How photojournalism’s biggest agencies are combating harassment

“We do see that our industry is male-dominated, world-wide – though not within NOOR,” say the photographers of the NOOR agency, via their current president Andrea Bruce. “We are encouraged by the current discussions happening throughout the photo world around abuse of power. These are sometimes painful, but necessary.”

Photojournalism is still male-dominated, that much is undeniable. But does it have a macho culture, as World Press Photo’s MD Lars Boering has said? Do male photojournalists and picture editors abuse their power? And if so, what’s being done about it? In the wake of the #metoo movement, and in particular after the recent allegations against Patrick Witty, one-time deputy director of photography at National Geographic, and Antonin Kratochvil, one of the founding members of VII, these have become key questions in photography, and the big agencies are getting on board. 

For David Kogan, as for Bruce, it’s a work in progress. He’s executive director of Magnum Photos, which introduced a Code of Conduct for both its photographers and staff at its last AGM in June. “Magnum has been conscious of the issues [in photojournalism] for some time,” he says. “But the culture of Magnum has been changing.”

As Kogan points out, Magnum has a 70-year history and as such would once have had a culture that would not stand up in today’s society. But, he adds, things are different now. Women photographers such as Bieke Depoorter, Olivia Arthur, Diana Markosian, Cristina de Middel, and Newsha Tavakolian have all joined the agency in recent years, and women now hold senior positions in Magnum’s offices in London, Paris and New York. “We have a much stronger sense of action, of change,” Kogan tells BJP.

This cultural shift has manifested in two direct actions in the last year – an internal investigation and a Code of Conduct. In the internal investigation, Magnum has asked its photographers and staff if there are any incidents it should know about; if anyone outside the agency has a complaint, they are invited to contact current Magnum Photos president Thomas Dworzak (if it’s a photographer) or Kogan himself (if it’s a member of staff). If the complaint is upheld, the offending individual will be expelled from the agency.

“So far not a single thing has come through,” says Kogan. “I hope we’re not being naive – but we’re absolutely not complacent on this. We’re trying to open the door, not close it.”

The Code of Conduct was introduced at Magnum’s AGM in June, and is a six-page code to which all Magnum photographers and members of staff must agree. It covers both verbal and physical harassment, and covers sexist or sexual behaviour or comments – or gestures or noises – as well as discrimination based on race, colour, age, and sexual orientation (among many others). “It’s not an ethics code, it’s a legally binding code,” says Kogan. “It has substance and weight.”

“If a photographer spends time going around abusing people and gets away with it, and people are just shrugging their shoulders and saying ‘That’s just good old so-and-so’ – well that’s just not acceptable,” he adds. “That’s a culture from the 1980s not now.”

Bruce, a photographer and president of the NOOR agency, says NOOR has also never received any complaints re sexual harassment, from either inside or outside the agency. Set up 11 years ago, NOOR currently includes 15 photographers (plus Stanley Greene, who passed away in 2017), of whom six are women – Nina Berman, Andrea Bruce, Alixandra Fazzina, Tanya Habjouqa, Benedicte Kurzen, and Sanne De Wilde. 

NOOR has had a Code of Conduct for at least four years, “which basically states that we follow the standards set by NPPA [the National Press Photographers Association], including their sexual harassment policy”, says Bruce. Updated in 2015, the NPPA Sexual Harassment Policy, states that harassment includes, but is not limited to “words, signs, jokes, pranks, intimidation, physical contact, unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, stalking, other verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature, vulgar or abusive language, or violence as it relates to race, national origin, religion, age, disability, gender, sexual orientation or any other classification protected by local, state or federal laws”.

Even so, like Kogan, Bruce emphasises that the door is open to those who have complaints, which should be made to either the managing director, Clement Saccomani, or to one of the NOOR presidents. “If we received a complaint, we would immediately initiate an investigation and act accordingly,” says Bruce.

Like Magnum and Noor, Reuters has a Code of Conduct, which is 68 pages long and specifically covers harassment and bullying. “Examples of sexual harassment can include: Unwelcome propositions, demands, or advances of a sexual nature,” it reads. “Unwelcome physical contact such as hugging, kissing, grabbing, pinching, patting or brushing up against someone. Unwelcome and inappropriate remarks about someone’s body or appearance, sexual gestures or comments, or unwanted verbal or physical interactions of a sexual nature. Unwelcome vulgar or obscene gestures, language or comments.”

Reuters also issued a statement to BJP on its policy towards sexual harassment and complaints, which includes the comment that Reuters has “a zero-tolerance policy toward harassment and responds quickly and decisively to any complaints”. “Reuters strives to create a culture free of harassment or fear of intimidation on every level and we are also committed to hiring, retaining and developing the best and most diverse photojournalism talent,” the statement adds.

Unlike Magnum, Noor, or Reuters, Institute doesn’t have an official code of conduct – but, says chief executive officer Frank Evers, “we have a no-nonsense business model. If anyone is not behaving professionally we release them [stop representing them] and move on”. “We’re not interested,” he adds. “We have a business sensibility, and zero tolerance for people who are unprofessional or have a reputation for bad behaviour. We don’t want to be part of it.”

Interestingly Evers, who headed up VII from 2004-2008, believes that the collective business model used by VII, Magnum, and NOOR helps create power imbalances which can be ripe for exploitation – with new photographers who want to join, for example, dependent on the goodwill of those who are already in and much better established. By contrast, Institute is a company, he says, which represents photographers’ work and services not photographers, and in which no member has any control over what happens to another. Instead, those decisions are taken by the company directors, Evers and his business partner, Matt Shonfeld.

“We don’t have AGMs or formal get-togethers, there is none of that power dynamic,” he says. “We’re just a different business model. But I specially set Institute up as a company [rather than a collective], because I felt it was cleaner, and to have the control I felt was necessary [over how the organisation was run].”

Either way, for Evers, the macho culture that has existed in photojournalism is changing – and has to change, not only because it’s the right thing, but also because it makes good business sense. He hasn’t worked in photojournalism per se since 2008, he says, counting Institute as an agency more involved with fine art and long term documentary work. But even back then, he found there was demand for a wider spread of people taking pictures.

“Clients wanted a greater diversity,” he says. “We needed a greater diversity of storytellers, so that we could sell a greater diversity of stories. We’ve since seen a development towards a greater inclusivity, but it’s been great to see initiatives like Daniella Zalcman’s Women Photograph [an extensive database of women photojournalists] because in terms of assignments, women, or people of colour, or people from other continents such as Africa and Asia, are still not getting the same opportunities as men.”

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is the editor of BJP, returning for a second stint on staff in 2023 - after 15 years on the team until 2019. As a freelancer, she has written for The Guardian, FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, Aperture, FOAM, Aesthetica and Apollo. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy