Opinion The media must do better to address photojournalism’s sexual harassment problem

(Nicole Rifkin for The Washington Post)

Alicia Vera is a photographer based between Mexico City and Miami.

I was a 23-year-old aspiring photojournalist when David Alan Harvey, a former member of Magnum Photos, one of the world’s most prestigious photo agencies, sexually harassed me. As a young photographer, I looked to him for guidance and trusted Harvey because he was well-known, respected, and heavily promoted by some of the top news organizations and photo editors in the world.

In 2009, I took a workshop in Oaxaca, Mexico, with Harvey. The workshop was great. I learned more in that week than I had in my first year of art school. I felt supported by him and his team, so when he invited me to assist him shortly after the workshop ended, I didn’t bat an eye. I was hungry to learn. It felt like an opportunity of a lifetime.

Magnum Photos has been the gold standard of photojournalism since its inception in 1947. Their photographers have been covering the world’s major events and personalities since the 1930s. It’s not a stretch to say that they’ve shaped the visual landscape of our world today. So you can imagine my excitement when I, a then-young woman who carried around a Magnum tote bag and who had “I want to be a Magnum photographer when I grow up” on her Facebook bio page, was invited by one of their photographers to assist him.

After the workshop, we jumped on a Skype call, where we planned on discussing new photos from a project I was working on. But at some point Harvey stood up, turned off the lights, and it became obvious to me that he was masturbating. I was startled, but I’m embarrassed to say that didn’t deter me from wanting to assist him. His actions worried me, but I had experienced so much sexual harassment in my life that this behavior wasn’t necessarily a red flag.

Harvey first asked me to travel with him to Brazil as an assistant, but I was unable to get a visa, so he asked me to come to Madrid to help him teach a class in April 2010. I quickly learned that there was not much assisting for me to do. Instead, I spent my evenings partying with Harvey and his students.

He had already made a few inappropriate comments during the trip. Then one night, after we went out drinking, he said it was a good time to go look at my new work. We left the bar and headed to my hostel, where he manipulated his way up into my room. The room was small, and there was nowhere to sit but on my bed. As I pulled out my laptop, he laid down, and I flashed back to all of the inappropriate comments he had made during our conversations. The project I was working on at the time was about strippers, and he had asked if I could move or dance like one. I tensed up and made sure that the laptop stayed glued to my lap. It became my safety net. I was so focused on not getting hurt that I don’t remember much about what he said to me in that room. Eventually he left, and I returned home feeling ashamed.

I mostly stopped communicating with Harvey until years later, when he resurfaced on my Instagram DMs. He asked if I had new work that I wanted feedback on, and I said yes. We planned on Skyping until he wrote: “Don’t make me crazy like you did last time.” I never spoke to him again.

Eventually, I got connected to Kristen Chick, a reporter for the Columbia Journalism Review who has reported on sexual misconduct in the industry. She investigated Harvey and wrote a piece where 11 of us denounced his behavior. Magnum soon launched an internal investigation. Harvey, through his attorney, has denied all of the allegations, and in March he resigned after Magnum’s board voted to remove him.

I assumed news organizations would pick up the story as part of the #MeToo movement. After all, the New York Times reported on the fall of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar, and more recently has reported about biographer Blake Bailey’s and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s alleged sexual misconduct.

But accusations against high-profile media figures are sometimes kept off or buried by mainstream platforms. In 2018, the Columbia Journalism Review published an article highlighting accusations of harassment against several photographers who worked for large publications. Except for industry websites and magazines, barely any news organizations have picked up the stories.

The 2018 article was headlined “Photojournalism’s moment of reckoning,” but so far there has been no such moment.

These cases need to be more aggressively reported — to not do so is to turn a blind eye. These egregious abuses of power within our own industry deserve to be widely covered and discussed.

It is our industry’s responsibility to report on these behaviors so that it not only becomes a matter of public record but also there could be a healthy culture shift — one with accountability, respect and equity. We must listen and acknowledge victims. Those in power must ask themselves what role they played in allowing this to happen. What systems are in place that allow these men to continue their abusive behaviors?

Harvey continues to run Burn Magazine, a journal for emerging photographers, and has a profile on Patreon called “Photo Tienda,” where he offers mentorships to young photographers. He also continues to have almost half a million followers on Instagram. Photo editors, art directors and many of my colleagues continue to show him support with likes. I’m scared of how speaking out will affect my career, but I can sleep better at night knowing that I’m pushing for change.

Read more:

Miriam Becker-Cohen: How the Supreme Court can help sexual assault survivors in the military

Global Opinions: #MeToo is at a crossroads in America. Around the world, it’s just beginning.

Letters to the Editor: We should keep the focus on the #MeToo victims

Kathleen Parker: #MeToo misfires with Bloomberg

Karen Attiah: The epic tragedy of the #MeToo Medusa