Put women who capture history with a camera in the big picture
Special to Stars and Stripes March 1, 2022
During Women’s History Month, we celebrate the contributions of women across all spheres of life. But to observe this month honestly, we must acknowledge how women’s stories and contributions are often overlooked. Such are the consequences when the authors of history largely are men. The names of so many women who have made history, or recorded it, remain in the shadows.
This is true in the male-dominated field of journalism, notably among war correspondents — and, in particular, combat photographers. The names of the women who worked alongside iconic photographers such as Robert Capa, Nick Ut and Tim Hetherington draw little recognition outside the field. Yet, their noteworthy accomplishments came with an additional obstacle: their gender. Before they saw any fighting, they had to win the fight against sexism. The 20th century attitude toward female journalists was summed up by the comments of the Saigon bureau chief for United Press International in 1967: “What the hell would I want a girl for?” To fully appreciate their work, we must understand the obstacles female photojournalists had to surmount to be considered capable.
But recognizing their accomplishments is about more than acknowledging gender barriers. It’s also about valuing different voices — or visions — in news coverage. Reporting on complex events, such as war and its consequences, requires context, accuracy and insight that demand varied perspectives. This is something students of news literacy learn. News literacy teaches the importance of equitable, diverse and inclusive representation in newsrooms as fundamental to accessible, representative, quality journalism. News literacy also benefits society by enabling us to spot biased or narrow coverage and to identify credible reporting that is crucial to our understanding of the world.
Women’s History Month is an excellent time to honor some of the female photojournalists who brought their unique visions to important stories, usually in harm’s way and often in unwelcoming workplaces.
Chapelle’s first big assignment came at age 23 when she covered combat training in Panama for Look magazine. When World War II began shortly after, National Geographic sent her to the front line, where her assignments included battles at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. During the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the secret police captured Chapelle, and she spent nearly two months in solitary confinement. Undeterred, she went on to cover the Cuban Revolution and the Vietnam War, accompanying troops into the jungle, where guerrilla fighting was being waged. Chapelle was killed in Vietnam in 1965 when shrapnel from a tripwire severed her carotid artery while she was on a search and destroy mission with U.S. Marines. She was the first American woman photographer killed in combat. Over her career, Chappelle’s images captured many facets of war: intense fighting, soldiers at rest, refugees in peril and civilians caught in the middle.
Leroy demonstrated a fearlessness before stepping foot on a battlefield. Just 22 years old in 1966, and with little money and no employer, she left France for Vietnam. Despite this inauspicious start, she is “widely considered the most daring photographer in Vietnam.” Leroy worked for The Associated Press and UPI and would draw acclaim for a series of photos published in Life magazine that captured a U.S. Navy corpsman tending to a dying Marine. In 1968, North Vietnamese soldiers captured Leroy and a fellow French journalist during the Tet offensive. Calling on their common language, she persuaded her captors to let her take photos, arguing that she could show another side of the war. Life featured these images on its cover, accompanied by a story she wrote. Leroy died in California in 2006.
In the 1980s, Adriana Lestido worked as a journalist with La Voz del Interior and Página/12, major newspapers in Argentina. She then turned to long-form projects to shed light on the harsh realities of life for women in her country. Her work during the notorious Dirty War of 1976 to 1983, when Argentina’s military dictatorship waged a campaign of terror against leftist political opponents and other citizens it perceived as “enemies,” made her name. During these years, an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 citizens were killed or “disappeared” after being taken into government custody. Lestido is probably best known for her photograph of a mother and daughter at a protest demanding the return of the disappeared. The image would symbolize the women-led resistance against the dictatorship. Lestido lives and works in Buenos Aires.
These women paved the way for contemporary war photographers, such as Lynsey Addario, who was kidnapped twice, first in Afghanistan and then in Libya. In 2009, Addario was part of a New York Times team whose Afghanistan coverage earned the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting. Her 2015 memoir, “It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War,” became a bestseller.
Journalism and society are richer for the contributions of these women, and those contributions will continue if those who follow them are given the opportunities they deserve.
Carol McCarthy, a former newspaper reporter and editor, is the senior director of communications at the News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan national education nonprofit.