What It's Really Like to Be a Female Photographer

What It's Really Like to Be a Female Photographer

Nikon's recent choice to promote the new D850 with a pro team of 32 men has started waves of conversation of gender inequality in the arts. During the uproar, I received a few messages requesting for me to share my own experiences that are unique to being a female photographer. Whether we like to admit it or not, America is pretty far from complete gender equality. Many are surprised to learn that the accepting arts industry isn't an exception to the current gender norms. As to not a let male-dominated industry intimidate me, I try to ignore the upsetting gender-specific challenges I face. But there are a few too hard to ignore as they're present in my life daily.

When I first started to pursue photography as a career in Atlanta, I didn't notice many differences as a woman. That all changed when I moved to Louisville, Kentucky, a city with a drastically smaller arts industry than I had become accustomed to. Ironically, it was the man that I relocated to work for, Clay Cook, who taught me the most about the adversity I was going to face as a woman in this industry and what it would take for me to plow through it. During a crew lunch following one of my first shoots with Clay we chatted about our weaknesses and goals. My memory isn't the best but I will never forget the words he spoke to me that day. Like every day working with Clay, I learned a lot, but it was one simple sentence that I am reminded of all too often today. With the utmost seriousness, he looked at me and said, "It”s going to be really hard for you as a woman Gabi.” No one could have prepared me for the year to follow that would prove just how right he was that day.

Self Portrait of Photographer Gabrielle Colton

Self Portrait of Photographer Gabrielle Colton


Behind the scenes video still by Blake Mcgrew

"You Should Try Modeling"

I hear this at least once a day; I am being told to do various things instead of photography. This has happened to me at the bar, the grocery store, doctors offices, photography conventions, my own photo shoots, and even weddings where I was the photographer. Before people even see a single piece of my work, they don't believe or approve of what I've shared with them. Because how could the thin woman wearing makeup and a dress in front of them be a professional photographer? Being the way that I am, I have to prove myself, I always ask these people to add me on Facebook right there. They always send me a request and react with an “Oh wow you're actually good“ or similar in attempts to make up for the judgments based on my gender they just made. This is just a small example of the heavy tension I am constantly against as a female in a world I'm not meant to be in. And of course, even after proving myself for years, that I could completely fend for myself, my father still doesn't understand what I'm doing. He has said that what I am aiming to accomplish is "too hard" and suggests other places I could work. To this day I am fighting to prove that this is what I should be doing and will do forever, both to strangers and my own family, something men don't have to worry about proving on a daily basis everywhere they go. 

Behind the scenes with Gabrielle Colton, Video still by Blake Mcgrew

Behind the scenes with Gabrielle Colton, Video still by Blake Mcgrew

I Took My Gender Out of My Social Media

To detach my gender from my work and to sweep it under the rug, I stopped posting images of myself, something Clay suggested I do to be taken more seriously in spite of being female. Sadly, it worked, people began to appreciate my work once they were no longer getting stuck at the initial shock that this tiny woman created it. Now when you do come across a post with me in it, my back might be turned or my face covered and behind the scenes, images went from being of me in action to photos of my camera.

Behind the scenes of shooting a wedding

Always Wearing Some Sort of Camouflage

I respond to many comments where followers mistake me for being a man and it's pretty funny. I've even met random social media followers in person who have tilted their heads in confusion or disappointment when they realize I'm a female. In attempts to neutralize peoples reactions to me, I make sure to put together outfits that aren't too girly when I wake up every day. I’ve come to realize that for some reason the more feminine I look, the younger and less experienced I seem to people I shake hands with. When I walk out my door in a nice dress and shiny shoes I rarely make any promising business connections. But when I throw on jeans, a leather jacket and boots with my hair slicked back, I am treated drastically different. Even though I am the same artist and businesswoman while wearing a dress, because of my gender I have to provide reassurance with a tough physical appearance.  

It's a bit unnerving for me to look back on the girl at lunch a year and a half ago because back then I had no idea I'd have to evolve tremendously, solely to make up for the disadvantages my gender causes me. I got tough, courageous, vigorous, or according to my thesaurus: ”manly” is what I became. The only real difference there is to being a woman in the industry is that on top of perfecting our craft we have to learn how to be a man. 

Images used with permission.

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Ben Perrin's picture

(deleted as commenter deleted their reply)

Anonymous's picture

Of course this isn't the same thing but almost every time I go to the local parks and see someone photographing a family or seniors, it's a woman. I see how comfortable everyone is. I'm an older man and have to work my ass off to make people half as comfortable as most will be with a female photographer. Just sayin'.

