Sexism in the Photo Industry: Can’t We Do Better?
September 4, 2017
Jennifer McClure’s series “Laws of Silence” explores ditching “the life I was programmed to live.” A male portfolio reviewer suggested she save her work to show her kids some day. McClure doesn’t believe he would have said that to a male photographer. Click through to see more work from female photographers.
Sara Macel’s series “What Did the Deep Sea Say” explores memory and the past through the lives of her mother and grandmother. “I’ve had gallery directors tell me that their audience isn’t as interested in ‘work about women,’” says Macel.
In her work as a wedding photographer, Nadiya Nacorda makes a point of serving those who are not equally represented within the wedding industry. “Sexism does not stop at the photo industry’s doorstep,” she says.
A woman photojournalist tells PDN that her worst (but not only) encounter with sexual harassment happened when she was with a group of photographers and a photo editor at a bar. The photo editor asked her for advice on who he should send to shoot a story in a region she had covered. “Me,” she said. “No, I’d worry about you too much,” he said. She asked him, “Why don’t you ever hire me for an assignment?” He offered her a quid pro quo on the spot. She recalls, “The exact words were, ‘If you hook up with me I’ll give you an assignment.’” She told him if he didn’t give her an assignment, she’d tell everyone what he said, which she has been doing ever since.
“I’m both getting told that I’m not good enough to get the assignment…then just flat out sexually harassed,” she says. She was in her 20s at the time, she notes. The photo editor had been drinking. “But to mention a barter in that way? Even if it was a joke, it’s not funny.”
Sexism—from paternalism to discrimination to outright harassment—is a problem in just about every work setting, and the photo industry is no exception. As photographer Nadiya Nacorda puts it, “Sexism does not stop at the photo industry’s doorstep. It comes inside, and goes in your fridge, cracks open a beer, and sits on the couch.” Female photographers we interviewed expressed anger, frustration and resignation over the sexism they frequently encounter. They also expressed defiance—and hope.
“So many doors slam in women’s faces,” says photographer Natalie Keyssar. She adds that besides discrimination and sexual harassment, women put up with “an ocean of micro-aggression.” That includes subjects asking where the photographer is when they’re looking right at her with a camera in hand; male colleagues explaining to a female photographer how her camera works; and male photographers pushing around female photographers at photo ops or in pool situations in ways they wouldn’t push other male photographers around.
For female photographers of color, the challenges are more complex. “I want this industry to understand that the discrimination I face is different from the discrimination a white woman faces,” says photographer Oriana Koren. “People have very limiting ideas of the sort of work they imagine a black woman doing and I can tell you firsthand, being behind the camera is not one of those jobs they imagine.”
Harassment is so common, some women see it as simply something they have to endure. Photo editor Chelsea Matiash used to be one of those women. “It’s only when I got to a [work]place where it wouldn’t be tolerated, that I thought to myself: That’s not normal, that’s not OK,” she says. Yet female photographers often feel damned if they talk about discrimination, and damned if they don’t. “It’s a Catch-22,” says Daniella Zalcman, who has become a leading advocate for female photographers. “If you are that irritating, harpy feminist, editors might not call you [because you’re known] for calling them out for not hiring enough women.” Photographer Andrea Bruce says, “The impression is, if you start to complain, it just ruins your career.”
But some women who’ve achieved a level of career security are less afraid to talk, and many are speaking up to improve conditions for other women.
“I don’t want to see women coming in [to the photo industry] dealing with this crap,” Keyssar says.
And yet, most of the women we interviewed emphasized that the industry is full of enlightened, supportive men. “It’s not male against female,” says Bruce. Women in the industry are also contributing to the sexism: A number of female photo editors in high positions still give most of their assignments to white male photographers. “Decision makers need to be held accountable for helping to create a climate in which women photographers are overlooked, especially…when so many photo editors, art directors, art buyers, etc. are women,” says Koren. Matiash also says everyone needs to share responsibility for hiring diverse photographers. “It should be a dialogue that transcends gender… Women’s issues are human issues, and require understanding and action from everyone.”
