When I started out as a photojournalist, I would often have my then girlfriend accompany me on the field. There would be smiles where they were once cold rebuffs. Suddenly people would be deferential.
Shopkeepers would be solicitous, inviting us in to get a better composition. Street vendors would spread out their wares without prompting, and strangers would stop and stand and pose obligingly.
Even author Khushwant Singh improved his slouch when he saw her follow me into his house when I went to photograph him few years ago.
I envied her sex for the apparent ease with which the job could be done.
But couple of weeks ago, sitting in a dark seedy tavern with a group of inebriated men in an closeted Himachal Pradesh village, I wondered if it was possible for any female photojournalist to lounge here and become a fly on the wall as I had now become.
I had not taken a single frame in the two days I was with the men but the prospects were great as all of them were now friends and subsequently their homes, their fields, their families became accessible to me to photograph as I pleased.
Unlike writers, photojournalists have to sometimes play the part, get chummy with their subjects and win confidences that can take a lot of time, as it was in this case for me, drinking with frosty strangers in their hovels late into the night.
While there may be some advantages of being a female photojournalist, the disadvantages seem to outweigh them by far as the recent gang rape of a 22-year-old female photojournalist in Mumbai seemed to suggest.
Ashima Narain, 38, photo editor of the India edition of National Geographic Traveler, says she was unable to sleep the night following the incident.
“We are often given the impression by male photojournalists as though we have encroached their space” MEETA ALAWAT
“For 13 years I have psychologically converted my camera into my protective shield — one that I felt would keep me from harm as it showed that I have the means to retaliate. My shield has been shattered. I do feel scared. I think we all should,” she wrote in an Indian daily.
With India fast gaining notoriety as a nation hostile to women, professionals like Narain are coming out and arguing for the importance of talking about fear. “Most people don’t want to talk about this fear. They feel it’s either not relevant or that it’s a sign of weakness,” she says.
Her sentiments are echoed by Ruhani Kaur, 36, the photo editor of Open. She says it’s a no-win situation for female photojournalists. “I should be able to say I am scared without the men smirking my way and without giving my bosses the excuse to patronise me and not send me on assignments they deem risky for me,” she says.
She says she was quite offended when her boss did not send her out on shoots just because she was pregnant.
Photojournalism takes one to places where one would not ordinarily go — or at any rate not go alone. Female photojournalists — a tiny minority in India — have to regularly traverse these Indian male preserves and stereotypes.
“Even male photojournalists have to take precautions. I take them too. And at the end of the day, no photograph is more important than your own life” MANSI THAPLIYAL
Ironically however, one of the exclusive male domains remains closer to home — the media’s own photo departments where the presence of a female photographer is still greeted with cold stares and long silences.
“While applying for a job I was told outright by many photo editors that it’s too much hassle having a female photojournalist. They said they just wanted a man who could quickly hop on his bike and ride off for an assignment without any fuss,” says Meeta Alawat, 28, a photojournalist with The Hindu in New Delhi.
She says that were it not for her female colleague, who also joined The Hindu with her as a photojournalist a few months ago, it would have become awkward for her in the photo department. The duo are the first female photographers in the newspaper’s Delhi bureau history.
“I would want to talk about the issues we face in the outside world later. I would first want to talk about issues in the photojournalistic world itself where every day is a battlefield,” says Meeta. “Where we are often given the impression by male photojournalists as though we have encroached their space.”
Mansi Thapihal, 25, brought a scooter that she hops onto and rides to wherever the assignments takes her.
“The non-dependence on a male chaperone or an autorickshaw is empowering for me,” she says. “Photojournalism is not an easy profession. Even male photojournalists have to take precautions. I take them too. And at the end of the day, no photograph is more important than your own life.”
The Mumbai rape has perhaps for the first time thrown some light on female photojournalists and their issues not only in India but abroad. But could all the clamour be just posturing, as Ashima seems to feel, with nothing actually changing for them at all?
Or it could it make it worse for them, as Ruhani fears, as she says it could give editors the justification to not send them out? And it could become far worse, as Meeta points out, as media organisations could simply stop hiring any female photojournalists at all.
About the author
Writer: Sanjay Austa