Yunghi Kim hit the bedroom floor when she heard the first volley of gunfire around 4 a.m. The Boston Globe photographer thought she had found safety in the CARE compound in a remote Somali village. Suddenly, rebel forces were attacking from the surrounding desert.
The thumping of soldiers' footsteps grew louder; there were shouts and more mortar blasts. Bullets peppered the building where Kim crouched in the darkness with a Globe reporter who had accompanied her.
As fierce Somali warlords, one of them called Blackbeard, battled for turf near the Juba River, the two Americans wondered how long they would live before a grenade or sniper's bullet found its mark. Kim cradled a camera as soldiers blasted their way through the compound gates. Within minutes, they were inside, looting and holding their captives at gunpoint.
"I really did believe I was going to die," Kim said of the October 1992 incident. Somalia was her first foreign assignment, a plum for a young female photographer eager to build credibility among her peers. Being captured by a brutal warlord who left piles of bodies in his wake didn't deter Kim.
United Nations officials negotiated a release with the rebels and arranged an evacuation to nearby Nairobi. Four days later Kim returned to Somalia. "I didn't want to go back to Boston and say I'd quit," she later admitted. Indeed, that could have created the impression that a female photojournalist had folded under fire.
Nearly five years later, Yunghi Kim stood behind a podium at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., honored as "Magazine Photographer of the Year,"
one of the industry's most coveted awards. Her acceptance speech in May was laced with pride and just a hint of cockiness.
The petite, outspoken journalist, now a freelancer, sent a clear message to her audience of editors, photo directors and colleagues of both sexes. She called 1997 "the year of the woman" in photojournalism, a claim based on an avalanche of top prizes won by female photographers.
"We basically swiped all the major awards," Kim later boasted, reciting a litany of female winners – Carol Guzy of the Washington Post, Corinne Dufka of Reuters News Agency and Gail Fisher of the Los Angeles Times among them.
Indeed, if there were a Hall of Fame for female photojournalists, the names of these women would be in neon lights. Kim, 35, raised an important point. Over the years, as gender barriers slowly have eroded, female shooters steadily have risen to the top of the profession.
In greater numbers than ever, women are carrying cameras into locker rooms and war zones as well as on daily assignments, shooting everything from food and fashion to gang violence and prison riots in their communities.
Some are tackling topics, such as domestic violence or the trials of single mothers, that men traditionally have shied away from; others are turning the spotlight on international stories, such as the effects of tribal war on Rwandan children.
Historically, the practice of photojournalism has been defined by men. Has this influx of women begun a redefinition of the kinds of topics covered and the manner of coverage?
Overall, the burgeoning success of female photographers could mean a richer mix of images in America's newspapers and magazines. If, in fact, women tend to "see" differently than men – and that is debatable – it could mean a wider interpretation of news events as witnessed through the viewfinder of a camera. Some photo experts argue that women have certain attributes, such as more patience and an eye for detail, that bring greater sensitivity to their work. Others believe that personal values, maturity and experience play a greater role than gender in determining quality of photos.
Joe Elbert, assistant managing editor for photography at the Washington Post, is among those who believe gender makes a difference.
"Until the 1970s, [photojournalism] was a man's world," says Elbert, who has been a judge for the prestigious Pictures of the Year contest. "We're starting to get more – and different – interpretations of subject matter as more women come into the profession. There is a different approach because of gender."
The decades of perseverance against the odds are paying off in another way. More than ever before, women photographers are winning top awards in stiff international competition, further evidence that, professionally, they are overcoming past stereotypes and prejudices.
In 1997, American women won high-profile honors in the World Press Photo competition in the Netherlands; the Overseas Press Club of America's contest; the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial competition, which includes photo categories; Visa Pour l'Image, a photojournalism festival in France, and Pictures of the Year (POY), the largest photo competition in the U.S.
The greater number of women being recognized for the excellence of their work is a relatively new phenomenon. The POY contest ran for nearly half a century before a woman, the Post's Guzy, won Newspaper Photographer of the Year in 1990, a title she earned again in 1993 and 1997.