While there are no illusions that the industry will ever completely eradicate sexism, many photographers and clients are taking positive steps to counter bias and expand opportunities for women and photographers of color.
How bad is the problem?
While a few photographers we interviewed told us about editors or teachers who abused their positions by trying to coerce them for sex, nearly every female photographer we talked to had stories about incidents that infuriated them or demeaned them.
For instance, photographer Jennifer McClure recalls a portfolio review where a male reviewer she describes as a prominent figure in the industry looked at her work and told her she should put it in a closet and bring it out to show her kids some day. The implication, she says, was “that my value, what I should do with myself, is go off and have kids and then one day show them this little project I made back when I thought I was going to have a career.” She doesn’t think a male photographer would ever hear that from a reviewer.
The industry’s favor for male photographers is everywhere apparent. A cursory count of the recipients of photo grants and prizes, as well as the credit lines of photographs published in newspapers and magazines, shows that men account for 70 or 80 percent of the spoils. Women Photograph, an organization Zalcman founded to increase work opportunities for female photojournalists, has been tracking the credit lines of front page photos of eight U.S., Canadian and European newspapers and four U.S. magazines. The percentage of photographs by women ranges from 9 percent at worst to 25 percent at best.
Photojournalist Mary F. Calvert says things have improved since she started her career in the late 1980s. “At my first internship, [male] photographers were instructed to take down their girlie pictures,” she says. But 30 years have gone by, and she’s mystified by the lack of progress toward gender equality in the business. “To this day, every time I cover a large news event, most of the commissioned photographers are male,” she says. “Why the disparity? Why are the guys getting the assignments? I don’t understand it. There are so many really good women photographers.”
Photojournalism isn’t the only sector of the industry dominated by (mostly white) men. About 30 percent of fine-art photographers with gallery representation are women, according to our informal count of men and women on the rosters of several major New York photo galleries. That’s consistent with the findings of a 2016 City University of New York study of the gender and racial imbalance of all New York City art galleries. “Recently a book publisher told me that books by women don’t sell. And I’ve had a gallery director tell me that his audience isn’t as interested in ‘work about women,’” says photographer Sara Macel. “And that doesn’t even begin to touch on the sexual misconduct (both verbal and physical) I’ve experienced in work environments early in my career.”
Similarly, white men dominate the commercial photo business. The rosters of major photo rep agencies in New York and LA are 70 to 80 percent male. Moreover, the female photographers on those rosters tend to cluster in categories such as kids, lifestyle and food photography.
The question is: Why does male dominance persist, despite the relatively high percentage of women now graduating from photography schools, and despite inroads women have made in positions of power—namely as directors of photography at so many publications, as art buyers and producers at ad agencies, and as reps, curators and gallerists?
It’s a disadvantage to female photographers if they don’t even spring to mind when a photo editor or agency creative, assignment in hand, reaches for her (or his) phone. But for clients across the spectrum, the archetype of a photographer tends to be a white male. The preference for male photographers “is the way things have been shaped. It’s what clients are comfortable with. It’s what they’ve known,” says photographer Diana Zalucky, describing a system that favors men out of habit.
In photojournalism circles, the bias in favor of male photographers is also so habitual that many photo editors—even if they’re female—also think of photographers only as “he.” The problem, Keyssar explains, is that “by saying the normal photojournalist is a white man, we cripple our industry” by disseminating a world view that’s “incredibly narrow.”
When a story involves any risk, even if it is minimal, the default choice of photo editors is a male photographer. “If it requires a little physical ability, go with a man. If it’s in a country with a history of sexual violence, go with a man,” Zalcman says of the photo editor mind-set.
“That’s a debilitating problem,” Keyssar says. “Females are [falsely perceived as] more of a liability in the field than a man, and that’s part of an editor’s calculus…Women are treated as weaker and more vulnerable.” One consequence is that women are pigeonholed to “sensitive” stories, or stories about women’s issues, just as photographers of color are so often pigeonholed into shooting only subjects of color.
