Photojournalist Janet Jarman

"My aim is to fairly document the human condition in an empathetic way"

Interview: Nezih Tavlas / August 25, 2021

(Credit: Erika Oregel)

Photojournalism News: What drew you to photojournalism?

Janet Jarman: I had always been very interested in the arts and had started painting from a young age. I did not use a camera until I was 14, after my brother’s death. As my Mom, Dad and I tried to rebuild our lives, we spent meaningful time together. I ended up taking a photography course with my Dad that ended up being life changing. Photography helped me process my feelings and understand life at this very confusing time. It became a way to study and celebrate all that I thought was beautiful in life but also a way to express what angered me. In particular, I was growing up in a part of the U.S. that was still very divided. This didn’t make sense to me, and I wanted to find ways to bring people together to celebrate what we have in common instead of fighting over our differences, and journalism became for me a way to communicate and learn, by listening to people’s stories. Later, during high school and college, I began to recognize photojournalism as a way to engage in and participate in society by telling stories in ways that could bring attention to important social problems and injustices and help break down stereotypes.

Photojournalism News: What equipment do you use? Do you have a favourite lens/camera?

Janet Jarman: I started using Canon equipment during one of my first jobs at the Miami Herald, and I have continued using Canon cameras for both still photo and motion work. The still photography lenses I use most often are: Canon 24mm f/1.4 and Canon 35mm f/1.4.

Photojournalism News: What social media platforms do you use?

Janet Jarman:

 Photojournalism News: How do you prepare yourself before any assignment? What would you put in your camera bag for a typical task?

Janet Jarman: My preparation typically includes substantial research on the topic followed by studying logistics involving access and safety. On still photo assignments, I usually work with a small waist pack,  in which I carry plenty of formatted cards, charged batteries, pens and a small notebook, my phone, and a small bottle of hand sanitizer, etc… I usually carry two camera bodies and start working with the 24mm and 35mm lenses. I will often have a small backpack nearby with additional lenses if needed, along with a backup camera body. The assignment and situation dictates which lenses I use.  In my car, I carry complete and extra PPE gear, including gear for hospitals, since I often work in this setting. Lastly, as strange as it may sound, I often carry an industrial paint bucket in my car. It’s better than a ladder for getting a higher vantage point, and it takes up much less space.

Photojournalism News: How would you best describe your style of work? What are you trying to say with your photography?

Janet Jarman: My work is almost all documentary and issue-driven. I try to create a feeling of intimacy and immediacy, and I look for moments that reveal the essence of a situation, including emotion, mood and nuance.
The topics to which I keep returning, such as immigration, the environment and public health often end up being about systems of power - and ultimately about greed. I want to portray those fighting for their rights as unique human beings, so they will be seen as people and not as numbers. I often develop very personalized stories, using a micro-approach in order to illustrate macro themes. My aim is to fairly document the human condition in an empathetic way.

Photojournalism News: How many photos do you take for one story?

Janet Jarman: I actually never quite know how many photos I shoot until I see a number in the editing program. While photographing, I am immersed in the situation and completely in the present moment and not thinking about numbers. In my experience, the longer I stay and the more I photograph, the more people forget about my presence and about their own self-consciousness, resulting in more natural more authentic photographs. By nature, some situations allow one to photograph more freely while moving through the moment while other situations have imposed limitations that require more discretion. Thus, the number of photographs varies from situation to situation.

Photojournalism News: What is the last trip you made?

Janet Jarman: My last trip was to the state of Chiapas, Mexico, where I continued photographing traditional indigenous midwives working on the front lines to help women during Covid-19.. I have worked in this region on different projects for ten years, and I have gradually built relationships of trust in many indigenous communities.

Photojournalism News: What projects will you be working on next?

Janet Jarman: Currently, I am developing a new project near my base in Mexico to document a growing water emergency. I am also working on a book project about the role of midwives in providing quality maternal healthcare in Mexico.

Photojournalism News: Which of your photographs would you describe as your favourite? What makes them so special to you?

Janet Jarman: My favorite photos are in the below slideshow. Every one of them has a story that I cherish, and these photos still affect me on a visceral level.

Photojournalism News: What message do you want your photos to convey?

Janet Jarman: My goal is to call attention to social issues in a nuanced way. I hope viewers will be able to connect with the people in my photos and feel a shared humanity with them. I want my photos to help break down stereotypes and encourage understanding and tolerance.

(All images © Courtesy of Janet Jarman)

Photojournalism News: What does a photo need to be a great one in your eyes?

Janet Jarman: I love photos that help me imagine what a situation feels like, as if I am there. I want to be able to connect with the people in the photograph. Photos that achieve this tend to be photos with emotion and mood expressed in a unique way.

Photojournalism News: In the digital age people consume billions of photos every single day, under the circumstances what could make a photo memorable?

Janet Jarman: To me, a memorable photo is one that pulls me into a situation and helps me understand a scene on an emotional and intellectual level, showing that the photographer took the time to interpret a situation and not just react to it.

Photojournalism News: What motivates you to continue taking pictures and what do you do to keep motivated?

