Being Barred From Studying Photojournalism Because of My Gender Didn’t Stop Me

This blog was first published on the website of the Society of Professional Journalists. It appears here with permission from that organization and the author. 

I grew up cornered by closed borders in a city on permanent lockdown that was “home” to me. I rarely saw the surrounding concrete walls opening up, but when they did, my hard-working middle-class single mother was there taking a photo of it. Whenever we were fortunate enough to be able to travel around, she would take her camera with her, creating her own photo-biography.

It automatically registered in my mind: The events you don’t document never happened, and history will remember them as such.

The ongoing siege on Gaza wasn’t at the top of my list of things to worry about, as a young woman growing up in the city. However, the older I’ve gotten, the longer the list of forbidden taboos I’ve to deal with has grown. The do’s and don’ts have gotten heavier, and the more dreams I explored, the more the conservative side of the culture began to weigh me down.

In a class of 50 kids, I didn’t pick and choose between wanting to be a doctor or a teacher — it had always been photojournalist, until I wrote that word on my university application and saw the resentment on the admission worker’s face.

In so many words, she told me all the reasons I can’t be a photojournalist, starting with my high score that magically became a problem and ending with how much shame I’ll bring on my family by doing a “man’s job.”

It was just presumed that women were banned from specific jobs, and photojournalism was one of them. I chose to quit being the low-key, playing-by-the-rules sort of student and choose my battles, being able to transfer the surroundings of my home, the occasional wars and the unseen mental injuries through the aftermath.

Photo by Eman Mohammed

The argument to be a photojournalist grew within me like fire, but unlike foreign photographers’ situations, I was the local who could be the messenger for all the surviving storytellers – or what we refer to as “story subjects” as my male colleagues in the field promised.

I failed in my quest to study photojournalism. I was barred from having the opportunity, based on my gender, and I had to switch lanes and become a self-taught photographer. That’s when Google became my best friend, and my camera experiments became more regular.

While the hardship of becoming a female photojournalist in Gaza seemed to be growing, the actual local people on the ground were the most understanding to the nature of my work. After all I was translating their everyday struggle into photographs.

Within the first couple of years of my career, I learned how to listen carefully, give proper attention to the storytellers I met, and be quiet to the point of going unnoticed.

I disobeyed the traditions but showed respect to those who believed in it, until the heavy bombing of the city made me realize that my first big story as a photographer was going to be about the war on my home.

In war photojournalism, the various rules are constantly changing as some might save your life and others might cause the death of others. Being around civilians with a camera could possibly put them in more danger if the camera was viewed as a possible threat.

My confusion while covering my first war wasn’t focused on the bloodshed scene I was photographing, but also the family I was leaving behind. Not knowing if I’ll be going back home to dust and ashes.

Even though I worked with some of the best international photo editors, none were able to advise me on how to balance this job. The harsh taboos still categorized me as a “rebel,” but all I wanted is to do my job, which I wasn’t better or worse at because I’m a woman. But I had more access because of the same taboos that seemed meant to limit me.

Photo by Eman Mohammed

More unseen stories were coming to the surface within my conservative community. I didn’t seek shelter in civilians’ houses, yet those were the places I was asked to come into in the hope that I would deliver their story to the public. My message wasn’t much different than that of my colleagues, but the delivery was.

Till one rainy morning during the first Gaza war back in 2008 and 2009, while I was wandering in the Northern areas of Gaza strip, a colleague of mine offered “peace.”

He expressed how it’s not any one person’s call to “allow” me to be a photojournalist, but it’s more of the common norm in our society. We seemed like we began a new chapter as colleagues and so I asked if I could join his group while moving in the north. He smiled warmly and nodded yes.

I got into the armed jeep with three other local photojournalists I knew. We drove for few minutes before the expected airstrikes resumed. As we pulled over, everyone got out, including me.

However, the scene wasn’t anything I’m used to. The dust covered everything within my sight and the whistling sound was getting louder. I finally realized the airstrike was targeting our location, so I ran back toward the jeep with the rest of the group, but I arrived late, and the passenger side door was closed.

I knocked, but my “big brother” sort of colleague looked at me as he shut his door and said: “I don’t have time for you.”

Within seconds, the jeep took off.  I felt drowned in confusion. The airstrike continued, so I decided to take the only option and walk through the back alleys, hoping I would make it out alive.

A few hours later, as I reunited with other photographers at a nearby hospital, I realized that this was a lesson for me: never cross the line with my male colleagues. Ten years later, I must admit it was a successful lesson, but not in the way it was intended, despite being a local.

It was on that day that I found the answers to several questions I had often wondered about, specifically: Why would photojournalism be a man’s job? Well, it’s not. Why can’t women cover war zones? That’s a myth.

Lastly, why was I abandoned by my own people amid airstrikes just for being a woman photographer? It doesn’t even matter.

On the first day of the war, I remember thinking to myself, I’ll cover it for a week then go back home. When I became my own team I shifted the focus from my personal surroundings to what counts the most, and that’s the history being made moment by moment, in war zones.

Photojournalists, men and women, don’t heal wounds and don’t fix what’s broken, but they do their job of delivering the truthful story as it is, and those stories that inspired my unwelcome pretense in the male-dominated field could only be found in the darkest corners of the city.

Women’s perseverance isn’t unheard of, and the resilience of war survivors and victims is also a well-known quality spread among those who are affected. So if anything, the unpaved paths women journalists and photographers have to take often make us realize the common ground we have with these regions and establish a better stage for the news we deliver to be heard, seen and felt.

Eman Mohammed is an award-winning photojournalist and TED fellow currently based in Washington, DC. She is a Palestinian refugee, born in Saudi Arabia and educated in Gaza City, Palestine, where she started her photojournalism career at the age of 19. Her work was published in The Guardian, Le Monde, VICE, Washington Post, Geo International, Mother Jones, and Haartez. You can follow her work on TwitterFacebook and her website.


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