The New York Times Responds to Criticism from a British Photojournalist

Photojournalist and Leica Ambassador Emily Garthwaite has spoken about her experience as a potential photographer for a story pitched to The New York Times. Garthwaite alleges the original plan was for her to photograph a story covering a hiking trail in Kurdistan. Eventually, the NYT chose to pass it to a different photographer, something she says sent her into a “deep depression and [made her] almost quit photography.”

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Is The New York Times Guilty of Parachute Journalism?

I’ve written before about parachute journalism. It’s the process of flying in a photographer to work on a particular story they have no personal connection to, in a region that’s not their own. Some photographers do this independently, while large media publications send staff photographers to complete assignments.

Parachute journalism has its place in the world of photography. For example, in the event of a war, it’s important to get unbiased photographic records of the events. However, there have been several instances where western photographers have flown in to work on a story and received awards and recognition, and take the spotlight away from local photographers who worked on the story before them. Garthwaite claims this is one of those instances.

The New York Times vs. Garthwaite

British-born Garthwaite has lived in Iraq since 2019. During that time, she photographed the development of the longest hiking trail in the Kurdistan region. Garthwaite’s partner, Irish-born Leon McCarron, has played a prominent role in the development of the trail over the past three years, with Garthwaite working alongside him.

In December 2020, writer Ben Mauk pitched a story that covers the hiking trail (known as the Zagros Trail) to The New York Times. By August 2021, the NYT gave the story the green light, and Mauk was assigned a photographer to work on the article. As Garthwaite already had a collection of images of the trail ready, she said Mauk suggested to the NYT that she worked alongside him for the piece. Instead, the NYT gave the gig to Andrea Frazzetta, a photographer based in Italy and a contributor to the NYT and National Geographic. Mauk told The Phobographer he suggested both photographers to the NYT when initially discussing who to work with.

When it was time for Frazzetta to photograph the Zagros Trail, Garthwaite accompanied him. Frazzetta photographed her, and Mauk referred to her involvement with the development of the trail in the final piece. Once the article was live, Garthwaite took to Instagram to share her issues and struggle with not being assigned the story.

Focusing on Race and Gender

“No worries tho, white foreign men flying in know best!” wrote Garthwaite on her Instagram story. Garthwaite described the experience of attending the trail with Frazzetta as “soul-destroying.”

The situation found a home on Twitter, where photographers were quick to jump to the defense of Garthwaite. A source close to her tweeted that Garthwaite was asked to “work as a fixer for free,” the Tweet has since been deleted.

Returning to Garthwaite’s Instagram story, she also posted:

“I know many people would rather I stay quiet about this, and I have done so for 7 months. I know the photographer wants this to disappear too, otherwise he would have honored my work when he celebrated his cover.”

Statement from The New York Times

The Phobographer reached out to Frazzetta and received a statement from Danielle Rhoades Ha, the VP of communications at the NYT. Ha told The Phobographer:

“The writer Ben Mauk pitched The New York Times Magazine a story about the Zagros Trail in December 2020. When the magazine’s editors assigned Mr. Mauk to write the story in August 2021, and they considered who should travel with him to photograph the story, he raised the possibility of working with Ms. Garthwaite. However, because Ms. Garthwaite was a fellow with the featured organization, appears in their promotional materials, is in a relationship with one of its founders and she herself would be featured in the article, assigning her as the photographer would have been a clear conflict of interest and against our guidelines. Our editors explained this conflict to Ms. Garthwaite’s agent.

We respectfully disagree with Ms. Garthwaite’s characterization of some events. She was never asked to help the assigned photographer.

Ms. Garthwaite is a talented photographer and was featured in this article because of her involvement with the organization and work documenting them since 2019.”

Online Actions

People online attacked Frazzetta, with references to his gender and skin color. In my opinion, the problem here doesn’t rest with the photographer. He was assigned a gig, likely had bills to pay, and carried out the assignment he was given. That’s what professional photojournalists do.

Is Garthwaite correct to feel aggrieved? Absolutely. She worked on a story that’s clearly close to her heart only to watch another photographer get the gig in her place. I empathize with her feelings about the situation. But the outcome, in this case, shouldn’t be photographers fighting against each other. Everyone has a job they need to do. We can question the policies of the NYT and other large establishments and hold them accountable where necessary. In this case, I can understand both sides. Maybe this could have been handled privately, instead of online.

Speaking to Local Photographers

Perhaps the best thing to do for all parties was to let a local photographer work on the piece: someone born in the region and who has grown up during its development. I can assure you the area has plenty of talented photographers.

I reached out to one of them to find out how they felt about the situation. Ebrahim Alipoor is a freelance photojournalist based in Kurdistan. When asked how he might feel to work with an established publication such as the NYT, he told me, “To depict an unbiased reality through the lenses of my camera defeating unfairly imposed limitations, including governmental censorship, has always been my main objective working as a photojournalist…” He continued, “I regard the New York Times as a very reputable organization that can provide a platform through which no more borders and limitations can stop me towards achieving my socially motivated objective of representing and depicting the real world.”

When asked how he feels about overseas photographers working on stories local to his region, Alipoor explained, “From a social perspective, I find it fortunate that such photographers become the voice of the voiceless people in my region. However, from a technical perspective, it is extremely difficult for an overseas photographer to capture an accurate account of the stories of specific regions without a deep knowledge of their people and environment, although not impossible. Adding further commentary, he said, “It is true that skilled photographers can use their technical abilities to narrate stories through images and to build high-quality image collections regardless of the geographic locations. However, the various social, cultural, and anthropological nuances that are unique to specific regions play a significant role in creating narrations that are more accurate.”

I reached out again to Rhoades Ha to ask what the NYT does to include local, oversees photojournalists in its stories:

“The New York Times Magazine regularly works with local freelance photographers. There are unique considerations for every assignment. We are always engaging with new photographers from around the world to bring new and important perspectives to our pages.”

Final Thought

What’s evident here is that things aren’t always as clear-cut as people would like when they rush to social media to air grievances. Not everyone misses a gig because of their gender, and not everyone gets a gig because of their skin color. Telling stories ethically and safely is complex. It’s our responsibility as members of the photo industry to have reasonable dialogue about how we may continue to document while also being inclusive.

Resorting to online drama seldom ends well. And, as is the case for Frazzetta, it can quickly lead to online abuse for committing the crime of doing their job.

Who do you feel should have received the role of photographer for this story? Is it right to make this story about race and gender? Let us know in the comments below.

The lead image is a screenshot.



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