Battling Sexism in Photography, One Story at a Time

Battling Sexism in Photography, One Story at a Time

Today is the International Women's Day so while it's nice to celebrate how far gender equality has come, it's even more important to look at the issues still present in photography industry today.

Before we start discussing this topic, I wanted to take you all back to last week. My friend, who's a female photographer, got contracted for a commercial job and hired me as her assistant. On the day of the shoot, our subject, a male with several decades on us, greeted us with a confused face. After shaking our hands, he said, "this is very modern. I'm generally used to photographers that are men". This, of course, didn't stop my friend working hard to create a great rapport and deliver exactly what the client was looking for, all the while pushing that comment far away behind her. Devious or not, these types of comments are unnecessary and set us back several decades. 

So, why do we still keep hearing comments like these? The reality is that women now make up the majority of students in undergraduate and graduate photojournalism degrees, according to The Guardian, and yet only 15 percent of entries to the World Press Photo awards were those of women. You may question the quality of work by the said women or even mention the lack of confidence as the reason for not entering, which is partially true, however, the issue stems deeper. Freelance photographer Daniella Zalcman offers her explanation by noting that "women are not getting many of the most important assignments from the wire services, newspapers or magazines, and that there are still telling gender disparities in the industry".

As a response to potential editor queries, who may say they have issues finding properly qualified and experienced female photographers for various locations and assignments, Zalcman has created an answer to this. Namely, an online database, "Women Photograph", which contains work of 400 women from 67 countries. Unfortunately, while Zalcman does not believe that this list will directly solve issues in photojournalism, she does hold a hope for showing editors that there isn't a shortage of qualified female photographers, "just a lack of equitable hiring".

Similarly, photographer Cybele Malinowski, after experienced her fair share of discrimination in the industry, together with entrepreneur Angela Liang co-founded Agender, which is "a platform for female photographers designed to exchange ideas and advance careers". They are already hosting their second annual exhibition, named "Balance for Better", which opens up today to mark International Women's Day, with half of the sale profits going to Sydney Women's Fund. The whole point of the exhibition is both to celebrate women and also to show to future female photographers that "if you're hungry, you're talented, you're driven, you can definitely get there".

Liang believes that it all goes back to our childhood and how men are generally taught "to be bold and assertive, women are taught to be apologetic", which Liang believes contributes to women being more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome, which in return makes it more difficult to approach potential opportunities or pitch ideas. Therefore, on the surface it may seem that if women wanted it enough, they could have achieved it but in reality, it's a lot more complicated than that because it's not just the lack of confidence at fault.

While the conversation is not about giving one priority over another, it's rather about giving equal opportunities at the very start. Giving visibility to role models in the industry is just one of the steps to be taken, for young girls to gain confidence and see clear examples of women who have already succeeded. A New York freelance photographer, Natalie Keyssar, noted that she doesn't believe we are doing "enough to teach young girls to stand up straight and say "I deserve this job, and I'm the best person for the job"", which she has also seen during portfolio reviews, where she felt compelled to tell younger women "to not apologize for their work because the young man before her didn't". 

These are just a few examples, and the reality is that the things that are said or the decisions that are made often grow out of unconscious bias instilled within us. Liang explains, "many creative directors and producers will simply go back to the same photographers they’ve already worked with time and time again, who are more often than not male", thus further continuing the stereotype that "women should stick to what they know: weddings, beauty, children, families". 

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Photo by @lena_mucha |Giovanny, 21, he joined the ELN at the age of 14. 2. Photo: Young ELN fighters standing in the central square of the village during the daily morning address. Among the group, the majority are teenagers between 14 and 17 years. „I am not afraid of being killed. I am fighting for a better future for our families.“, says one of the teenagers. Last year I had the opportunity to spend some time with young rebel fighters in Colombia. After the FARC gave up their weapons in mid 2017, the ELN - the National Liberation Army - , is the last armed rebel group in Colombia. As politicians and media talk peace, the ELN is preparing for war, dangling love and justice to recruit teenagers into their ranks. In remote camps in the eastern department Chocó, they are trained to fight, as the ceasefire with the government ended in early January. The motivation for these teenagers goes beyond a political ideology. Due to a lack of opportunities many see it as the only way to leave their homes, escape domestic violence or in search for a sense in their lives. Daily life in these camps might look like a summer camp, but their unwitting role in a complex political situation is much more sinister. The ELN is 2000-2500 strong, and judging by the speeches made to groups of children as young as 8, there are no plans to lay down their weapons. My name is Lena Mucha. I am a German photojournalist based between Berlin and Colombia. In my work I focus on stories related tohuman rights, gender aspects and social changes within societies and ethnic groups that are mainly under-reported. Thanks for following!

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Although we should be thankful for how much further the industry has already come from its early age, equally we should not lose the sight in ignorance of "I haven't seen it, therefore it doesn't occur" or "It has not happened to me, therefore it doesn't exist". It may become tiring to some to keep the conversation going but that's the least we can do to help those in the industry already as well as those only dreaming about it being a part of their future. We all have the power to make conscious changes in how we treat other people and as such we all have the power to help steer out industry the right way, starting today and continuing every day.

