In November 2017, several women at National Geographic pressured the magazine’s human resources department to investigate Patrick Witty, then deputy director of photography, for allegedly abusing his power in the industry for years to get away with predatory sexual behavior toward female colleagues, freelance photographers, and peers in the field.
But human resources had already launched an investigation in mid-October, according to a source at National Geographic familiar with the internal review. The investigation was prompted by the inclusion of Witty in the “Shitty Media Men” list, an anonymously sourced spreadsheet of men in the industry rumored to have engaged in inappropriate behavior.
Then in December 2017, Witty abruptly stopped working at the magazine.
Management did not give employees a specific reason for his departure.
Leaders at National Geographic told employees in small groups that Witty — a prominent photojournalist with premier outlets like the New York Times (he was part of a team that won a Pulitzer in 2009), Time, and Wired on his résumé — “was no longer an employee at the company,” several people who attended these meetings said.
In a farewell post on Instagram, Witty cheered his colleagues and noted that he was “excited for [his] next chapter.”
In a statement, National Geographic told me, “Mr. Witty is no longer employed by National Geographic Partners. The questions and concerns raised by women inside and outside of our company about Mr. Witty’s behavior were investigated thoroughly by our Human Resources team.”
Witty did not respond to multiple requests for comment before publication. During the reporting of this story, Sallie Hofmeister of the crisis management firm Sitrick and Company — the same person Harvey Weinstein hired last fall after the New York Times and the New Yorker published reports of his history of accusations of sexual misconduct — reached out to me on Witty’s behalf, but also has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
One day after the publication of this story, Witty’s lawyer sent Vox a written statement from Witty. He denies that he ever engaged in any “behavior that amounts to sexual aggression.” He also apologizes for some of his behavior.
“I’m deeply sorry that some of my past behavior has been hurtful to women,” the statement reads, in part.
“I’ve never been accused of wrongdoing of any kind in the workplace, so I was shocked and dismayed when I first learned of the accusations against me.”
Vox reported that National Geographic “terminated” Witty after women at the magazine took complaints about him to human resources, which HR investigated.
Since the original story published Monday, many people in the photojournalism community responded with little surprise, agreeing the whisper network had long discussed his behavior.
Ten women reached out to Vox after publication to report other allegations against Witty, which Vox is looking in to.
Other women posted publicly on social media that they, too, had negative experiences with him.
Before I went to work under Patrick Witty, I was told by a friend that she had heard rumors of creepy and inappropriate behavior. Glad it's all coming to light. Thank you to the brave women who spoke up. https://t.co/SAZvZNMjGk— Morgan McCloy (@morgmccloy) January 30, 2018
Jenny Dupuis, a freelance photographer, shared her experience with Witty at the Kentucky Mountain Workshop in a personal essay on Medium.
In reporting this story, I spoke to more than 20 people — some of them friends of mine in our shared industry — who said they experienced unwanted interactions with Witty, witnessed the inappropriate behavior, or were told details at the time the events occurred that corroborated the women’s stories. These stories included accounts of unwanted touching, kissing, and other advances at a variety of professional events during and prior to Witty’s employment at National Geographic.
Many of the women who described their experiences for this story are freelance photojournalists and editors. They rely on good relationships with high-profile editors like Witty to get work, and editors at publications as prestigious as the ones Witty has worked for can make or break a photojournalist’s career by awarding or withholding work, or through choice words to colleagues or industry peers.
Multiple women say that Witty wielded this exact power over them when they rebuffed his advances, alleging that he threatened them with professional retaliation. Others said he put them in a position that damaged their credibility on the spot.
Several employees told me they are frustrated with a lack of communication from National Geographic about Witty’s departure, fearing that Witty will move on to a new powerful position and put more women at risk of his alleged behavior.
After Vox published this story, National Geographic Partners CEO Declan Moore sent an email to National Geographic staff acknowledging the Vox story, Witty’s “termination” and that human resources had conducted an investigation into Witty “as soon as issues were raised by women inside and outside NGP regarding his behavior.” A copy of the email was shared with Vox by a source at National Geographic.
A producer at National Geographic echoed what some women in the Washington offices told me: “It’s just disappointing that everyone in the office knows why he’s gone and they haven’t addressed it yet, not even to the young women there.”
Unlike other news organizations that publicly acknowledged they were investigating alleged inappropriate or predatory behavior of an employee, from the Washington Post to the New York Times to NPR, National Geographic has kept the matter quiet.
Many of the women I spoke to referenced National Geographic’s decision not to make any public announcement about Witty’s departure as a motivation for speaking to me.
