Wedding Photographer Susan Stripling Writes Open Letter Tackling Industry Sexism

Wedding Photographer Susan Stripling Writes Open Letter Tackling Industry Sexism

Award-winning Wedding Photographer Susan Stripling recently shared an open letter she wrote dealing with sexism in the photography industry. In the letter, she shares her experiences with male peers, wedding guests, employees at camera stores, and everyone in between who makes gender an issue in a field where sex shouldn't matter.

When I spoke to Stripling, she told me that people keep asking her if the letter was written in response to the recent uproar over the all-male team, 32 members strong, that Nikon gathered to promote the release of the D850, but she reponded that the letter has more to do with the industry as a whole.

The letter has already, at the time of this article, garnered more than 354 comments and 459 shares on Facebook. Clearly, this is an issue that resonates with many photographers, as many women who responded shared their own experiences of sexual harassment while photographing weddings, both physical and verbal, demeaning and dismissive comments from male peers, and even the attitude of other female photographers who encouraged their fellows to keep their heads down, be quiet, and let their work speak for itself.

That's not something Stripling is prepared to do.

Image shared with permission of Susan Stripling.

An Open Letter About Sexism, Feminism, the Industry That I Love So Much, and Everything in Between

I have been a wedding photographer since 2002.

I was 24 years old when I started my business.

I took out a loan to start my business. A small one. I remember the man at the bank talking to me like I was a child when I was setting up the paperwork. He told me that if it didn’t work out, I could always ‘stay home with my kids.’

In 2004, an industry leader that I formerly respected kissed me on the mouth at a photography convention. I did not want that to happen. I did not ask for it. I spent the rest of the convention wondering what I had done to provoke that. I never once realized that no matter what I’d said, done, or worn, it wasn't OK. I eventually told people, but I still feel strange shame about it, even thirteen years later.

In 2006, I walked into a vendor booth at a popular trade show and watched the men in the booth approach every male who walked through their area with a sales pitch, never once approaching me. When I pointed it out to the male friend I was walking with, he didn’t believe me. He wasn’t being cruel, or accusing me of lying, he just didn’t see it happen, and thought I was being ‘too sensitive.’

(I can’t even tell you the number of times I’ve complained to male friends or colleagues about how much I get ignored at camera stores and the like without them at least once saying ‘Aw, that must all be in your head, that doesn’t really happen.’ Which means that they never saw it happen, but it would be super great if they’d just believe my word.)

In 2007, a guest at a wedding cornered me against a bandstand and shouted in my face to ‘take a picture of my dick!’ He pinned me against the stage and kept shouting it. I had to go get the male photographer that I was there with to help me out of the situation.

In 2008, I stood on a small platform to speak for one of the first times ever. After talking extensively about photography in a very technical manner, the first question I was asked by a member of the audience was ‘How do you balance your business and your personal life?’

At almost every wedding I shoot, someone asks me ‘Who watches your kids while you’re at weddings?’ No one ever asked my ex-husband who ‘watched his kids’ while he was at his 9 to 5. I can’t recall anyone asking my current husband who ‘watches his kids’ while he’s at a wedding.

I am repeatedly asked if I miss being there for my kids on weekends. People are very concerned about why I’m not with my kids at all points in time. When I was in Florida and my kids were in a day program at our church, I don’t recall a single person ever asking my husband why the kids needed daycare for him to work.

Somewhere in 2008 or 2009, I went to a large photo-based convention and all but two of the speakers were men. The two women there to speak were talking about creating marketing materials.

In 2016, I went to a huge camera store in N.Y.C. to help my mom and dad return a consumer lens and buy a new one. When we approached the lens selection, the salesman talked to my father first. When I said ‘I’m a photographer,’ I got an indulgent smile, and a patronizing description of how zoom lenses work.

I could go on and on for days about this.

I could talk repeatedly about the sheer number of times I’ve shown up at an event venue and before I’ve taken a single picture, the venue manager (who is usually male) starts with ‘So let me tell you how weddings work here!’ They condescend to me, tell me where ‘most photographers take pictures,’ and talk to me like I’ve never shot a single wedding before. I can’t tell you the number of times a DJ or bandleader has talked to me like I was a child about how the timeline of a reception would go. They slow down their voice, they emphasize their words oddly, and they act like they expect me to not understand a thing they’re saying.

‘Stand up taller, be more confident, let them know you’re boss and this won’t happen to you!’ is the response most men give on Facebook groups when women talk about this problem at weddings. It’s not the right answer. These things happen to be before I’ve said a single thing other than ‘Hi, I’m Susan, great to meet you.’

I am confident. I am strong. I am tough. I am not meek, passive, wimpy. It’s not about how I carry myself. None of those things matter. They shouldn’t matter. This shouldn’t happen at all, whether I show up as Brienne of Tarth or the tiny mousy girl whose name you can’t remember who sat behind you in math your sophomore year.

