Why Women?

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.) 

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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)

Why Must We Exist?

Seeing & Being Seen – “Seeing comes before words”, John Berger once said. In fact, as our strongest sense, our ability to see informs everything we know about the world, which we then diligently put down into words. When we look at art, we are not simply seeing through the eyes of the artist, we are contextualising about the greater picture in which the artwork was framed which includes everything from its history down to where it is exhibited and through which medium it is shown. The artwork is a lens through which we can see that which we could not discern before; a powerful lens, both micro and macroscopic through which to see through. Yet, it is not only our ability to see, that informs and constructs our world, but also our ability to be seen.

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Women & The Art World

The art world, for far too long, has had an actively exclusionary agenda with regards to female representation. Sure, women made it into the most prestigious galleries, but only as the subjects of the artist and only to be objectified by the scrutiny of the gallery’s audience – seldom as the artists themselves. To this day, despite 66% of applications to postgraduate studies in the creative arts and design sectors in the UK being by women, only 32% of artists represented by London’s main galleries were female. On top of this, according to a study led by The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, as of 2019, women globally accounted for 12% of directors working in the top 100 grossing films but only 2% as cinematographers. This is not surprising, given that, for example, the American Society of Cinematographers only admitted their first female Director of Photography in 1980.  Lastly, but certainly not for lack of statistical data, despite 80% of photography graduates being women, only 15% become professional photographers and of those 15% who make it, their earnings, on average, are 40% lower than those of their male counterparts.  The numbers do speak for themselves: ironically, for a world forged around the idea of seeing and being seen, very few women are given the opportunity to be noticed and recognised.

From Representation to Dialogue

Hundred Heroines, born upon the cusp of the 100th anniversary of the women’s right to vote in the UK, marks a decisive turning point and one that finally sets to frame women both behind and in front of the lens often obscured by institutional patriarchy. Since the turn of the 20th century, art moved away from its figurative or mimetic roots and, rather than looking outwardly to the natural world, turned in on itself, beginning to question its very integrity, its role, in other words: its identity. Who is the artist and what exactly is art? Since then, art has come to signify more than just aesthetic form or style to become something bigger than the canvas, reproduced print or gelatin silver film. Arthur Danto called it ‘the end of art’ but don’t be fooled by its attention-grabbing title; Danto’s theory of aesthetics isn’t about the dissolution of art, but of the birth of a different kind of art, called an ‘artworld’, in which art grew closer to philosophy, and thus to theory rather than to practice. An artwork is now the medium through which we not only impart our subjective world-view but also contextualise on the wider issues afflicting society. Art is not merely something we look at but something we can look through to see the world in a different way. Art as a dialogue rather than mere representation.

From Feminism to Intersectionality

Unfortunately, for far too long, we have been condemned to seeing the world through the male gaze, that act of looking, coined by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey, that doesn’t seek to broaden its horizons to multiplicity and diversity but rather settles for the status quo defined by the heteronormativity of institutions, governing bodies and practices run by men. Nowadays, the role of institutions is not just about putting women in the spotlight, it is about fulfilling one of art’s now recognised roles: that of aiding us towards novel, exciting and critical ways of seeing ourselves and the world around us. How can art be representative if women, POC and queer artists don’t figure both behind and infront of the artistic lens? The fundamental epistemic role of art, and by de facto, of its artists is one that has been greatly underestimated in the past but that can now, via the reframing of its medium and, most importantly, of its message, be made known worldwide. Art as a tool not merely for self-expression and catharsis but as a medium through which one can learn a new message, take home a new point of view and, for a moment, become this ‘other’ previously regarded as the unknown. Hundred Heroines functions both as a platform to finally give female artists the opportunity to present themselves to the world and as a medium through which to present the feminine gaze. The feminine gaze, needn’t be reduced to biological sex – in fact, this gaze has little to do with gender and a lot more to do with our behaviours and the way we perform our idea of sexuality and creativity. It is not merely a term used to showcase art created by women, but rather a terminology that accommodates a feminist, intersectional and accomodating point of view. In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, the way we see is filtered through the lens of the passive female versus the active male, the object and the subject, the submissive and the dominant. The feminine gaze asks to re-frame and disassociate the way we conflate gender with sexuality and creativity. By rejecting the biological essentialism behind art, we open our minds to the exploration of a world of power, submission and creativity as seen through the lens of performativity. The feminine gaze doesn’t necessarily question who we are but who we want to be.

Hundred Heroines & the Future of Art

Moving forward, it is imperative for institutions to further the discourse on inclusivity and diversity in the art world. Platforms like Hundred Heroines will continue to advance, advocate and expand this dialogue in order to make art more accessible to women but also to increase the public’s knowledge of two artforms, that of photography and film, too often associated with the male gaze. Hundred Heroines picks up after the shattered remains of institutional patriarchy and all the galleries that, for centuries, failed to recognise inclusivity by giving artists previously unnoticed or underrepresented an opportunity not only to see but finally, also, to be seen.

By Gabriella Gasparini