Meadville Tribune

Opinion

May 1, 2014

Getting a seat at the table takes a strong jaw and spirit

When I graduated from college, I had no job. I was told to get an unpaid internship to build my portfolio.

Even then, I balked. I didn’t like the idea of working for no money; however, I relented and found a gig at the local daily newspaper.

A calendar with a bikini-clad woman straddling a motorcycle greeted me in the darkroom.

It was the worst version of a Cinderella story. The two male staff photographers envisioned my job as a step-and-fetch, answer-the-phone, do-what-we-don’t-want-to-do internship. Instead of mentorship, they offered me their disdain and the dregs of the assignments. I poured my energy and enthusiasm into each one, assuming I had to prove myself.

One day, a presidential candidate was passing through town and everyone on staff was covering his visit and speech. I was thrilled. I had no hope of getting a plum assignment or photo position; however, I knew I’d get a shot at photographing a major news event. I’d get to go to the party. After all, I’d paid my dues.

The photo editor assigned me to the newsroom, to answer phones, file negatives and cover any other news that might come up.

What? There is no other news.

Then and there I realized the editor and his sidekick were not interested in offering me learning opportunities. I went to the managing editor. Of course you can cover it, he said.

I covered the event and left the unpaid internship.

I hopped on a plane to Cairo. I figured if I had to make no money I’d rather be where I was doing what I wanted to do.

Out of the frying pan. Into the fire.

Egypt — then and now — is not an easy place for women, especially for a single, foreign woman. Photojournalism — then and perhaps less now — is a male-dominated profession in the U.S. and Egypt.

I first landed a job at a monthly English-language magazine. As an independent photojournalist, I also got regular assignments from the wire services, Reuters and The Associated Press. Later I photographed assignments in the Middle East and Africa for photo agencies in Paris and Milan.

On one occasion, I went to the presidential palace for a press conference. I arrived an hour early to get a position. There was only one other woman in the press corps that day. Just before the conference started, an Egyptian TV cameraman walked in and set up his tripod and camera directly in front of me.

Naturally, as a woman, I was invisible to him and had no place there.

I knew it was risky and ill advised to challenge him; however, I needed that camera position to do my job. There was a heated discussion among the journalists and a scene. He eventually shifted his position.

A few weeks later, I was back at the presidential palace to cover an event with a visiting delegation of U.S. congressmen. The press scrum had tripled and included U.S. traveling press from major TV networks and newspapers.

The same Egyptian TV cameraman set up his gear directly behind me. Each time I raised my camera to shoot, he pushed me, jarring my arm and ruining the photograph. I decided to escape his retaliation and move. As I left, I shoved him so he would give me room to shift position. He turned and punched me in the face.

I did what I learned in Egypt. I made a scene. A woman from CBS said she’d file an official complaint. A melee ensued. The congressmen looked confused as the security guards rushed them from the scene and swarmed the journalists to pull our presidential credentials.

I quickly tucked my presidential press pass inside my shirt and covered it with my hands when the guards tired to strip it from me. I pointed to the cameraman. Strip his credential. He punched me in the face. He lost his credential. I kept mine.

If I sound like I was tough, I wasn’t, truly. I took a lot of punches — literally and figuratively — in my career. I’d get the wind knocked out of me and I’d get back up.

As an Army brat, my father raised me with stern instructions not to rock the boat or talk back. And definitely not to challenge authority.  

I told my father years later that it was crippling advice for a woman in a man’s world.

This semester, I’ve been mentoring a student who wants to be a sports reporter. I arrived at a basketball game one evening and discovered a row of men seated at the long bench that serves as the press table. There was no place for the young woman reporter.

I asked the men for a seat for her. Most ignored me. A few glanced in my direction. A couple shrugged and turned their backs to me. They didn’t make room for her.

I climbed up the bleachers and found the director of sports information.

At first, the men found a seat on the cement stairs next to the press table.

No. A seat at the table, I insisted.  

The next game I arrived and found a large paper with the reporter’s name and publication taped to the press table. She had an official, reserved spot.

I showed her the paper and made a photograph of it. You have a seat at the table, I said. Literally and metaphorically. This is important. Remember this.

No one is going to give you anything. You have to ask for it. Then you demand it. Then you take it and own it. You have every right to have a seat at the table.

This week I am proud to announce the inaugural Allegheny College internship at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A woman and non-traditional student will be a features reporter for 10 weeks this summer. She’ll have an accomplished staff journalist as a mentor.

And she’ll be paid for her time and talent.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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