We Can’t Wait Any Longer: An Interview with Daniella Zalcman
Daniella Zalcman is an award-winning photographer who travels internationally to document the destructive aftermath of western colonization. Her recent book, Signs of Your Identity, looked at the devastating cultural and health effects of Canadian Indian Residential Schools. The book won 2016 FotoEvidence Book Award, the Magnum Foundation’s Inge Morath Award, and the Magenta Foundation’s Bright Spark Award. Her work on that project also won her the 2017 Arnold Newman Prize for New Directions in Photographic Portraiture. Earlier this year she was listed as one of 30 “New and Emerging Photographers to Watch” in Photo District News.
In the spring of 2017, she started Women Photograph, an online database that promotes the work of female photojournalists around the world. In addition to showcasing the work of hundreds of photographers, Women Photograph also offers grant and mentoring opportunities for women photojournalists.
I recently spoke with Daniella about her photography and about her leadership in promoting women photojournalists around the world.
Tim Greyhavens: What was the path you followed from studying architecture at Columbia to becoming an internationally-acclaimed photographer?
Daniella Zalcman: Architecture at Columbia was really more of a diversion tactic. I’ve wanted to be a journalist since I was 12 or 13. I thought I’d go to college at Columbia so that I’d have access to major media outlets, but in calculating that part of the plan I neglected to actually see whether or not they had an undergraduate journalism program. When I got there, I finally realized they didn’t have the program I wanted, so instead I devoted myself to working at the college newspaper. I also started freelancing, and by the time I was a junior I was freelancing almost full-time for the New York Daily News.
What happened after college?
Right after college, I worked at the Wall Street Journal on their Metro New York section for about three years, and then I moved to London when my husband got a job there as the European sports correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.
Once we moved there I had to rethink how I wanted to work because I needed to rebuild my client list from scratch. In the process of evaluating that, I realized that I wanted to move away from daily news assignments and start working on more long-term social documentary projects. I got a grant to work in East Africa, and that turned into several years of field work on some really tough projects.
What inspired you to develop Signs of Your Identity?
It was a serendipitous accident. I’d been doing some work in in Uganda, looking at how criminalizing sexual minorities often leads to a spike in HIV rates. At that point, the Pulitzer Center was funding almost all of my long-term work. They sent me to Australia to present on some of my Ugandan work, and I happened to read this UN AIDS report that mentioned that one of the demographics with the fastest growing rates of HIV in the world was Indigenous Canadians. That made absolutely no sense to me from a public health perspective, especially with Canada’s well-established healthcare system.
So I applied for another grant to go to Canada. I spent a month traveling around British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Ontario, and almost every single HIV-positive Indigenous person I interviewed talked about their time in residential school.
Until then I’d never heard of residential schools — it’s not something that we’re taught in conventional U.S. history curriculum. I was horrified that this 120-year institution had existed not just in Canada but also in the U.S. and many other countries around the world — wherever there have been colonizing powers and Indigenous communities. From there it quickly evolved into this giant project that I think will take me the next 5 to 10 years to finish.
You seem to have found a way for people to open their hearts about this really terrible part of their past.
Part of it was just really good timing. During my first trip in 2014, I was focused on the public health HIV story, so I was primarily looking at injection drug use in a lot of poor First Nations communities. It didn’t take long for me to realize that wasn’t the real story.
When I returned in 2015, it was just after the conclusion of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This was the end of a seven-year-long period where Indigenous Canadians had been giving testimony to the commission about their experiences, especially the terrible history of the residential schools. People who had spent the last 40 years of their lives keeping these things from their children, their grandchildren, from their communities, were all of a sudden willing to talk about it because it was all coming out into the open. It was sort of a collective step in a much-needed healing process.
One of the challenges you faced was working as an outsider in Indigenous communities. How were you able to gain the trust of people who are rightly distrustful of others telling their stories?
