We live in a divisive world. The air is tense. People are afraid. Facts are spun and cherry-picked. Issues are viewed as black or white, with nuances completely ignored. Charged words trigger people to outrage, which discourages conversation. The art of reasonable discourse is all but lost.
As I typed this, I imagined it was the narration to an opening scene of the Twilight Zone. I wish that I had just described some fictional dystopian future. I wish that there were some alternate reality in which discrimination, violence, anger and war could be turned off in an instant by closing a book cover (remember those?) or changing the channel.
Unfortunately, these are real challenges our world faces. Most of the hot-button issues around the world are multi-faceted, muddied by layers of culture, religion, fear, anger, power struggle, innate selfish and survival instincts, comfort zones and conditioned discrimination to name just a few. There are countless reasons for compromise to fail. How do you find common ground when a chasm between sides is so vast? When both sides of any given issue (such as racism, LGBTQ rights, gun rights, religion, etc,) are insulated, unwilling to listen to the other side, empathize or, more importantly, compromise?
How do you approach a difficult topic, in the hope of having a conversation? When the idea of broaching the topic of gender bias in photography came up, that is the question I asked myself.
And then it occurred to me. You solve problems by focusing on a solution.
So what would be an ideal scenario? A conversation where all sides are acknowledged? Mutual respect? Recognizing that gender bias and inequality, much like most issues of discrimination, are nuanced problems attributed to more than one cause? Recognizing that discrimination, even if it’s unintentional, will only abate if worked on from all sides?
Most people I know are willing to admit that cultural expectations for women exist, and those expectations vary internationally. From there, it’s not a huge leap to see that those cultural lenses can affect people’s perceptions of a woman’s capabilities, motivations and limitations. Take that one step further and it’s easy to see how cultural expectations and norms can influence a woman’s access to opportunities.
As I’m not much for cherry-picked facts, I am going to illustrate the problem using examples from personal experience, and those of others I am close with, in conjunction with some verifiable brand stats.
Let's start with the idea that landscape photography not only involves requisite technical knowledge, but also a level of physical capacity (in order to arrive on location lugging anywhere from 5 to 25lbs of gear) and considerable investment in equipment, travel, and presentation of the final product. From start to finish, a landscape photograph generally involves a planning, travel, capture, post-processing and presentation stage. I’ve been unlucky enough to either hear of or personally experience negative gender-based interactions, that would leave a bad taste in anyone’s mouth, in relation to all of the above stages.
One of the most rampant issues women run into may seem innocuous; patronizing comments and being talked down to. While first planning this article, I was hesitant to include too many examples of this, because I am not interested in man-bashing. Quite the opposite, in fact. I strongly believe that these sort of issues will only be resolved with an attitude of mutual respect. However, a good (male, landscape photographer) friend David Pasillas said, “It would be easier for men, and some women that haven’t had any issues, to understand there’s a legitimate problem [with examples].” I was also concerned that examples of being patronized and talked down to would be perceived by some as a non-issue. David responded, “That’s part of the problem. Talking down to implies they are less than.”
Accepting or dismissing patronizing comments perpetuates the idea of inferiority, rather than equality and respect.
Jill Sanders, a photographer out of California, owns her own gallery and her husband manages it for her. People frequently come in and assume he is the photographer, despite the large Jill Sanders labels. “When he points them in my direction, men have actually asked numerous times if I take these photos all by myself. When I reply with an affirmative they state that I must have a great camera,” Jill explains.
Another landscape photographer, Melissa, recently took a trip out to Austin with her husband. She has been shooting for over 12 years and is experienced in wedding, portrait and landscape photography. She and her husband, a non-photographer, were visiting a waterfall, and she had her tripod set up to take some photos. Another male photographer approached and Melissa tried to strike up a conversation. The gentleman not only dismissed her but said to her husband - who was holding Melissa’s large camera pack so it would be out of the way of traffic - that Melissa must not be up to the task of carrying her own gear.
Heck, even bringing up a conversation about the challenges our industry still faces garners negative, and dismissive comments. Marie Gardiner, a photographer out of the UK, wrote an insightful blog piece about the topic and was asked to then write a follow-up a few weeks later for a camera retailer’s website. Many of the comments in response to the post range from derogatory to downright hostile.
One gentleman complained, “What a load of rubbish, I am fed up with this crap, first women wanted equality, now they want more.”
Another gentleman ranted that he worked with female photographers, and “you don’t hear them moan about sexism, they get on with the work and deliver super images! Utter crap in my honest opinion.” That, of course, ignores the cultural nuances in most places where women are taught from an early age that they shouldn’t complain, or speak up, or defend themselves when being treated unfairly.
There were also a number of people who either outright stated, or implied, that because they had not personally experienced a discriminatory attitude, then it must not exist. Instead, the lack of female representation in things like publications, as brand representatives, as presenters at events, as members of the jury for events must instead be due to other factors. Some suggested the mathematical improbability that there “are not as many female photographers doing the work to a standard the magazine publishers want”, and that “equal representation assumes equal numbers of people of both gender of equal skill and equal interest in achieving the same things.”
