At the time, it seemed simple. A hungry journalism graduate student, I walk into an editor’s office and ask for any job at his paper. He looks at my work—stories and photos—and says, “I like your photos. Want to be a photographer?”
This was The Gainesville Sun. 1971. A lifetime ago. The sole woman on the photo staff and one of only four in the state of Florida shooting for a daily paper. Three years later I walk into The Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel: “We already have one woman and wouldn’t mind having another,” said the director of photography. Twenty months after that, I was the lone female photographer at The Miami Herald. But eight years later, there were seven of us. Today, I am one of nine women at The Washington Post.
But it wasn’t really always simple.
When I left Miami for Washington in 1990, I thought about the fact that 20 years earlier I had known personally the handful of woman photojournalists in the state. Now I didn’t even know all their names. A quick count shows there are more than 100 working in Florida today.
During the last 25 years, women have had an incredible impact on the art and the heart of photojournalism. And it’s not just that animal photos have replaced girlie pictures on department walls. Women today set the standard for excellence in photojournalism. At the annual Photographer of the Year competition sponsored by the National Press Photographers Association and the University of Missouri, women win proportionately more awards than men. And they win the big ones: Photographer of the Year, Pulitzer and Overseas Press Club.
But most importantly, women’s style of photography has encouraged photojournalists to focus on intimacy in life. Women—who have often lived their lives on the sidelines—still look over there to see what is happening. They know the big moment is important, but that more people experience the smaller ones. That perspective shows up more often in daily news and feature stories. No, it’s not necessarily a softer touch. Women, in fact, are as tough as any men—just check out the credit lines on wire photos from war zones.
But I have never met a woman photojournalist who got into this job because she likes equipment, gadgets, scanners, or the latest film, although there are many very technically skilled women. A stop by most photo departments will convince you at least half the male shooters did. But it’s sideshow stuff.
In the early days, our concerns were basic. Women’s pants had no pockets. We wore men’s. Shoes that were sturdy enough to work a house fire—and nice enough to wear—were hard to find.
Up in the press box of the University of Florida’s famous “Swamp,” things weren’t fun. Women weren’t allowed there during games in 1971. A bell rang 10 minutes before kickoff and all women had to leave. Itching for a fight one fall afternoon, my male boss stood by as I sat quietly in The Gainesville Sun box. No one came to kick me out. I was the first woman to work in the press box. And without a fight!
My approach to being the only woman photographer was to try to be one of the boys. Among other things, that meant I laughed at dirty jokes and put up with girlie photos on the wall. I also kept my mouth shut when married colleagues had girlfriends. It was easier when I didn’t know their wives. My strict rule to avoid romantic alliances with colleagues was a good one, but over the years I did fail occasionally. I worked hard to befriend colleagues’ wives and girlfriends because they usually understood newspaper stresses. I hoped that by being friendly, I would not be a threat. After all, many of those jokes were about the darkroom.
In those early days, there were places the papers wouldn’t send a woman: a nighttime assignment in a bad housing project, for example. But there were times they chose me over one of the guys. Once it was an art class with a nude female model and, another time, a drug stakeout that took place in a bar. A woman with cameras was far less obtrusive than a man.
The last time I was tossed out of an assignment because I was a woman came after an Orange Bowl game in the early 1980’s. Although I had credentials, two Florida state troopers carried me from the locker room. Today, women work locker rooms everywhere.
It seemed to me that it evened out. Since women generally are perceived as less of a threat, I was frequently given coveted assignments to cover sensitive subjects who initially didn’t want a photographer around. I always got the picture. And, usually, it was a good one.
In the early 1980’s, shoes and clothes for all women improved. And as more women joined The Miami Herald staff our discussions became more serious. We worked long, hard hours, we won awards, and, importantly, we were friends. We stuck together to fight back (and laugh) at sexist remarks and behavior by some colleagues. Our large number—seven—was so unusual that News Photographer Magazine, the house organ of the National Press Photographers Association, ran a group photo of us. As one-quarter of the staff, we were a force!
At The Herald, there were as many lows as highs. My marriage broke up, partly because of long hours in the darkroom making perfect prints but also due to the stress of daily newspapering in a city with high crime and fast money. I could be nuts after work.
A second long-term relationship crumbled. My work schedule changed from month to month, days to nights, different days off. Since I liked work and wanted to be the best, it was difficult to maintain relationships. And one day I suddenly realized that T-shirt where the woman says, “Oh my God, I forgot to have children,” was me. As a result, I counsel young women going into photojournalism to make choices early. If they want children, they have to plan for them. It’s a sacrifice I would not make again.
But I loved chasing news in Florida, the Caribbean and Central America and meeting deadlines on important stories like the Miami riots, Haitian interdiction, Cuban refugees. Cameras were first allowed in the courtroom in Florida, and I was one of the first to photograph the unfolding dramas. My work with the National Press Photographers Association—I was honored in 1993 to be its first woman president—was a real high point. And today, I’m extremely lucky to be on the best photo staff in the country at The Washington Post.
First and foremost, women want to photograph things people have never seen, or photograph differently things people always see. Women notice smaller—and perhaps more precious—moments. That we are no longer tossed out means we will continue to be a force in photojournalism.
Has it always been simple? Not really. But worth it? Absolutely.
Mary Lou Foy is Foreign/National Picture Editor of The Washington Post.