ASMP Celebrating Women’s History Month.
Interviewed by Rana Faure, ASMP National Board of Directors
Since the dawn of photography, women have blazed their own distinct, though largely unheralded, paths. Sonia Katchian, a 49-year member of ASMP, is one of these women. A resident of NYC, Tokyo, and now Chapel Hill, Sonia recently recounted her journey in photojournalism. From her stories, it seems clear that, despite the challenges, she identified the opportunities that interested her and found a way to get herself access to cover the stories.
Sonia came onto the photo scene in the early 1970s after graduating from Barnard College in Art History. She imagined that a camera might overcome her perceived lack of skill at oil painting — her first love.
Her color documentation of the assassination attempt of George C. Wallace, running as a Democrat against Nixon in 1972 were published in LIFE and established her credentials early in her career. Sonia was the only assigned still photographer at the campaign stop that day in Laurel, Maryland. She had an interest in covering the campaign whose platform was basically to slow the tide of the civil rights movement in the South. Despite her own political views, she got access from the campaign and rights of first refusal agreement from LIFE. Coincidentally, her first professional assignment some years earlier had been to cover a Wallace campaign stop in San Francisco, igniting her interest in the controversial candidate. As her career developed, her editorial work has been published in Time, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, der Spiegel, Paris Match, and many other well-regarded publications. She was among the first few women staff photographers hired by The New York Post in the 1970s.
She created the Photography Department at The Women’s Interart Center on West 52nd Street, encouraging women to learn photography skills and find their voice. She saw an opportunity to further champion the work of women photographers by launching a nationwide search (before the internet!) for women’s photographs of women and co-authoring the groundbreaking Women See Woman in 1975 by Thomas Y. Crowell & Co.
During Lebanon’s Civil War of 1975, Sonia returned to her birthplace, Beirut, to cover the war for the AP and other media. At one point she was abducted by a faction of extremists and, using her journalistic connections to Yasser Arafat’s close circle, asked them to intervene when her press agency was unable to help. She escaped unscathed and with almost all her film intact.
One of the highlights of her journalistic life has been an unexpected encounter with Muhammad Ali…at Saks Fifth Avenue of all places. This led to an invitation to his Deer Lake training camp in PA, which led to assignments for the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaïre, and later to Manila, and Madison Square Garden, and many future events. She joined Ali at other times in New York as well as trips to Las Vegas and his Los Angeles home. Her Ali work can be found in the exclusive folio of prints, The ALI Folio, at http://alifolio.com/. Her images were selected for inclusion in the upcoming Ken Burns documentary scheduled for 2022, coincidentally Sonia’s 50th anniversary as a member of ASMP.
In the ’80’s she chose to focus on Japan and Japanese politics and culture. She was a ranked black belt in “kyudo”…the way of the Japanese bow and arrow, a far cry from archery as we know it. This was her introduction to Japanese culture and her love of the culture led to frequent trips and assignments back and forth to Japan from top magazines and companies, and led to her moniker, Photo Shuttle: Japan. Eventually she also negotiated assignments for Japanese photographers to shoot for American companies http://photoshuttle.com/index2.mgi. In the 90s, she returned from Tokyo to the US, but this time to North Carolina as a result of research, a map, and a visit to the Tokyo branch of the North Carolina Business Bureau. She now lives in Chapel Hill with her sweet dog Daisy.
ASMP asked: We would love to hear your story, can you tell us about your background?
Sonia answered: I was born in Beirut, and we lived in my earliest years in the Syrian desert as my father was a doctor stationed in the desert with the Iraqi Petroleum Company. Camels, Bedouins, and lots of sand were my landscape. It did not make for a very active social life as a kid. We moved back to Beirut where my sisters and I attended schools where four languages were spoken: Arabic, English, French and Armenian. Daddy had been a victim of the Turkish massacres of Armenians when he was younger and had been wanting to get out of the Middle East. I was the third child and was supposed to be a boy according to my mother, but my dad ended up with three daughters. Interestingly, our family name, Katchian, means “son of the brave” in Armenian. Once in the United States, he first worked as a physician in a very small town in Ohio, much to my mother’s chagrin. My mother was a cosmopolitan, fashion type from Beirut in its heyday. Now we were in a coal mining, steel mill factory town. My father was able to work as a doctor and was happy, and my mom was miserable. So we were kind of miserable, which wasn’t fair. She had as much a right to express her ambitions and desires, like anybody else… so it was. She swallowed her needs, swallowing her pride, and kept going forward.
ASMP asked: Tell me about how the coming of age in a small town in Ohio evolved into a successful career in photography.
Sonia answered: I knew that no matter what field of work I chose, I would have wanted to be in New York City. And so when it came time for college, I chose Barnard, majoring in art history. In my senior year, I had a class with a famous art historian and sat in the room according to our last name in alphabetical order. So, Katchian sat next to Mr. Kaufman. That’s part of the story of how I picked up the camera. Mr. Kaufman became my boyfriend. I had hoped to be an artist but it turned out I had no talent for painting or drawing. So I imagined that I might just end up working in the museum field. The summer after graduation, I was headed out West for a job that the Barnard placement office got for me on a ranch in Wyoming. My boyfriend thought that the young sophisticate that I was, might want to take a camera with me, and not just rely on the oil paints that I had just bought and canvases rolled up ready to put into a suitcase. His father was an Oscar-winning film cameraman and had extra Nikons lying around. I said to him. “Oh, what am I gonna do with photography? And what am I going to do with a camera?” I knew nothing about shutter speed or exposures. I didn’t know how to use lighting. He handed me an exposure meter. I remember that there were no instructions for the camera. I took some beautiful landscapes, not too many. When I finished the cooking gig, I kept going further West till I reached Berkeley. I had the Nikon and for some reason, I thought I was ready to go to the local newspaper and tell them I was available to shoot. The Berkley Barb was the underground paper. And they gave me my first assignment. It was to photograph George Wallace at the Cow Palace in Daly City, California. That was my inauguration to assignments, and that was my introduction to photojournalism. That was the summer of ’68, the era of drugs and everything; and at that point, I decided it was time to pack it up and go back to New York…which I did.
