when Kathy Willens I graduated from college, and mostly quit to become a starving artist. Instead, she became a photographer, worked for the Associated Press for nearly 45 years, and won numerous awards for her coverage of breaking and general news, features, sports, fashion, and celebrity.
When Wellens started, there were very few female photojournalists to work with, and the entire industry was analog – photographers developed their own films and wrote captions on typewriters. At the end of Willens’ career, 95,000 of her photos were on AP . photos website.
We caught up with Wellins two weeks after she retired (she said “I haven’t had a moment to relax!”) to talk about sports photography, long lenses and what it’s like to cover sporting events, chiefs, and Mariel’s boat lift.
How do you get into photography?
My career started in 1974. I was working for a little pink newspaper called The Backbone – it was literally pink. It was a throw paper that people used to cover the bottoms of a birdcage. It was a suburb, a suburban, outside Detroit, where I grew up. Photography seemed like the most viable career choice. In my first job, I thought I’d get $50 for a photo; It ended up being $5.
I got a tip that Miami News was looking for a lab technician. I ended up getting this job [later] In 1974. I worked there for six months when a staff member left and I joined as a full-time photographer. Miami was very different from where I grew up. I ended up filming things like tent revivals and murder scene photos on I-95, probably stupidly tainted with evidence, but there were no police yet. But those photos appeared on the front page, or were prominently displayed. In late 1976, a local photo editor at the Associated Press approached me with an offer to replace a retired employee, and I worked with them for about 45 years.
What were the big stories that day?
One of the stories that spoke to me was stories about Haitian and Cuban immigrants, and they are huge and ongoing stories. It all happened in 1980, it was a crazy year. There has never been another year like it until now. That year was just as transformative for me and everyone else in Miami. There were 1980 McDuffie Riots, then Cuban Mariel. [The McDuffie riots] The repercussions of the acquittal of four white policemen were in the murder of a black man. On that first night many people died in the violence and chaos. I couldn’t leave the office to shoot, the phone was ringing all night and I answered it. Arrived to Scott Applewhite, then working as a freelancer, went to shoot for the Associated Press.
And the stories of Haitian immigration and emigration. Those were really close to me. I approached a Haitian activist named a priest Reverend Gérard Jean-JustAnd it gave me great access to telling these refugee stories. These photos are very close to me, but some of them have never been shown. Before I left, I allowed the Associated Press to scan it so it could be archived.
Hurricane Andrew was a huge story in Miami, too. Latin America has always been a big story. Nicaragua and the Iran-Contra Scandal and Oliver North. I also went to El Salvador. When I moved to [AP’s] New York office In 1993, I went to Somalia, which was a big mess when I was there. It was the same year as black hawk fell an accident. The Associated Press reporter who was in Somalia, Tina SussmanThree weeks after I left Somalia, the photographer who replaced me was killed. When I got back, I evaluated what I wanted to do. I felt like it was too close to be me. And I chose to stay close to home, which included filming more news and sports.
I imagine the gender dynamics of the 1970s were different.
It was very different. I was very young, and I was surrounded by middle-aged men who were older than my average age. There were two female photographers in Florida, Marie Lou Foy in the Miami Herald and Ursula Seemann at the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale. The expectations placed on me were just too high. If nothing happened, I was expected to go out and photograph women on the beach in Miami. I found a woman in the lightest bikini I could find, took her picture, printed it, blew it up, put it on our office wall and told everyone that this was the last woman I’d ever take a bikini in. It was women’s liberation, and I thought it was unacceptable to ask me to do that.
When covering sports, I was always the only female on the field. There were no role models for me, but in general, I looked up to a war photographer Susan Micellas, although she may have been younger than me. I also studied photos Annie Leibovitz street photography Helen Levitt.
What about sports that made you stick to it and how was the coverage of Muhammad Ali?
you covered me in Fifth Street Gym in Miami. It is similar to Gleeson Lounge in New York City. I [had] I had never covered one of his matches because they were all over the world and I was low on the totem pole. He was nearing the end of his career when I met him. The AP will always send people with greater seniority – males, I might add.
It was fun to be a part of that culture. My boyfriend at the time was an excellent sports reporter, and so I got advice on all sorts of things. For me, sport has the power to capture those moments of intense emotion. The joy of it, is there in front of you all the time. It is ubiquitous and compact in a short amount of time. She also made great photos. I always had to learn on the go. My second manager at AP Miami, Phillip K. Sandlin, was very good at capturing those moments. He had a long lens, the longest lens, such as the equivalent of 500 mm – 600 mm. I would process his film and watch him edit, and I would try to imitate that. He was accusing me of taking too many pictures. He was shooting 36 laps and maybe four or five great shots on it. I’ll have to shoot six or seven times that many laps to get a good picture.
How do you feel about the industry now that you have left?
I feel the profession is in good hands now. We are in this time of reassessment where women, including women of color and diverse photographers in general, are being explored and included. it’s great. The profession is changing, and there may not be much pay. I don’t know if it is easier or more difficult to promote yourself on apps and social media. But there are a lot more opportunities for women than there were when I was next, and people are taking advantage of them. I think that’s a really good sign.