Joshua Kolsky's picture

I'll second this one. The area I work in is easily 20/80 (men/women) photographers. My clients are for the most part women. Women who want family, children, wedding, etc...pictures. Women for some reason feel more comfortable contacting women photographers. So I have to let my work do the talking and do my best to attract them to me.

I'll third that. So true.

Gabrielle Colton's picture

You guys are right, there are some great advantages to being a woman as well. Unfortunately this comfort doesn't really take us far in high fashion and editorial work where we deal with large clients. This is another assumption people make, that I am a family or wedding photographer because I'm a woman.
Yes a lot of the time, women are more comfortable being photographed by women, but agencies, the marketing teams that hire us don't hire based on this.

Anonymous's picture

Can't argue with you there. :-)

You are right, I did assume you were a wedding photographer because the only example of your work in the post is of a wedding, and that is the example of your client in the article. The other pictures do not show me what type of work that you do. Perhaps if you had said that in the article we could better understand where you were coming from. I didn't think most high fashion and editorial shoots would be booked via someone demanding to be friended on facebook.

Also if there are advantages of being a female in the industry, why would not not even give a throwaway line in an article about being a female in the industry? If someone was really wanting to know and expand their knowledge, would not sharing the positive with the negative be more correct than just presenting one side?

Joshua Kolsky's picture

Thats definitely a problem. But I don't sit around and hate on the world because women won't choose me to take pictures of their family or children because they'd rather choose the woman in the next town over because they feel more "comfortable" with that. Your going to have to be more aggressive with your approach and stop taking no for an answer.

I totally get your challenges in a tough industry, but you knew all this prior to advancing your photography career. Isn't it a little late to complain? And to change the industry, best of luck. You're swimming upstream forever.

Gabrielle Colton's picture

Not complaining, I am simply sharing my experience as several people asked me to do so. I wouldn't trade what I do for anything in the world, but I do pay attention to these things, I pay attention to everything. Me addressing adversity like this does not mean I am out to "complain" or that I'm in the wrong industry.

As for high fashion/magazine editorial . My favorite photographers in those markets are mostly women. Yes, i maybe in love with 80% of them. But its because they are so amazing in their craft. I hope to become at least as half as good as they are. Being at their level would be a great goal to meet.

I have 2 young kids and my oldest, my daughter, Kyla, is in Kindergarten. It started in pre-K last year and has continued into this year, and I'm sure it'll continue for a LONG time to come, but she's getting teased and picked on at school. Not often. We're talking once a week she'll say a kid laughed at her for something. I share all that to say this...
I tell her that the best way to handle it is to not care what other people think. This is something people tell kids of all ages. And we mean it. We know it's the best way to handle negativity. Yet, as this article shows, even as adults we still care.
That goes for the good, and the bad. You can't care about one, and not the other because you're relying on one of them to tell you how to feel about yourself and the other is the opposite, so of course it's going to be impactful.

Anonymous's picture

I wouldn't say to stop caring altogether but, give it appropriate weight. Consider if what they think is valid and you can profit from it. If not, then throw it away.

Ramon Acosta's picture

I will assume you shower often, before work, even when you are not really dirty.
I will assume also that you don't go to work wearing flip flops.
Maybe you also have to shave every day , if you don't want to look scruffy at work.
And you might say "But it's different, it's my job!"
But it's not different, you have too dress how your boss expects you to.
And so does she. Her boss doesn't take her seriously when she wears a dress.
So she wears something else.
When she is off the clock, she wears sun dresses. And doesn't care what you, or anyone else thinks...I assume.
I could be wrong.
Am I wrong Gabrielle ?

But the same is said when I show up wearing basketball shorts and a Tshirt. There is a set amount of dressing up for both genders. If I go out in basketball shorts, my crocs and a geeky tshirt, i don't get anyone taking me serious as a photographer either. I have to prove I am a professional and not just a creepy guy with a camera, so I have to dress a set way. Its no different. Both genders have a set idea of what a photographer should look like.

Neville Ross's picture

Pardon my asking, but what is this 'set way' that a professional photographer has to dress if they're a male?

For me in most professional situations means dress pants, dress shoes and a pressed shirt.

Neville Ross's picture

Thanks for the tip/heads-up.

