“If anybody gets in my way when I’m making a picture, I become irrational. I’m never sure what I‘m going to do–only that I want that picture,” said legendary photographer Margaret Bourke-White. That obsessive drive obviously got her very far in her career as she was the first female photographer to be hired by Fortune magazine, in 1929, she was the first Western photographer allowed into the Soviet Union and she was the first female photojournalist for Life magazine. Though there are a number of notable female photographers and photojournalists covering war and shooting corporate campaigns, they are considered the outliers. Many women we talked to said they have struggled to get out of the wedding photography and portrait side of the industry due to gender discrimination from both their colleagues and clients.
Of course, women have always been a force in photography. Yet in recent years, photo programs
have seen a steady rise in the number of female students in everything from advertising to art to
photojournalism. At top schools such as the Rochester Institute of Technology and the Art
Center College of Design in Pasadena, women now outnumber men. But the issue with women in photography is not that they are completely turned away from the field because it is dominated by men, but more that they are relegated to only certain jobs because of their sex.
One New York-based female photographer said, especially for young women who work for an agency or are freelance, it is very difficult to get jobs besides wedding and other family celebrations. She said her agency just gives the weddings and baby portraits to the women working there automatically and they literally have to fight to get out of these more traditionally “girly jobs” she said.
I mean, it is nice because I think people think women will be better at capturing the emotion of the moment but because I am a young woman does this not mean I can photograph something less emotional, or ugly or sad or just cut and dry?
Joop Rubens, of Joop Rubens Photography and the Firelight Foundation, agreed that women and men can be pigeonholed in the industry.
I think the main reason for this “division of labor” is that women are seen as being more romantic and more artsy, whilst men are assumed to be more interested in the technical details of photography. These are gross generalizations of course.
Erin Scott, founder of Erin Scott Photography, said she experienced more discrimination from her photo subjects and fellow photographers than a client or editor when she was working as a photojournalist in South Carolina. She now works as a freelancer in Washington DC doing mostly portraits and weddings and some personal projects, like photographing nurses in Haiti.
There is a sense that they don’t take women seriously. While working in South Carolina news photography I was constantly laughing off crude sexual innuendos and questions about my relationship status from the men I was photographing. I’ve been shoved and
elbowed by other photographers at high-profile events where I was the only
Weddings and portraits are what pay the bills now, and they’re nice because everyone wants me to photograph them. Journalism can be very confrontational and I realized I just don’t have the personality to fight (almost literally!) for the shot. Being a woman meant that I had to fight even harder, especially in good-ol-boy country.
Maybe it was my size (I’m 5’4″), but whenever I photographed national news like a primary campaign stop, I came home with bruised arms from other photographers there.<!–
Fashion photographer Hannah Ross said she didn’t feel like she got forced into photographing weddings, and of course, for many women, photographing weddings is a career move they chose and love to work in, but she does feel that on jobs she is definitely looked at as a female photographer instead of a photographer.
I have to negotiate much more readily to be paid market rates; I’m always offered far below the standard. This most recent job was $10,000 below the previous male employee, and when I worked for a TV show on Lifetime they offered to pay my day rate as my weekly rate.
She added that the fashion photography arena is also quite traditionally male and that she has often been exposed to agism. “The fashion photography industry is primarily for 40-plus year old men, so when any young female talent comes in, it’s very difficult to gain respect and treated as an equal.”
But should women look at the fact that some stereo-typical characteristics may actually help their careers? Anne Geddes styled photos of babies have helped her sell over 18 million books. Rubens said, “The question ‘What makes you special as a photographer in your field?’ has never been this important. So one could assume that being a confident woman in a photographic field that is mostly dominated by men may lead to recognition.”
Melissa Golden, a photographer based out of Washington D.C. who specializes in reportage and portraiture, wrote “I possess a number of advantages over my male counterparts. I can photograph children in a park without adults immediately suspecting I may be a sex offender, I can take pictures of women in cultures where a male photographer would be forbidden, and (I suspect) editors are more likely to hire me to shoot sensitive subjects like victims of sexual violence.” However, she wrote this in response to blogger Paul Melcher’s post which was completely dismissive of exhibitions, collectives and organizations dedicated to female photographers. He seemed to find it laughable that gender had something to do with the photojournalistic process. He is right in that it shouldn’t have to do with it, but he is wrong if he thinks it doesn’t. From Golden’s response to Melcher:
Conversely, I have to put up with some pretty ridiculous things that men do not. I’ve been sexually harassed by colleagues and subjects. I’ve been discriminated against by paternalistic editors who have feared for my safety in the field because of my gender. A fixer I once hired overseas paraded me around his village like a trophy and spent much of our time together propositioning me. I shot nothing useable in that time and I know for a fact this is not an unusual story for women photojournalists working abroad. I know of one colleague whose fixer even arranged to have her arrested after she spurned his advances.
Golden joined the Women Photojournalists of Washington (WPOW) when she moved to DC after being tired of having to constantly earn her spot in the boys’ club. She had looked as other women as competitors for the limited spots in the boys’ photo club, so she was not looking at this as a bonding opportunity. She was delightfully surprised to find that the women were very accessible and wanted to help her in her career. “It took me too long to figure out that drinking massive amounts of alcohol and putting up with sexual harassment were not tests I had to pass to join the club. I now know it took me so long because I didn’t have a strong, senior female photographer or editor willing to take me in and tell me that ‘there’s another, better way,’” Golden wrote.