was enough it seems. I brought it to the notice of the organisation and they apologised saying it’s against their newsroom practice. I don’t think he realised how sexist he was being but he was so blunt about it…I was pretty shocked. This was around 2014.”
‘It’s for your safety’
Many photojournalists say the question of their security often comes in the way of assignments they’d like to pursue. This, of course, is not typical to journalism: the standard response across sectors to achieving women’s security is to restrict their movement.
Sarvesh says the question of her safety was often brought up to not allow her to follow a certain assignment. Renuka, though, admits that in the beginning she preferred to finish work by 7 pm simply because she was scared of being out in the night. But seeing other women in the newsroom putting in long hours made her change her perspective. “There were women editors who worked till late night and I felt I could do it too if they can,” she says.
Though most agree that safety concerns are genuine, sometimes they have more to do with mindsets and stereotypes. “In Open, a male colleague was pretty categorical in stating that he wanted to take a man with him for a reporting assignment. It was Kashmir and there was nothing happening there. It just stemmed from the mindset that it is a conflict zone. I, of course, made a big deal about it. I am okay with an editor making a decision on who gets to go for an assignment but you shouldn’t be able to say out loud you don’t want to travel with a woman even if you think it,” says Ruhani.
She says that it’s not just the idea of safety but also our tendency to pen a gender to particular stories. “It happens with men too, they may not be given an assignment on a so-called women’s issue because now you have women in your teams who can ‘crack’ it,” she says.
Image: Saumya Khandelwal
Saumya Khandelwal, 25, the youngest photojournalist I spoke to, is currently working at HT. She says she has an extremely supportive and encouraging team at the newspaper. The only times she has had to limit her scope is when an assignment is not thought to be safe enough for her. “I understand that these are well-intentioned concerns but I would still like to find a way around doing these assignments simply because they are exciting.”
Negotiating the field like a man
Sarvesh recalls how she was called a man by way of a compliment. “People would often give my example and say I work like man, this was to say that my work was good so it was like a man on the job,” says Sarvesh. The very nature of the job is gruelling, you have to be on call and on field at all times, which means carrying heavy equipment, negotiating crowds and jostling to get ahead of it to get that picture. But the stereotype that only men are capable of this is finally being broken by the women who joined the field early on.
Some of them say they transformed themselves in what they wore and their body language to rough it out to fit in a mostly male-dominated space. This also meant dealing with patronising attitudes. “There’s this way of talking, ‘oh you’re here and you may not know what to do, so we’ll tell you’,” says Paroma.
Sowmya says it is mostly the older generation that tends to be patronising. “Colleagues my age are chivalrous yet competitive. And I prefer that. It’s nice when sometimes in a very crowded place, they’d make space for you to move around but it’s not in a patronising way.”
‘Let’s not make it us versus them’
On the question of why there are so few women photojournalists in newsrooms, there aren’t any clear answers. All agreed that having more women photo editors would perhaps help. But the idea of hiring on the basis of gender was not acceptable to most, neither the concept of being given any special treatment as women. “There are good guys, too, and a lot of the male photographers of the current generation have a far healthier attitude to women in the field, they’d always have my back but at the same time not make it easier for me just because I am a woman. The constant victim narrative also does not help. It turns the conversation into a ‘them versus us’. One which wouldn’t take us very far,” says Ruhani.
So, how can newsrooms be more conducive to accommodate more women? The older generations of women say efforts must be made to treat women as equals. Sowmya says she strongly feels it’s important for newsrooms to recognise the sensibilities women bring to the table that can help you look at a story in a different way. “Ultimately, I think just having more women will help. Right now, it seems many people still don’t know how to respond to women in the field,” she says.
Unlike jobs for sub editors and reporters, there are very few openings for photojournalists. A good starting point can be for newspapers to stress that they are equal opportunity employers while advertising for jobs. For now, that isn’t very apparent.