Why our Focus on Women in Photography?
Along with other organisations, Hundred Heroines recognised the need to increase public awareness of the contribution that women have made – and continue to make – to the visual arts, particularly photography. The next section illustrates the gender disparity in the visual arts in general, and photography in particular. In light of this disparity, it can be seen that – whether through documentary photography and photojournalism or through exhibitions and prizes – photography as an art and/or profession mainly features work by (white) men. In an age where photographic images are ubiquitous, it is important to acknowledge the imbalance that exists between the experiences of men and women in photography. This imbalance is reflected in the experience of the general public as ‘consumers’ of photographic images. If the image-makers (and the stories they portray) are drawn from one half of society, then the public is getting only half the story, and is missing the experiences and stories of the other half. (Note: while it is said that these days everyone with a smartphone is a photographer, our focus is on those who make, or try to make, a living through their photography and/or artistic practice.)
Gender Disparity in the Visual Arts
Gender imbalance is evident in the visual arts (see, for example, NMWA and the Freedlands Foundation). According to the National Museum of Women in Arts (based in the US, it is the only major museum in the world solely dedicated to championing women through the arts), very few members of the public can name five women artists.The value of a work by a woman actually decreases when she signs it; in other words, women’s art appears to sell for less simply because it is made by women. Women artists are still lagging behind their male counterparts in terms of gallery representation and sales. Throughout history, the contribution of women to the visual arts has been forbidden or discouraged (often through lack of access to art education). The work of the few women artists who did manage to achieve success in their lifetime has not survived in the same way as that of their male contemporaries. Their work was often seen as inherently less valuable and so was not considered important enough for collecting by museums and other institutions, a practice that continues to this day.
Gender Imbalance in Photography
While there may arguably be some historical justification for the lack of representation of women artists in painting or sculpture, photography is a relatively new technology and art form with no such historical baggage. Yet even here, the contribution of women has been written out of photographic history. Early pioneers in the field such as Anna Atkins and Julia Margaret Cameron are only recently getting due recognition. Even when named, women were often noteworthy for their association with more famous men – for many years, Dora Maar was remembered as ‘Picasso’s muse’ rather than celebrated as a successful, radical, and innovative photographer and artist in her own right. Similarly, Lee Miller’s contribution to photography was often seen only through the prism of her mentor, Man Ray. Despite women being early adopters of photography, as the 20th century progressed photography came to be seen as more of a masculine pursuit. Female models were used to sell cameras and related products to men, a practice that continues to this day at photography shows and which can alienate women as well as perpetuating the idea of ‘serious’ photography as predominantly for men.
The airbrushing of women from the story of photography continues in photography education where a typical curriculum will focus on male photographers. It can be discouraging for young female photographers considering a career in photography not to see women represented in the canon. In addition, most of the “gatekeepers” in galleries, museums and publishing houses are men which often results in promotion of work produced by men. This imbalance is generally the result of inherent bias rather than conscious discrimination. For example, members of the iconic photographic agency Magnum Photos are self-selecting, resulting in a membership that is overwhelmingly made up of white men (only 16 of 98 members are women, with even fewer photographers of colour). Meanwhile major exhibitions mostly show male photographers, and photographic awards and prizes feature mainly male recipients (see, for example, Huxley-Parlour’s 2019 edition of its annual ‘Masters of Photography’ series).
Gender inequality in photojournalism is also well-documented. Data collected by Women Photograph – an initiative founded in 2017 ‘to elevate the voices of women and non-binary visual journalists’ – shows that between April and June 2019, eight of the world’s leading newspapers printed far fewer lead photographs by women than by men. In the UK, the percentage of female members of professional photographic bodies remains low. The National Union of Journalists say their female membership of photographers and videographers is 17%; the British Press Photographers Association reports 12.5%; and the Association of Photographers puts their female Accredited and Assisting Photographers at just 18% – by contrast, 75% of their student membership is female.
This means that, although there are signs of change, there are still fundamental differences between the experiences of male and female photographers. Despite a complete reversal of the gender profile of photography students in the last 25-30 years, the proportion of women in the industry has not changed in that time. So, although 70-80% of recent photography graduates are female, women still make up only 15% of professional photographers. Furthermore, these photographers are earning, on average, 40% less than their male counterparts. It should be noted that the obstacles set out above mostly apply to women artists and photographers in the West. In other parts of the world, the situation is often exacerbated by institutionalised misogyny, which denies women access to educational, professional and artistic opportunities. The effect of the ‘white gaze’ in photography should also be acknowledged, and recognition and opportunities given to photographers of colour to tell their own stories and create new ways of seeing.
Signs of Change
The photography profession has recognised the need for change. Female in Focus is a photography award from 1854 Media, publishers of the British Journal of Photography, and was conceived to address gender inequality in the photography industry. Launched last year, the award aims to highlight and give a platform to the exceptional work of women photographers around the world. Another example is Les Rencontres d’Arles, the most prestigious photography festival in the world. In 2018, only 34% of photographers chosen to exhibit were women which led to an open letter being sent to the artistic director, signed by more than 300 high-profile creative professionals, criticising the festival’s programming and asking him to aim for gender parity in 2019, the 50th anniversary of the festival. The challenge had a positive impact as more women were included in last year’s programme, including younger and emerging practitioners as well as more established names. Where there is a mix of genders on an awards panel, it can result in selections that are more interesting and of a higher quality than those chosen by single sex panels. “Greater diversity makes for a richer and more nuanced collection of visual responses” to the world.
The Association of Photographers recently re-launched f22, a support group for their women members. The f22 group was first formed in the 1980s and was resurrected in April 2019 due to the recognition that inequality in the photographic industry was still present and still not being addressed. Through regular meet-ups and workshops, it provides a dedicated platform offering best business practice support as well as growing the visibility of women commercial photographers at all levels. Women Photograph has compiled a database of over 1000 women documentary photographers in more than 100 countries as a hiring resource for picture editors and creative directors.
The Hundred Heroines Contribution
When the Hundred Heroines initiative was first launched in 2018 (under the umbrella of the RPS, an organisation whose membership is approximately 75% male), there was a lot of scepticism that we would be able to identify one hundred women photographers. In the end, we received almost 1300 international nominations and the jury had a difficult task in selecting the final 100. The quality of the photographers nominated throughout the Hundred Heroines campaign encouraged some educational organisations to review their curricula. Following our re-launch as an independent organisation, we continue to highlight the work of inspirational, pioneering and emerging women in photography from around the globe. The highest standards of achievement in the visual arts – including photography – should be equally attainable for all women as they are for men, and these achievements by women should be recognised, celebrated, and encouraged, not ignored.
By Therese Barry (July 2020)