Kim ended a long dry spell for females in POY's Magazine Photographer of the Year division. Until this year, the late Lisa Larsen, a Life photographer, was the only woman to win, in 1953 and 1958. For the first time, two women – Guzy and Kim – were named newspaper and magazine photographers of the year in the same competition.
Guzy, Kim and Dufka also swept three major photo awards in the Overseas Press Club competition. Club manager Sonya Fry views the landslide as a "hands-down ovation for women."
In 1986, Guzy, then with the Miami Herald, was the first female professional news photographer to win a Pulitzer Prize, which she shared with Herald colleague Michel duCille. She won a second Pulitzer in 1995 for her work in Haiti. (The first woman to win a Pulitzer for a news photo was an amateur who in 1954 captured a daring rescue off a California bridge with a box Brownie.)
Yet, even as gender barriers continue to tumble, successful women in the field struggle with issues similar to those the pioneers, such as Margaret Bourke-White, faced decades ago. In an article titled "Great Women in Photojournalism," photo historian C. Zoe Smith described women who excelled in the profession as self-motivated, highly competitive, versatile, in love with adventure and traveling. However, many never married; others were divorced once or twice. Only a few found they could combine the demands of their work with a husband and children.
In that regard, "not much has changed today," says Smith, a University of Missouri journalism professor. Like the trailblazers before them, many contemporary female photographers say they have had to overcome sexism from editors who refused to hire them, photo directors who denied them prime assignments and colleagues who doubted their ability. Some tell of being pigeonholed into "women's work," covering fluff.
Jodi Cobb, a prize-winning photographer with National Geographic, tells of being barred from the sidelines at Philadelphia Eagles football games and from the press box at the University of Delaware stadium in the early 1970s. She was shooting for the Wilmington News-Journal at the time.
"When the PR people for the Eagles finally gave me permission, one of them said, 'OK, as long as you promise you won't get hurt,' " recalls Cobb, who has traveled to more than 45 countries for the Geographic since 1978. During most of that time, she has been the magazine's only female staff photographer.
When Mimi Fuller Foster walked into the Cincinnati Post's photo department in 1972, she was greeted with, "You must be the reason we had to take the Playboy calendars off the wall." "That was my welcome to the locker room world of photojournalism," she wrote in a report by the National Press Photographers' Association.
Today women would not meet that kind of overt resistance, says Foster, a freelance journalist from Atlanta, Georgia. "When I started, the discrimination was right out there." The greater visibility of women in the profession has made a major difference, she says.
A 1992-93 survey of women photojournalists, funded in part by the NPPA, found that 80 percent of the 220 respondents felt that, in one way or another, they were held back by gender-related issues. Obstacles most often noted included sexist attitudes and stereotypes, a lack of women in management and conflicts between job and family.
But the influx of women into photojournalism has helped defuse popularly held stereotypes. Some male photographers acknowledge, for instance, that women can be first-rate sports shooters and bear up as well as men under fire in war zones. Rather than viewing their gender as a disadvantage, some women say that it often works in their favor, gaining them access to places where males are not allowed.
More controversial, however, is the notion that women "see" differently than men and tend to have a style that is discernible from males'. Some photo experts say that women's coverage illustrates an instinct to delve beneath the surface of a story and add a deeper human dimension to photos. There is evidence that women lean toward assignments that tug at the heart and attempt to influence social change.
Reuters' Dufka, a veteran of war zones, says she was drawn to the power of photos to educate news watchers on important world issues and by the opportunity to influence public policy. "Raising consciousness about the conflicts I cover is important to me," says the former social worker, who made the switch to photojournalism while documenting human rights violations in El Salvador.
Some of the women interviewed for this article felt they were more patient than their male counterparts, paid more attention to detail and to building emotional connections with their subjects. There was another common thread. Many of the women talked of making tough personal sacrifices, such as not having children or a normal home life, in order to succeed in photojournalism. Men, they believed, were more likely to have a caretaker waiting in the wings.