Other people implied that this lack of representation was solely based on “who’s right for the job”. One said that he personally was the only male photographer he knew in his genre, so insinuated that the lack of representation in the aforementioned areas couldn’t possibly be true. Although some of those comments were likely meant to suggest that sexism, both intentional and ingrained/habitual, may not be the only reason women are underrepresented, by their very nature, those comments also dismiss the idea that sexism IS most definitely part of the reason.
That all being said, there were a number of people in the comments who agreed that sexism was a very real problem and were interested in improving the culture of photography, which was heartening to see. At least one gentleman acknowledged that these conversations were helping.
Unfortunately, the challenges our industry faces are deeper than just derisive and condescending comments. The long-time accepted culture of stereotypes, gender roles, and appropriate gender-based interactions frequently leads to a loss of opportunity for female photographers, both directly and indirectly. Personally, I have faced difficult decisions and lost work because I am female. When releasing a book co-written with David, we actually had to put a lot of thought into whose name was listed first on the cover, or if I should list my full name rather than a first initial because there have been correlations between female author names and reduced sales.
Some women go so far as to take gender-neutral pseudonyms. Another time, I wasn’t hired for a photography gig because I was told, “we didn’t think you’d be comfortable traveling with a bunch of smelly dudes for the whole trip”. I’ve had other male photographers refuse to go shooting with me because “their wives wouldn’t be comfortable”, and that’s just local day hikes, let alone something that involved travel and overnight accommodations. On the whole, I’ve been understanding and tried to keep some perspective when these moments come up. But if I had been male, these opportunities for networking and income wouldn’t have been jeopardized.
The reality of landscape photography is that it involves travel. Some of us are lucky to live smack in the middle of a photographer's paradise, but many of us are not. That means driving, flying, more driving, maybe some sleeping, probably some hiking, possibly some camping, questionable showering habits and a whole lot of shooting at crazy hours. I promise you, it's rarely luxurious and almost never glamorous. Mostly, it is a bunch of sleep deprivation and snacks at odd hours. It is also a challenge to the standard cultural expectations for interactions between men and women.
The hike/trip will be too difficult for a woman. That's too far for a woman to carry her gear. The men on the trip have wives who won't be comfortable. It runs counter to some religious beliefs about gender interactions. Extra accommodations may be needed. There may be personal liability concerns. Men may have been conditioned to feel like they have to censor themselves and may not want to deal with having women on the trail with them. And so on, and so forth. Really, I’ve heard all of the reasons, and I can think of very few other professions where those ideas would even be entertained, let alone be accepted.
Here’s the thing. I’m a professional. And other female professional photographers are also…well…professional. I understand that landscape photography and the resulting travel, hikes and overnight accommodations present a unique speedbump to social conventions, but ultimately, a professional is a professional and gender shouldn't matter. Did I mention the word professional? That means we ladies aren’t there to ruin your marriage. We are there for pictures. That means we won’t sign up for a hike if we don’t think we can make it. That means we want an opportunity to succeed or fail based on our merits, not on the number of Y chromosomes we carry.
Since the landscapes are our office, in reality, these sort of preconceived ideas about what a woman can or should do may significantly affect our income long term. There is a tendency in all humans to stick to what is familiar and comfortable. That means it’s easy for guys to compliment, network with and share the work of other men, but they may not always be comfortable reaching out to a woman because of cultural stigmas. That means when opportunities do arise, a man may think first to invite or hire the guys he’s been traveling and shooting with for years, rather than an equally qualified woman who was never invited on such trips because she was female. That means that “the old boys club” mentality is a very real thing. In a world that lives by, “It’s who you know”, this can have far-reaching consequences.
As was mentioned before, this manifests as missed job opportunities, as well as fewer invitations to speak at and to jury events. It also manifests as less exposure. It looks like fewer ambassadorships, which are mutually beneficial partnerships that ultimately also increase exposure. That, in turn, may equate to fewer offers for work or sales. Overall, gender stereotypes and accepted gender roles/interactions can perpetuate a vicious cycle.
But how do we know this to be true?! We want facts, not accusations! Well, this is where the easily verifiable numbers come in because, despite the personal accounts many women give, there will still be people who don't believe that gender bias exists. I've learned, after many loud and frustrating conversations, that the best thing to do in that case is to present some numbers.