Bruce says that when she was a Washington Post staff photographer, 95 percent of the stories assigned to her “had nothing to do with women’s issues. Since I’ve become a freelancer, 75 percent of what I [get assigned] has to do with women’s issues.” It’s not that she and other female photographers object to doing those stories. It’s just that men also get to do stories about women—which means women are limited to a much narrower range of stories than men are.
The perception that women are physically weaker presents obstacles for women in other specialties, too. When she was trying to get a foothold in the business 20 years ago, photographer Gina Santucci was told photographers wouldn’t hire female assistants. “They said they didn’t want to hire someone they would have to help carry the equipment,” she says. Photographer Brook Pifer says her first assisting job was for a photographer who spoke down to the women on his crew in a way he didn’t speak to the men. “I think there was a disconnect in [him thinking] girls aren’t strong, they can’t lift things, they don’t know how to do things properly,” Pifer says. “I did everything I possibly could to shine and do the best possible job, but it fell on deaf ears and it was very frustrating.”
The Bro Network
Photographers build their careers by building relationships. It might not be an old boys’ network anymore, but the photo industry is still pretty much a bro network: male photographers and editors, young and middle-aged, making connections at industry events over drinks. It’s how a lot of male photographers get known to potential clients, and start getting assignments or referrals. And it’s how a lot of female photographers get hit on.
“That’s not always a female-friendly environment” especially for young photographers, photojournalist Katie Orlinsky says of networking events. She sees a double standard: “You can see a male photographer black-out drunk with his photo editor and the next day he gets sent out on assignment. There’s a higher standard of professionalism expected of women.”
The bro network also makes it harder for women to find mentors, another important step for launching a successful career. Early in her career, Orlinsky had both men and women mentors, but not all women are as fortunate, she says. “I think that people like to see a young version of themselves. A man might not see that in a young women.”
The Curse of Gender Roles
You don’t have to be aggressive to succeed as a photographer, but it sure helps, especially in photojournalism. And in that regard, men have a learned advantage. “We teach young men from the sandbox onward to go after what they want, to be aggressive. We teach women to be polite, to not hurt anybody’s feelings, to wait their turn,” Keyssar says. She sees the consequences of that when she speaks to photography classes. “Guys ask for advice. Girls stand at the back of the line.” She sees it at portfolio reviews. “Men say, ‘This is my work. What do you think of it?’ while women start by apologizing. That is completely gendered. I say, ‘Stop it!’”
Bruce observes, “Women start their emails with ‘I’m sorry to bother you.’ Men would never do that.”
Female photographers of color worry constantly about how they come across to potential clients, says photographer Melissa Bunni Elian. “We’re so afraid of making a mistake in how we say something,” and alienating clients by some unintentional offense. “Men don’t have to think about it.” Koren called an editor to ask about an overdue payment. “The assistant editor, who is a white woman, then emailed me back, called me ‘aggressive’ in response to my making her aware of a late fee, then went on to say I was ‘threatening’ and that she would inform her staff to never hire me again.” Koren adds, “No matter my tone or how professional I am, someone will always pull the ‘angry black woman’ card because of my race and my gender.”
Zalcman recalls one of her first assignments: In violation of the photo pit protocol, a male photographer blatantly stole the position she had staked before the show. He told her he’d give it back if she kissed him. “Nineteen-year-old me did it. Thirty-year-old me would have punched him in the face,” she says. “We’re not always told, taught or trained how to deal with these situations. We’re averse to conflict, and want to resolve them as quickly as possible.”
Some photographers believe that aversion may explain why so many women give up their dreams of shooting to become photo editors instead (or quit the photo industry entirely). At least desk jobs provide some protection, in the form of a corporate HR department, that freelance photographers lack.
