In 2019, the British Journal of Photography’s Portrait of Humanity Award out of the almost 200 shortlisted artists, only 63 of them were women. In spite of their talent, women in photography are still struggling with gender disparity. The British Journal of Photography is only on their second annual award for women entitled Female in Focus. It has taken a magazine on the “cutting edge of editorial and commercial practices” over 20 years to have an award for female photographers.
Despite the recent progress to highlight more women, there is still a long road for gender parity. In a report published by The United Nations Women, a UN entity dedicated to gender equality and empowerment of women, women globally earn an average 24% less than men, work more hours, and have less chance of receiving a pension in later life. Apply that same statistic to the arts industry where the starting salary is less than ten thousand pounds, and female photographers starting out are in dire straits. In the UK, the gender income gap for artists reaches up to 77%, which is surprising for one of the most powerful countries in the world with a huge cultural output.
Not only are they being paid less and starting out with a smaller salary, women proportionally secure fewer commissions, leaving them working minimum wage jobs in order to get by. Although almost half of commercial gallery directors are women, only a third of their artists share their gender. The artist behind 209 women, Hilary Wood, while giving a talk at a Photographer’s Gallery event titled, Women Photographers Now!, said, “two of photography’s earliest trailblazers Anna Atkins and Julia Margaret Cameron were female, I just find it absolutely extraordinary that, you know, I’m standing here in front of you all now and we’re having conversations about gender parity within photography. I mean, what is that about?”
This sentiment is exactly right, in spite of Anna Atkin’s influence in the development of the photo industry, her name is not a household name like Ansel Adams, for instance. Atkins was the first creator of the photobook, something that is now used regularly to share photography projects to everyone. Emily*, a graduate of Coventry University’s Photography degree, told me, “I wasn’t introduced to any historical female photographers such as Anna Atkins at university. For historical research we primarily focused on male photographers such as Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Robert Capa, Robert Frank etc.” Atkins wasn’t worth including in discussion of historical photographers, in spite of her being considered the first female photographer. The Victoria & Albert Museum wrote in an archive, “Anna Atkins produced the first photographically illustrated book and is recognised as the first female photographer.” Yet in a photography program at what was, at the time, the best university for photography in the country, Emily had never learned about the first female photographer.
Despite Atkins’ extensive influence and her place in the history of photography, her modern counterparts are not given the same level of courtesy. In fact, in spite of the gender pay gap coming to the forefront of political and cultural issues in 2016, outside of London, commercial galleries still only have forty percent of female artists exhibiting solo shows. At Frieze London in 2018, there was only a four percent increase in female artists from 2017. Professional Photographer Wendy Carrig told me, “Only 5% of pictures bought by leading publishers are taken by women and that women accounted for only 2% of photographers hired by the major agencies. Shocking stuff, I know.”
This kind of disparity from the “deep-rooted inequality that has existed in the world of photography for so long,” said Carrig, caused her to restart an old organization within the Association of Photographers (AOP), called f22. Carrig told me that when these statistics came out, “the AOP’s Rachel Rogers began contacting some of the women photographer members to gauge opinion. Before long a few of us got together to address the issue of gender inequality within the industry, and concluded that we needed a space within the AOP for a separate women’s group, and so on as of March 2019, International Women’s Day, a year ago this week, f22 was reborn.”
Some female photographers think that the discrimination mostly comes down to the nature of women in comparison to men. Carole Evans told me, “It’s got to do with the nature of women compared to men, and I realise it’s quite unfeminist of me to say this, but research shows that men are more competitive, and more likely to be risk takers. I think the freelance lifestyle is risky, and one has to be competitive in order to have the motivation to work freelance. Women are more likely to go for more stable roles with stable incomes; hence their prominence in the “back end” of the industry; as agents, gallerists, curators and picture editors.” It boils down to confidence. Wendy Carrig told me that in their f22 meetings, there was a significant amount of discussion about the issues of confidence in women. She did some research on it after their meetings and told me, “unfortunately this appears to be in part governed by our genetic makeup, as research shows that a woman’s confidence doesn’t generally equal that of a man’s until perhaps their seventies. We need to empower ourselves basically.”
