ASMP — American Society of Media Photographers

Best of 2014 Honoree: Mary F. Calvert

By August 6, 2015March 6th, 2017Best of 2014
Washington, DC
Mary F. Calvert offers an unflinching look at sexual violence in the American military, which has recently been occurring in record numbers. In 2013, an estimated 26,000 rapes and sexual assaults took place in the U.S. armed forces. Only one in seven victims reported her attacks and just one in ten of those cases went to trial.

© Mary F. Calvert

“I always try to stay objective when working with my subjects, but it’s very difficult not to get emotionally involved. These women are sharing the most devastating parts of their lives with me,” says Calvert. “I am very moved by their courage, so I just make the best pictures I can in every situation, no matter how emotional I feel inside.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Mary F. Calvert: 25 years.

ASMP: What initially prompted you to join ASMP in 2012?

MFC: I needed to learn more about the business side of photography and thought membership to ASMP would be an asset.

ASMP: What do you consider the most valuable aspect of your ASMP membership?

MFC: The most valuable assets for me are the business resources available to members.

ASMP: What is the most important relationship you’ve formed through your ASMP membership?

MFC: The community of members.

ASMP: Do you have a favorite ASMP-related story to share?

MFC: Aaron Ansarov was a young Navy photographer when he was one of my students at the Department of Defense Worldwide Military Photographer Workshop in 1998. Eleven years later the student became the teacher when I was laid off from my newspaper job. Aaron, now retired and an ASMP member in South Florida, has talked me down off the ledge many times when I called him in a panic with a pricing or licensing question. He, along with my college friend Shawn Henry, was instrumental in getting me to join ASMP.

ASMP: Which ASMP education/advocacy tools do you find most helpful to your day-to-day business and why?

MFC: I love the ASMP trending discussions on LinkedIn. I learn so much from the variety of queries and answers and member opinions. We can be such a wealth of information for each other.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

MFC: I am a photojournalist who specializes in under-reported and neglected human rights and gender-based issues.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?

MFC: I love my Nikons and my MacBook Pro.

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

MFC: I don’t think my style is that unique, but I think my approach is a bit different. For many photographers, the pictures are the most important aspect of a project or assignment. For me, fidelity to my subjects and the story are the most important aspects, and strong images help me tell the story. I believe the still photograph is still the best way for me to communicate. Telling the subject’s story and telling it well are the most important things.

ASMP: How and when did you first become aware of sexual violence within the military, and when did you begin the photography for this project? How much time to date have you dedicated to photographing “The Battle Within: Sexual Violence in America’s Military”?

MFC: My husband, photojournalist Joseph M. Eddins, Jr., alerted me to the epidemic of rape in America’s military. I did a lot of research and was shocked at the high numbers of sexual assaults. I began my project in January 2013 and have spent quite a bit of time in the last year visiting and photographing survivors.

ASMP: What is your process for finding your subjects, making an introduction and securing their permission to photograph them?

MFC: I first met subjects at a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington DC. I kept in contact with them and visited them at their homes. After getting to know them a little bit and gaining their trust, they recommended me to more survivors.

ASMP: Please describe how you interact with these woman and their families while making these pictures, in order to make them feel comfortable and to preserve their dignity.

MFC: I usually interview the women when we are alone and, after I meet their families, I just kind of hang out and wait for moments to unfold.

ASMP: How many women have you photographed to date for this project, and how much time do you generally spend with each subject?

MFC: I have photographed about two dozen women. I try to spend at least three days with each one.

ASMP: As a woman, you must feel a lot of compassion for your subjects. While photographing these women, do you get emotionally involved, or do you stay detached? In which situation do you find you make better photographs?

MFC: I always try to stay objective, but it’s very difficult not to get emotionally involved. These women are sharing the most devastating parts of their lives with me and I am very moved by their courage, so I just make the best pictures I can in every situation, no matter how emotional I feel inside.

ASMP: Has there been any government or military involvement in this project?

MFC: I have presented the project when I teach at the Department of Defense Worldwide Military Photography Workshop at Fort Meade. The response has been positive, and people have come up to me afterward to thank me for telling the story. I have not had any negative response in Washington, but it has been brought to my attention that my Web site is blocked on at least a couple of Air Force bases.

ASMP: Please talk about the demographics of your subjects. Were the women you photographed from particular geographic areas or from across the United States? What is the general age range and marital status of these women-single, married or a mix of both?

MFC: My subjects live all over the US, and I have traveled to Mississippi, Maine, Virginia, Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina and all over California. Subjects are between 20 to 55 years old and their marital status is mixed.

ASMP: Given that many of these women hid the fact that they were raped, or lived in fear for a long while, please describe how your subjects responded to being included in this project. Did they openly welcome you into their homes and was there an initial level of trust or did you have to build that trust over time?

MFC: I have experienced some distrust, but for the most part my subjects have warmly welcomed me and thanked me for telling this story. Most have openly welcomed me into their homes.

ASMP: What response have subjects had to your photographs and the way in which you portrayed them and told this story? Has your work to date effected any changes to the situation of military sexual violence?