Historian Smith agrees. "Maybe it's just my bias showing, but I believe it's a lot easier for men to have someone to come home to. There is a tradition of women waiting for men whether they are going off to war or driving a truck across country," says Smith. "Life would be easier if we all had a wife."
The Washington Post's Joe Elbert has worked with some of the country's best photojournalists of both sexes, including Pulitzer Prize winners Guzy and duCille. He answers "absolutely" to the question of whether gender makes a difference in what photographers shoot and how they go about it.
"Women peel away the layers of a story like an artichoke; men like to slam in there, go for the money picture and move on. Of course, that is a generalization, and there are exceptions to the rule," says Elbert. "But, if I have a long-range project, the women tend to stay more focused than the men."
Kim refers to the "sissy factor" when she talks about gender differences in photographers. She believes that women are more willing to take emotional risks and build intimacy with the people they photograph.
"I'm a classic female in the sense that there has to be a bonding with my subjects. It's a relationship that I see differently than men. Maybe not all men, but probably most," says Kim, winner of the 1997 World Press Photo Golden Eye Award for her work with Rwandan refugees. She was a Pulitzer finalist for her work in Somalia in 1992.
Stan Grossfeld, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for photography, describes Kim's work as "incredible" and says he sees greater sensitivity in the photos of outstanding female photojournalists. "Yunghi has nerves of steel," says Grossfeld, an associate editor at the Boston Globe, "but she's also sensitive, and that's a rare combination."
Not everyone thinks the dividing lines are crystal-clear. Veteran photojournalist Stormi Greener of Minneapolis' Star Tribune cautions against sweeping judgments about differences.
"I have worked with male photographers who are quite sensitive," says Greener, the first female shooter hired by the Minneapolis Star back in the mid-1970s. (The Star later merged with the Tribune.)
When she took her first photo job at the Idaho Statesman in Boise, a male coworker taught her the fine points of journalistic photography. "I don't think he cared whether I was male or female," says Greener. "We need to start giving men their due... Women do not have a monopoly on sensitivity."
The Post's Guzy agrees. "Everybody brings different life experiences to the profession," she says. "When it comes to sympathy and empathy, these are qualities that anyone can gain through living."
Some men are more in touch with their feminine side and that can lead to more sensitive photos, says Caroline E. Couig, a picture editor for the Detroit Free Press who also chairs the NPPA's women's committee established in 1984.
Couig shies away from using the term "women's issues" when she talks about her work with NPPA. "It marginalizes and ghetto-izes us," she says. Instead, Couig refers to "human issues" that affect both men and women in the profession. "The point is not to be separate, but to be equal," she says. Of NPPA's 10,500 members, around 20 percent are women.
For Jim McNay, NPPA president in 1996-97, it is the quality of work, not gender, that makes the greatest difference. "Ultimately, it comes down to the same thing for everyone – the work they produce and the commitment they bring to the product," says McNay, the photojournalism coordinator at San Jose State University.
McNay feels it's too broad a statement to label women as more sensitive. "There are too many exceptions," he says, singling out the late W. Eugene Smith and contemporary photojournalism greats Eugene Richards, a noted freelancer, and James Nachtwey, who often shoots for Time magazine. McNay acknowledges, however, that women tend to shoot some of the more familiar topics in a different way. He uses a high school football game as an example.
"Women are not only interested in the high testosterone battle on the field, but in the human element elsewhere," McNay says. "Men do that too, but women do it more often."
Journalists can turn to science to explain some of the key issues in the debate. For instance, scientific research supports the notion that women and men process information differently, whether it be messages transmitted via a TV advertisement or images documented with a camera.
Some theorists, in an attempt to show how male/female values differ, have developed historical explanations for why women tend to see in greater detail than men, for instance, or place greater emphasis on building human relationships. In her book "Sex on the Brain," Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Deborah Blum poses a series of questions:
Do men and women process what comes in, absorb it, then turn it around in a different way? How much of the difference in the way men and women think actually is environmental? How much is biological?
To prove a point about women noticing more detail, she cites a study where men and women were asked to scrutinize the contents of a room. The men, she noted, were more likely to remember the big picture – the desk, a chair, the bookshelves. Women tended to remember details – the flower vase, family portraits and what was in the book case.
