When Kathy Willens graduated from college, she was mostly resigned to becoming a starving artist. Instead, she became a photographer, and worked for the Associated Press for nearly 45 years, winning multiple awards for her coverage of breaking and general news, features, sports, fashion, and celebrities.
When Willens started, there were very few women photojournalists working alongside her, and the entire industry was an analog one — with photographers developing their own film and writing their captions on typewriters. At the end of Willens’s career, 95,000 of her images were on the AP Images website.
We caught up with Willens two weeks into her retirement (“I haven’t had a moment to relax!” she said) to talk about sports photography, long lenses, and what it was like to cover sports, presidents, and the Mariel boatlift.
How did you get into photography?
My career started in 1974. I worked at a small pink tabloid called the Spinal Column — it was literally pink. It was a throwaway paper that people would use to cover their birdcage bottoms. It was suburban, beyond suburban, outside Detroit, where I grew up. Photography seemed like the most viable career choice. At my first job, I thought I was going to be making $50 a photo; it ended up being $5.
I got a tip that the Miami News was looking for a lab technician. I ended up getting that job [later] in 1974. I worked there for six months when one staffer left and I joined as a full-time staff photographer. Miami was very different from where I grew up. I ended up photographing things like tent revivals and pictures of a murder scene on the I-95, probably stupidly contaminating evidence, but no police were there yet. But those pictures made the front page, or were prominently displayed. Late in 1976, the Associated Press’s local photo editor approached me with an offer to replace a retiring staffer, and I worked for them for nearly 45 years.
What were the big stories of the day?
One that spoke to me were stories about Haitian and Cuban immigrants, stories that were huge and ongoing. Everything happened in 1980, it was an insane year. There was no other year like it, except for now. That year was similarly transformational for me and everyone else in Miami. There were the 1980 McDuffie Riots, and then the Cuban Mariel boatlift. [The McDuffie riots] were the aftermath of the acquittal of four white policemen in the death of a Black man. That first night many people died in the violence and chaos. I couldn’t leave the office to photograph, the phone was ringing all night long and I answered it. I reached out to J. Scott Applewhite, then a freelancer, who went out to photograph for AP.
And the Haitian immigration and migration stories. Those were really close to me. I became close with a Haitian activist priest named Reverend Gérard Jean-Juste, and he gave me great access to tell these refugee stories. Those photos are very close to me, but some of them were never shown. Before I left, I let the Associated Press scan them in so they could be kept in the archives.
Hurricane Andrew was a huge story in Miami as well. Latin America was always a big story. Nicaragua, the Iran-Contra scandal and Oliver North. I also went to El Salvador. When I transferred to the [AP’s] New York bureau in 1993, I went to Somalia, which was utter chaos when I was there. It was the same year as the Black Hawk Down incident. The AP reporter who had been in Somalia, Tina Susman, was kidnapped, and three weeks after my departure from Somalia, the photographer who replaced me was killed. When I came back, I assessed what I wanted to do. I felt that it was so close to having been me. And I chose to stay closer to home, which included shooting more news and sports.
I imagine that the gender dynamics in the 1970s were different.
It was very different. I was so young, and I was surrounded by middle-aged men, older than middle-aged. There were two female photographers in Florida, Mary Lou Foy at the Miami Herald and Ursula Seemann at the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale. The expectations placed on me were just a lot. If nothing was going on, I was expected to go out and photograph women on the beach in Miami. I found a woman wearing the skimpiest bikini that I could find, and I took her photo, printed it out, and blew it up and put it on our office wall and told everyone that this was the LAST woman I would take a picture of in a bikini. It was women’s lib, and I thought it was unacceptable to ask me to do that.
When covering sports, I was almost always the only female on the field. There were no role models for me, but in general, I looked up to war photographer Susan Meiselas, even though she was probably younger than me. I also studied the portraits and photojournalism of Annie Leibovitz and street photography by Helen Levitt.
What about sports made you stick with it, and what was it like covering Muhammad Ali?
I covered Ali at the 5th Street Gym in Miami. It’s similar to Gleason’s Gym in New York City. 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 near the end of his career when I met him. The AP would always send people with more seniority — males, I might add.
It was fun being part of that culture. My then-boyfriend was an excellent sports reporter, and so I got tips on all sorts of things. For me, sports has the ability to capture these moments of extreme emotion. The joy of it, it’s right there in front of you all the time. It’s so omnipresent and compacted into a short period of time. It also made great images. I always had to learn on the go. My second boss at AP Miami, Phillip K. Sandlin, was extremely good at capturing those moments. He had a long lens, the longest lens, like a 500mm–600mm equivalent. I would process his film and watch him edit, and I would try to emulate that. He used to accuse me of shooting too many pictures. He would shoot a roll of 36 and have maybe four or five great images on it. I would have to shoot six or seven times that many rolls to get a good picture.
How do you feel about the industry now that you’re leaving it?
I feel like the profession is in very good hands right now. We’re in this time of reassessment where women, including women of color and diverse photographers overall, are being explored and included. It’s great. The profession is changing, and there may not be as great remuneration. I don’t know if it’s easier or harder to promote yourself on the apps and social media. But there are so many more opportunities for women than there were when I was coming up, and people are taking advantage of them. I think that’s a really good sign.