Female-Only Exhibitions: Are Women in Street Becoming Everything They Fought Against?

There has been a wonderful insurgence of women in street photography over the past couple of years. But does everyone welcome their approach?

Men and women have been at battle for centuries. With the patriarchy in full swing across all areas of life, several revolutions have been born with the aim to break it down. It is of no surprise then that this “you against us” divide found its way to our little old world of street photography. Often blasted as being a middle-aged white man’s club, the big names in street photography have been put under increasing pressure to push fairer representation within the field. Are things working for the better?

Did Street Photography Ever Have a Gender Problem?

When people first learn about the history of street photography they are going to hear names that are familiar to those already knowledgable of its history. Vivian Maier, Diane Arbus, and Helen Levitt to name a few. These great female street photographers are held in extremely high regard, and from my experience are never spoken down on because of their gender. So where is the problem?

It seems to be when you get into the middle ground. The street collectives, the meetup groups, and the festivals. For years they have been criticized for being over saturated with men. The reason for this has always been difficult to pinpoint and prove. Some will say it’s because not enough women show an interest in the field, while others argue men just do not respect women enough to get them involved (a little like golf club mentality).

In her article On Being a Female Street Photographer, Jill Corral had this to say on the matter:

Why are there not more female streettogs? Historically — and still, in many countries and cultures — women have not had the freedom to occupy public spaces in the same way as men, or to travel as freely as men, or even the means to own their own cameras.

Accessibility to activities and professions for women was restricted for a long time. And while in the developed world those restrictions have been heavily removed (although the greater risk of being a victim of violence is still there), there was always going to be a period of time where women had to play catch up. How do we ensure that doesn’t last too long?

The Rise of Women-Only Street Photography Groups

Clearly unhappy with the speed at which street photography was pushing for greater equality, women decided to make a stand. One of the most notable moves in this direction is Women in Street, a social media project created in 2016 with the aim of raising the profile of female street photographers. It can be no coincidence that since their foundation there have been big changes in the field.

Nearly all of the leading street photography festivals have seen an increase in female involvement (sadly one in particular uses it more of a marketing tool rather than setting a norm). From the staff, finalists, guest speakers, and attendees, the general word I’ve been hearing is that things are starting to go in the right direction, but there’s still plenty of more work to do.

More recently, an Instagram feed @womenstreetphotographers brought their digital gallery to life in the form of an exhibition. Curated by women, 75 female street photographers had their work blown up for all to see. Some great names were on display including, Gisele Duprez, Tatum Wulff, and Emily Garthwaite. There wasn’t a single man in sight – and here’s where we start to hear the grumbles and groans.

What About the Men?

I spend a lot of time speaking to different people around the world about street photography. So much so that people often begin a dialogue with me with, “this is off the record, right?” When the topic of female-only groups comes up there can be some push back. “They would not like it if we did men only groups and exhibitions,” being the most common stream of thought. And this is completely true. Because whether openly or not, for years street photography was pretty much men only – women didn’t like it and that’s why we are where we are today.

Which begs the question – are women street photographers becoming everything they fought against?

Let’s get to the point. Exhibitions, groups, and meetups that actively exclude men have nothing to do with equality at all. Although some women unhelpfully push back with, “men did it for years so why can’t we,”  it doesn’t mean that this current state of male exclusion is unnecessary.

Giving Women a Platform to Build Confidence

Going into a male-dominated environment is not easy. It takes a lot of guts to stand up tall in a world that has constantly tried to push you down. While some are fearless and able to channel their inner Emily Pankhurst, for others it takes time. An environment where they feel they will be free of potential ridicule or exclusion can give growth to both confidence and quality. Although it must be said that when it comes to quality, I really see no difference between men and women – there are some mind blowing female street togs out there.

A Way of Moving Forward

Let’s be honest, things are never going to be completely equal in terms of representation. Some years there may be more men on a panel and others there may be more women in the finals (and vice versa) – that’s a good thing. A mixture of balance and representation between genders would suggest that people are there on merit, not because of gender. In my opinion this is how it should always be.

If in 20 years time we see a more equal, fairer arena in street photography and certain women are still pushing what would then have become tired rhetoric, sure let’s push back (men and women).

But for now, let’s be happy that there is a movement that wants better exposure for themselves.  A more inclusive and equal world (that includes age, race, and social class) will only benefit the preservation and progression of street photography.

All images are screenshots taken from websites.

Dan Ginn is a UK based street photographer and writer. Learn more about him via his website and Instagram.