Blum, who won a Pulitzer Prize for science reporting while at the Sacramento Bee, ties her theories to the early development of humans.
During a National Public Radio program on gender and advertising, Blum linked differences in how the sexes receive and process messages to the hunter/gatherer roles each played in primitive society. Women, in charge of collecting plants and berries and marking food storage sites, had to make detailed mental maps in order to do their job.
The men, whose responsibility was hunting, left out the superfluous and focused on a single issue, the prey. The hunter zeroed in on the kill, an aggressive achievement-driven act that pulled him away from the community. The female maintained closer ties to familial relationships and the home.
Ross Goldstein, a California psychologist who studies gender roles, described the distinct perceptual styles of men and women. "Women pay attention to the texture of things much more. I'm not just speaking about fabrics per se, but the texture of relationships – the details. Men tend to think in a much more macro way," he said on NPR's "Talk of the Nation."
These theories reflect the differences that experts like Elbert and Grossfeld see in the photography of men and women. They also shed light on Yunghi Kim's "sissy factor," the notion that women are more likely to build intimate relationships with their subjects and take emotional risks. "My approach to photography is to understand the human side. I love exploring human relationships," Kim says.
Scientists point to physical evidence for gender differences, such as the notion that women have more connections than men between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. In one study, it was explained that the left hemisphere is the power source for tasks requiring logic, reason and analysis. The right is the creative, emotional, spontaneous side.
Blum believes these physical differences could explain why males tend to "select" while females "elaborate." Men hunt for the point; women gather the detail. Male brains tend to specialize and concentrate on a particular task. The female brain is more li1ely to take a more holistic approach, she says.
In her landmark book, "In a Different Voice," Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan argues that women perceive and construe social reality differently from men. She cites studies showing that girls are more concerned with building relationships at a young age and tend to be more compassionate. Gilligan writes: "The moral imperative that emerges repeatedly in interviews with women is an injunction to care, a responsibility to discern and alleviate the 'real and recognizable trouble' in this world."
Gilligan's theories are reflected in interviews with female photographers like Guzy, who talks openly of "dealing with a broken heart" over the human misery she witnesses in the line of duty. Freelance photographer Donna Ferrato has devoted much of her career to photo essays on domestic violence; Kim won wide acclaim for her photos of former Korean sex slaves known as "comfort women." Dufka won the coveted Robert Capa Gold Medal, recognizing her "exceptional courage and enterprise," for producing images of the slaughter in Liberia that were transmitted around the world.
Scientific theory also rings true when media professionals like the Post's Elbert expound on the differences they see in photos produced by the men and women who work for them. "It's interesting, but, in some instances, I have had a hard time editing picture stories by women. They can be very subtle," Elbert says.
The Globe's Grossfeld sees mood and directness as strengths in women's photography. "A lot of male journalists come on as big, brash war heroes. I'm glad that people with a more sensitive eye are gaining recognition," he says. "It has been a long time coming."
Historian Smith draws comparisons between successful photojournalists of both sexes. They tend to be tenacious, obsessed with the profession and willing to take risks. "They live and breathe photography. They sacrifice what we would consider a normal life for the job," she says. "They are a special breed."
Interviews with successful women in photojournalism today reveal profiles similar to those of the groundbreakers. Many are dealing with clashes between the desire for marriage and children versus a dedication to the job. The women overwhelmingly agree that men in their profession are more likely to have both needs met.
"Men don't drop everything to go with women," says the Geographic's Cobb. "The man's career is always supposed to come first, therefore it's hard to get a guy to quit a job and travel with you for a few months." But, she says, it is not uncommon to see women traveling with male photographers to help support their personal life and career.
Cobb second guesses herself on opting for a high-powered career over having a more normal home life. "But I am not obsessed with the notion that I have not been married and most likely will not have children," she says. She urges young female photographers with the idea of motherhood in the back of their minds to "tend to it early on" before they are too caught up in the profession.