However, it can be hard to empower yourself when dealing with institutional and personal sexism. The Freelands Foundation’s Representation of female artists in Britain during 2018 Report says that the Culture and Creative Industries “and within that, the visual arts, are a microcosm of wider social values whereby women’s labour is less valued.” This institutional discrimination is nothing compared to what happens on a personal level. Wendy Carrig told me that “as a student one of our lecturers insisted on calling the shutter release the tit, or the nipple and when we were printing, if a print went wrong and was destined for the bin, it would be referred to as a gash print. As a younger photographer I often felt disrespected, perhaps wasn’t taken seriously.” Calling a print that needs to be thrown away a slang term for vagina implies that any vagina is, in fact, trash. This kind of sexism, while getting better, is still at the forefront of photography’s issues with gender parity.
If men are the only ones getting the commercial contracts, it stands to reason that the way women are portrayed and the way they view themselves will only come from the male viewpoint. When discussing this, Carrig said, “how is society affected when the majority of commercial images are taken by men [and] have the male gaze? These are all such big issues.
Because this is such a big issue in the photography industry, there have been multiple women led organizations popping up in the last few years. Firecracker, for example, is an online platform that was started in 2011 to “promote women working in photography, through a variety of online features, networking opportunities and public events,” according to their website. While Women Photograph is a worldwide network that was created in 2017 and in the three years of them operating, they are now in over 100 countries and have over 950 women documentary photographers in their network. Firecracker has done a lot over the last nine years to build women up, but it still isn’t enough.
For example, each week, Women Photograph publishes a “The Week in Pictures Gender Breakdown” where they look at the amount of photos published in major news outlets to see what percentage of the photos were taken by women. By looking at these figures in numbers, it paints a very stark picture of the state of women photography. Since the beginning of 2020, the week with the highest percentage of images taken by women was the week of January 27th, with a grand total of 26%. Fast Forward, a research project out of the University for the Creative Arts Farnham dealing with women in photography, has recently put forward a manifesto to increase the amount of women involved in photography. It’s calling for a 50/50 balance across exhibitions, commissions, publishing, collecting, and for all art events and activities to be 50% related to women’s interests and stories as a start.
However, not all photographers agree with a manifesto that forces equality to happen. Which explains why The British Journal of Photography’s Female in Focus award has ended up being quite controversial. The women that I’ve spoken to have all said that they want to be judged on the merit of their work and not on their gender. As one female photographer said in the discussion at the Women Photograph event, “I think it’s handcuffing the creatives, and I think that’s the wrong way to go.” She felt that forcing it to happen would limit the creativity of the industry and force perspective in a different way. Carole Evans agreed saying, “If the women aren’t making work of the same quality as men, these people have no choice but to hire the men.”
Although, it could be argued that this implies a perspective that women don’t make the same caliber work as men and that because of this, people hiring must hire men, since their work is implicitly better. While everyone wants to be judged on the merits of their work, this cannot happen if there is an inherent bias that men are better photographers than women. Wendy Carrig agreed, telling me, “I think we all need a helping hand with self-promotion and an awards scheme specifically for women photographers does seem an attractive proposition.” And Hilary Wood followed up by saying, “it’s not until we have people in positions of power… infiltrated right across the sector that we will see that filter down.” If we don’t put women in these positions of power in the photographic industry, we won’t see it filter down to the people starting out.
The young women who are just starting out in this industry have clearly found it tough, according to the Female in Focus’ data, “on an international scale, 70% to 80% of photography students are women, but only 13% to 15% of them go on to achieve the status of a professional photographer.” This industry is full of powerful and successful men. Even “when women are getting up into the, you know, the higher tiers of the photography world and… unconsciously take on this, kind of, masculine sort of mode,” said one member of the discussion at the Women Photograph Now! event.
It doesn’t matter the gender, so long as you take on this very confident, masculine bravado, you will succeed in the photography industry. The patriarchal natures of this industry are deeply embedded and there is even a degree of chivalry that can inhibit a woman’s progression in her career. Paul Wenham-Clarke told me that he once had a female student assisting on a photography shoot, “trying to learn from a photographer, that they would go to do something and the photographer would think, Oh, I can’t get her to lift that really heavy thing, because that makes me look bad as a bloke. So then he would lift it, but then he wouldn’t book her again. Because she wasn’t much use. But it wasn’t her fault she wasn’t much use, he didn’t give it a chance.”
A chance is all these young women need to succeed in this cutthroat industry. Once they have the confidence to jump into the industry and put themselves out there, they just need the opportunity to show that they are as good, as talented, and as hardworking as their male counterparts. Hillary Wood put it best when she said, “there has to be the opportunity on the other side of that for, for us to enter into it… I think what I want and we need, [is] the leap, we need to leap into that side of the industry and them being as proactive as we are trying to get into it.”
*name changed for privacy reasons