This is what it’s like being a female photojournalist in India.

Patriarchy is deeply embedded in South Asian culture. That, combined with the recent string of gang rapes that have received notable attention in the media, might be enough to scare some people away from covering the country. But this doesn’t stop thousands of female Indian journalists from doing their jobs each day. Sexual assault happens, yes, but much more pervasive and ever-present is the sexism these women face on a daily basis, from coworkers and editors to sources and men passing on the street.

We spoke to several women to understand what it’s like working as a female visual journalist in India today, how they overcome the limitations of working in a society that still retains a strong gender bias, and what advice they’d give to young women who’d like to work in India someday. Many of these experiences and this advice transcend borders and cultural barriers; female journalists from every country will be able to relate.

If you have your own experience or advice to share, please post in the comments!

Our panelists:

karen dias jyothy ashima anusha
Karen Dias, Photographer Jyothy Karat, Freelance multimedia journalist
Ashima Narain, Photo Editor, National Geographic Traveller India
Anusha Yadav, Photographer, Founder of the Indian Memory Project

This is what it’s like being a female photojournalist in India:

You’ll encounter people who think you can’t do your job.

J. Karat: Especially when I’m shooting people for Forbes or Fortune, [male customers] don’t take you very seriously. They’ll take one look at me and you can see the disapproval in their face. Like, they sent a young girl to take my picture? Am I not important important enough to warrant a senior photographer – one with a moustache?

K. Dias:  Sometimes, men can be distrusting of you because they may think you are incapable of doing a ‘man’s job.’ A lot of times people are very surprised when they find out there’s a woman photographer coming to a shoot.

…But being a woman can often help you secure access.

A. Yadav: I think women make better photographers than men, because we are considered harmless. We are given access to a lot of things, to a lot of information, to a lot of areas, to people’s private lives. And it is up to the photographer to respect that access, which I think women do a lot more.

J. Karat: 80% of the time, being a woman actually helps and it gets me access everywhere. I can go talk to any woman, especially in a rural setting, where women don’t really interact much with men. In those situations I can go up to them, talk to them, and start taking pictures, which might be considered very inappropriate if I was a guy. There have been a few times where I’ve been restricted access because I’m a girl, but those situations were because of religious reasons.

Sexism can take many forms.

K. Dias:  It is quite common to be harassed while shooting on the street – you get comments being passed, staring, molesting, etc. Usually, I have to watch out for this and try to do my job well at the same time which can be frustrating.

A. Narain: Post what happened recently with the young photographer who got gang raped in Mumbai, I wrote an op-ed piece, and a girl wrote to me who was a photographer. She said, “I have to say that after this happened, I went to a couple newspapers to say that I would like to get a job. And they said, ‘Listen, it’s really too much hassle for us to have women on board who are photographers, because of these safety issues.'”

K. Dias: There will be the usual comment passed about how I got the assignment/job/shoot because of my good looks. Unfortunately, often such comments are passed without thinking by friends or fellow photographers.

A. Narain: I’ve had it happen to me- and I know a lot of my other female friends have faced it- is that a lot of times you’ll go take a photograph of some sort of celebrity, and they can be quite forthcoming. If not at the shoot, [then] they also have your mobile number. So I’ve had situations where at 3 in the morning someone who I photographed is really drunk and is calling me saying, ‘Why don’t you come over?’ These types of things happen.

Male photographers are often attacked, too.

A. Narain: Male photographers are attacked on a daily basis. That’s not reported because it’s not a sexual attack, it’s a physical attack. Most times male reporters go out into the field to report stuff, they’ll get beaten up by the police or on the street. Police are a little bit more cautious with women. They might shout at us and tell us off, but they won’t beat us.

J. Karat: I know my male colleagues get into a lot of trouble, because people will start shouting and throwing stones at them and things like that. But because I’m a girl, I get away with everything.

The camera can be your friend.

