[OPINION] It is darkest behind the camera’s flash

Picture it.

Soldiers operating their defenses and fleeing from gas attacks during World War I. Smoke billowing and people hurtling down the high towers of the World Trade Center on  9/11. The Taal volcano spattering insurmountable amounts of ash over vast lands and warm bodies in Batangas in January last year.

We might not have lived through some of these moments firsthand, but there are vivid images that illuminate how it must have felt to be in these historical events. 

If it weren’t for photojournalists who risked their lives to capture these memories on the frontlines, we would have had a very narrow perspective of events that transpired all over the world.

It seems like a noble job, but the industry reveals a harsh reality.

A cutthroat profession of age-old prejudices lurks behind the eye-catching photos, spanning questionable assignments, misogynist culture and freelance work. The fight against exclusion, sexism and unreasonable wages persists beyond the photographers’ lens.

A risky profession

We have seen history in part through the lenses of photojournalists. They are among those in the frontlines of chronicling landmark points in our time.

So when Esmael Mangudadatu challenged the powerful Ampatuan clan, it was news for the locality’s media outfits and journalists were sent to follow their family’s trails. This resulted in the unjust death of media practitioners when the Ampatuans executed their sinister massacre in 2009. 

Reynaldo Momay, among the 32 victims slain in the Ampatuan Massacre, the worst case of violence against journalists, was excluded in the historic verdict ten years later as the Supreme Court claims his body was not found. He was a photojournalist himself.

READ: Principal accused found guilty in Ampatuan massacre case

These tragic instances still persist today as several media companies fail to ensure security and financial stability for their staffers.

A 2015 Reuters study showed that photojournalists worldwide feel “vulnerable to the threat of risk or injury” while on the job. With the COVID-19 pandemic, photojournalists are pressed even harder as they face layoffs and financial hardship due to a lack of assignments.

Many network giants failed to guarantee a safety net for photojournalists in terms of higher compensation as the COVID-19 pandemic struck last year. Worse, the absence of job security in the field is exacerbated by corporations that exploit the works of photographers and photojournalists. The same Reuters study found that the unauthorized use of images is “widespread” across the globe.

In a 2020 Facebook post, photojournalist Ezra Acayan revealed how media giant GMA asked him to waive his fees and offered a form of acknowledgment instead in exchange for his photos.  

It is deplorable how the profit-driven media industry justifies exploitative practices by preying on the ‘passion’ of photojournalists, especially when their tirelessly-honed crafts deserve reasonable compensation.

The ABS-CBN franchise denial left even more journalists unemployed, begging for scraps to keep themselves afloat after one year of being shut down. Similarly, attacks against alternative and mainstream media have become increasingly prevalent, putting photojournalists’ security at risk when they are simply carrying out their work. 

READ: When the Ship Sank: Aftermath of the ABS-CBN Shutdown

Safety still isn’t guaranteed for those who aren’t affiliated with any media organization. Freelancers were unable to receive media IDs from the nation’s COVID-19 task force, which limited the distribution to accredited media outlets. 

And perched atop these financial and physical risks, the government rests scot-free from their crackdown on the livelihood of media practitioners.

Around 223 attacks and threats against the press were reported under President Duterte’s administration as of April 30, reports the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. Four of these are associated with photos and media. 

Until now, journalists, researchers and other media groups continue to clamor towards genuine press freedom. Despite the dangers of on-ground assignments and freelance work, the fight for photojournalists’ safety and fair wages in the industry remains in question. 

File photo by Tatti Hermoso

A male-dominated industry

While the lack of security already makes the job risky, the burden for women photojournalists is far worse.

Reuters’ 2015 study also found that 80% of their respondents identified as male. The World Press Photo Foundation’s 2018 survey also shows that 69% of women photographers face discrimination in the workplace. 

Women photojournalists have always been part of the picture, but their narratives have been deliberately deprived of exposure. They are treated as liabilities, as fragile and domesticated beings incapable of handling hefty projects. Consequently, they are less likely hired and assigned to projects compared to their male peers. 

“Kailangan i-prove pa. Kesa sa mga lalaki, ‘O sa iyo ito’, ibibigay na sa iyo on a silver platter. Sa babae you have to say kaya mo rin ito,” said photographer Nana Buxani.

When they do squeeze themselves into career opportunities, women photojournalists find themselves in a toxic environment where sexist beliefs morph into harassment.

The industry is heavily dominated by men and deeply penetrated by sexist beliefs. It is not a surprise that male photojournalists vying for grants and ambassadorships are favored more by photography companies and institutions.

In July, Canon Philippines drew flak on social media after they revealed that their brand ambassadors for this year were all men. In an attempt to redeem themselves, the company initiated a special recognition that aims to “glorify” the works of “professional lady shooters.”

This double standard is a glaring example of “othering” in the industry. It is sinister not only because it rejects the capability of women to be photographers in their own right, but also because the propagation of such discriminatory remarks comes from an institution regarded highly by many photographers.

Women and non-binary photographers are excluded, contributing to a lack of inclusivity and a persistent need to prove themselves. For many aspiring photographers, this sends the idea that the industry solely favors men. Men are set out to be the leaders of the craft, leaving no space for other perspectives in a profession that values it. 

When the Canon debacle came out, many women photojournalists and allies stood their ground. Stories of discrimination surfaced, proving all the more that sexism is pulsating in the industry.

This is true for Hannah Reyes Morales who, as a fledgling photojournalist, was disillusioned and victimized by a destructive macho industry that pushed her to temporarily resign. 

In an online post, Morales revealed that even though male colleagues have made the effort to exact accountability from abusers in the field, she can’t help but be “resentful of the space they continue to take, the successes they’ve enjoyed while contributing to the hostility, the last decade of real inaction, and the knowledge of others harmed.

In an industry that praises profit more than anything, it’s more about the capacity of a camera and less about the problems of the photojournalist that holds it.

File photo by Tatti Hermoso

The struggle for diversity

A journalists’ goal must be to amplify the voices of the underrepresented and to remain critical in their role as the fourth estate. But how can this be achieved when the same power play we denounce persists in our industry? How can journalism be an accurate representation of reality if its storytellers come from a limited worldview?

The figures above imply that the frame and angles through which we view humanity are largely filtered through the eyes of white men. The visual narrative and stories of the world are doomed to a narrow perspective if discriminatory practices in the industry persist, as people behind the lens decide what is newsworthy and what is not.

As we join our photo subjects’ fight towards freedom from oppression, we must also remain vigilant of the same ills that occupy our ranks. 

Only by empowering photographers from diverse backgrounds can we truly bring inaccessible spaces and underreported stories to light. Empowerment must cut across all aspects of the industry — from recruitment, training, up until practice.  We cannot achieve this diversity when minorities are unable to access education, buy their equipment or experience the same human rights as everyone else.

So long as the industry values profit, the same misogynist culture will pervade. So long as the government remains indifferent, the same exploitative practices will continue.

But the photos taken by the journalists that have come before us prove the people’s power in inciting change. Our craft has long documented the history of our subjects’ struggle. It does not end here.

Nearly two centuries ago, photojournalism was born of the need to expose ills that are forcibly hidden behind closed doors. Since then, the practice has survived calamities, tragedies and attacks against the press.

Photojournalists are now confronting another world war. Only now, it is a battle against a persistent tradition of exploitation and sexism, lurking behind the lens.