On Being a Woman Photographer

In 2013, National Geographic released its 125th Anniversary Collector’s Edition. Quite an incredible issue. Themed 'The Power of Photography', the cover is adorned with Steve McCurry’s close up of Sharbat Gula, the “Afghan Girl”. At first excited, I quickly realised that 'The Power of Photography' was dominated by the 'power' of the male photographer - plural. A quick scan of the contents page reveals that all the featured pieces in this issue have a male photographer attached. Safe to say that my initial delight at stumbling upon 'The Power of Photography' was soon met with a disheartening thud. I searched through the magazine for photographs that were credited with female photographers. It turns out that in a sea of incredible photographs, the significant majority were made by men. Put simply, four out of 96 photographs in the issue were made by women.

One of the four photographs made by a woman covers a double spread. It is a photograph from Stephanie Sinclair’s Too Young to Wed project. This photograph is set in Ghor Province, Afghanistan, 2006. It's a pre-wedding portrait photograph of Faiz, 40, and Ghulam, 11. According the U.S. State Department, it’s been estimated that approximately 60 percent of Afghan girls marry before the age of 16. Sinclair was responsible for exposing the issue of child brides to a global audience.

Sinclair states,

“I fall in love with almost every person I photograph. I want to hear each story. I want to get close. This is personal for me.”

Too Young to Wed, Stephanie Sinclair, From her Too Young to Wed series
Too Young to Wed, Stephanie Sinclair, From her Too Young to Wed series

Despite women being trained as great photographers since the start of the 20th century and successfully producing incredible work, an article by Fortune reports that photography has been a predominantly male profession. In 1983, about 20% of photographers were women. Today, about 20% of photojournalists are women and the gender balance across photographic professions is relatively even. These statistics appear to be kind if the representation of female photographers noted in National Geographics' 'The Power of Photography' (2013) is anything to go by.

Earlier this year I attended a conversation at Magnet Galleries between Ilana Rose and Dr. Judith Crispin talking on the theme of ‘on being a woman photographer’. I listened to Ilana Rose speak of her experiences as an Australian photojournalist during the 1980s era and that she had to work incredibly hard to get the jobs. Physically hard. She described using her small, almost invisible, determined presence to her advantage, using her stature to “get the shots” that a sea of male photojournalists could not. She expressed that the photojournalistic industry was a field dominated my men, a “boys' club”, and women were a very clear visual minority. Earlier in the year she reported that

"It was very difficult for women around then to get a job, so [she] freelanced for all the dailies."

A grandmother sits with her nine grandchildren at a refugee camp in South Sudan, Ilana Rose for World Vision
A grandmother sits with her nine grandchildren at a refugee camp in South Sudan, Ilana Rose for World Vision

Lynn Johnson, an American photographer known for her contributions to National Geographic, Sports Illustrated and Life expresses a similar experience of using ‘invisibility’ to her advantage.

“All of my career of 35-plus years (started as a newspaper photographer), I noticed that because I was a woman I was really not taken seriously. But I understood almost immediately that that was an advantage because I could be invisible in the room. And that’s how you can witness people at their most true. So I think being underestimated and being as invisible as possible can be an advantage.”

(Proof, National Geographic, 2013)

Many female photographers do acknowledge that gender does play a role in what they do and sometimes how they do it, with many great female photographers discovering ways to utilise their gender to their advantage.

Bathing, Lynn Johnson,  From her Women’s Health: An Endless Battle series
Bathing, Lynn Johnson,  From her Women’s Health: An Endless Battle series

One question asked of Ilana Rose and Dr. Judith Crispin that sat with me long after the conversation ended, was “did we still need spaces that celebrated ‘only’ female photographic work?”. Dr. Crispin expressed that she felt that this needed to be so, that it was important. Magnet Galleries, the host venue to the conversation, felt it important to provide this opportunity to women, exhibiting women only exhibitions at specific points in time. In contrast to these sentiments, there was at least one member of the audience that expressed that she didn't feel that this was required, that she preferred the opening always provide opportunity for both women, and men.

Molly Napurrula Tasman Lifts Wattleseed, Dr Judith Crispin
Molly Napurrula Tasman Lifts Wattleseed, Dr Judith Crispin

And I sat there thinking about how She Shoots Film, with its gender based angle, would respond to this question. From my perspective, I think that She Shoots Film can represent a form of positive discrimination. I know this sounds like an atypical coupling of words, however it works here. Positive discrimination is designed to directly redress disadvantage that a group has experienced historically (and still currently) in a given area. She Shoots Film is a positive attempt to create and maintain a space that specifically features and celebrates women only greatness in film photography and analogue process photography.