MFC: I was concerned that they wouldn’t like some of the pictures, because no one wants to see themselves feeling so vulnerable and living with such trauma. A couple of women told me that they look back at some of the early pictures I shot and realize how far they have come in their recovery and healing.

ASMP: You mention that many victims of sexual assault and rape were forced out of service. Were any of the women you photographed still in the service? If so, what is their experience with the military now that they’ve allowed you to photograph them?

MFC: A handful of my subjects are active duty.

ASMP: What, if any, relationship do you feel there is between the behaviors illustrated by this story and military policies such as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? Please discuss.

MFC: There are a lot of problems with the military code of justice and how assaults are reported and investigated as the survivors search for justice.

ASMP: In 2013, the Association of Female Journalists (AFJ) selected your project “The Battle Within: Sexual Violence in America’s Military” for the Canon Female Photojournalist Award at Visa Pour L’Image in Perpignan, France. What effect has this award had on your career over the past year? Has it generated new clients or markets for your work or given you new visibility with existing or past clients?

MFC: Winning the award has certainly raised my profile. But more importantly, it has brought recognition of the terrible problem of rape in America’s military.

ASMP: Are there specific distribution channels that have been more effective in generating attention and response to this project than to your other projects from other countries?

MFC: I’m not sure yet, as I have just started releasing the work to Zuma Press. The New York Times Lens Blog published a piece, and most recently the project ran in several magazines online, including Esquire, Cosmopolitan, Elle, Mother Jones and Mail Online.

ASMP: You were a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography in both 2007 and 2010. What is the significance of your work being recognized at this level?

MFC: It is a great honor to be a finalist and a validation for me that the stories I chose to tell are important ones.

ASMP: In a recent blog post you note, “These days I spend more time driving my desk than shooting pictures.” Can you quantify for us how much of your working hours are spent actively making photographs?

MFC: At this point, I probably spend about 25 percent of my time actually shooting a camera and the rest building my business. It has been a very steep learning curve since the Washington Times laid me off early in 2010. So I find myself studying a lot. Bit by bit, I’m getting better at the business end of photography, but I still have a long way to go.

ASMP: In your 2013 Best of ASMP interview, you noted that you submit your work to between 25 and 40 grants and competitions a year. Do you use any particular method to track your entries or analyze how your work holds up against awarded projects?

MFC: I keep a very simple list of grants and contests that I enter and refer to it from year to year. I do look at the winning entries, but I never let myself get upset by the inevitable rejections. I just say to myself, “On to the next thing.”

ASMP: You mention that you do a lot of research on organizations that sponsor the competitions you enter. Do you also research the competition judges?

MFC: I research the terms and conditions in the competitions I enter so I can make sure they aren’t rights grabs. I want to know why an organization is holding a competition.

ASMP: Doing research and preparing submissions for grants and competitions is obviously a time-consuming process. Approximately what percentage of your overall work schedule do you dedicate to this? Are there particular months or seasons when you find you spend the most time on this?

MFC: January seems to be contest season for editorial, but there are grant deadlines all year long. Sometimes I have a couple of proposals I enter, other years I have just one. It takes a few weeks to write a really good proposal, but once you are done it can be used for several grants.

ASMP: The “new media” pieces on your Web site contain stills matched with audio. You note that your learning curve for sound has been very steep. What lessons have you learned through this process?

MFC: I am not the most technical person and have struggled with the software used to produce multimedia packages. I am considering collaborations with people who are better at this than me.

ASMP: You mention that you plan to use sound and writing in addition to stills for “The Battle Within: Sexual Violence in America’s Military” project. Have you begun to work on this portion of the project? What form or forms will this work take and how do you envision it being presented?

MFC: I have been gathering sound and writing extended captions for each person I photograph. I envision strong, personal pieces with narration and music to round out the still portion of the project.

ASMP: Washington DC is obviously a strategic location for covering both national and global events. Is living in this area integral to your career at this point? Do you feel that your work would change if you were to move away from DC?

MFC: The Washington area is where I need to be right now. The area has a lot of organizations that use photography. Plus, just about everyone who is anyone comes to DC at some point, so that makes for a multitude of photo opportunities.

ASMP: What other locations are you particularly drawn to?

MFC: I would love to be back the San Francisco Bay Area, Tokyo or Paris. Really, any place that’s interesting or visual.

ASMP: Before beginning a freelance career, you worked as a staff photographer in the newspaper industry. Did changes within that industry affect the work that you did at that time or influence the stories you told?

MFC: It was really great having an institution behind me when I wanted to work on a story. That always helped get me in the door quicker, plus I usually had someone at the paper that would get behind one of my projects and move it towards financial support and publication.

ASMP: Please describe the challenges and benefits of your current freelance career. Was it difficult to transition from being a staff photographer to working freelance? Please elaborate on this process and any obstacles that presented themselves.

MFC: It is a very steep learning curve to learn how to market yourself, find clients and negotiate price and licensing.

ASMP: What is the most important business advice you’ve ever received?

MFC: Know where to get the best answers to business question.

ASMP: What’s been your most valuable business decision to date?

