© KATE BROOKS
How One Magazine Strives for Gender Balance in Assignments
September 05, 2014
Last year, photographer Daniel Shea made public a conversation he’d been having with colleagues about sexism in editorial photography with a post on his blog. In it, he asked why there seemed to be so many more men working in editorial photography than women. The post was shared hundreds of times, and it drew a number of responses from female and male photographers alike.
As a continuation of the conversation about gender equality in editorial photography, Shea interviewed photo editor Jessie Wender. Before she left her position at The New Yorker for National Geographic, Wender, who had previously worked at Esquire, VII Photo and Time Inc., talked to Shea about how she and other photo editors at The New Yorker assigned photographers for the magazine, and she offered advice for women photographers who are building careers in the editorial photography market.
Daniel Shea: Do you consciously consider gender when hiring artists for commissions? And if so, does it get talked about in the office and amongst the other editors who have hiring capabilities?
Jessie Wender: When hiring for a commission, I consider a number of things: the subject itself, the location of the subject and the photographer, and the photographer’s interests and personal bodies of work. I don’t consider gender when determining whom to commission for a specific photograph unless the subject somehow feels “gender specific.” That said, gender is something we talk about more generally with our commissioning—we want to have a balance of men and women photographers whom we work with. In my blog posts [on The New Yorker’s Photo Booth], I try to be very conscious of gender, race and sexuality. I want to make sure that in my research and representations, I am showcasing photographers from diverse backgrounds. I think about this especially with thematic blog posts that feature a number of photographers exploring the same topic.
DS: What makes a certain subject feel “gender specific,” or more broadly, what is it about certain subjects that might prompt you or other editors to seek a queer photographer, or a black photographer?
JW: Oftentimes it is about access. I can think of two fairly recent examples. We commissioned Kate Brooks to photograph Saudi shop women for Katherine Zoepf’s piece, “Shopgirls.” Director of Photography Whitney Johnson and photo editor Elissa Curtis [who is now with MSNBC.com] wanted a woman to photograph this story because she would have the best (and maybe the only) access to the subject. [A profile of Facebook CEO] Sheryl Sandberg is another example. Because of her focus on women and leadership, we consciously wanted to commission a woman photographer. We often think about the connection the subject will or will not have with the photographer, and the linking or juxtaposing of artistic visions. In other words, we may hire a photographer who has a developed body of work on a topic that is in the same vein as the subject’s interests—either working with these interests in a commission, or contrasting them. For example, if a photographer has a significant body of work on lesbian couples in America, it might make us excited to commission that photographer to photograph a subject that fits that profile.
DS: Are there times when you and the other editors take a look at the past few issues and see how the gender balance for commissions actually breaks down? Does the more intuitive decision-making that goes into how you commission lead to actual hiring equality?
JW: The hard thing with a weekly magazine is that you’re so busy. There isn’t a lot of downtime to stop and take a look at the past few issues. We’ve acknowledged [that] having more women shoot for the magazine is something we want to do, so it takes place more at the hiring level, rather than during a time of reflection. For example, when a story comes to my desk, and I am pitching photographers, I look at my list and want to see that there are women in the mix.
DS: Have you experienced sexist attitudes and biases as a female in the industry? Do you feel that sexism is part of the editorial photography industry?
JW: In the workplace, and in the industry, I haven’t felt discriminated against because of my gender. Our department is all female. Many of the top photo editors I know are women. I think it is very important for women to mentor other women. In terms of sexism or biases that would affect who we decide to commission, I would also say that I haven’t experienced that. Besides the “gender specific” examples above, the only time I can think of when gender would play a role in our decision-making would be if we were going to send a photographer into a very physical situation, wanting to make sure that the person was appropriate. In this case it could be either a man or woman. When we get this detailed, we’re not thinking as broadly as gender, we’re thinking very consciously about the photographer as an individual.
DS: On the surface, it seems that most editorial photographers are men, and most photo editors are women. Do you have any insight into this gender breakdown?
JW: Sadly, I don’t have any insight into that, but I would agree, it does seem that way. As in other arenas, perhaps it is that having children makes it harder for women to be as mobile as men. The stability of a full-time job is an easier framework to work around. But there are great examples of women with children who do amazing editorial photography and artistic work—Michele Asselin, Tierney Gearon, Elinor Carucci, Cass Bird, etc. I recently spoke with a friend who is a female photographer, and she thought since, in many cases, photographers are expected to go to new frontiers and photograph, safety might be a real issue for women in a way that is less of a concern for men. I also spoke to a male photographer who said that perhaps it is because most photography assistants are men, and that traditionally photographers would rise through the ranks this way.
DS: Do you have any advice to emerging female photographers who are looking to start pursuing editorial work in a job market that appears to be favoring men disproportionately?
JW: My advice to emerging photographers is the same across the board—to take photographs consistently, and prioritize your photography, even if you are working for others. Pursue personal projects that interest you—this will both keep you inspired and active when work is slow, and it will also get you noticed and remembered by photo editors. Know where you see your work being published, and contact photo editors in a targeted and genuine way. I do think I receive more e-mails from male photographers asking for meetings than from women photographers. Make sure you are putting yourself out there, and that you are in touch with the right people [for your work].
DS: What can magazine photo editors do now, in 2014, to responsibly tackle the problem of under-representation by female artists?
JW: I have always assumed that it is my responsibility to make sure that the photographers I am pitching for stories are an equal balance of male and female, and that I am meeting with female photographers. Sadly, I think the male-to-female editorial photographer ratio is a problem that extends far outside what takes place at the commissioning level, into education, assisting opportunities, agency representation and our culture in general.
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