Brazilian photojournalist Adriana Zehbrauskas receives Maria Moors Cabot Prize: ‘this profession is about others, not ourselves’

"We must always remember that this profession is about others, not ourselves and that we have a huge responsibility to represent and show people, especially in situations of great vulnerability.”

This is how U.S.-based Brazilian photojournalist Adriana Zehbrauskas, internationally recognized for her sensitivity and empathy in covering people in vulnerable situations in the Americas, sees her profession. She’s reported stories ranging from the murder of 43 students in Ayotzinapa, Mexico, to mothers whose children suffer the consequences of Zika.

She is one of the winners of the 2021 Maria Moors Cabot Prizes given by Columbia Journalism School, the first edition awarded exclusively to women.

The Prizes “honor journalists and news organizations for career excellence and coverage of the Western Hemisphere that furthers inter-American understanding.” Recipients will be celebrated on Oct. 12.

LatAm Journalism Review (LJR) spoke with Zehbrauskas about her career and the challenges she faces working in a field still dominated by male professionals. She spoke about the current moment of photojournalism in Brazil (“Without [investment] I see a very dark future), and advises young professionals to reflect on whether this is really what they want to do with their lives: “The road is long and often extremely frustrating.”

Zehbrauskas, vencedora do Prêmio Cabot: ‘Fazer fotojornalismo é caro, é preciso viajar, investir em equipamento, segurança, [pagar] honorários decentes. Sem isso vejo um futuro muito escuro.’ Foto: Crédito: Dario Lopez-Mills

Zehbrauskas, winner of the Cabot Prize: ‘Photojournalism is expensive, you have to travel, invest in equipment, security, [pay] decent fees. Without that, I see a very dark future.’ Photo: Dario Lopez-Mills

LatAm Journalism Review: When and why did you decide to get into journalism?

Adriana Zehbrauskas: For as long as I can remember. My father sent me to buy the Sunday papers at the newsstand and I spent the day reading, cutting and saving articles, fascinated. The newspaper was like a magical portal to other places and cultures, an endless source of fascinating stories. And that's why I got into journalism, to tell stories.

LJR:This year, all Cabot Award recipients are women. What specific challenges did you face as a woman doing journalism in Latin America?

AZ: Photojournalism has always been a predominantly male profession. Worldwide, only 15% of photojournalists are women, according to a 2015 study by Reuters Institute and World Press Photo. The challenges have always been many and diverse, from getting a good story to facing the machismo that permeates Latin American society. I've been asked why I was photographing other people's children and I wasn't at home taking care of my own, for example. Or, if the reporter working with me was my husband and, after the negative answer, the question: "And does your husband let you travel like this?"

LJR: What's the worst mistake you've made in your career, what have you learned from it and how has it influenced your work?

AZ: Ah, there were a lot of mistakes, from the most basic and technical ones, like losing a photo by messing up the focus, like error in judgment and missing some important moment for a story. But, I think the worst thing was being afraid/ashamed to admit that I needed help. It's better to be honest and learn than to suffer in silence and keep making mistakes!

LJR: What's the most interesting story you've covered recently?

AZ: Haiti, without a doubt. A fascinating and intense country, but with many problems and extremely difficult to work. [See Zehbrauskas' photo coverage of the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that hit the country on Aug. 14, 2021]

LJR: In recent years, the state of the media in Brazil has become increasingly challenging. What is your vision for the near future of journalism in your country?

AZ: I saw the photo desk of most Brazilian newspapers and magazines practically disappear. We don't even have photo editors anymore. It takes a big investment, both financial and human. Photojournalism is expensive, you have to travel, invest in equipment, security, [pay] decent fees. Without that I see a very dark future.

LJR: What advice would you give young journalists?

AZ: That they honestly ask themselves why they want to be photojournalists and whether they are willing to bear the sacrifices this profession imposes. I believe many are lured by the false promise of a life of adventure and glamour, awards and success, when in fact 90% of the profession is discipline, research, diligence. The road is long and often extremely frustrating. We must always remember that this profession is about others, not ourselves, and that we have a huge responsibility to represent and show people, especially in situations of great vulnerability.

LJR: What does receiving this award mean to you?

AZ: A huge honor, especially as it is an award not specific to photography, that is, it recognizes photojournalism alongside other forms of journalism, which are usually better paid and more prestigious. It recognizes the power of photojournalism to build bridges and bring knowledge through visual stories narrated with compassion and empathy.

*Editor’s note: Rosental Alves, Cabot Board Chair, is founder and director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, which publishes LatAm Journalism Review.