Capturing visual truths: Zooming in on Filipina and non-binary photojournalists

The field of photojournalism is rife with systemic injustices against women and non-binary individuals. But times are changing, and they are gradually making spaces for themselves.

Weathering the turbulence of photojournalism is a formidable undertaking; it necessitates leaving the snug confines of a comfort zone and soldiering on through volatile situations in an effort to tell a story. It demands clear-cut values and motives to avoid straying away from the pursuit of shining light on truths, veiled or otherwise. 

Hence, entering the landscape of photojournalism, especially as a woman and a non-binary individual, requires mettle as it is fraught with unforeseen perils and systemic prejudices. While notable progress has taken place, long-standing inequalities and transgressions still convolute ventures into the field, forcing fledgling photojournalists through an antiquated system that pays little heed to equality and inclusivity. 

Through the viewfinder

“Your mere presence already affects the situation you’re trying to capture,” Kimmy Baraoidan, photojournalist and former regional correspondent, contends. In the field, aside from braving extreme and fast-paced conditions, challenging other people’s biases and fears in pursuit of capturing informative images is an added challenge. As it is difficult to discern the whole gamut of a person’s disposition at a glance, she emphasizes that having sharp situational awareness is highly essential for survival; there is cruciality in knowing when to go after salient figures and when to completely extract oneself from a situation. 

Securing the perfect shot is one thing, but ensuring that an image captures an accurate and objective story is another. “There is a duty to be the conductor of these stories and it’s a huge responsibility,” Kimi dela Cruz, an independent photojournalist, points out. Photographs hold context-specific elements, and it is through a painstaking commitment to balancing accuracy and notability that an image is able to convey the truth. Pau Villanueva, a non-binary documentary photographer, resonates with the sentiment, opining that, “Storytelling has the power of changing people’s perception and [inspiring] social change.” 

However, gender inequalities double the predicaments these photojournalists are compelled to withstand. “Paano kung hindi ako i-take seriously kasi queer person ako?” Villanueva laments. Warped and unchallenged notions drive these photojournalists to be vigilant, lest they unknowingly find themselves victims of discrimination. 

(What if I don’t get taken seriously because I am a queer person?)

This impasse similarly bleeds over to the themes they cover. Dela Cruz explains that the expectation that women are only allowed to tackle certain topics through the lens of their struggles and femininity, rather than their labor and artistry is restricting. “No matter what you accomplish, the discussion always comes back to gender rather than the work itself,” she observes.  

Beyond concerns rooted in prejudice lie potent structural challenges that photojournalists have to overcome at some point in their careers. Although technical knowledge of the camera and proficiency in visual storytelling are highly valued in the profession, these are not enough to get published by local news organizations. Baraoidan enumerates that “seniority in the newsroom and in the field and the abysmal rate that news outfits pay photojournalists” are two prime examples of the aforementioned difficulties. 

Editors appraise consistency, reliability, and integrity; they demand works founded in credibility. Still, the standards of most news managements do not see eye-to-eye with the pay grade they offer photojournalists. “Local news outfits pay only around three hundred to five hundred pesos per photo, and that has been the rate since the 1980s,” she expounds. 

Refocusing the lens

Although photojournalism is a highly venerable career, a winding road must first be traversed by officials and practitioners alike to ensure its path toward being a level playing field for all. Several hurdles must be overcome on the physical, mental, and psychological levels of their profession. Living in a culture with two sets of standards—one where they are arbitrated as female or queer and another where the  criteria established for photojournalists are extremely stringent—really makes it more difficult for women photojournalists to execute their craft. “The added challenge of being a female photojournalist is having the risk of being sexually violated,” Baraoidan points out. 

For a moment, Villanueva wishes that there would come a time when he wouldn’t have to distinguish himself as a queer photographer, but he realized that it is important to introduce himself this way. “It is more of a responsibility for me to represent myself—a photographer who is queer, a person of color and disability—to present for people with the same circumstance,” he imparts. Dela Cruz also points out that the distinction as a female photojournalist was a challenge she had to overcome in photography. “Society is fascinated [in] the woman, but until now we still treat it like an oddity or something to consume rather than being treated as a true equal,” she reasons.

While Villanueva acknowledges that there is a long way to go in diversifying the perspectives in the industry, he believes that fostering and strengthening the community can stop hindering people from taking up the profession. “Iba’t iba yung kinukuha namin na stories and having that sense of community in a job na most of the time mag-isa ka…you need a community—a healthy one.”

(Gathering diverse stories and having that sense of community in a job where you’re alone most of the time…you need a community—a healthy one).

The bigger picture

Photojournalists may alter the demographics of the photojournalism scene and ensure that the top storytellers in the profession reflect the populations they want to represent by promoting and supporting more female and non-binary photographers in the field. This requires having to encourage conversations and spaces that give more opportunities for photographers to tell stories that help represent them and their communities. 

Ang laking halaga ng mentorship and guidance sa industry most especially na iba’t iba rin ‘yung direction ng mga photographers na as far as I know [na nasa] community ko,” Villanueva shares. With this, he has been teaching participatory photography to certain communities to share what photography can do in concretizing their identities. 

(Mentorship and guidance are crucial in the industry…photographers take up different directions in my community.)

Additionally, it is also crucial to recognize the power editors and management hold in allowing such changes to take place. “No matter how much we clamor for equal representation, if the ‘gatekeepers’ won’t budge, nothing will happen,” Baraoidan elucidates. Recognizing the disparity in opportunities but renouncing labels and gendered gazes is also a step in reminding us that the art form should not be limited by gender. 

Dela Cruz emphasizes that photography is an interest that anyone can pursue—which also proves that the medium serves as an agency for everyone. “It will never be easy, [and] depending on privilege and limitations, you have to persevere,” Dela Cruz encourages. “You could always just take pictures for yourself, for your loved ones—photography is for everyone.”

Danielle David Castillo

By Danielle David Castillo

Cristina Jarito

By Cristina Jarito

Leave a Reply