Women in Photography

by Jo Slack of Redeye the Photography Network

Discussion led by Bridget Coaker

Panel: Anna Fox, Camilla Brown, Natasha Caruana, Louise Clements

At The Photography Show this year, across from the main arena and in front of an audience of around 20-30 mostly female attendees, The Guardian’s Bridget Coaker invited talks from Anna Fox, Camilla Brown, Natasha Caruana and Louise Clements on the subject of ‘women in photography’. This one-off event seemed at odds with the show itself, where in an arena of predominantly men, women were used as models to advertise new products, or draped over cars and motorbikes in swimwear so attendees were able to try out the latest camera on them.

Despite this, the panel discussion was a welcome addition to the show, and the speakers invited to attend made up a strong panel of successful female photography professionals. In addition to this, the audience consisted of female photographers working in many different fields, from conflict photography to racing photography, making for a dynamic panel discussion through the sharing of personal experiences.

To introduce the event, Bridget Coaker took to the stage and presented the audience with a real-life comparison. Google ‘women in photographers’, she informed us, and you are presented with a list of the ‘top 25 female photographers’ alongside pages of articles on the subject. Google ‘men in photography’ and no such list exists. Nor do the articles, and instead, the search results vary, with no one thing taking precedent.

Why is there a need to have such a list for women, Bridget asked? (Indeed, similarly we should ask why is there a need to have articles such as this?) This is to be the basis of the panel discussion and before Bridget introduced the first speaker, she left the audience to ponder the following question – when will women be identified just as photographers and not by their gender?

Anna Fox was first to present and centred her talk on her current project – the building of an archive of new and emerging female photographers. Anna believes that the creation of such an archive empowers female photographers by creating a network that is accessible to all.

So why do we need this archive? Anna attempted to answer this by pointing out that in institutions and on courses, there are a high percentage of female photography students, often around 80%. If this is the case, where are these female photographers going when they graduate? A pertinent point when across the corridor, in the main arena, a predominantly male profession was showcased.

Anna then presented us with another telling comparison – the rate of technological change versus the rate of change for female representation in photography. Technology is advancing rapidly, yet the same cannot be said for female representation. She implored the audience not to ignore this, but to work out why, so we can work together to ‘catch up’ with technology.

Anna finished her talk with some clips from her new archive where emerging female photographers share their personal experiences as photographers. The first two clips were photographers working in India who both speak about the cultural pressures on female photographers in that country. The next was of Sasha Hitchcock, a fashion photographer who chose to move away from fashion photography after spending a few years in the industry. In her video, Sasha states that she found it easy to break into the industry – a story that may seem unusual to those graduates trying to find their first job – but she had issues with the stubbornness of the fashion industry its reluctance to change despite continued questioning and discussion about the notion of the female gaze.

Camilla Brown’s presentation asked ‘are we really ‘post’ feminism?’. Camilla cited Linda Nochlin’s 1971 text Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? and asked the audience – is it possibly female artists aren’t as good as male? She thinks unlikely, though again reminded us the change in representation for female artists has been slow. Camilla then made reference to the 1985 Guerilla Girls campaign on the Met Museum: ‘Less than 5% of artists in the Met are female and 80% of nudes are female’. Fast forward to 2012, the advert is replicated but the figures fail to represent the years passed. The new advert reads ‘Less than 4% of artists in the Met are female and 76% of nudes are female’. Evidently there has been little progression, but why?

Camilla told the audience that the need for feminism today is still very much there, but there are different things to consider. Women now have the opportunities to get in to work, opportunities that were not present 50 years ago, but many are being made redundant from their jobs when they become pregnant. She told the audience ‘you only need to go to a few pre-natal classes to hear stories around this’. Camilla believes that sexism manifests itself in more subtle ways that it did in the height of bra-burning feminism. Because of this, it’s harder to galvanise people and to spark a common cause.

So what is our responsibility, as those working in the photography industry? For Camilla, it is around exposing the gaps in the history of female art. Camilla told the audience that the way art history has encoded men as geniuses makes it harder for society to see women as relevant in art. We need to look back through history and fill in these gaps.

Natasha Caruana focussed on the visibility of women in the industry in her presentation. She is a Lecturer at University for the Creative Arts, Surrey and backs up Anna’s assertion that 80% of people on creative courses, particularly photography courses, are female. She asked, again ‘where do these women go once they leave University?’ Natasha used part of her presentation to offer advice to female photographers. She told the audience to ‘be excited, be proactive, meet as many people as you can’. Natasha gave the statistic that when looking at new jobs, men will apply if they believe themselves to have 40% of the skills listed on the job description. For women, it takes a self-belief of 90% of the skills to apply. It is important to capatalise on positivity and self-belief in order to counteract these statistics. Natasha finished her presentation by remarking that there might be a traditional resistance amongst females to help each other through the common belief that there isn’t enough room at the top, but if we all mentored people coming up, we’d create a more sustainable industry.

