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Her Lens: Where are Southeast Asia’s Photojournalists?

BANGKOK | 21 April 2021

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A Reporting ASEAN team feature

People think that they don’t have a life, partner or family. They are not always taken seriously and need to work twice as hard to prove their skills, and have to deal with unwanted teasing from men. Some, including editors and parents, think that their work is “dangerous” and that carrying heavy photography or visual equipment is “masculine” and “exhausting”and thus not a good fit for them.

These are some of the daily realities of being a woman photojournalist, videographer or camera operator in Southeast Asia, where women are commonly found in reporting work, television and radio, as well as journalism courses, but remain much more scarce behind the camera.

“There is one woman or even less among 10 photojournalists,” said Nov Povleakhena, news editor of Focus and a former photojournalist with Voice of America (VOA) Khmer. “Definitely less” female photojournalists in Laos, says Phoonsab Thevongsa, a photojournalist with the ‘Vientiane Times’. 

‘One comment that I always remember is – can women take videos?’ recalls Niken Riwu, a video journalist with Indonesia’s Metro TV. Many people think her work is a man’s job, she adds.

In Vietnam, a communist country where one might expect women to hold up half the sky, a check with four newsrooms – ‘Thanh Nien’, ‘Dan Tri’, ‘Zing News’ and ‘VnExpress’ showed they had a total of 53 photojournalists/videographers, out of which 26% were women. The newsrooms’ gender ratios varied widely, from no women in the eight-person team of ‘Dan Tri’, to 5 women out of 12 visual staffers in ‘Zing News’.

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In the Philippines and Indonesia, women remain a minority in photojournalism even if there are more of them these days. Less than 20% of the 50 video journalists on Indonesia’s popular Metro TV network are women, says Niken Riwu, a 30-year-old video journalist who has worked there since 2013. There is better balance in the wider newsroom, where 37% of 582 staff are women, says Metro TV editor-in-chief Arief Suditomo.

At the same time, the photo and visual journalists and professionals that the Reporting ASEAN team spoke to in Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines and Vietnam say they see positive signs that point to their work becoming less of a trailblazing project or an oddity, and more of a normal professional option in the hopefully not-too-distant future.

These signs include a recognition that more equal opportunities for different genders, and better gender balance, is the ‘aware’ thing to do in the #metoo-conscious era – and that greater sensitivity to better representation and diversity are assets in the media industry, as well as global citizenship.

Encouraging are international venues that link up women in the visual field, such as Women Photograph and Her Wild Vision. There are some local networks like the Photojournalists’ Center of the Philippines, 21 of whose 86 members are women.

But the starting point for greater women’s representation in photojournalism is the present, where default habits in the news and media profession, mixing with expectations in some Southeast Asian societies, play out.

Filipino documentary photographer Limayo

“They (communities) always expect that the photographer arriving to cover their story is a male, which has been a stereotype for photographers,” said Kathleen Limayo, a Filipino 30-year-old documentary photographer and video producer on environment issues. “People also had assumptions about my personal life. For them, women photographers who travel a lot do not have their domestic life in place. People have assumed more than 50 times in my entire career that I am not married, do not have a significant relationship and (am) not a mother due to the nature of my work.”

“Many people still think the work I do now is the job of men as it requires not only thinking but also physical strength,” explained Metro TV’s Niken. “One comment that I always remember is – can women take videos?” 

“As a woman in this industry, I am expected to solely focus on light coverages such as lifestyle and feature series because it is much safer that way,” said 24-year-old Jamillah Santa Rosa, a freelance news photographer in the Philippines. “But I worked my way (up) from there.” It is not uncommon to come across senior colleagues who look down on young female photojournalists, “as if they have already figured out what you are capable to do and treat you as if you are a weak one,” she said.

Santa Rosa

In our interviews, the most common reasons cited by women photojournalists and visual journalists for their thin ranks were still these same ones over the years: the thinking that the degree of physicality and travel involved in photojournalism and visual work makes it a poor choice for women, that photojournalism is ‘tougher’ (than reporting for instance) and that the women are a better fit for desk-related or post-production work, non-news photography and more skilled at ‘softer’ issues.

Women themselves too may find the craft less appealing due to these same issues. Often, the real issue behind travel is the time it entails to do that and immerse oneself in an assignment –– when social codes expect women to run their homes alongside their careers and to give up work commitments or go on leave for household matters.

In sum, the gender equation in newsroom cannot be delinked from the habits, expectations and judgements around men’s and women’s roles in the community they are part of.

“Photojournalists must be present before the event and after the event ends, whether the location is near or far, night or day, rain or shine. In Vietnam, I am concerned that women have to put family first. Perhaps for that reason, photojournalism in Vietnam is usually more male than female,” said Duyen Phan, a 27-year-old woman photojournalist with ‘Tuoi Tre’.

Doubts about field work are often about what it entails in terms of women’s time away from the home, which means that a partner or someone else has to step in. This poses a challenge for women, Limayo points out. “Although we have been pushing equality in the workforce, we have to acknowledge that the bulk of domestic work or community care work is shouldered by women”.

“Female photojournalists and video journalists are family-oriented,” said Algooth Patranto, who teaches communication at Bina Sarana Informatika University and Bakrie University in Jakarta. “They tend to give up their job after getting married. I personally know some who stopped working after their marriage.”

Both men and women interviewees cited the physical differences between the sexes, in different ways. Many traced the assumption of photojournalists being men to the use much heavier equipment in the past. But they also say this has become less of an issue given technology, not least the use of DLSR cameras that take both photos and videos, and smartphone photojournalism. 

