• November 5, 2013

On Being a Woman Photographer With Maggie Steber and Lynn Johnson

Jane J. Lee

Walking through the National Geographic Society’s latest exhibition, “Women of Vision,” one is instantly surrounded by exhilaration and pain, beauty and longing. Although all of the images are courtesy of 11 female photographers, once their images grab you, gender falls by the wayside.

And that’s how it should be, says Lynn Johnson, a photographer whose work is included in the exhibit. “In some ways, this conversation about what does it mean to have a women photographer’s exhibit is kind of obscuring the whole issue, which is just that these are powerful photographs.”

Photographer Maggie Steber, whose work is also included in the exhibit, says she worries more about whether she’s capturing the real moments in someone’s life rather than gender when she’s out in the field.

Learn the story behind the “Women of Vision” exhibition

But Steber and Johnson also acknowledge that gender does play a role in what they do and, sometimes, in how they do it.

Both photographers have experienced the sexist and patronizing manner of colleagues and bosses. Yet they have used those experiences to their advantage.

I sat down separately with Johnson and Steber to talk about being women in a traditionally male field and some of the advantages their gender has given them.

“War Letters,” 2005. Photograph by Maggie Steber
To view full caption, mouse over image or click to enlarge.

We hear a lot about the obstacles that women have overcome in the workforce. But surely there are advantages. What are the benefits of being a female photojournalist?

MAGGIE STEBER: I did this assignment on war letters. It’s about how the truth about war really comes out in the correspondence that people exchange.

And there was a lady who had lost her son in the first war in Iraq in 1990, about a year before I photographed her. And she was still in deep mourning.

I spent four days with that woman. [But] I wasn’t sure what I needed to do. She had not changed her son’s room or anything, and I photographed that and I photographed her going through his things, and I was just trying to get this sense of mourning and longing and loss. But also, she was trying so hard to move on and it was so hard, so hard.

And so around the third day we sat at her kitchen table and we were talking for hours and hours and we just wept together.

I’m sure a man could [have done] that, but there was something about two women talking about the loss of a child—it was such an intimate moment.

And after that, I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and I could talk to her about it because we [had] shared this very intimate moment.

So I did a very simple picture where she’s on her bed, I’m standing right over her, and there’s a picture of her son and she’s looking away. She’s turned away from it.

[My editors] loved that picture. It opened the story. It was about her understanding that she had to move on and leave that sadness behind—a very simple picture with a very powerful idea. But I don’t know if she would have responded to a man in the same way—I don’t know.

LYNN JOHNSON: From my perspective, you can delude yourself and think, Well, [gender] doesn’t matter. But, I mean, you always create from who you are. And gender is an essential part of your identity.

All of my career of 35-plus years (started as a newspaper photographer), I noticed that because I was a woman I was really not taken seriously.

But I understood almost immediately that that was an advantage because I could be invisible in the room. And that’s how you can witness people at their most true. So I think being underestimated and being as invisible as possible can be an advantage.

Some of the bias or sexism these days can be quite subtle. Have you encountered that, or has it been more blatant?

LYNN: I started in the business a long time ago and the guys were incredibly sexist and patronizing. I think I had a chip on my shoulder for a long time.

[But] operating out of anger is just not healthy. And so I finally understood that a number of years ago. And understood that it was a question of maturity to not make that a part of the equation in how I communicated about the power of the story that I was hopefully bringing in from the field.

It didn’t matter what the gender landscape was wherever I was working—the story had to lead. Your anger, your past, whatever you carry inside cannot lead.

And of course, all the women photographers working, who are shown here, have not only dealt with that in their personal lives, but are witnessing the inequality of women’s lives every day they go out and shoot because we’re in countries where that is a critical part of what we’re documenting.

So it can trigger you. It always has you thinking about how women can still be bought and sold in a lot of countries.

“Dubai: Sudden City,” 2007. Photograph by Maggie Steber
To view full caption, mouse over image or click to enlarge.

How has your experience as a female photographer changed?

MAGGIE: In terms of the business, I know that for a long time when I was a young photographer, the boys, the male photographers, [were] really patronizing, really ignoring, just excluding me. And that was OK because I figured out really fast that it was better that they didn’t take me seriously because it left me alone.

