Stories From Set: Being a Woman on a Photo Shoot

In a normal place of work, there wouldn’t be nearly as much thought required and energy invested in determining how to respond to something like this.

“Well, If I had a body like hers, I wouldn’t mind,” the client told the photographer I was working for as a photo editor. We were photographing a law firm, creating new headshots as well as capturing full body images, and the lawyer in question who just came in for his session was disappointed to discover the latter aspect of the shoot. Thankfully, I was sitting with my back to the both of them or they might have seen the murderous look of rage that instantly donned my face. I might have withered the man right then and there with my deadly stare.

“Are you f*cking kidding me? I’m sitting right here. Do you think I’m deaf?” I angrily mused to myself as I gathered my thoughts and how I was about to handle this blatant, heinous, objectification of me on set. Ultimately, I decided it was best to hold my tongue and leave the room. I spent the next 20 minutes fuming in the women’s restroom. I was trying to both calm myself down enough that I wouldn’t speak out of turn, and also burn enough time for the misogynistic man in question to finish his portrait session. This way I would not even have to figure out how to politely engage with him after he sexualized and objectified me like I was not even there.

What Was Done About This?

“Well, If I had a body like hers, I wouldn’t mind!”

To his credit, the photographer did his best to mitigate the situation. Of course, the tone and tenor fell miles short of holding the lawyer accountable, warranted by his very own words. The man’s sexist, cavalier way of talking about me like I was an object, rather than a human being, demanded a far more head-on, direct confrontation. That’s so often the predicament we find ourselves in – wanting and knowing what we need to do to make it right, while facing prejudices and biases that will negatively affect our businesses and careers, ultimately preventing us from feeling capable of taking those proper actions. Despite three out of the four of us (the photo assistant was also a white male, and all three men had roughly 15-20 years on me) knowing that what had just transpired was absolutely unacceptable (my crewmates are wonderful, progressive men, and I know that to be true to their cores), no one was willing to confront the elephant in the room with a straight-talk, no bullshit, “Hey, you cannot talk about my photo editor like that,” attitude. Which I’ve found to be the case in these kinds of situations. Every. Single. Time.

I could have called this lawyer out on his sexist garbage, which certainly would have been an appropriate and direct way to handle it – it was definitely more than warranted. A well-toned “excuse me?” would have made clear how out-of-line and inappropriate the comment was. The reality, however, was that handling it directly and appropriately would have most likely resulted in one of three predictable outcomes: either it would have resulted in my

  • A) Getting fired.
  • B) The photographer not rehiring me in the future.
  • C) The client punishing the photographer for his staff calling out sexist crap and the photographer would not be rehired.

In the best of circumstances, the photographer would sympathize and empathize; in the worst, he or she wouldn’t care about such a callous referral to my body and its apparently sexually appealing nature. Ultimately, neither matters when the end result is the same – feeling like there’s no ability to speak up or call this crap out, and no access for handling a situation like this when your livelihood depends on people liking you and the ease of your ‘workability.’

I could go on, but you get the picture. These things don’t bother men usually and so, all too frequently, photo and video sets are horribly sexist and tone deaf. No wonder we struggle with maintaining a better gender balance in our industry. Only the toughest, strongest, most determined women are going to find ways to look past it and not let the constant barrage of objectifying, dehumanizing, sexualizing commentary and attitudes kill off the passion for the profession they’ve chosen. I can attest firsthand: there have been so many times I thought to myself “I don’t need this sh*t,” and almost walked off set.

“Ultimately, neither matters when the end result is the same – feeling like there’s no ability to speak up or call this crap out, no access for handling a situation like this when your livelihood depends on people liking you and the ease of your ‘workability.’”

Sexual Harassment in the World of Gigs Vs the Corporate World

In a normal place of work, there wouldn’t be nearly as much thought required and energy invested in determining how to respond to something like this. In a standard nine to five, I would just report the incident to HR, make a complaint, and have the male employee reprimanded for his sexist commentary on my anatomy. I fully acknowledge, I’m making it sound a lot simpler, easier, and cleaner than that process is for any woman in that reality (and how rarely it’s actually carried out to fruition), and I also recognize it’s a walk in the park compared to our freelance environments and the ways our hands are tied in the actual, realistic ways we can speak up.

In an industry like ours where future employment is never guaranteed, clients can be demanding and fussy things, and treading carefully with situations like these is already difficult as is. Often, it feels like there’s no chance of winning. So what are we supposed to do in a situation that normally would be regarded as hostile, intolerable, and unacceptable in a work environment and in our work for hire community? It seems an impossible question to answer when society is still so unready to accept its role in changing how we perceive women – I’m not sure of the answer myself. The one thing I do know is we need to stop creating toxic work environments with the women in our industry and it starts with talking about it.

This problem is far too common and not frequently talked about enough in our community. Our workplace is the most toxic environment sometimes, and there never seems to be a way to truly deal with it due to our striving need for income. As the one on the receiving end, it feels there are even fewer ways to escape it, and subsequently, many women leave the industry because of the constant bombardment of sexist overtones and a desire to no longer want to deal with them.

This is the first piece in an unfortunate series of firsthand experiences that I’ll be sharing. Have you experienced sexual harassment on set? If so, we’d love to hear from you.