ASMP asked: From Barnard, at that time an all-womens’ school, you managed to get yourself as a professional on stories and assignments that were not the norm for women at the time. The Muhammad Ali story comes to mind. Can you talk about that?
Sonia answered: Muhammad Ali happened after I had proven myself, that was not early in my photo career. My first big break was the George Wallace shooting. My first nationally published image was of Wallace shot and lying on the sidewalk. At the time, I was teaching at the Womens’ Interart Center and showing work at the Soho Photo Gallery. The original gallery on Prince Street had just launched and was a hotbed of experimentation and animated discussions. We learned a lot from each other. I told LIFE magazine that I was covering George Wallace’s bus campaign and asked if they would be interested in seeing my film. I didn’t have an assignment, I got a letter of commitment from an editor, a friend, at TIME Inc. I got a promise that LIFE Magazine would process my film, and they would get what they called a first look. They had the best lab in New York at the time. Who wouldn’t want their film processed there? Some months later, I was in Alabama. I was in and out of Alabama and the South, my interest was in doing stories on the American race problem. I decided I would check in on Wallace again and just walk past the governor’s mansion for old times’ sake. It just so happened that same minute that I passed by the building on foot, they were having a press conference. Wallace stepped out of the mansion to the patio, together with Vice-President Spiro Agnew. Wallace hadn’t seen me since the assassination attempt and gave me a strange look like “Uh-oh, that’s the photographer who was there the day I was shot.” It was a great shot and ran full page in LIFE.
ASMP asked: Did you feel that you struggled as a woman in photography?
Sonia answered: I always felt it was an obstacle. I always felt I had to prove I’m worthy. I’m worthy of standing here. And, I have to look behind me so that I’m not blocking your view, while you’re shooting. And I’ll duck a little bit because you’re shooting. And I’ll stand my ground, but I’m also aware of who’s around me and behind me. We’re talking about the late 60s early 70s. And it was a struggle for all of us. All of us, except a few who didn’t give a hoot what the men thought. But I was very self-conscious. Felt I had to prove myself. Not a good idea. But I had hutzpah. I guess I had a lot of it. At some point, I had too much of it by being too pushy or being too proud. When I had returned to New York, it was the women’s movement. I started teaching at the Women’s Interarts Center on 52nd Street near 10th Avenue. I taught beginning and intermediate photography. It was the only place where women could encourage each other, support each other, and learn together. I thought photography was a good language for women to use to express themselves while they were working out their issues around being female in a male-dominated business environment. My work was a very bitter assessment of a woman’s state. When I started teaching, I realized quite a few women were getting in serious photography, doing good work, and trying hard. I decided someone needed to do a book of contemporary women photographers, and everyone I tapped got on board. I discovered the other photo editors from among my contacts and friends. The Womens’ Interart Center served as the umbrella organization, giving us credibility for women to send their photographs from every corner of the country. One woman I didn’t know even sent a photo of me shooting at the Democratic Convention in Miami! I guess she thought it was cool to see a woman with a bunch of cameras. That’s how it was in those days. We encouraged each other. Anyway, after months of gathering the photos, then meeting to edit the ones that were most telling, Thomas Y. Crowell decided Women See Woman was a book whose time had come. It came out in both hardcover and soft, and was reviewed favorably in the New York Times Book Review.
ASMP asked: At what point did you join ASMP?
Sonia answered: I had been sort of flying solo for a couple of years when I joined ASMP in 1972. It was like a life raft. I felt intimidated by the wealth of knowledge and the experience the guys had and, well, often the mood of the gatherings was bravado. It gave me a very good sense of who I can emulate. I was very competitive…to my detriment perhaps at times.
ASMP asked: Your competitive nature seemed to serve you well, sounds like ASMP helped you stand your ground.
Sonia answered: In a way it did. I knew what my competition looked like, and it gave me information on how to word the releases and what rights I give to the publication or company. It was incredibly important. And I had very strict guidelines if they ran a picture without a photo-credit. ASMP gave me wording for when I’m negotiating. When I’m negotiating a sale, what kind of rights to suggest to the client and have it in writing, that they have the rights for inside, a full-page, black and white, one time, publication. And just that wording, it was like, like wearing something, a protective vest I put on. It was reassuring. Yeah. Like I’ve got my protection. I know what my terms should be. I know what to ask for. I know what to expect from an editor. I know what they can and can’t have, in terms of rights. And I just love being with other photographers. Isn’t it great? I love it.
ASMP: What a wonderful image to end with, thank you, Sonia, this is inspiring, and thank you for blazing trails. I look forward to delving deeper into your Ali Folio as you recently delivered the submission of images of Mohammad Ali selected for the upcoming 2021 release of the documentary on Ali by Ken Burns; and as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of your membership with ASMP – bravo.