MFC: Reaching out to colleagues through the WHNPA, NPPA and ASMP.

ASMP: Do you have any favorite Washington insiders or political figures to photograph that are not currently household names?

MFC: Most of the political figures we photograph in Washington are household names. I find the most elusive figure to be President Obama. We in the White House Press Corps have very little access to this administration.

ASMP: Are there certain situations within the political arena in DC that are most challenging to photograph?

MFC: The most challenging thing about documenting political DC is getting “real” pictures. We are spoon-fed photo opps and canned political theater, so we are always looking for the crack in the façade; genuine moments and politicians acting like real people. Behind-the-scenes access is the preferred situation, but has become very elusive, especially at the White House.

ASMP: Does your approach change when photographing a particularly difficult or challenging subject?

MFC: Not really. I just keep my head down and wait for moments.

ASMP: You’ve mentioned you are afraid for newspaper photojournalism due to the shrinking of publications and the mindset of editors that anyone can make a picture. What do you see as the most promising new opportunities to present your work and the work of others of your caliber?

MFC: I have come to realize that there are tons of opportunities for presenting my work. The problem is that so many people want pictures for free. It’s as if some people don’t consider photography a real product that has monetary value. I was at a dinner party enjoying a lively conversation about where people get their news. A couple of 20-somethings at the table boasted that they refuse to pay for their news. I want people to respect and support the work so many journalists do, especially in countries where it is a crime to be a journalist.

ASMP: Your bio says, “Mary’s true photographic calling was, and continues to be, documenting the humanitarian struggle of women around the world.” And, in your Best of ASMP 2013 interview you noted that your story, “Ethiopia’s Trail of Tears,” about obstetric fistula was your most memorable piece, because it was your first story about women in crisis. What is your process for deciding to take on new stories of this sort or to cover a particular struggle? Are there any new projects of this type that you’re researching or working on?

MFC: I am always looking for my next project and I have boxes full of story ideas. Research is a daily process for me and I am a bit of a news junkie: TV, radio and online. The daily newspaper is still my best source for ideas. Sometimes I’ll get an idea from a five-inch story buried inside the Washington Post or New York Times.

ASMP: You say that your project “Congo’s War on Women” has had the most impact on you to date. Are there any current stories or locations you’d like to cover that you feel would present extreme challenges?

MFC: Anytime you cover a humanitarian crisis in a war zone, there are perils to overcome. I’m big on risk assessment and lots of preparation and research. I try not to put myself in harm’s way if possible, but sometimes you have no choice.

ASMP: When asked if you had a positive female role model growing up, you named your mother. What about positive male role models?

MFC: My husband, Joe Eddins, is currently my most positive role model. He inspires me daily and is never afraid to give me an honest appraisal, good or bad, of anything I’m working on. Ken Cooke was my boss at my first internship at the Fayetteville Observer/Times in North Carolina. He taught me how to be a working news photographer and instilled in me a deep pride and respect for what journalism can do. During my internship he told me, “Mary, if you can’t get a six-pack of beer on your expense account, then you shouldn’t be in this business!” Plus he is a wonderful person who gave me away at my wedding.

ASMP: Your husband Joe Eddins is also a photographer, and you have a 24 year-old stepdaughter. Please talk about the challenges of family life, raising a child and maintaining a career that entails extensive travel and substantial risk.

MFC: My stepdaughter has always been very proud of the work we do. She grew up around photojournalists, so it has always seemed very normal for her when her dad or I go off to a crisis zone.

ASMP: In addition to your work as a photojournalist, you also teach workshops, and you note that teaching has made you a “better photographer, journalist and person.” Please describe your most memorable teaching experience to date.

MFC: I’ve been a Team Leader at the Eddie Adams Workshop several times, plus I have taught photojournalism to military photographers at the Department of Defense Worldwide Military Photographers workshop since 1997. Each teaching experience has been rich in inspiration, and I love meeting bright, engaged students.

ASMP: Who was your most influential teacher during your formative years?

MFC: At San Francisco State University, Ken Kobre prepared us to earn a living as a photojournalist. We went out into the world with a sound foundation of ethics, core journalism values, and respect for the power of photography. During my senior year, we worked on a project called “Helpers in the War on A.I.D.S.” that documented the people and grass roots organizations who were helping those afflicted with AIDS in the early days of the epidemic in San Francisco. The project won the Robert F. Kennedy Foundation Journalism Award that year.

ASMP: Beyond just “continuing with your work,” which was your response to our 2013 question about the future, do you have other personal or professional goals for the years ahead?

MFC: I would like to continue to build my body of work. Unfortunately, there is much work to be done out there. I just really hate it when people are pushed around, marginalized and hurt for any reason, but especially if they are women.

ASMP: What is the most important advice that you’d give a young photographer starting out now?

MFC: You have to love this business of being a photojournalist and you have to work very, very hard. You’ll never get rich, but it will be an interesting life. But remember it takes years to become a fine, qualified journalist. Take the time to learn your craft, hone your skills at home before you run off to Syria. There are so many stories to be told in your own backyard.

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