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20 Comments

Robert K Baggs's picture

A brilliant and important article. One of the difficulties with this discussion is just how passionate people get and it clouds the rational and logical points being made, at least in my experience. One thing I do wonder, and I hope this doesn't get misinterpreted, is how much of an impact decision making of the different genders plays. For example (and this is anecdotal evidence), I would think more family portrait photographers and photographers of children will be women these days than men. Similarly, I would think more sports photographers are men than women which. I presume both of these is as a result of choices.

With the imbalance in gender distribution of photojournalism, I wonder if it is a result of choices. I can't see how it could be given the widespread and diverse nature of photojournalism, but I find it so hard to believe anyone in this day and age could habitually gravitate towards one gender over another regardless of the candidates' bodies of work. I would have thought that editors (or whomever makes these decisions) would look through portfolios and then choose the most appropriate artist. Then again, I'm a white male who hasn't faced discrimination, so it's not unlikely that my shock is as a result of a lack of real-world experience!

Again, great article, Anete. Let's hope the comments are as reasonable and engaging!

Claire Whitehead's picture

"Choice" is a really complex topic, I don't think it's right to dismiss any issue as being a free choice.
We say women 'choose' to stay at home with kids - when very few dads ever consider the option.
We say women 'choose' to remove their body hair, when you're met with ridicule, or even disgust when you don't.
Choice is limited by the world around us.

Socialization is massive. Take Street Photography for example.
Getting up taking pictures of strangers. I love looking at it, but doing it?
I honestly feel like a massive A**hole to go around shoving a camera in peoples faces. I've seen amateur street photographers take pictures of myself or other women and it's actually made me unconformable (they don't ask). I have learnt to be so much more socially aware of the space I take up and the effect I have on others around me.

We also have the social norms around work, SO many of my favorite Photographers and Videographers I follow on Youtube, are dudes jetting off around the world.But all have wives and kids at home who manage their entire home and family life for them.
If I expected a partner to do that for me, especially if I was going to 'dangerous' places, I would be made to feel like I am doing something wrong, like I am a cold-hearted bitch leaving other people at home to worry about me. While for men, this is kind of an idealized, soldier-like sacrifice.

Expectations in society are subtle, but we all pick up on them. I can clearly envision how people would react to my actions, breaking gender norms, the same way a dude would be able to imagine how others would react if you walked outside wearing a dress.
No one ever told you specifically not to do it. But it's so not normal, you just know what would happen if you did.

Ken Flanagan's picture

Do think men are under less social pressure than women? Genuine question.

Nathan McMahon's picture

Great piece!

Mick Ryan's picture

A welcome article. I am curious as to how many decades this man had on you and your firend. I’m 53 but wouldn't even blink if a female photographer turned up (or doctor or anyone else for that matter) but I know my dad would, but he’s nearly 90.

Anete Lusina's picture

I think he was in his early 60's but him and his family seem to be more on the conservative side, although highly educated and also very wealthy. I agree, it is not something I generally have run into myself so I can count myself lucky in that respect and I'm confident things are getting better. One of my best friends is a male photographer in his early 70s as we seem to have so much common it's almost bizarre but we both think that's down to him having travelled across the world several times and having been exposed to different parts of the world throughout his life which has opened his mind on many things. I can only hope that people who do frown upon female photographers are in minority and their numbers are decreasing every day!

Chris Cameron's picture

It would be interesting to see what the ratio of female PJs to Total PJs is compared to the assignments issued.
I doubt the 400 female PJs list is all there are but I would guess that there are still many more men who choose the PJ career over women. Going to school to study doesn't mean you end up doing what you studied. Also having not studied doesn't mean you can't do the job.

Studio 403's picture

Got to take a shot at this sexism mantra. My perspective is not from what business does concerning hiring women or men. I more convinced a lot of noise is being shouted out all in the name of women. If I was hiring someone to shoot, I want only best qualified person who can give me what I want and I am paying for, regardless of sex, color, religion and what every else. of course all this has to be nuanced. Let the market drive this engine. I lose work all the time because I am a man. But its not sexism for me. Clients wants a woman to shoot who has equal talent as me. So what, big deal! I just need to figure out how to beat out any photographer, man or women . I am not in denial that folks, and women lose work for the reasons in this post. I make this claim.Sexism is not a "bad thing" and I have found no one to date who can give a clear cut definition of sexism as it is understood today. A bias will always exist. No has the right to my choice of whom I hire. Motives are hard to prove. What we have is, jargon baited with guilt and shame. it is important to discuss sexism in this field. But lets be clear, Lindsey Adler will always trump me and get all the work and I won't. I am just not that good as Ms Adler. Remember 65% of the nations wealth are in the hands of women. Check out Forbes for this. My sexism rant for the day

Andy Day's picture

I disagree and unfortunately don't have time to go into why, but wanted to quickly say thank you for offering your perspective in a constructive and reasoned manner. You make some excellent points. 😊

I agree with the message and I think it needs to be addressed until equality is the norm.

