Allison Joyce is a Boston born photojournalist based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. At the age of 19 she left school at Pratt Institute and moved to Iowa to cover the 2008 Presidential Race where she worked as a campaign photographer for Hillary Clinton. The experience inspired her travels around the world covering social issues like climate change, health, and human trafficking.
As a regular contributor to Reuters and Getty Images her work has appeared worldwide, including: The New York Times, National Geographic, Mother Jones, Virginia Quarterly Review, TIME, Paris Match and Newsweek. Other clients have included Microsoft, Apple, FX and Action Aid. Her work has been honored by POYI (Pictures of the Year International) and the NYPPA (New York Press Photograhers Association).
She is a contributing photographer with Redux Pictures and a member of Koan Collective
What pushed you to leave school to cover the presidential campaign? How was this experience?
I had just finished up my second year at Pratt Institute and I moved to Iowa to cover the presidential race as a three month internship, working with four professional photographers. Two weeks in I realized that I was learning more about the ins and outs of photojournalism, not to mention the business side of things, just by watching them work and asking questions. After a while I was freelancing for Hillary Clinton’s campaign and for other candidates, and I decided that I didn’t want to walk away from such a great opportunity. In the six months I lived in Iowa covering the campaignI learned more than I could have in 10 years of school.
How is life as a woman photojournalist in Bangladesh?
There are positives and negatives. There will be things that I am unable to cover, I am not allowed inside most mosques, obviously, and recently it was a real struggle for me to be able to cover the Bishwa Ijtema, a religious festival where women are not allowed. Sexual harassment is also a huge issue that I have experienced in this country. Even though I know enough Bangla, I usually hire a male translator to work with me, which offers a little more protection from men staring, mobbing, touching and following me than when I work alone. The flip side is that as a foreigner I am somewhat of a third sex. I am not bound by the traditional rules that most women have to follow here, and I can cover “women’s issues” that men would have much more trouble with. Last year I was able to interview and photograph rape victims in India, something a man would never have been allowed to. When I’m in a room with all women they tend to let their guard down, remove their hijabs, laugh and smile and joke with one another, things they would not feel as comfortable doing in presence of a man.
Are you working on a particular story at the moment?
I’m following a group of young girls who surf, skateboard and work onthe beach in Cox’s Bazar. Last year I spent a few days covering them during a competition for Getty Images, and I’m planning to stay with them for a few years. Bangladesh is a pretty conservative country, and it’s refreshing to see these really outgoing girls surfing and skateboarding, defying the cultural and religious norms. As some of them are getting older (14, 15) their parents have tried to marry them off or send them to other villages to work as domestic workers. Most have never been to school. They’re up against so much.
“It’s not as often as we would like that our work makes real change, but it happens”
What is the most significant issue women have in Bangladesh?
Women simply aren’t valued and respected in most of the country. This is an issue that I’m very passionate about. Bangladesh has the second highest rate of child marriage in the world. Outside of Dhaka girls are married off as young as 9 because they are seen as a burden for their families. The view is that men can earn a wage, women cannot. Girls older than 20 are considered old maids, unfit for marriage, which is generally a girl’s only aspiration. The country has a huge rape problem that isn’t talked about a lot. Women and girls are harassed in the street. There have been cases of acid attacks against girls related to dowry, spurned marriage proposals. Dozens of women and girls commit suicide each year because they are sexually harassed, which is infuriatingly referred to as “eye-teasing”. There’s a brothel 128 kilometers from Dhaka filled with sex slaves, women and girls as young as 12, who have been trafficked and sold in. I could go on and on. The most significant issue women have in Bangladesh is that they’re viewed as second class citizens.
“The most significant issue women have in Bangladesh is that they’re viewed as second class citizens.”
If I ask you to close your eyes and think of a photograph, any photograph, what image comes to mind?
If I’m thinking of Bangladesh, this photo by Khaled Hasan comes to mind. It’s my favorite photo that’s been taken in this country. Despite the prevailing image of Bangladesh as a country filled with disasters and poverty, it’s an overwhelmingly beautiful place, with lush greenery and rivers, and friendly happy people. I think this frame of a carefree, happy young girl captures all of that perfectly.
What is your daily routine these days?
I don’t really have a routine, life as a freelancer means no set schedule. But when I’m not out working in the field I’m usually pretty busy researching and hustling new stories, sending emails to editors, editing work..
What is that you miss the most about being “home”?
I miss my family of course, but I also really miss having a community of the like minded around me. I’m the only foreign photographer based here, and one of only three expat journalists. In New York there was a vibrant photojournalism community, and covering news you could show up to an assignment and all the other media there would be your friends. Everyone shared information, hung out, went for drinks, and really looked out for one another, even while working for competing publications. Many photographers I’ve met here are much more competitive and I find myself missing my New York journalism family a lot.
What is the best part of your job?
I feel incredibly lucky that I get make a living from a career that takes me all over the world to meet people from all walks of life, and tell people’s stories. Hopefully the work that I do raises some awareness that can create change. I think you really have to be an optimist to do this job. It’s not as often as we would like that our work makes real change, but it happens. A few years ago after a reporter and I published a story about the dangers of manual sandblasting in garment factories here, brands decided to discontinue the lethal practice. A few months ago I did a story about evicted sex workers that were under threat and in hiding from the townspeople where they were living. After it was published I was contacted by at NGO who then went and offered them safe and dignified employment. Seeing results like that is the best part of my job.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a photojournalist?
If you’re going into school don’t major in photography. Study a language or international relations. An important skill to have is another language, like French or Arabic. I think the best place to learn and hone your skills is at a local newspaper. Take a job or even an internship at a paper. After the campaign I worked in New York for three years for the Daily News and Post, shooting everything from breaking news, to portraits, politics, theatre to food. I even had to learn to shoot a person through the tinted window of a moving car! It prepared me for anything and I learned so much. You need to be committed. You will struggle, and probably not make a lot of money, but it’s worth it to wake up every morning and do what you love.
“You need to be committed. You will struggle, and probably not make a lot of money, but it’s worth it to wake up every morning and do what you love.”