Rachel Somerstein is an assistant professor of journalism at SUNY New Paltz.
The year 2018 was dubbed a second “Year of the Woman,” and for good reason. Women who spoke out as part of #MeToo pushed forward an important conversation about sexual violence. Women ran for office in record numbers and were an important part of the blue wave that enabled Democrats to retake the House. Outside the United States, women gained the right to drive in Saudi Arabia and the right to a legal abortion in Ireland. But you wouldn’t know it if you looked at major news organizations’ “Year In Pictures” photo slideshows.
Tabulations by Women Photograph, a group that promotes female visual journalists, show that, in five major news organizations’ slideshows (Time, the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press), women took fewer than 30 percent of the featured photographs. Others published even fewer by women: six of 99 (Sports Illustrated), three of 50 (NBC News), two of 76 (Newsweek). Only 29 percent of the photos that The Post featured were taken by women. Some sites, including Politico and BuzzFeed, didn’t run a single photograph taken by a woman.
It’s depressing but not surprising. According to work by Kate Darian-Smith and in my own research, male photographers are more likely to be assigned stories that make the front page, win big prizes and grace “year in pictures” slideshows. With a few exceptions, women are often steered away from conflict, politics and sports, and shunted into “human interest” stories.
But the resulting gender imbalance does more than make an outlet look bad. It shapes the mix of photographs that make it into the news and who and what they show. In the eight slideshows I examined closely, the male-dominated ones illustrate art critic John Berger’s famous observation that “men act and women appear” — when the women show up at all. But the slideshows that draw on more female photographers offer a different vision of reality, in which women play an active role in the public sphere and intimate concerns shape a year just as much as more traditional news events.
For example, in Sports Illustrated’s 99 photographs, women are the subjects of only 10 pictures. At times, this gender imbalance seems to violate basic news judgment. There are four photographs of men’s ice hockey and one of the dog winner of the 142nd Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, but none of the Olympic gold-medal winning U.S. women’s hockey team. Elsewhere, in other slideshows, women tend to show up in stereotypical roles, as caretakers, brides or victims.
But outlets that included more photographs by women, such as the San Francisco Chronicle (51 percent of its 115 photos), showed a different story. We see the founder of progressive group Way to Win and trans activist Donna Personna. The Chronicle’s photos show women doing things — voting, surfing, campaigning — that eschew dated stereotypes. The Chronicle also offered more nuanced representations of men, showing them as both victims and caretakers, such as a man reaching out to his son amid what’s left of their home after a fire or Warriors star Stephen Curry in uniform after a game, holding his daughter.
That’s not to say all men take stereotypical pictures of women or that women take more representative photos of women. Photo editors and other gatekeepers are also to blame for this misrepresentation. But there is no doubt that by not assigning stories to diverse photographers — of different ages, races, gender orientations — we’re missing out on different perspectives and a different sense of what counts as news.
If you don’t see it, it can be hard to know what you’re missing. Slideshows exclusively by women or non-binary photographers offer a glimpse of this alternative vision. Women Photograph’s 100 photos are drawn from organizations such as the Times and National Geographic and projects that weren’t picked up by news outlets. Some show women playing basketball, studying, jogging, swimming. Other tropes are familiar; there are many mothers here, for instance. But unlike other news outlets, these photographs show women as powerful, whole people engaged in deep intimacy. A woman in the bath with her infant celebrates 40 days since delivering. Another coos at her terminally ill toddler, who smiles back with her whole body. A third mourns a pregnancy loss. Mothering, the pictures insist, is newsworthy.
The broader culture is changing — we need news organizations to make sure everyone can see that change for themselves.