Some argue that because She Shoots Film swings to inhabit a spot on the other side of the continuum, celebrating only women at the exclusion of men, that it too risks being sexist in itself. And although I do not believe She Shoots Film to be sexist, I can and have accepted that some do and will. For me, it’s completely worth chancing the ‘sexist’ label if it  propels the cause objectives.

The cause objectives include continuing to increase the representation, consideration and celebration of women in the field of photography - with a specific interest in female film photographers and female alternative process photographers, both current and historical. Why is this important? Because over time, these items can be linked to a shift in perception, which can lead to a general increased equality and more specifically an increased equality in remuneration. Fortune reports that although the gender balance in the job is at an even split, as in many other industries and professions, this does not necessarily extend to remuneration. According to a report by the National Endowment for the Arts (2008), the median income for male photographers, as of 2005, was $35,000, while the median income for female photographers was less than half at $16,300 (Morris, 2012). Essentially, women working as photographers get paid half the amount of their male counterparts while they deliver the same skill set and knowledge. It never ceases to baffle me as to how we are still here.

When we started She Shoots Film, one fellow film photographer characterised us as “deeply sexist”. More recently we received a comment in response to one of our Facebook call outs stating: “Incredibly sexist - only females apply! B*tches.” Fortunately, this is the only comment we’ve had to report and remove from our Facebook page. Interestingly, Facebook reviewed our report of *** ********’* comment and responded with “Thank you for taking the time to report something that you feel may violate our Community Standards. Reports like yours are an important part of making Facebook a safe and welcoming environment. We reviewed the comment you reported for containing hate speech or symbols and found it doesn't violate our Community Standards.” Apparently the word “b*tches” isn’t considered hate speech by Facebook and doesn’t violate their “Community Standards”. It’s disturbing to know that the largest social network considers the word “b*tches” in this context as acceptable, while at the same time it continues to promptly remove photographs depicting forms of motherhood - woman birthing child. Upon further research, it appears that Facebook is also selective about which female breasts are acceptable for us to see. It would seem that addressing women as female dogs is acceptable, while depictions of forms of motherhood and certain breasts are not visually permissible and breach community standards.

If it is sexist to seek to actively encourage and maintain a safe space that houses female photographic voices that are great, then I am content to stand in the face of being labelled ‘sexist’ or a ‘b*tch’. I think great photographers are worth singling out and celebrating. Celebrated again and again. Not because they are necessarily ‘women’ photographers, but because first and foremost, they are talented photographers, worthy of being featured and celebrated. In an industry that still experiences the heavy undertow of the oppressiveness of a male dominated viewpoint and the leer of the male gaze, identifying that we do not need spaces like She Shoots Film because equality has already been realised is naive at best, and consciously discriminatory at worst. This approach can sometimes hide behind the guise of egalitarianism, but egalitarianism doesn’t help when the scales are not balanced. Egalitarianism in this light, to me, is a romantic ideal. Until a fully realised transformation in the structures of power in the field of photography have been achieved, and that transformation would include a total equality, including equal representation across photographic subject and pay, then using egalitarianism as an argument against ‘women only’ spaces in this area is unjust and will only serve to continue a history and currency of sexism.

For She Shoots Film, 58% of our fans on Facebook are women, 40% are men, while 2% are not identified. I know that She Shoots Film has some great female friends and also some great male friends that move with us. The support, for the most part, has been overwhelmingly positive and I thank all the people that have joined us, engaged us, engaged with us, and been with us. Let’s use the collective, us, in unity, to support She Shoots Film to continue to be a safe space which celebrates photographic greatness, both current and historical, fosters courage in others to take risks and contributes to a genuine transformation in the greater photographic field.

References

DuBois, S. (2013). 5 professions ruled by women. [online] Available at: http://fortune.com/2013/03/11/5-professions-ruled-by-women/.

Hunter, M. (2014). State Department: 60% of Afghan Girls Are Married Before 16. [online] Available at: http://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/melanie-hunter/state-department-60-afghan-girls-are-married-16

Lee, J.J. (2013). On being a woman photographer with Maggie Steber and Lynn Johnson. [online] Available at: http://proof.nationalgeographic.com/2013/11/05/are-women-photographers-wired-differently-with-maggie-steber-and-lynn-johnson

Manatakis, A. (2016). Interview with Ilana Rose: Photojournalist Ilana Rose Captures Women of the World. [Online] Available at: https://www.vice.com/read/australian-photojournalist-ilana-rose-photographs-the-worlds-women

Morris, L. (2012). “[Editorial] Photography: Is It Still A Man’s World?” [online] Available at: https://fstoppers.com/video/editorial-photography-it-still-mans-world-6793

National Geographic Magazine. (October 2013). National Geographic Society Press Room.