Antonin Kratochvil has been suspended from the VII Photo Agency, pending an investigation into accusations he sexually harassed female photojournalists in the agency. The allegations were made in an article written by Kristen Chick for the Columbia Journalism Review, which contends that sexual harassment is widespread in photojournalism, and cites Kratochvil as just one example.
The report includes quotes from photographer Anastasia Taylor-Lind, a one-time member of VII, stating that Kratochvil physically groped her at a VII Annual General Meeting in Paris in 2014. “She says she was approached by founding member Antonin Kratochvil, a well-known photojournalist who has won three World Press Photo first prizes over his long career,” the article reads. “Taylor-Lind was wearing a long skirt, and said she stood with a group of people near a window during a break from the meeting.
“Without warning, Kratochvil slid his hand between her buttocks, she says, and pushed it forward until he was touching her vagina over her clothing. He held his hand there for several seconds, she says. She froze until he removed his hand and then she walked away.”
Chick’s article also references allegations made against Kratochvil by another former VII member, Stephanie Sinclair, though she is not able to speak publicly about the agency (and vice versa) following a legal agreement between the two. In the article Lauren Greenfield, another former member, claims that Sinclair met Kratochvil for a coffee shortly before Sinclair joined VII in 2008, during which he allegedly told her “I bet you like to be fucked in the ass” and later kissed her on the mouth against her will. Sinclair also apparently met Kratochvil for dinner when on assignment in Prague in 2012, during which Kratochvil allegedly used a lewd word to reference her vagina and said “I bet [it]. . . likes to be licked”.
“We take these allegations very seriously and have zero tolerance for the sexual harassment the report talks about,” Gary Knight, co-founder and current director of VII, has told BJP. “We have suspended one of the founding members of the agency…Our response as a photo agency has been to take these accusations at face value and prevent anybody else from possible exposure; we will now investigate as best we can, and then take action as our lawyers advise is appropriate.”
Kratochvil denies the accusations in Chick’s article, which quotes him as stating: “I can sincerely tell you that all of [their] accusations are false. We did have some disagreements with some of my [colleagues] in my agency during my active years but nothing of this nature.” He has not responded to BJP attempts to contact him.
Crucially, a question mark has been raised over what VII knew prior to Chick’s article. Taylor-Lind states in the article that she “didn’t react at all” at the 2014 AGM, because “I had come to understand that putting up with that sort of behaviour was part of the price I had to pay for, as a young woman, entering a male-dominated industry. And I also didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to be seen as, you know, the clichéd hysterical woman complaining about things. I also didn’t say anything because any person that I could have [complained] to was in the room, which made them complicit”.
But Taylor-Lind also claims in Chick’s article that Kratochvil made lewd comments about her body in front of VII members and was never pulled up on it, adding: “Everyone knew about it and would say things like ‘Oh that’s just Antonin’.” The article also states that Taylor-Lind exchanged online messages with VII founding member Christopher Morris about sexual harassment in the agency in February 2018, in which Morris wrote: “With Antonin we’ve all know (sic) and heard his verbal language used. Even in crowd presentations. And yes this has been horribly wrong.”
Morris made no comment in Chick’s story, but has now released a statement to BJP. “I would like to respond to the recent CJR charge that I did nothing in regards to the alleged sexual assault by Antonin Kratochvil on a member of VII,” it reads. “The moment I arrived at that passage describing the incident by Anastasia, where she was physically groped, it was as shocking to me as to anyone who read the same article. This was the first I had ever heard of this incident.
“My initial reaction was of pain, pain for Anastasia, for we are close, we are friends and through her words in the article, she felt she could tell no one. Anastasia and I have had numerous conversations on the subject of sexism in our industry. Never was it mentioned or implied that Antonin had physically abused her. The quote in the article attributed to me was a text message from myself to Anastasia back in early February 2018 which was in reference to Antonin’s frequent use of vulgar language which he turned on men and women alike and which I find inappropriate, distasteful and which I have always condemned.”
Chick’s article also includes allegations that VII board members knew about Sinclair’s claims of sexual harassment but did nothing about them, however – something which Taylor-Lind has reiterated to BJP. “In 2014 at the Paris AGM I heard several VII members discussing Stephanie Sinclair’s complaint of sexual harassment, mocking it and dismissing it, and using derogatory language about her,” she has told BJP. “This happened on several other occasions in VII meetings and in private conversations with several members of the agency.”