Breaking the Barriers
The response of female photographers to the culture of sexism is to work harder than men. Calvert says that when she started her career in 1989 at the Hayward Daily Review in California, “I made sure I could do whatever the guys could. That’s the way I proved myself worthy. You had to be better than [the male photographers] to be considered just as good.”
Photographer Johany Jutras, a team photographer for the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts, says she has to fend off the overtures of athletes, and the attitudes of “old school” coaches and managers “who believe women should be in the kitchen. But these types of [people] are everywhere. You have to ignore them and prove them wrong and earn your spot,” she says. And the adversity only motivates her. “First, I don’t take no for an answer. Second, I like challenge. The harder it is to get, the more I will want it.”
Female photographers are also trying to show clients they’re just as capable as male photographers by the types of personal work and test shoots they’re putting in their portfolios. Orlinsky has gained a foothold in editorial adventure photography by shooting personal projects in Alaska, for instance. Zalucky recently won a bid against two male car shooters for an all-media campaign for GM subsidiary OnStar, which provides concierge services to car owners. The job called for lifestyle photography, mostly of people interacting with digital devices while on the road. But “they still needed hero shots of cars,” Zalucky says. “When the client came back and said to the ad agency, ‘She’s never shot cars,’ I handed [them] test shots of cars that I shot three years ago.” She adds, “You have to show the kind of work you want to do.”
While women push back against sexism and gender discrimination on their own, they’re also taking collective action. Women Photograph, which Zalcman founded, has an online database of female photographers to make it easier for photo editors to find and hire up-and-coming photographers. Women Photograph is also starting a grant program and a mentorship program, to connect emerging female photographers with mentors, both female and male.
Over the past few years, women photographers have also established support groups in various cities, including Chicago and New York City (modeled on an older forum in Washington, DC), as well as on social media. Those groups provide female photographers with a place to exchange information and advice about business and personal matters, including the sexism and harassment they experience. Through those groups, photographer Alyssa Schukar says, “We feel this validation that we’re not crazy.”
But female photographers can accomplish only so much on their own. “Women need to be stronger,” but they aren’t to blame for the discrimination, and ending it is the responsibility of the entire industry, says Bruce.
Changing Industry Culture
There are indications that the industry is responding. “It seems to me that more people are making concerted efforts” to hire women, Schukar says. Clients have contacted her through her listing on Women Photograph, and she was recently hired to run workshops in Chicago and New York. “The woman who hired me said she was always hiring men, and now she wants a woman to run it,” she says.
Major brands including General Mills, Verizon and HP recently told their ad agencies to diversify their creative staffs—increasing percentages of both women and minorities—or risk losing those accounts. There’s no guarantee the diversity push from big brands will trickle down to photographers, but the conversation can’t hurt.
Meanwhile, World Press Photo, Magnum Foundation and a few other institutions are making much needed efforts to diversify the photojournalism industry across race, gender and nationality. At the same time, a number of photo editors—male and female—are making a conscious effort to hire more female photographers and photographers of color.
Whitney Johnson, deputy director of photography at National Geographic (and formerly Photography Director at The New Yorker) keeps a list of women photographers on her desktop to remind herself to look beyond the usual (white male) suspects when she’s hiring.
“It’s so easy to reach for your immediate circle,” she says. “You have to figure out if you’re in there to break the mold” by taking a chance on a photographer who brings a new perspective, even if they don’t have as much experience as other photographers who are safe and predictable. It’s not easy to take that chance, she says.
“You hear over and over, ‘I have to hire the best person for the job’ and in principle I agree. The higher up you get, the more you feel that. It’s your neck that’ll be chopped if the photographer doesn’t deliver [but] I go back to: Well OK, that might be true but then we have to work harder to find them and also to nurture them.”
When the status quo is the path of least resistance, change takes a lot of time. Only in the last 20 years or so have women moved into positions of influence in the industry. It’s a good start, but much more remains to be done. “Cultures change slowly. Sexism diminishes slowly,” Zalcman says. “We all need to do better.”