>>Devious or not, these types of comments are unnecessary and set us back several decades.<<

I understand comments can be (perceived as) sexist even if the one making them didn’t have the intention to do so and we need to make people aware of that, even if they think they are just stating a fact like being used to photographers that are men because most photographers are actually male.

These things happen to all of us though. You wrote “…a male with several decades on us…” and I assume that is also a fact and you didn’t write it with the intention of suggestion all (most) males over the age of 50 are sexists. Was it necessary to mention his age? If he was your own age would it make any difference? I don’t think so.

My point is unintentional sexism or other kinds of discrimination can be corrected with relative ease by make people aware of it. The difficulty is to change the minds of people who don’t believe in equality.

David Pavlich's picture

I'm a proponent of choosing the best person to fulfill my need, be it photography, plumbing, painting, window washing, etc, etc. Equality for the sake of equality leads to inferior end products or service. If person 'A' is the best fit for my needs, then it's person A because he/she is the best, not because the person is a he or a she.

Stas Aleksandersson's picture

Jesus fucking Christ, here we go again. How dare he say something like this?! Would men be set back decades if they heard “oh I used to nurses being usually female”?
Would it be ok if that older man were a woman?..
Is it ok to say “I’m used for a brick layer and a plumber to be a man, I’m used to see men crab fishing, paying for food and drinks on first dates”?

Anete Lusina's picture

Personally, in any of those scenarios I wouldn't even consider that as a thought let alone as a comment out loud.

E S's picture

Sir, would you please not say that I that I F* Christ.
My middle name is Jesus and I don't do that stuff...
Why do people have to say that phrase?!
Ugh!

In her book, "It's What I Do," Lynsey Addario talks about how getting captured and raped was her biggest fear while covering armed conflicts. So there's also that added risk and fear for some jobs/stories, that many women may not be willing to take on.

William Howell's picture

Anete Lusina, I think that man who has several decades on you, oh, by the way, such a clever turn of phrase! :)
I think the “old” man may have been giving you a “challenging” compliment. You know, like, “let’s see how you gals do”! And he was most likely rooting for you guys to outclass the men that he has dealt with before.

I have surmised why there aren’t any female David LaChapelle’s or Martin Schoellers’, the reason is equipment. Those two photographers probably use up to twenty lights, for a single shoot. And they shoot with cameras that are quantum leap above my Nikon D500. The female photographers I follow and subscribe to, don’t use these tools.

The only way anyone can duplicate these light setups and the photography that these light setups yield, is to purchase the equipment.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

When you get to LaChapelle, Scholler or Leibovitz's level there's more telling assistants and lighting techs what to do and where to do it than actual touching a light or setting up cameras.
Heck there are times that I have three or four assistants on a job, they do the heavy lifting.

Rent, don't buy.

William Howell's picture

Hey, thank you for the reply.
Now for me, photography is my Bass fishing, I love doing it all the time, you know with my free time.
It is my avocation.

Yeah, that’s what I mean, when you wrote, you need assistants for the movement of all the stuff. And from my studying of photographers that do complex visuals, it takes a lot of equipment.

Oh yeah, there is no way a photographer would even want that much equipment. I watch a lot rental house videos, because I knew that’s just too much to own. I buy the Buff lights, so I can save for their strobes easier, and they’re good. And I have unique light modifiers. That’s something I noticed you guys use, unique modifiers, and they look uncheap, very uncheap. And that’s probably just the tip of the iceberg.

If you any tips or tricks...

Mr Hogwallop's picture

A long time ago, when we first moved to LA I worked the overnight at PIX a rental place that was open 24/7. When I would show up at 10pm it would be obvious that Annie was in town as most of the Profoto and R767 gear was gone and there was a 10 foot long rental printout on the counter. I was always glad I didn't need to check all that stuff back in!
I asked her assistant why they need so much stuff, and he said they set up about 6-8 places to shoot to optimize the time the subject is on set. And they needed backups of backups for everythingb
if/when it breaks.

Scott Andrews's picture

With respect to the author, this article feels like it’s 10 years old. While the observations may continue to be true, especially reference to the old man, the topic has moved on. See LinkedIn etc, photography is no different than other industries (on this topic)

I also disagree with ‘positive discrimination’ such as ‘platform for female photographers designed to exchange ideas and advance careers.’

This attitude of separation to create equality is just as damaging as current generations of men continuing to treat women as less than equal.

If FStoppers really wants to contribute to changing attitudes, why don’t you challenge the huge amount of poor portraits that get high ratings because the female model is being overly objectified?

For example, the current community challenge on ‘strength’. Number of poorly lite models, with very tight pants on and is suggestively bent over.

It’s boring, insulting and childish and puts me off entering competitions.