It’s complicated. The problem right now in the photojournalism world is that our history is imperfect. Today’s western journalists are the result of deeply colonial institutions, where there’s a historical belief that Western eyes and voices are somehow more legitimate. That will change, but in the meantime I’m an imperfect happy medium. I’d like at some point in the future to not be the person who is doing this, but I do feel very strongly that we need to be getting these narratives into history textbooks, classrooms, and into the mainstream media. That’s my goal at the moment.
Did you find any interest in photography in the Indigenous communities where you worked?
Not directly where I was working, but there are many talented working photojournalists who are Indigenous. Brian Adams, who’s an Alaskan photographer runs an incredible project called I AM INUIT. Camille Seaman, who does a lot of work in the Arctic. Josue Rivas, who’s the only photographer to have stayed in Standing Rock for the entire duration of that movement. I wish they were more of an obvious go-to for journalism about Indigenous issues.
Where did the idea come from for Women Photograph?
It was just rooted in pure frustration. I was looking at the World Press Photo’s State of News Photography reports, and for two years running only 15% of the respondents were women. That’s embarrassing. We make up more than 50% of the population, and we should be much closer to 50% of all photojournalists. Until that’s the case we’re going to have deeply skewed storytelling.
Obviously, I’m focused on gender, but I’m also deeply concerned with more inclusivity when it comes to race, religion, and sexuality. We need to make sure that we’re telling stories from all of those perspectives because this is who makes up the real world.
I’m at a point where I work on long-term projects that I select, and I don’t really rely on assignments and commissions all that much anymore. I’m still part of this photojournalism world, but I also don’t have to feel like my career is at risk if I open my mouth. It’s a great combination.
There needs to be an active voice about the sexism in my line of work. Most of the photojournalists in my generation are independent, and there are many filters that those in charge apply to who gets hired for a particular job. For women, in particular, it’s really hard to speak up and say, hey, this agency’s hiring practices are sexist, or this photo editor is actually a sexual predator. But someone needs to do it. We have to have those discussions, and I feel like I’m in a place to start some of them.
My research on funding through Kickstarter found that only about a third of the photo campaigns seem to be coming from women. It’s true that sexism is rampant everywhere, but what do you think is holding back women when there are voluntary opportunities to advance their work?
This is a question I’m asked a lot. I think there’s no single reason — probably more like a dozen. There’s a known gender bias in hiring practices, especially for photojournalists. There’s also a historical confidence gap and imposter syndrome that you see so often with women. Someone did a study to show that if there is a job with five required qualifications men will apply if they meet one of those five, and women will only apply if they meet four out of five.
“There’s a known gender bias in hiring practices, especially for photojournalists. There’s also a historical confidence gap and imposter syndrome that you see so often with women.”
I think you see things like this played out in the World Press competition, for example. If men think there is a 2% chance that a photo they took might win, they’ll likely to throw it in the pool. But many women might not enter unless they think they’re absolutely deserving. And that’s not an industry thing — that’s a society thing. We have cultivated it in how we create markers of gender.
There was a recent article in the New York Times about how testosterone tends to make men overconfident about their abilities or their intelligence. That echoes your thinking, but it also points to a more significant challenge in addressing the problems you describe. What can be done to help emerging women in photography gain more confidence?
There’s a huge problem in the lack of support and mentorship for women in photography. That’s something that I’m trying to address through Women Photograph. When an industry is largely populated by white men, generally speaking, the people they tend to reach out to, to mentor, are people who remind them of them when they were younger. So white men are mentoring young white men instead of people of color or young women. It’s really important that we figure out how to create a shift in that dynamic.
How did your mentorship program come together?
Before I started to create Women Photograph I had a meeting with maybe 20 people last fall at National Geographic — people from NatGeo, from the Pulitzer Center, from the International Women’s Media Foundation, from World Press. It was a group of all women — some photographers, some photo editors — and we talked about what we needed for there to be better opportunities for women photojournalists.
