Gillian Wearing, Self Portrait as My Uncle, 2003
On Sexism in Editorial Photography
Disclaimer: I am a white, cis male photographer. I don’t claim to speak for anyone but myself or those I’ve been in direct conversation with. In this post I will reflect more broadly and hypothesize, but I can only speak to my own experience. I end up talking a lot about myself in this post because that’s my point of entry into this issue and it’s the only way I know how to talk about it. It’s not total narcissism, it’s just what I know. This post is meant to initiate a broader conversation and nothing would make me happier to have many different types of people call bullshit on the things I’m saying and setting the record straight. So please, reblog, repost, rewrite, respond.
It would seem that the biggest magazines with the most hiring power hire mostly male photographers. This post is meant to begin a discussion on the how’s and why’s of sexism in the commissioned photography world. Note that this is very specifically about editorial/commercial photography, and not the art world or fine art photography world (although those questions and concerns are totally valid and should be addressed!).
It seems that magazines tend to hire more men than women, and I want to reflect on the conditions that support (willingly or unwillingly) this tendency. My perspective on the issue is somewhat limited; I’ve been working in the industry for only five years and most of my friends that do this work are men (by virtue of the fact that I was in a group of friends that were all friends when we started doing this work (Adam, Jake, Joe and TJ initially, and the circle grew over the years with Geordie, Thomas, Ryan and others)). I believe that I am complicit in the inequality precisely because I am friends with mostly men that do this kind of work and we tend to present ourselves as a crew of available freelancers, a tight circle of friends.
I identify as a feminist, and have always felt a strong obligation to inquire about perceived imbalances in my most immediate worlds, this being a major one that I participate in. Not only do I participate in it, but it’s how I make money. This is about a power imbalance made more complicated by its very direct relationship to capital. It’s been weighing heavily on me for awhile and I’ve been talking about it with friends, but when it came up again recently in a conversation with Liz, I decided to reach out to photo editors and magazines to ask for their perspective and insight. I also started a dialog with my core group of photo friends to get their perspective. Here is some of the issues we are working with, and I’d like to open it up to the community at large:
-A couple photo editors mentioned that they just didn’t know female photographers that fit the aesthetic of their magazine. To me this a chicken and the egg situation - a lot of male photographers that consistently work for magazines have developed an aesthetic specifically in response to those clients. There’s no apparent reason why a woman wouldn’t respond the same way. To further complicate this issue, one editor mentioned that most media, art and literature is made to fit a masculine perspective, and perhaps that’s why men are more “apt” at photographing that content. Again, not my opinion necessarily, but a perspective that was brought to my attention.
-On the other side of aesthetic content is the logistical management of shoots. In my own personal experience shooting high-profile people and situations, shoots can get tense quickly, and you have to be able to be aggressive and assertive in a time-crunch situation. That is in no way meant to suggest that women can’t do that, but here is where sexism rears its ugly head - if women are perceived as being less able to handle those situations, that can definitely factor into the decision to hire men.
-On a similar note, many people enter the industry through assisting. I’ve heard through many people that it’s very difficult to get consistent assisting work as a woman because of blatantly sexist and untrue bullshit (male photographers suggesting that they don’t want to hire women because they can’t keep up physically or emotionally).
-Something that a couple of editors across different magazines mentioned to me, and always with a preface of “this is so painful to admit,” is that men are more aggressive about establishing new clients. This involves everything from emailing, to setting up meetings, to their behavior in those meetings. I’m going to play devil’s advocate here again and point out that this is paradigmatic - if men are being hired, it’s clear to other men that they can do this line of work. It encourages them to be aggressive. A woman who is new to the industry might be discouraged by what she sees as a hiring imbalance and that might reflect in her being less aggressive about getting the work. Again, I don’t know if any of this is true or not, I’m just trying to work it out.
-Most photo editors I know are women. I haven’t taken a hard survey, but it seems very likely that an overwhelming majority of photo editors everywhere are women. A couple female photo editors that I talked to mentioned, albeit skeptically, that maybe this is because women are “natural nurturers” and the hirer/hired power would then break down as women/men, respectively. There also seems to be a lot more women at ad agencies, photo agencies, and in creative positions. I’d be curious to see a snapshot of the industry more broadly, to see if the gender disparity is more broadly pervasive. But irregardless, the face of the content being produced, the actual photographs, are shot by photographers, who tend to be male and who have the most visible position in this kind of exchange.
-I’m personally skeptical of the nurturer explanation. This is my opinion, but I think larger systems of oppression, like sexism and misogyny, replicate themselves very effectively on smaller scales. You see this in niche industries and subcultures all the time, even when there are progressive attitudes and a general self-awareness about inequality. I strongly believe that at the end of the day, the magazine world is sexist because of…sexism!
-When reflecting on all of our photo college programs, at least half of our classmates were women. So at the point of entry into the field, there was no perceived gender disparity.
-I am partially to blame. My friends are partially to blame. We identify as a crew of hirable people in a spirit of collectivism but in a perverse twist, we are complicit in the lack of visibility for new female photographers. If we are all white dudes shooting for the same magazines and repping each other’s work (on visible platforms like Tumblr), how do people get added to that mix? On some level, this is exactly what we wanted; our strategy of promotion was meant to be antithetical to the crass “me me me,” properieity, self-promoting trends that we perceived in the industry a few years ago. I came from DIY punk and it always made sense to help your friends and work collectively. That serves the greater good and yourself in the long run. But it has back-fired, and now that we are all working consistently, our scope is too narrow. We haven’t done a good job of including women, and when new people have entered the circle, it’s been other white men. I also don’t mean to suggest that we are getting all the work or we are the most visible working magazine photographers, because that’s actually not even close to true, but we have created an internal echo-chamber without being self-aware about it. That’s something we can change.
-Magazines took a risk with me at some point, and for a lot of my friends. There was no “clear” reason I should have been hired on those initial assignments. And that’s the beauty of photo editing. A good photo editor will recognize the potential in someone’s work that can translate to a really interesting assignment. Why are more magazines not taking that kind of risk with women?
These are some of the issues. Now we have to consider solutions, and that’s where I think putting this out to the community can have the most effective influence. Currently a group of us are working on a list of killer women photographers that would do great work for magazines (while being very aware of our position as potential validators of this list). I’ll post that soon as a resource to photo editors and creatives who are looking to hire more women. There are other issues that are somewhat related - are there enough queer photographers working, or photographers of color? In attempt not to conflate all of those things into one (the totalizing effect of “other-ing” everyone who is not white, cis male, straight), I’ve made this post specifically about sexism. But obviously those issues are real and I hope others will talk about them.
And maybe an obvious solution is to put forth a challenge to those with hiring power - hire women. As much as you hire men. Or more.
And to other male photographers that are working today (and women of course) - support female photographers, recommend them for work when you can’t take a job, hire young women to assist who are entering the field so that they can get experience.
So look for that list of links soon. And I’m also talking to a few other photo editors about doing more formal interviews/discussions which will be posted online.
Thanks for reading, keep the conversation going!