They were all trying to take the same pictures. So they would busy themselves with keeping an eye on each other.

And so it taught me a good lesson that it’s always better to work alone if you can as a photographer because then you get your pictures.

And that’s changed now, but I think it still happens.

And then the other thing that’s funny is that it used to be that all the picture editors at magazines and newspapers were men.

Now at magazines—and I’m actually not talking about this magazine at this moment—a lot of picture editors out in the larger magazine field are women, but they’re not always that supportive of women photographers.

That’s always startled me, that sometimes women picture editors still prefer to work with men. There just still seems to be this propensity to hire men and I’m not always quite sure why that is.

Now, that’s gotten much better too, I would say in the last decade. But it was always very surprising to me as a younger photographer.

Austin, Texas. 2008. Photograph by Lynn Johnson
To view full caption, mouse over image or click to enlarge.

Photographers immerse themselves in the community, culture, or habitat they’re capturing. How does that jive with a journalist’s sense of trying to be neutral and just reporting what they see?

LYNN: I really don’t believe in an objective viewpoint. I don’t think there’s any possible way to be objective. I think you bring this package which is your life and your life experience and who you are to the story. And hopefully that’s why we are hired to do certain stories, because we do have certain sensibilities.

But I do think you need to be fair and balanced in your investigation of the story information and present it to the reader so that the work has credibility.

MAGGIE: It’s completely impossible to be objective.

Words and pictures are a very powerful tool together. Together these are the most powerful things in the world, actually. Even more than swords and guns because together they can inform, they can change minds.

But I think when you’re writing about something, you have to report in a certain way so that people can learn something and determine for themselves.

Photographs are a completely different thing. Pictures speak to a different part of your brain.

Nothing is ever going to describe in words what your mother looked like at 20 when the moonlight just fell on her face in such a way. Only a picture can show you that.

[But] there’s no objectivity. We each are influenced by all kinds of things from the time we’re born, by our parents [and] what their beliefs are and how we are raised, and by our experiences, what we read, what we buy, what we eat, what we wear. Everything is a decision that is subjective.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Jane J. Lee is a news writer and editor at National Geographic. Follow her on Twitter.

There are 23 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Susan Pierres
    September 1, 2015

    How interesting that these talented women have had similar belittling experiences among male photographers. Having always worked alone, I’d never realized how sexist and patronizing male photographers could be until I was invited on an all male press trip. None was new to me, and I quite looked forward to being the only female of the group. Surprisingly ignored and excluded, I was eventually derided and teased as nearly all my equipment broke down, along with my self confidence. Elbowed out of the best shots, I withered and finally resigned myself to living up to their expectations of me as a bimbo by locking our rental car keys in a shared car. Fortunately, my favorite editors have been women, and this trip confirmed what I’d always knew – that I work best alone.

  2. jacie warden
    August 28, 2015

    i want to be a photographer because when i see pictures of nature and all sorts of stuff i feel like i could do it to.

  3. ji
    July 20, 2015

    but the wild life photograph things are difficult for women:(.. isn’t it?

  4. Paula Miranda
    March 6, 2015

    My friends and I (all photographers) have put together a women’s photography show at a local college for the last two years. It was meant as a way to celebrate Women’s History month and feature the work of women faculty and staff in the photography department, which is where we work/volunteer.

    This year, we received criticism and lack of support from the male heads of the department because the show excludes photographs by men.

    While our planning groups is currently considering allowing male photographers to participate in next year’s show (with the caveat that their work be about women) I am bothered by the idea that we have to make these amends or somehow justify our women-only policy in order to make peace with our counterparts. It’s not our intention to create exclude the men and create a division in the department, only to feature and highlight the work of women.

    There are two different perspectives here, and I’m not sure how to start and mediate a conversation that can resolve this issue. I’m lucky to have found this article and the Women of Vision website to see what other conversations are happening with regards to women and photography. It’s helping inform a mediation strategy that I’d like to pursue, though I’m still trying to figure out exactly how to navigate the criticisms surrounding a women-only exhibit.