I could talk on and on about the number of times I’ve tried to bring a male assistant or a male second shooter to a wedding, only to have guests and vendors alike think that he is in charge and I am his assistant. Not his second photographer, his assistant. Despite working with wonderful men who immediately refer those people over to me, I quickly became tired of the ‘Oh you are in charge!’ response.

My husband, my excellent, awesome feminist husband (who champions the shit out of female photographers) is also a photographer. When we introduce ourselves with what we do for a living, he gets saucer-eyed responses as if he’s just walked off the battlefield or a sports field with his camera in hand. I get ‘Oh you do that, too?’ and a sweet coo, as if I naturally photograph babies at most, or that I’m sub-par to him at worst. I die a little inside every time.

I could go on for days about the number of times people cheerfully tell me ‘Oh wow, it’s great that you get to work on the weekends and then have the rest of your days to be with your kids!’ First of all, hello, it’s not just the weekends. Second of all, I like working. I am 100 percent unapologetic (why should I be?) about the love that I have for owning my own business. Why do you assume I want to be home with my kids all week? Why can’t someone, for once, assume that I like having a job — oh, and that I can also like my kids and spend time with them, too?

These tiny micro-aggressions over the years have led to anger. Yes, I’m mad about this. I’m continually frustrated, and that frustration builds. Why are women in our industry mad? Because we have the right to be.

Let’s talk about some misconceptions now.

‘Being a feminist means you hate men.’ That is not a thing. Just like men like to bring up #notallmen, man-bashing is not all feminists. Do some feminists hate men? Sure. Are some men sexist? Sure. Are some men fucking awesome allies? That, too. Not all things are everything, not all men are anything, not all women are anything. The women in our industry who are upset, me included, don’t want to take things away from men. We don’t want to see men fail. It’s not about that.

Here are some others that I have seen posted on Facebook over the past week:

‘Feminists are hysterical women looking to be offended about everything and anything.’ No.

‘Feminism discriminates against men.’ No.

‘Women get paid the same as men to shoot weddings, so sexism doesn’t have any place in our industry, I don’t see why everyone is so upset.’ No.

‘Having all-women Facebook groups or all-women workshops is just as sexist.’ No.

‘If you put your head down and grow a thick skin and work hard, you’ll eventually rise to the same place as the people you’re talking about. Sexism isn’t a thing, just keep working and your just due will come to you as you succeed.’ No.

‘Only you can keep yourself from the success that you deserve!’ No.

‘Women photographers are more into things like social media and marketing. If they stepped up and talked tech like the guys, they’d get more recognition with the men.’ No. Have you ever met me? Right.

‘I’m tired of women photographers whining because they aren’t getting something. Quit whining and work harder and you’ll get it eventually.’ No.

Here’s the thing.

These tiny micro-aggressions lay the path for more overt aggressions in the future. And that is not OK.

This matters. It matters because these small instances of women being treated as inferior translates outside of our industry. It’s not just salary and crap comments on Facebook, it’s real life. It’s way bigger than who tested what camera. It’s not being believed when actual violence happens to you. It’s bigger. Much bigger.

Listen.

I have been working hard for 17 years. I have worked harder, more diligently, and more efficiently than 99.9 percent of the people that i know in this industry. I have worked tirelessly towards a goal of financial and industry success. I have worked tirelessly to please my clients, care for my weddings, care for our industry, and educate photographers.

I want a seat at the table of equality because I am a great photographer and a great businessperson. I want more women, more women of color, more diversity everywhere in our industry. I want it because that is how it should be.

Women, it’s not about how you carry yourself. It’s not about being more outwardly confident and standing taller. Women who go on about these things push us steps backwards, not forwards. Don’t victim-blame. Don’t give away your power.

‘Shh, Susan, don’t be so loud. No one will want to work with you if you’re so loud and brassy,’ (says most of the Internet…). I sat back for a second before pressing ‘post’ on this because I was legitimately worried about what people would say about me. I am not that person. I won’t be that person. Sit down, hush up, smile. Definitely don’t be loud.

I am not shrill, hysterical, or selfish. I am confident and strong. I am not going to put my head down, talk in a quieter voice, smile when I’m unhappy, or think “should I post this” because I’m worried about what a vendor, venue, company, client, or fellow photographer will think of me. I am tired of being quiet about what I feel is our equal right to be treated with kindness and professional respect just because I’m worried that someone will label me as a ‘hysterical female’ or a ‘loudmouth.’

Everyone who has written to me to thank me for what I have done for our industry, please know that I want to do more. I am trying to do more, and be more. For you, for me, for my daughters who look to me for inspiration and examples as they grow.