Canon Explorers of Light
- 7 female members out of a total of 42
- 1 female member out of a total of 9 in the landscape genre
• 16 female members out of a total of 62
- 7 female members out of a total of 23 in the US
- 4 female members out of a total of 13 in UK
- 0 female members out of a total of 4 in Europe
- 0 female members out of a total of 7 in Australia
- 0 female members out of a total of 4 in Singapore
As was alluded to earlier, I am 100% certain that there are a lot of reasons why there are not as many professional women photographers representing brands. Every issue is nuanced, right? It may have to do with marketing demographics, based on local culture. Or perhaps marketing decisions based on disposable income along gender lines (that is a whole other topic, though, right?) It may have to do with a woman's need to juggle a full-time career and family obligations, which in turn may affect her ability to dedicate time to building and maintaining brand partnerships (because despite both parents ability to help with things like family sickness or child-rearing, the responsibilities fall primarily on women.)
I suppose, as mathematically impossible as the suggestion seemed, it could be due to a lack of talented females to choose from. (Yes, impossible. Because I personally know hundreds of talented landscape gals from all over the world.) It could, in a more likely scenario, be due to a lack of exposure to the many, many talented female photographers out there. Ultimately, there are many non-malicious, circumstantial reasons that could directly affect why there is such disproportionate representation along gender lines (and if we're being honest here, along with all other demographic lines that aren’t “white males”). The end result, though, is a significant cultural and economic problem. It exists.
Why is disproportionate representation important?
Well, first and foremost, it shows that women aren't making this problem up. I'm certain that at least 80% of the female photographers (a conservative estimate, but I'm playing it safe here), across all genres of photography, could relay stories of discrimination. Some stories would be clear-cut, some might live in a gray area of interpretation. But if at the end of the story, you can say, “Would it be different if I was a man?” and the answer is “Yes”, then we have a problem.
We have HAD a problem. A collective problem that can only be solved if everyone embraces the idea of solving it. That means a willingness to have uncomfortable conversations and listen to the other side's perspective. That means committing to a culture of respect and calling out offenders. It also means speaking up when something is wrong. That means BELIEVING a woman who says something isn't right and truly wanting her to have an equal shot.
That is, quite possibly, the hardest part. Historically, whistleblowers had a good chance of suffering for doing the right thing. It wasn't until recently that we've begun to see significant support for women who have asked for equal opportunities and justice without being disparaged, discredited, and told to “stay the course”. In my mind, some of these significant changes came about with Emma Watson's speech at the UN in which she invited everyone to participate in a solution. More recently, the political climate in the United States, which likely helped bring the #metoo conversations (and their international counterparts) into the limelight, has also created a social shift away from gender bias.
These psychological shifts are important because without them there can never truly be equal opportunity. When brands don't represent demographics, they are sending messages about what is or is not acceptable. Now, many people make the argument that companies aren't in business to change the world, and they are within their rights to market as they please. That argument falls a bit flat, though, after the Nikon-Asia D850 fiasco. Earlier in 2017, with the release of a new camera, the company's “Nikon-Asia” region picked 32 men to be the face of the D850. There were no women. The outcry across the world was swift and loud.
Nikon briefly suggested they did invite women, but none participated. That was debunked quickly by women who do have ambassadorships with Nikon within that region who said they weren't even approached and asked to participate. Nikon then went on to apologize profusely.
How could this sort of thing happen though? It is 2017! Was it cultural since there are some male-centric countries in that region? Or marketing based on the male-centric cultures in the region? Was it an oversight? Was it that mathematical impossibility of no talented female photographers to be found in all of Asia, the Middle East, or Africa?
Mostly, it was a big mistake. You see, a company doesn't have a responsibility to change the world. But if it wants to keep its market share, alienating half of your consumers is generally considered a bad idea.
As a Nikon user, I was disappointed in the message they sent. The apologies helped, but the effects of these sort of thoughtless campaigns are far-reaching. They greenlight micro-aggressions. They send messages about the worth of a demographic. They feed a gap – emotional, psychological, cultural, and economic - between the sexes that doesn't need to exist. They normalize behavior that is now not considered acceptable in many countries throughout the world.
So the real question is, how and why do we fix it?
As for the why? A chain is no stronger than its weakest link, and life is, after all, a chain. - William James
There are so many cliché sayings that sum this idea up nicely, but they all pretty much say the same thing. If we all thrive individually, then as a whole, society thrives. It will take work, compromise and a willingness to understand other people’s point of view, but I believe that we are up to the task.
The first step towards an attitude of mutual respect and equality is recognizing there is a problem both in landscape photography and in society as a whole. That means continuing these conversations and having teachable moments. It means taking personal responsibility for your actions and holding others accountable for theirs. My hope is that this article will encourage you to try listening to other people’s experiences and bridge the gap between opposing viewpoints so that eventually we aren’t chained down or held back by gender stereotypes.
Shannon Kalahan is a professional photographer, author, blogger, teacher and owner at Seeing Spots Photography. Like many things in life, Seeing Spots Photography started out as a happy accident. In 2002 she started volunteering her photography skills for an equine rescue. It was from there she eventually adopted her horse “Spot”. The name of the business is a homage to the circumstances that lead her down this photographic journey. Shannon offers both workshops and private photography classes in the New England area.