    Does anyone have any thoughts on this? We have catty responses at the ready, but I was hoping for a more elevated discussion about how to make a solid argument for our women’s show without causing division among our colleagues.


  5. Bethany Baker
    February 6, 2015

    As a young female photographer myself, I was really inspired by these women’s words. I’m also encouraged by the fact that we are finally having this conversation about sexism, specific to photography. I cannot wait to see what the decades to come bring.

  6. Michelle Stacey
    January 14, 2015

    Congratulations to the photographers. Wonderful work. I am a female photographer and I never look at a photo with gender in mind. Photos must have the essential qualities that are creative, show vision and must be awe-inspiring. Your clients are looking for what really matters to them. I believe that the editor already knows what he/she/they are looking for, therefore, they know which photographer has the ability to fulfill this requirement. Searching for the photographer who does his research, study, experimentation in a particular field of photography and practice should be a determination as to whether who should take a job. It is true that both men and women, if they immerse themselves into the community, can report news and also be neutral in their photojournalism. There are differences in reporting news and photojournalism neutrally when put in areas of danger as not all female photographers will go into danger zones, making this a male dominant area. In non-lethal arenas/no war torn areas – male photographers tend to shoot masculine and/or physically challenging areas. Many male photographers shoot nostalgic and sensual backgrounds. Music seems to be an equal in both the sexes. I have been following approximately 1500 photographers and their area of expertise/experience in my small area of the world and what I see is not necessarily the same geographically. This would be a very interesting subject to review in the future.

  7. Cydnie
    December 14, 2014

    I think that women can be their own worst enemies by trying to be genderless no matter what field they are in. When Maggie stated that when she stepped aside from the circle of male photographers and worked on her own, she got the shots she wanted. I think that being “invisible” in the room can be useful and if it is part of being female in a male dominant field then we can learn to work with it. The photos in this article are journalism on their own by women about women. We make up our own story and then read the caption.

  8. Swaminathan
    July 10, 2014

    I think woman make better photographers than men as they are more sensitive to their surroundings. They can “sense” the picture.

  9. Cindy Higby
    April 17, 2014

    Odd…never have I considered the gender of the eye behind the camera as a factor. I see the photo, not the person who took it. Only after I’ve been moved by an image do I find out more about who took it. Even then I don’t much care if it’s a man or a woman, all I see is a photographer. Gender never crosses my mind when I see a great photo, just their skill.

  10. Lynn Harrington
    April 4, 2014

    Very wise. I also love both of your senses of composition and movement.

  11. Bola
    February 24, 2014

    i like this interview about female photographers n sexism and it kinda hard being a female and working in a male field.i love ur shots

  12. morgan
    December 18, 2013

    I am dreaming of the day when I am able to tell my story of being a female national geographic photographer.

  13. Lauren
    December 16, 2013

    All of the pictures that you all took are very beautiful. Someday i hope i can have the same amazing ability to take pictures like you guys do.

  14. Ima Photographer
    November 14, 2013

    Maggie raises a very important point. A more interesting question is how gender plays a part of who assigns what to whom.

  15. Carmen Carrillo
    November 8, 2013

    Women are always being targeted, especially if they are strong and stand up for what is right. They are defeated only by breaking down their morality, But, women are the greates thinkers and the most caring. For they follow their heart and their womanly soul can almost never be quieted down!

  16. Papun Sahu
    November 8, 2013

    I lik 2 be a wild life as working for National geographic channel.

  17. Himanshu patni
    November 7, 2013

    I like wild life

  18. Hassane saibou
    November 7, 2013

    Very nice pictures!

  19. Clara .Go – missatgerebut
    November 6, 2013

    Sure women see things differently, but Women and his work, are still invisible for part of society.
    Great article!

  20. Ann Malla
    November 5, 2013

    Picture had a story in it n it whispers in our mind.

  21. Rich Davidson
    November 5, 2013

    Please see- KariDavidson.com – a 4th generation NG grad going around the globe!

  22. ابو مريم العزاوي
    November 5, 2013

    صور جدا رائعة ومؤثرة من حامل لكامرة محترف ومتمكن… جميل

  23. sunny ashiq
    November 5, 2013

    all picture is nice

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