Louise Clements of Format Festival took to the stage next and gave a candid admission that the more progress she makes in her career, the more she feels the pressure of gender. In many professional situations, she finds she is the only female in the room, and whilst she wants to maintain a level of professionalism, she also has to work to combat inherent sexism in the industry and elsewhere. She gave an example of the insistence of male colleagues to talk about football, rugby, or other activities that they might share with their male counterparts. As a female, and an individual who is not involved, or interested in these subjects, she asked – should she pretend to like them so she is able to join in?

This comment was immediately recognisable to me as I often find myself in similar situations in my working life. When instances such as this happen, females are faced with a decision – to nod and laugh along with no real knowledge or interest in what is being discussed, or speak up to bring the conversation back to something neutral and relevant to all, with the risk of being branded rude, bossy or stroppy.

Louise used the remaining five minutes to move away from the issues being discussed and instead to celebrate emerging female photographers she is excited about. Among them were Poulomi Basu, Taslima Akhter, Lisa Barnard, Chloe Dewe Matthews, Briony Campbell, Tanya Habjouqa and Anastasia Taylor-Lind.

Once the talks concluded, the panel was opened up for questions and the audience had a lot to input.

The first question asked if conflict photography was less accessible to female photographers. Bridget Coaker remarked that she believes it takes a certain type of person to go into this area, and in part it has to do with the photographer wanting the glory. A conflict photographer in the audience disagreed with this, and remarked that she ‘fell into the industry’ through having previously been in the army. For her, it is a job much like any other photographer has, but agreed that it is male-dominated.

So what about working in the Middle East where threat of rape and sexual violence are prevalent? Do Editors decide against sending women there because of this? Bridget answered on behalf of The Guardian to say they would choose people who want to go and are psychologically prepared, regardless of gender. This is a comforting answer to the question, when many of the issues raised seem to have solutions based in positive discrimination, which in itself can be problematic.

A photographer who works in racing car photography asked if fellow female photographers should ‘suck it up’ and become ‘one of the lads’ on a job in order to fit in. Natasha answered first and implored the photographer to ask herself ‘it is inherent in me to act this way?’. For Natasha it is about being self-aware, and thinking about the reasons you choose to act in a certain way. Anna agreed, and said you can choose to perform in a certain way to benefit yourself if you have this self-awareness. The problem occurs when female photographers feel like they have to act in a certain way to succeed.

Camilla added that we are in a time where we can’t rely on advertising, so instead we have to rely on our networks. Men choose to be around men. Camilla thinks females in the industry should become the Guerilla girls and speak up. She is aware this is difficult as nobody wants to be seen as a troublemaker, but also believes there is strength in numbers.

The final question is about research and exploration of women photographers. Is this just as important as commissioning new photographers? The panel unanimously agreed it is just as important, if not more so, and that we all have to work together to be advocates for that research and exploration. Natasha adds that we should teach about future careers at Universities. For her, the seeds of ideas about becoming journalists or war photographers in female students get quashed before they come to fruition. Opportunities for internships in these fields are also limited for females.

We need to work together to make stories about photographers more visible, and present young female photographers with role models.

Whilst this is true, it’s comforting to know that there are already people working on this, for instance, Firecracker, a project that was set up to support female European photographers by Fiona Rogers, who recently announced an award to celebrate female contributors in the industry who have supported photographer’s careers.

The discussion then moved on to family, when Louise told the audience that careers that compromise family life make a huge impact on the amount of women in the industry. Louise told us that she is very rarely at home because of her job, and some women with children would choose not to be away from their families, whilst others take time out and would then have to rebuild their career.

Anna concludes the session by telling the audience she believes there isn’t enough money invested in childcare. She told us that in Sweden, a recent exhibition she went to had a high percentage of female artists exhibiting and she believes this to be due to Sweden investing money in childcare. For Anna, had the UK done the same, she would have been able to do more commercial photography with her two small children, but she has been unable to. A review of where the money is invested could make a big difference to women in varying industries, but particularly to those where many work freelance. Though many more hands were in the air, the session had to finish as the next event on the agenda was taking place. Nevertheless, the audience was left with lots to contemplate as they wandered back into the bustling arena.

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