I want more.

Shared with permission of Susan Stripling.

It's clear that Stripling is not speaking out against men per se, but against an attitude that persists about and toward women, particularly those who work. With honest and vulnerable stories like these, let us hope that those damaging attitudes will begin to change and that the industry will see continuing, growing equality for all those who love it.

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64 Comments

It also happens in the computer field as well. My wife, who is also a computer programmer as I am, once had a manager who thought that women should be "barefoot and pregnant." He made her life a living hell.

Nicole York's picture

I hear the same thing from so many people in the video game industry. As her husband, that must have made you crazy!

It did. Plus the guy was a suck-up doing what ever it took to attempt to get in upper management. I'm all for equal pay; it brings more money into the household. The video game industry and computer industry are in the technology field.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Yeah, that's weird, too. I mean, women did much of the cryptography during WWII, and they were some of the most important programmers in the early days of electronic computers at NASA.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Eric Draht, what is your problem with this anecdote? Do you think such things shouldn't happen? Or do you think people should shut up and suffer in silence? Or do you simply agree that women should be barefoot and pregnant?

William Howell's picture

I am a proud follower of women's movement and I stand behind it every chance I get.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Um, it was a rehash of an old joke.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Just letting you know. Seemed you were taking it seriously. Standing behind women. Get it? Yeah, it was a lame joke even when it was new. It also betrays a creepy stalker mentality that is the opposite of support for women's rights.

Sorry, but having met her I can attest to the fact there is no chip on her shoulder. She is, in fact, very accomplished and probably is better than most any person reading this article.
I have been a professional photographer for 30+ years and can attest to the truth of what she says.
The real problem is so many men just say "you are too sensitive" and so on.
It is real.
The real irony to me is that in the wedding field, women are, on average, better photographers than the men in the field.
Men are too hung up on posturing.

Jacques Cornell's picture

"According to the feminists the real problem is that most men today are still as sexist as Ralph Kramden."
I hardly think you're qualified to assert what feminists think.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Well, I'm a feminist, and that's not what I think.

It seems the response to her message by you confirms precisely what she asserts.

Defensive responses attacking the message or the messenger indicate a insecurity about the substance of the critique.

You don't like her language or her message and you belittle it. That is scarcely debate but snarky riposte.

It has become abundantly clear in this last year that what she is saying has substance and can be affirmed and corroborated by a large majority of women. The same is at work in the defensive posture of white people WRT race.

Paulius Palaima's picture

Just a small comment about the "micro-aggressions". I am with you regarding the distaste for this term, however, I think in this case it is used in a proper way. There isn't a term that i know (apart from "being dicks") that would really fit the context and get the point through.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Blaming the victim. Klassy.

Joakim Drake's picture

Dear Bob. Looks like you have a severe case of micro-aggression going on here. Perhaps you should step away from the keyboard, take a deep breath and continue doing whatever you did before reading the article.

Joakim Drake's picture

My mistake, please substitute micro-aggression for aggression. Have a nice day, Bob. Give in to your inner socialist.

Joakim Drake's picture

Oh Bob, you do acknowledge the term microaggression now. I'm confused. Maybe all the socialism made me confused. It's good to see that communism got your president elected so you could bring me all this clarity.

Joakim Drake's picture

Bob, I'm here to enlighten you to the fact that this topic is an unhealthy obsession of yours, considering a quick browse through your previous comments on fstoppers. By enlightening you to this fact, I hope that you become a happier fellow and stop obsessing about it.

You sound like a condescending prick, Bob.

Why do you have a chip on your shoulder?

Thanks for posting this informative article and letter.

jonas y's picture

Thank you for your article.

Susan got great work, and she deserves better than that,

Here are things I purpose we can all do to make ourselves happier and the world better.

1, Call them out.

Call out the asshole who does actual aggression and say no directly when they are being assholes.

Report actual crimes and call out hoaxes. Crime against women is what every right-minded people hate, and hoaxes make women who actually got hurt facing doubts and mistreatment. I have assisted with actual victims and I have to say I think there is a special place in hell reserved for these two kinds of perpetrators.

2, Vote with your money.
The kind of business and individuals who are not gonna get my business, that is why I stopped going to camera stores for a while. I prefer online because a lot of camera store has terrible sells person, not even me want to deal with them.

3, Grow a thicker skin.

Micro-aggressions are not aggression.

Aggression requires intention, micro-aggression by definition is unintentional. If we have to constantly avoid offending everyone, the world would stop working. Adds up the trigger warning culture, business negotiations will stop, movies will be unwatchable, comedians will not able to make jokes, teachers would not able to teach history and even law, the list goes on and on.

Besides that just think about how miserable one would be if one is constantly offended.

As for feminism.