Some women say that too big a deal is made about equipment, when the problem lies in how people assign women and men’s roles to the work, more than the work itself. “After getting to used to the job (photojournalism), everything (equipment) becomes lighter, Duyen Phan of ‘Tuoi Tre’ said matter-of-factly.

But in Laos, freelance camera operator and documentary filmmaker Chansamay Phanouvong reflected: “I think some women may like to be protected, while men seem not to like women who are stronger than them, or they would not like women who do not dress nice or look masculine carrying camera and tripod.” She added that “this kind of view may not make women interested in this job or take the job seriously”.

“The fact that makes less women working in this field could be the job itself does not fit the (typical) Lao female personality,” added Phoonsab, the male photographer with ‘Vientiane Times’.

“It is linked to our cultural factor and mindset as women have not been accustomed to thinking that running back and forth with camera or other equipment, while sometimes need(ing) to squeeze together with men into a small place to take photos, is an appropriate career,” said Ky Soklim, publisher of ‘Thmey Thmey’ news in Cambodia and a former journalism lecturer.

But some women feel otherwise. “Maybe some people think we are very strong and independent as we often carry many heavy equipment ourselves, or tussle with other video journalists when doing doorstop interviews,” Riwu quipped. “Trust me, we are ordinary women who still like to go to salons and love to watch Korean drama series.”

FEMALE GAZE

All of the photo and other editors and journalists interviewed, including men, say they evaluate quality and give assignments based on a person’s skills regardless of whether a journalist is a he or a she.

Most of them say that women photojournalists pay more attention to detail and prepare well, are seen as less threatening in interviews because they are “softer” or “more gentle”, “have more empathy” or are more “pleasant”.

To many, these are probably politically correct and define the female gaze. But a few went further to say that it is perspective that makes good storytelling, a skill that has little to do with weight or type of equipment or what society may approve of.

“I look for a feminist perspective, not a female reporter,” said Phuong-Thao Bui, chief of the world news desk at Vietnam’s Zing News. She puts a premium on the difference in depth that news professionals’ work reflect when they understand how norms on gender shape behaviour – and can enrich or change how they look at a story.

“If we approach the news industry the same way we see our society, which is patriarchal, the feminist viewpoint is a way to counter that usual male-dominated viewpoint. The male gaze manifests itself in the front pages when editors use pretty girls’ faces to attract viewership, or in review videos with female presenters,” explained Bui. “I expect my reporters/photojournalists to have a counter narrative when covering women stories, among which is to stop sexualising women, to get rid of gender stereotypes.” 

Being a woman journalist does not mean she has this lens, she explains. “But a female journalist (and LGBT, queer, people from marginalised groups) is more likely to be sexualised, objectified, thus developing an alternative viewpoint.”

“The capabilities of men and women photographers are the same,” Richard Reyes, a photojournalist with the ‘Inquirer’, which has two women in its five-person photo team.“You can say that the gaze of women are different from men. They see things differently, they think differently. Their strategy is also different, resulting in good photographs.”

On the job while on the move is common for Vietnamese multimedia journalist Bao Uyen.

There are also the mindsets to revisit, or unlearn, in a good number of newsrooms. Among these are the view that current affairs, disaster coverage are more for men, that ’tough’ assignments are defined by physical circumstances rather than the topic (where physical strength is not a factor) and that ‘soft’ topics, features are for women. 

Indeed, it is not just about numbers, just as electing more women to parliaments does not by itself lead to quality decisions. But installing ways to recruit more women talent or adopt policies for a better staff mix is a step forward, especially as much of journalism aims to promote human rights. 

More opportunities can also be created outside newsrooms. “Photojournalism needs good training and mentoring and I don’t think we have a school which teaches them to be one,” said Cambodian freelance photojournalist Siv Channa. “Photojournalism is only a small part of the mass communication course,” said Souphatxa Singthong, a mass communication lecturer at the National University of Laos.

Several women visual journalists suggest that exhibits and interactions with “role models” would help as well. The trend where journalists need to have a mix of skills, such as multimedia, can widen spaces for women in visual news work, some editors add. 

While not everyone runs into sexual harassment, or unwelcome teasing, women visual journalists say these would not be surprising. Their advice? Set your boundaries. 

Socheata

Hean Socheata, a 30-year-old multimedia journalist with VOA Khmer, called for “more respect” from male journalists who “like to tease” women colleagues. While she says her male colleagues have been helpful, this behaviour “creates unfavourable condition or environment for women or discourage them,” she said. Santa Rosa learned to “talk back sarcastically to them about it so they would know how not to cross that line”. 

Niken, 30, attributes insensitive comments about women to the inability by some to “get out of their men-women separation stigma”.

OPENING DOORS

“Media organisations try to be more diverse and open-minded now,” said Santa Rosa. Some are seeking out more women photographers “maybe because many people now support the women’s empowerment movement and women now are more vocal to change society’s definition of being a woman”. 

“More young women start to be camera operators, photographers and filmmakers,” said the 31-year-old Chansamay. She says “the most important thing” is to hone’s one’s skills, which for her meant learning all production aspects from planning to shooting and editing. “What changed for me is that I (now) have more confidence in my work. “

“It has to start with ourselves,” Niken said. “We have to be convinced we have equal rights.”

(*This feature is part of Reporting ASEAN’s ‘Lens Southeast Asia’ series, which is supported by the Foreign Press Center Japan-Sasakawa Peace Foundation.)

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