It was curiosity and the lure of adventure that kept her moving around the globe. In a feature story on Cobb, Washington Post writer David Hoffman noted that she "likes to probe subjects that are in their own way as difficult to master as climbing Mount Everest. They are the hidden worlds of human behavior and closed societies."
Cobb has skirted the cultural taboos of Saudi Arabia to do a documentary on women behind the veil; she has penetrated the secret world of Japan's geishas, which resulted in a photo book. For her master's degree project, she photographed the lives of children in a 1970s hippie commune.
"There is a huge world of women out there that is undiscovered, neglected, not talked about. That's something I find myself drawn toward more and more," says the photographer, who once had to hire bodyguards after several attacks by robbers while on assignment in New York City.
Some women have attempted to keep a foot in both worlds. Stormi Greener was a single parent of two when she began traveling to places like Calcutta and Bangkok for Minneapolis newspapers. Years later, her daughter, Tara, spewed out the anger she had been harboring about Greener being an absentee mother. The showdown came during taping of a video on the personal toll photojournalism can take, part of Greener's presentation at a National Press Photographers' Association function in 1991.
In one exchange, Tara, who was 25 years old at the time, told Greener that she never doubted that her mother was "a brilliant photographer" while she was growing up. "But I just wanted you to be a brilliant mom – to spend as much time with us as you did your photo subjects."
For Greener, 51, extended trips abroad began in 1979 when she was assigned to cover the boat people in Southeast Asia. She admits missing the signals her children were sending.
"I never quite knew how hard it was on the kids," she says. Greener was stunned at the anger her daughter voiced during the videotaping. "It hit me like a bolt of lightning... It was like the monster under the bed."
Greener believes, however, that male photographers face similar tensions between family and job. She sees young men in the Star Tribune's photo department taking a more active role in their children's lives. If she had it to do over again, "I would create better balance" between home and work, she says.
Yunghi Kim is in the midst of prioritizing the professional and the personal. She talks passionately about her photography and the emotional connections she builds with subjects. Then, suddenly, the conversation switches from photojournalism to biological time clocks.
"I am 35. This is a big thing. Which direction do I go?" ponders Kim, who has been married for seven years to a former journalist. "Some guys can do this kind of work and have a wife who takes care of the kids, but women can't. We have to choose."
There is a hint of frustration as she describes how she paid her dues in the profession during her 20s, shooting slice-of-life photos in New England and even some sports. In her 30s she began chalking up a series of successes that boosted her confidence and prodded her toward excellence in the field. After the high-profile awards she won this year, Kim is receiving more and better assignments that take her away from home.
"Just when it all starts coming together for you, you begin thinking you might have to give this up for a greater thing – motherhood. Does my career become secondhand if I become a mother? It's a constant circle. I know I can't do both," admits Kim. She considers herself "lucky" that her husband is not pressuring her to have a baby and that adoption is an option later in their lives.
For the moment, her dilemma remains unresolved. "I just wish my biological time clock could give me another 10 years."
Guzy, 41, who was married to another photojournalist for a time, mulls what it would be like to have a stable relationship and keep regular hours. They are two things, she says, that have eluded her. And she has put off the decision about having children, "I realize it is now or never or adopt," she says, noting the possibility that she might adopt children from Haiti, a country that is close to her heart.
"It would dramatically change my lifestyle. The older you get, the more difficult it is to make the commitment," Guzy says. "It's hard to have it all and to do it all well."
Today, at 40, Dufka has all but given up on the idea of being a wife and mother. "One can't have everything," she says, describing her life as "very interesting and dynamic, but with ups and downs."
"I feel the one thing I won't have is a traditional, stable family life. There will be times I miss it, but I have a very rewarding existence – a very good substitute," says Dufka.
She relishes relating a story about a night that she and Guzy, after receiving awards in New York City, struck up a conversation with a stranger in a bar. After learning what they did for a living, the man noted that it must be frustrating when a major story breaks and the "big guys" are rushed in, pushing the women aside.
"A friend who was with us looked at him and said, 'You don't understand. These two women are the big guys,' " Dufka recalls. "It was a wonderful moment." l