It all starts with the right to work, to vote and to drive. Then it is equal pay and equal opportunities. And stop crimes against females. These are things most people, myself included support.

Then it comes to the intersectional feminism.
The philosophy came from Frankfurt School, and it is anti-logic, and inciting women turning against men, they portrait men being beasts and shell be locked with chains. It is the ugliest form of class war these culture Marxists can offer. When you see "manspreading" "mansplaining", that is the sign of them.

You both went in lengty patriartic explanation as why she was wrong about years of observing inequalities. You can't invent this; women are pissed and are finally speaking up to the inequality they are living with daily. In any "technical" environement, women face twice the doubts, questionning, profiling, stereotyping that men would. Why, might you say? Because historically, before the sexual revolution, women would be caring presence for their offsprings and steady house keepers. It's not something we change overnight.

Now that more and more women make their way in photography, mechanics, engeneering, computer IT and more, you get the same, lingering feeling coming from them. As a man, who believe intersectionnal feminism is real ( and does not support extremist feminism.. dhu! ), I have many females in my inner friend circle. Some of them are among the most technically advanced teachers I've had in photography. Some are strong like nails athletes who are constantly told they "look like men" ( by men, of course! ). Yet, I often see men who will immediately downgrade their opinion when they are saying they are treated unfair, assume they're hobbyist when they say they're photographer, etc. etc.

So instead of saying no, no, no, I'm not sexist and sexism doesn't exist, keep an open mind. May it be anecdotal or statistical, women still have the shorter end of the stick in photography. Women have it harder than you, and you're not helping. And if you don't believe it, I am very confident that the upcoming generation of photographers will understand that issue and make equal room for their female counterparts. If your sister, mother, daugther would tell you someone is taking liberties on them, would you tell them to "man up" and grow a thick skin? Would you tell them that maybe it is because they were naughty? Because that's exactly what you're doing here; a lecture about feminism, a thing you probably barely understand or feel, because the wrong doing is not ending your way.

Older males are right when they're right, they're not right because they say they are.

jonas y's picture

Oh, here comes the pathetic virtue signaling little Max.

Any of us denied the existence of sexism? I called them assholes and helped fight against one in a domestic violence case. Or denying the existence of an idea called intersectional feminism? It is real but wrong; it is where "1/4 female is being sexually assaulted in college" came from, and it is where mattress girl came from. Your desperation of showing how the virtuous of a little boy you have stopped you from reading through my post.

The point is, any right-minded person will condemn sexist action and indecency, but we need a solution for it, a solution that works.

My solution includes how to deal with crime, people who make one uncomfortable and more. While you provide nothing.

BTW, I am giving mentorship from an upcoming female photographer, while you complaining like a baby, and your vocabularies need a lot of work. I can't help you with that.

Supporting sexual assault groups, crime and such goes into the "being a decent person" category, not in the we're fighting sexism category. The answer is in the middle.

Every little behaviors she mentionned in the article does not cross the line ( or maybe the "TAKE A PICTURE OF MY DICK" ) of law, but it certainly crosses the line of equality.

The solutions lies in the ways we will interact with women but mostly, how will we challenge men to come closer to that middle. How do I make a difference? I stand up for a women who talks about inequality. I will also counter argument feministas who despises men for nothing!

When I open up my ears and challenge my own views and start to notice women aren't treated fairly on the job market, I make a difference for them, and I make more people aware. I will listen and try to understand them, this is mostly, the biggest part of the solution people like you don't get.

And BTW, I'm sure you're a good man with good will. Women need men like you to support them past the fact you'll bear arms for them. They need to know you will stand up beside them for equal salary and equal treatment.

English is my 2nd language, but my vocab is super fabulous in french.

jonas y's picture

My way of dealing with a drunk asshole shouting "Take a picture of my dick" would be, "It is too small, I need a macro lens for that." The best way to react to this sexism is laughter. Trust me, it is very effective and does not involve anyone else.

Just like you, I like to challenge my views. And that is why I read about the history of feminism and came to my conclusion and my solution.

There are attempts amount the neo-feminism to make laws for this kind of actions, these laws including one that bans catcalling, an action I will never do while I believe it should not be a crime. That is why I mentioning crime.

Females in most if all western countries do have equal salary with men, the gap is in total earning. Here's what Christina Hoff Sommer says about this subject.
http://time.com/3222543/wage-pay-gap-myth-feminism/

I will support anyone's on equal treatment and the right to equal access to rights, but not equality of results. I think there are more things we actually agree on regarding this subject.

BTW, I have to admit. my French is worse than your English, by a long shot.

jonas y's picture

Thank you for your service.

William Howell's picture

Hey that’s a good thing, good recommendation, this article is about awards and a cash prize in photography by Vogue for women.

Yes, that's an example of good sexism and discrimination.

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