One of the priorities was creating more opportunities for funding because one of the most important things for young photographers is to be able to have a good body of work to put in front of an editor. If you haven’t had the time or the funding to be able to do that yet, you’re going to have a much harder time getting anywhere.
The second was the mentorship. I have never really had anyone I called a mentor because I’ve had an unconventional path into photojournalism. I never studied it; I worked in newspapers and then was off on my own strange and not entirely conventional projects. I really wish that when I was a 20-year-old hard news photographer in New York that I could’ve reached out to a 30- or a 40-year-old woman when I was experiencing weird moments of sexism and harassment. I think that type of connection would go a long way to building the confidence of younger women in the field.
The program we’ve started now has 22 amazing mentors, and the application period just closed. This will be a year-long program, with two mentees each paired with one female photo editor and one female established photographer. They’ll work together over the course of the year on one specific goal, like creating a solid portfolio, developing to a new project, or creating a dynamic website.
Photojournalism, unfortunately, is a very classist industry because it takes a lot of startup capital to engage. If you have a ton of student debt or if you’re from a developing country and don’t have the money, you can’t afford to get into some of the programs that have become launch pads for an emerging photographer’s career. So we created a travel fund that we’re making available to photographers from lower economic levels, especially in non-Western countries but also for talented women in need anywhere.
“Almost every institution photojournalists deal with is dominated by men at the top. That why Women Photograph is so important.”
This year we’re going to be able to send two photographers to the Missouri Photo Workshop and one to the Eddie Adams Workshop. We’ll also pay the tuition for one photographer at the Foundry Photo Workshop, and we’ll be able to send four photographers to Photoville. We want to create more opportunities for people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to access some of these opportunities.
The under-representation of women in photography is also perpetuated by foundations that fund individual photographers. Some of the major funders of photojournalism, like the Magnum Foundation, historically have awarded grants to about twice as many men as women.
Almost every institution photojournalists deal with is dominated by men at the top. That why Women Photograph is so important. We have to change the mistaken perception that there aren’t enough great women photographers in the field, but if you look at the [Women Photograph] website it’s easy to see there are hundreds and more likely thousands. Foundations should be embracing the opportunity to bring a better gender balance to their funding.
Who makes up the Women Photograph team right now?
It’s basically me and several people helping when they can. We’ve got a board of advisors of two female photo editors based who help judge the grants and help curate exhibits. They do a lot. For the data collection there a team of eight female photographers who’ve been helping me gather the weekly statistics over the course of the past six months.
Is there a plan for raising more money to advance the programs you’ve already started through Women Photograph?
We just got funding from the International Women’s Media Foundation and World Press to help pay for the travel fund, for some of the people who have been doing data collection, and for a couple of exhibits we’re planning in the fall. I’m also in the process of putting together a skills-building workshop in the fall that will only be open to female and female-identifying photographers.
For me, it’s a thing of how do I balance this effort, which I’m very passionate about, with my own work, which unfortunately has been slightly sidelined for the past few months. Right now I don’t necessarily have the bandwidth to turn this into a much larger thing than it is, especially since I have a very large project coming up that will require a ton of travel. Next month, I’m spending the entire month on the road in Australia, so I’m going to have set Women Photograph aside for a little bit.
Other than magically expanding time, what would be one thing that would be most helpful to you at this point?
It’s certainly money. I’ve been very lucky this year because a lot of organizations have been very supportive of Signs of Your Identity and of Women Photograph. But right now there’s no consistency in my funding, and I mostly live project to project.
I think we just happen to be at this moment in history right now where we’re as a society are more willing to have honest conversations about sexism in the media. We’re realizing that journalists no longer have widespread public trust, at least in the U.S., and figuring out how we will change that will take some hard conversations. I don’t know that Women Photograph would have taken off even five years ago, but I know that it has to happen now. We can’t wait any longer.
Daniella Zalcman’s portrait and the portrait of Mike Pinay are copyright by Daniella Zalcman. They are used here with her permission.