Janet Jarman: I am a storyteller and naturally curious about our world. Looking for new angles to tell stories motivates me. I am also motivated by the desperation I often feel to help end injustice, abuses of power, environmental destruction, and so many other things. I remain motivated by the passion that I feel for what I am doing, the gratitude I feel to be accepted into people’s lives, the excitement I feel as a story develops, and the potential that the work could make a difference on some level. My strong family life is also a grounding force.

Photojournalism News: What was the biggest professional risk you have taken and what was the outcome?

Janet Jarman: Given the types of stories that I cover, I am used to working in circumstances that carry significant risks. I have been stuck in a community surrounded by organized crime for several days. I have had to use evasive driving skills to avoid being attacked/robbed. I have been followed, interrogated, and photographed by police. Fortunately there was a way out of each situation. From a career standpoint, it could have been considered a risk to nearly disappear from the still photography world to make a feature film for three years from 2016-2019, but I consider it to be one of the best decisions I have ever made, as it allowed me to be a more complete storyteller and led to incredible personal and professional growth.

 Photojournalism News: What would be your dream assignment?

Janet Jarman: For the past five years I have lived my dream assignment, where I was able to fully dedicate myself to chronicling a power struggle in the trenches of the healthcare sector in Mexico. The story has resulted in a feature-length documentary (Birth Wars) that has played in over 40 film festivals to date, two extensive New York Times articles/slideshows and a book project. This project has been the most demanding one of my career and has allowed me to be a more complete storyteller by pushing the limits of every skill that I have ever learned. I am extremely grateful to the MacArthur Foundation for their support throughout.

Photojournalism News: What are the essential skills/ qualities a photojournalist should have?

Janet Jarman: Curiosity, empathy, patience and discipline, ethical grounding, well-developed technical skills, an ability to recognize a good story, and solid intuition on where to go and how to tell a story in a balanced and respectful way.

Photojournalism News: What do you think about the digital manipulation of images?

Janet Jarman: For me, digital manipulation of images distorts reality and truth and has no place in photojournalism, and this includes over processing a photo in any way. Art photography is a different genre in which manipulation does seem to be accepted. There is a lot of visual experimentation taking place today that seems to blur the line between photojournalism and art photography, and I believe that guidelines and boundaries need to be established.

Photojournalism News: What does it mean to be an ethical photojournalist?

Janet Jarman: It means being truthful and respectful while telling stories in a fair and balanced way.

Photojournalism News: How do you see the role of photojournalism evolving in the world? Do you think photojournalism is losing its importance?

Janet Jarman: On the one hand, it is exciting to tell stories today, since there are so many new technologies and tools available. In addition, I feel like we have more creative freedom now in how we realize our vision. There is also a growing diversity of voices that together can create a more nuanced vision of reality. That being said, I worry about the impact we can have as photojournalists if our profession continues to face great odds, including an unsustainable economic model, increased threats to our safety, erosion of trust, and apathy. I am truly encouraged however by the many initiatives today that aim to overcome these challenges, and I feel grateful to be part of a dynamic community of committed colleagues who will not be defeated by these challenges.

Photojournalism News: What is it like to be a female photojournalist in a male-dominated field?

Janet Jarman: From the beginning, I knew I was entering a profession dominated by men, and I thought, so what? I had seen women enter the profession and have great success (Carol Guzy, Yunghi Kim, Susan Meiselas, Maggie Steber, to name a few), They may not even know they influenced me, but I am grateful to them for showing me the way. I was lucky to grow up in an environment surrounded by powerful and very creative women. My mother consistently told me that women can do anything.
 That doesn’t mean I am oblivious to the reality that women face, and photographing this reality has become an important part of my work. As a woman, I can naturally identify with the barriers and the violence that women face around the world.
Eventually, there will be a point where all editors, both male and female, will no longer be able to ignore the strength and voices of women photojournalists. We will not be categorized as women photographers but we will be recognized for our unique voices as individuals. 

 Photojournalism News: Do you have any advice for aspiring photojournalists?

Janet Jarman: While it is very important to master the wide range of technology that exists, it is more important to know how to recognize unique stories and how to research and find the most appropriate ways to tell these stories in a balanced and professional manner.
Know that it is very difficult to depend financially on editorial photography alone. Learning to use a variety of tools will give you more options and allow you to diversify your work.
Despite its challenges, photojournalism can still be an extremely satisfying and rewarding way to participate in society and foster understanding and tolerance in our world.
Be kind, humble, respectful and patient.

Janet Jarman

Janet Jarman works as a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker based in Mexico, where she focuses on issues such as immigration and public health issues, water resource problems and solutions, and Mexico’s ongoing security issues. Jarman’s work has been published in The New York Times, GEO, National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, amongst others. She has also worked for numerous international foundations. Her photographs have been featured at Visa Pour l’Image, Perpignan and have received awards in Pictures of the Year International, American Photography, PDN Photography Annual, POY Latam, Latin American Fotografia, Communication Arts, and Best of Photojournalism. In addition to working on editorial assignments for magazines and newspapers, Jarman has produced various long-term photo and multimedia projects. Her most recent project, titled “Birth Wars” includes a feature-length documentary film and a forthcoming book supported by The MacArthur Foundation.