Furthermore, Chick’s article includes a quote from photographer Andrea Bruce, in which she claims that Kratochvil was not the only VII member to harass Sinclair. “Sinclair told her about being harassed by multiple members of VII,” reads the article, “but particularly Kratochvil”.
Speaking with BJP in response to the latter claim, Knight said that: “VII says that it will look at any specific cases brought to its attention.” But he stated that the Chick article was the first the agency knew of any physical molestation by Kratochvil, and that reading of it was a “shock”.
Regarding Taylor-Lind’s claims that Sinclair’s complaints were discussed and derided, Knight added: “I was and am not privy to private conversations between Anastasia and other photographers and I have not heard anyone at VII ‘mock’ claims of sexual harassment. I can only reiterate that we have absolutely zero tolerance for harassment of any kind.
“Over the last year we have carefully put in place codes of ethics and reporting structures intended to prevent any form of harassment and create a safe environment for everyone in the agency, and evidence of that is the immediate suspension of one of our founding members, an enquiry and an internal review. VII is committed to reviewing its past and will ensure that going forward, all its photographers feel that they are in a safe and protective environment irrespective of their gender, religion or race and we will take whatever steps are necessary to make that happen.”
VII released a statement on the matter on 22 July, which also references ‘shock’ at Chick’s article, opening: “In light of the recent story in the Columbia Journalism Review about sexual harassment in the photojournalism industry, we want to reiterate that the photographers of VII are committed to maintaining a safe, creative and inclusive environment, free of harassment and intimidation. We are unable to comment on individual allegations while we examine them, but the circumstances surrounding the allegation of physical molestation made in the article against founding member Antonin Kratochvil were shocking to us.” The entire statement can be read here https://viiphoto.com/
The question of when VII knew about the alleged harassment is key, as opens up another important issue – whether sexual harassment happens within photojournalism because of isolated individuals, or because it’s part of a general culture in which such behaviour is allowed proliferate, because it is not held in check. Chick’s article comes down firmly on the latter view, stating that “photojournalism has a sexual harassment problem” and also including several allegations made against other photographers and picture editors.
Written after interviewing over 50 photographers, this article is “just the tip of the iceberg”, Chick told BJP, with numerous other women coming forward with stories off-the-record which they felt unable to make public – because it would damage their career to do so, given the prevailing culture in photojournalism and their position in it. “There is a lot that’s not included in the article,” she said.
“First to keep it simple, because otherwise it would take 100,000 words not 10,000, but also various other reasons including the fact that some people didn’t feel comfortable going on the record. The article shows clearly why that’s the case – people are very worried re personal and professional connections within the industry.”
“It’s a decision everyone has to make for herself,” she later adds. “As a writer I want everyone to speak on the record but I understand why people don’t.”
Taylor-Lind has told BJP something similar, referencing the informal “whisper network” in which women photojournalists have shared stories they felt they could not make public. “As stories about sexual harassment in the photojournalism industry were investigated and reported earlier this year…I began talking about the issue with colleagues in the industry,” she told BJP.
“I was very disturbed by some comments, made privately, that the #metoo movement has gone too far, that young women should focus on their photography, not getting ahead by networking with editors, those sorts of things. I was also shocked by comments from male colleagues saying ‘Is it really true? It’s unbelievable!’ To me, and the female photographers I talked to, these reports published what we already knew and had heard on the whisper network.”
This whisper network is not complete, however, with Taylor-Lind telling BJP that, until a few days before Chick’s article was published, she had had no idea that Sinclair had also apparently had issues with Kratochvil. She comments that finding this out was “a shock” and adds: “But as shocking was the fact that Stephanie and I had never talked about our experiences with each other, despite being in the same agency for many years.”
“I also began to recognise the culture of silence and complicity that allows this behaviour to continue,” she told BJP. “I don’t want to be part of that silence any more. Inspired by the brave, mostly younger (younger than me – I am 37) women who spoke publicly about their experiences of sexual harassment earlier this year, I came to understand that I had no choice except to speak on the record to Kristen Chick.”
Chick, for her part, says that what’s key now is that the institutions within photojournalism ask themselves what they can do to help – a process which Knight claims has already been underway at VII since last year. “There is a lot they [the institutions] can do, it starts at the top,” Chick told BJP. “Editors and leaders of institutions need to make clear with actions and words that they care, that they want to hear from photographers being abused, and that they will be protected.
“They need to establish official procedures to report, so people feel able to do so,” she added. “If there is no institutional change, the problem will not go away.”