Jim Strutton's picture

Well to most of the responders here I come from a different generation, but I still think the advice I was given as an apprentice photographer is as valid today as it was in the sixties. You need to be dressed clean, smart and above all appropriate. For example my partner and I had a successful and busy wedding photography business in the late '80s and '90s. We both dressed in a suit to attend the event, but had a Hi-Viz waistcoat in the bag to wear as needed. I have also shot on industrial sites when I needed a hard hat and a boiler suit. Once you have a 'reputation' you can roll up in ripped jeans and a Death Metal 'T' shirt if that's what floats you boat. But you need to build that reputation first.

Photography is a secondary career for me, 99% of my revenue came from the computer industry and there my 'Uniform' was always a quality suit, shirt and tie with shiny black shoes. My customers dressed like that so I blended in. My difference was that I always had a camera too............

I think you've misinterpreted what I meant my message to be. My message had NOTHING to do with what someone chooses to wear or whether they're hygienic or not. My message was that you shouldn't allow other people's opinions to affect your self-confidence or self-worth. What's the old saying?... You can't control what people say or do, you can only control how you react to it (or something along those lines). THAT is the point I'm trying to drive home. Don't put weight into people's opinions of what you should do with your life. Don't put weight into "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" votes. Do what makes you happy and to hell with everyone else.
Some people are very perceptive. I wonder if they're offering alternative careers to the author because they sense she feels the need to prove herself.
Now... what I've said above is VERY different from accepting praise or criticisms for the results of one's work. If someone receives a critique, they should first determine the source and then determine the worth of the critique. FYI, IMO, it's possible that the source is important, but the critique is not and vice-versa.

Gabrielle Colton's picture

I'm somewhere in between on not caring about other people's opinions. Judgement is real, whether we care or not. It is part of running a business to look the part, that's why companies require employee uniforms. So if it will make a better impact on a client if I tailor my outfit or appearance to appeal to them, I'll put that effort in. It's part of the business, you show up to a big client you dress nicer to match their level. But you don't want to intimidate a family by dressing like that so you wear something more casual.

My comment wasn't related to one's appearance at all. It had more to do with having confidence in one's self-worth as an artist and not allowing ignorant people to deter one from their goals. STOP CARING WHAT THESE PEOPLE THINK YOU SHOULD DO WITH YOUR LIFE. STOP CARING ABOUT THEIR PREJUDICES. "Just do you", as the kids say these days :-)

Robert Nurse's picture

"To detach my gender from my work and to sweep it under the rug, I stopped posting images of myself ..."
"In attempts to neutralize peoples reactions to me, I make sure to put together outfits that aren't too girly when I wake up every day."

May I make a suggestion? STOP IT! This really isn't your problem. I mean, for crying out loud. Why are you doing all this? Let them get over themselves. You are who you are. Your talent will show regardless of what you look like or of your gender. We really can't control first impressions no matter what we do. Peoples' first impressions are usually baseless and have little to do with reality. Now, if this stupidity is impeding your ability to pay your bills, then I guess you'll have to take such measures. But, if not, screw it! Don't jump through all these hoops for little or no gain.

Gabrielle Colton's picture

It does impact my ability to pay bills, I have been denied for jobs because they have chosen men over me, even though I was very clearly the better one for the job. People expect to pay me less and don't see me as highly as they would a male photographer of equal quality.

I don't doubt that this has happened, or at least could happen. But please, just make sure you're not carrying a chip on your shoulder. After all, when you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Douglas Turney's picture

Gabrielle I respect where you are coming from but I feel that you might be a little off course. I have two daughters, one 20 and the other 14. If they said to me that they lost out on something because the other person was "you fill in the blank" rather than the other person was better, I would ask for proof. I wouldn't accept speculation as an excuse on their part. I get that there are prejudices in our world and they aren't only male-female, black-white, east-west, there are all kinds. Perhaps the jobs you think you missed out on was because the client felt more at ease with a male photographer. I don't know because the only reason you gave was they were male. To me that statement is the exact same thing you are accusing others of doing to you. The same happens with clients picking female photographers, younger photographers (something I have to deal with as I'm in my 50's), gay photographers, straight photographers, white, Asian, and on and on and on. I wish it could only be about the product we produce but let's be real that for some people there are other considerations. They may be absolutely wrong reasons or they simply might be a preference for some other reason other than being racist, sexist, homophobic, whatever. To say you have to be a man to succeed in photography is just wrong and is as bad as what you are claiming to be wrong with the industry. I'm sorry to say but your own remarks have shot holes in your argument.

Robert Nurse's picture

Well, if your bottom line is effected by this bias, then, do what you have to do. It's really a shame though. I took a look at your work and I wish I had a tenth of what you've got!

Gabrielle Colton's picture

Thank you for the compliment! Hard work and obsession pays off my friend, you got it if you want it!

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