Female Photojournalists in India. A No-Win Situation.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Mansi Thapliyal – Photojournalist based in  New Delhi

(This Article  appeared  first in the Bangkok Post. Sep 2013)

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. The shopkeepers solicitous, inviting us in to get a better frame. The street vendors would spread out their wares without prompting and strangers would stop and stand and pose sportingly. Even author Khushwant Singh improved his slouch on his chair when he saw her follow me into his house when I went to photograph him a 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 in this case for me included 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 Mumbai gang rape of a 22 year old female photojournalist seemed to suggest.

Ashima Narain, 38,  photo-editor of the National Geographic Traveller, India says she was unable to sleep  the night following the incident.

‘’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 an women unfriendly nation, women 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,  Photo-editor 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 patronize me and not send me on assignments they deem risky for me’’, she says.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Ruhani Kaur, Photo-Editor – Open

She says  she was quite offended when her boss did not send her out on shoots just because she was pregnant

Photojournalism takes you  to places where you 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.

Ironically however,  one of the exclusive  male domains remains closer 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 its 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, New Delhi.

She says 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 everyday is a battlefield.  Where  we are often given the impression by male photojournalists as though we have  encroached their space’’, says Meeta.

Mansi Thapihal, a 25 year old photojournalist brought a scooter which she hops on to and rides to wherever the assignments takes her. ‘’The non dependence  on a male chaperon or an autorickshaw is empowering for me.  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’’, she says.

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 clamor 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 organizations could simply stop hiring any female photojournalists at all.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Meeta Alawat. Photojournalist – The Hindu

8 Responses to “Female Photojournalists in India. A No-Win Situation.”

  1. Lakshman Varma says:

    Well, there definitely is a divide……..learning a few self defence techniques would help not just women, infact anybody whose call of duty is a bit bizarre ….!!!!!!

  2. Amit K Pal says:

    good read.. sharing…

  3. Achyut Hatimuria says:

    very well-written

  4. Aleem Shah Mohammad says:

    Hats off to their courage and determination!

  5. Shiv Lal says:

    Very nice, and very relevant to the unforgiving times we are living in…

  6. Sandeep Prabhakar says:

    Hey thanks for sharing this. Our society needs to change fast and become more tolerant and respectful towards one another. A photographer makes the world look beautiful. Need to respect that.

  7. Arpit says:

    Your one post lead to another and one is easily lost in your world.

    Amazing post.

    Reading you is a pleasure.

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