Daniella Zalcman, founder of the Women Photograph initiative, said she’d heard for years about Witty through whisper networks and quiet campaigns where female photographers warned one another about predatory men in the industry. Men had warned her about him as well, she told me. I have been hearing rumors about Witty’s behavior for nearly a decade.
I spoke with many women for this story who described learning about Witty’s behavior the same way. In these networks, stories about Witty persisted for years before boiling over at National Geographic at the end of 2017.
The #MeToo movement, pushed to the forefront by the revelations about Weinstein, has put a spotlight on the whisper networks that women have long used to try to protect themselves, and in doing so, it has shown their limitations. As long as these allegations remain secrets passed between colleagues, the more sexual misconduct and abuses of power can persist.
”We’re all tired,” Zalcman said. “We’re all done with just letting this happen and standing by.”
“I’m Patrick Witty. I get to do whatever I want.”
On April 30, 2017, Andrea Wise, a freelance photographer and editor who had known Witty as a professional acquaintance for a few years, was attending a New York Times portfolio review — an annual event where a select group of young photographers get feedback from industry heavyweights. She alleges that when she tried to pass Witty on a staircase at the event, it turned into an encounter that left her feeling diminished and belittled.
“[Witty] grabs me around the waist and plants a big wet kiss on my cheek. I’m stunned. Totally mortified,” Wise said. “I start looking around. Are people assuming that I’m sleeping with him? Are they going to think that I’m a willing participant in anything inappropriate with him?”
She added, “It felt like he didn’t take me or my work seriously.”
Jesse Neider, Wise’s partner, said Wise described this version of the alleged events to him at the time.
When contacted, a spokesperson for the New York Times said that the Times had not heard of Witty’s alleged misconduct at the 2017 portfolio review. Witty’s name doesn’t appear on the list of reviewers for the 2018 event, a decision the Times says is independent of any allegations made against him. According to lists published on the Times’s website, Witty’s attendance has been advertised at every other portfolio review since the event’s inception in 2013.
Multiple women said Witty’s sexually aggressive conduct left them feeling terrible. But what happened next could be worse. Several women alleged that Witty specifically threatened their careers after they rebuffed his approaches.
Another freelance photographer, who prefers to remain anonymous for fear of professional repercussions, said she experienced a similar incident in 2012, when Witty was the international picture editor at Time magazine and she had just moved to New York to start her career.
A group of photojournalists was gathered in a bar, talking shop, when, she alleges, Witty suddenly kissed her.
“I immediately ran out of the bar; he ran out after me,” she said. She attempted to hail a cab and leave, but as that was happening, she alleges, Witty kissed her against her will again.
“It was definitely a situation where he was trying to use his power at Time magazine, and I thought he’d be there forever,” she said. “It was upsetting, and I didn’t know what to do. I stressed over it for many months, and after that situation, I felt like he had something to hold over my head.”
The woman confided in a friend at the time. The two women spoke over the phone after the incident and tried to draft an email to Witty to defuse the situation, with a focus on maintaining the woman’s career.
In an interview with Vox, the friend confirmed the same account of the events in 2012 described in this story. “When I talked to her, the main thing was that he came on to her and kissed her and she was super uncomfortable,” the friend said. “He was pushy [with her] in a way that sort of implied he could do whatever he wanted sexually.”
Over time, the freelancer tried to maintain a professional relationship with Witty, who, to her displeasure, continued to pursue her sexually. A refrain she vividly remembers him using frequently over the course of their interactions, in response to her rebuffs: “I’m Patrick Witty. I get to do whatever I want.”
“You’re never going to work for Time magazine”
Freelance photographer Emilie Richardson met Witty at a friend’s birthday party in New York City in early 2014.
“He was flirtatious and made me uncomfortable. He kept telling me how much he loved mentoring young female photographers — several times,” she said.
Richardson, who says she was frustrated with the unwanted attention, responded: “If you like mentoring young women so much, why don’t you hire more?”
According to Richardson, an enraged Witty screamed back at her: “Maybe if they could shoot as well as James Nachtwey, I would,” referencing the famed Time war photographer. A male photo editor present for the exchange confirmed the one-sided screaming.
Richardson alleges that Witty continued, “Some people matter in this industry, like me, and some don’t, like you,” as he for searched for a pen and paper so he could write her name down. And again, he screamed: “You’re never going to work for Time magazine.” The male photo editor present specifically recalled hearing this threat.
The editor who witnessed the exchange and escalation, an acquaintance of Richardson’s, then took Richardson outside in an attempt to defuse the situation.