A. Yadav: The fact is that you are walking around with a camera, which is already a very powerful tool, and everybody wants to look good in a picture. You always want to impress the photographer. The moment you say you are a photographer and you bring out your camera, you have taken power, instead of giving it away.

A. Narain:  When you walk around in the street with a camera in India, there’s an immediate perception of a social class. When people see you, people are also a little bit scared because if you have access to those certain kinds of cameras, and therefore a certain amount of wealth, you’ll also have access to certain networks and contacts which makes you a little bit of a dangerous person to target. You always feel the camera shields you, in a way – which is why, when that girl was attacked, it was such a shock.. But that sense is fading. People don’t feel that anymore.

In many places, dressing conservatively is a necessary precaution.

K. Dias: I usually dress in a salwaar kameez in dark colors without jewelry or makeup to attract least attention when I’m out shooting. I rarely wear jeans or t-shirts when out on assignment, but that depends on what areas I’m in.

I hate to tell women what to wear but I notice a lot of foreign women journalists and photographers who don’t dress appropriately in India. It’s the same precautions I would take photographing in another country.

A. Narain: As a woman, as a feminist, I’ll say that a woman should be allowed to wear whatever she feels like wearing. Because I do believe that. But I think when you’re on a job, you can’t have those same values. Your first concern should be the job. That means, often, when you’re going into conservative communities, you have to dress so that you don’t stick out. You cover your head and make sure your chest is covered.

You do whatever you need to do to feel safe.

K. Dias: Usually, on shoots, I have to ask editors to make arrangements for hotels and taxis beforehand. I make sure to keep all emergency contact numbers written and carry an extra phone battery and don’t go anywhere without a Swiss army knife.

A. Yadav: You make sure of the way you dress; you inform someone of where you’re going; you make sure you have cash in case you get stranded.

J. Karat: I would refuse to travel if I had to catch a late-night bus, or walk around in some alley alone. I just flatly refuse. Which also makes me more expensive to hire, because it might be cheaper to send me by bus. Mugging is not uncommon in Indian trains, and I don’t want to end up in a place I don’t know at 2 or 3 in the morning with all my gear. So what that might mean is to book a flight for me, which is going to become much more expensive.

Useful resource: Narain created a ‘Safety Crib Sheet’ for journalists with many great tips. You can check it out here.

Many publications or institutions don’t have reporting mechanisms in place for sexual harassment. If yours doesn’t have one, you should try to get the ball rolling.

A. Narain: Most organizations don’t actually have a procedure for sexual assault or sexual harassment. If something happens to me, who am I going to call? And if I do call, suppose, my editor, what is she going to do? It’s a different kettle of fish if [the harassers are] your peers as opposed to a more senior person. What if you report it to your boss, but your boss doesn’t know how to approach them? Your boss might not be the best person to deal with this because of the political structures of the organization. There have to be systems which are external to the editorial hierarchy, whether it’s through HR, through a guidance counselor or whatever it is. But we don’t have those systems.

None of these things are really thought through when we join; we are not given any kind of a safety initiation or any such thing like that.  I think organizations really need to figure this stuff out, and I think consultants and photographers all need to put some pressure on people who are trying to employ them. Unless we actually start pushing our employers to do that, nothing is going to happen.

Wherever you go, you need to do your research.

K. Dias:  Because Asian cultures are so deeply rooted in religion and tradition, women journalists should do their research and read about the history and understand the religio-political structures at play in that particular society. Keep your religious and political views to yourself when photographing or reporting in areas that you are not well-versed with.

A. Narain: You have to think about where you’re going and understand the situations that you’re going into, and also the social climate.

India is still a great place for visual journalism.

A. Yadav: We are in the middle of some change, which is fascinating because as a photographer you can see the country changing rather quickly and, I think, daily. There is so much access to information because of the Internet. Our opinions are being challenged all of the time. Our values are changing all the time.

A. Narain: Unfortunately there have been some very bad incidents, but it’s still a good place to work. Visually, there are a lot of stories to be told.

Photo above courtesy of Jyothy Karat.

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