“She was shaken,” he told me. “She was clearly upset; really, she was more angry and upset. She was really angry that someone would make that sort of advance. She felt good about how she handled it, but it was a traumatic experience.”
Neither Richardson nor the freelancer who alleges Witty kissed her against her will reached out to Time magazine, where Witty worked at the time.
When reached for comment, a Time Inc. spokesperson responded, “We do not have a record of any complaints of inappropriate conduct made against this former employee.”
“You know you’re very beautiful, right?”
In 2015, Witty was a coach at the Eddie Adams Workshop, a prestigious event near Woodstock, New York, for young photojournalists, where several women accused him of inappropriate behavior.
At workshops and other events like Eddie Adams, barriers between work and personal life can disintegrate. Participants work long hours on tight deadlines with industry idols, but also might relieve stress by hitting the bar or an informal workshop party with those same idols.
“Eddie Adams is something a young photographer looks forward to and strives to for years, and to see the horrible reality of the industry was disappointing,” said a former workshop student of Witty’s who alleges he behaved inappropriately toward her.
“After one of the late-night edit sessions, I was sitting on a couch [in the hotel lobby] and he sat next to me,” she said. “He scooted toward me and got very close to my face and told me, ‘You know you’re very beautiful, right?’”
“It was the first time I felt frozen. You want editors to like you, and I was put in a situation where if I did anything to make him upset, that might ruin my chances of a future [professional] relationship or connection.”
A faculty member at the workshop said the woman reported the incident as described to Vox to her at the time. She added that other female students at the workshop had told her similar stories. She took the reports to members of the workshop’s executive board on behalf of the women, who, according to the faculty member, described a range of misconduct from unwanted comments about their bodies and appearances to unwelcome touching, patting of the hair, and sexual propositions.
The faculty member stated that she was satisfied with the way workshop management handled the complaints, noting that Witty has not been allowed back since. Signing a code of ethics is now required for coaches and portfolio reviewers participating in the workshop.
Multiple emails and phone calls to members of the workshop’s executive board in advance of the publication of this story, in an attempt to confirm that Witty is not allowed back, were not returned.
When the whisper network isn’t enough
Young women in photojournalism have warned one another about Witty for years. The women I spoke to recounted these warnings going back as far as 2011. But nearly all the women I spoke to in the course of reporting this story cited the #MeToo movement as a force in galvanizing them to speak up more assertively.
Private Facebook groups such as Women Photograph and Riot Grrrls of Journalism, which collectively reach thousands of young women in the industry, became forums to speak out about sexual harassment in the wake of several high-profile investigative stories this past fall.
Now is the beginning of a promising moment when photography is starting to grapple with this toxic culture — from fashion photographers Bruce Weber, Mario Testino, and Terry Richardson to former Sports Illustrated photographer Bill Frakes.
“Talking about it makes it more real. Being believed has a gratifying feeling to it. It’s not this secret you’ll take to your grave that you carry through your career,” said Calla Kessler, a University of Nebraska journalism student who filed a Title IX complaint against former Sports Illustrated photographer Bill Frakes that led to his dismissal from the university in 2017.
But fear of professional retaliation was a recurring theme in many of the interviews I conducted.
“There’s no way for me to do this,” the woman who alleged Witty kissed her against her will in 2012 told me recently, about her decision to remain anonymous. “This isn’t Hollywood; I’m not a celebrity. This is going to damage me no matter what.”
Photography has long been a male-dominated industry. Statistics released by the World Press Photo competition in 2016 show that women consistently produced only about 15 percent of the photos submitted over the past five years. A review by the New York Times noted that in 2016, major publishers’ lists of the most significant photographs of the year ranged from being 80 to 100 percent created by men. This is despite the fact that women account for a majority of undergraduate and graduate photography students.
Photojournalism has a professional culture that aims to spotlight injustice in front of the camera but has historically turned a blind eye to the harassment behind it.
The National Press Photographers Association updated its code of ethics in the summer of 2017 to specifically address harassment within photojournalism.
“For us, as an organization, adding new language … shows that we won’t tolerate harassment of any kind — whether it be sexual harassment, bullying, or intimidation — by our members,” said former NPPA president Melissa Lyttle in a prepared statement. “[Harassment] is an insidious form of professional misconduct that harms the careers of those who are subjected to it. That behavior has been tolerated in our industry for way too long, and will not be condoned by us.”
When I followed up with Lyttle later, she noted the “ingrained unwillingness” of photojournalists to speak out about harassment.
“It’s such a small, tight-knit profession that we all fear being ostracized because we brought it up,” she said. “I can’t even pretend to imagine the strength and resolve in those that have come forward with their allegations.”