Stories from Set: The Sexist Double Standard on a Photo Set

Stories from Set are the stories of photographer Alyssa Meadows and others about the pains of being a woman on the modern photography set. This series is 100% endorsed by the Phoblographer in an effort to convey a critical message.

The photo assistant life is pretty iconic, right? You get to have all the fun of the shoot without the pressure of being the photographer, dealing with the client, managing post-production, etc. Essentially, all the pros without the cons. Sure, it also means being the go-for and putting your own ego/feelings aside. That comes with the territory and something I usually don’t mind. That said, when awful, sexist treatment comes into the equation, maintaining the balancing act of being a team player while also taking care of yourself becomes difficult. As discussed in previous articles from this series, frequently, the source of the problem is client-oriented. It’s a rock and a hard place situation when trying to figure out how to mitigate it. What’s even worse is when it’s a case of friendly fire – a most unexpected betrayal within the ranks in the pursuit of making powerful pictures.

About two years ago, I was brought on as the second photo assistant in a two-photographer-two-assistants shoot. The client was significant, and we were shooting in the newly opened Oculus in NYC. From the moment I arrived that day, I could tell something wasn’t gelling right. The first assistant had an attitude with me all morning, which I ignored for several hours – condescension, general unfriendliness, telling me how to do rudimentary photo assisting responsibilities. You know, the usual crap I get from men who feel I ‘don’t belong’ on set (I’ve seen it enough times that I can recognize it pretty much immediately and usually brush it off to maintain my composure). Perhaps he felt threatened, as he could tell the photographer who brought both of us on had a good, strong friendship with me. Regardless, he was far from pleasant to work with. Fortunately, we were each assigned a different responsibility – he was to watch the gear while I was obtaining model releases. Due to that, there was a fair bit of distance during the morning, and so his stand-offishness wasn’t impacting our ability to work together (yet). However, during our lunch break, things were about to take a monumental nose-dive into being awful.

“During the end of our meal, we established that myself and the two photographers would all go to the bathroom at once while the other assistant sat with the bags (as the pre-determined gear-watcher). Once I was back, I would switch off with him. This way, we all would have a chance to be human beings and relieve our coffee-filled bladders.”

As I’m sure we’ve all encountered in our photo careers, protecting the gear is paramount when you’re in an enormous public space with a lot of expensive, rented equipment. Needless to say, bathroom break coordination was a necessary endeavor to ensure that nothing went missing and greedy hands were lacking opportunities to grab-and-dash. During the end of our meal, we established that myself and the two photographers would all go to the bathroom at once while the other assistant sat with the bags (as the pre-determined gear-watcher). Once I was back, I would switch off with him. This way, we all would have a chance to be human beings and relieve our coffee-filled bladders. A brilliant but simple plan by most accounts to resolve a common enough problem, what could go wrong? Well, the other assistant wasn’t listening all that well to our game plan. That became immediately evident in all the worst ways once I finished my turn.

Upon exiting the bathroom, I turned to see said assistant struggling under the weight as he dragged all the gear down the hallway. Seeing his downtrodden state, I ran to help him, but quickly realized he was no longer a fake friend, but fully foe. He began yelling at me in the middle of the crowded hallway, making no attempt to lower his voice, keep the confrontation quiet, or prevent the client from witnessing said escalation. His anger was evident and completely unjustified – I was doing exactly what our photographer told me to do, and it was clear he hadn’t heard the instructions. He thought I had rudely left him with more equipment than one person could feasibly carry. Realizing the source of the misunderstanding, I tried to explain this to him calmly and politely while he continued screaming at me, cutting me off each time I tried to communicate with him. It literally got to the point that I had to say, “EXCUSE ME. I have tried to say the same thing four times now to explain why I did what you are so upset about. so how about you let me finish my fcking sentence and stop cutting me off in such a disrespectful fashion, OKAY?” If it was a male assistant that had ‘done’ the same thing (by which I mean DOING WHAT I WAS TOLD), I know he would have never spoken to him like that. He definitely would never have dared to talk over him once, let alone four fcking times.

The funny part was, he wasn’t upset with the fact that he had to carry all the gear by himself – it wasn’t even about the gear at all. The whole time he was screaming at me, it was about how he had to carry my bag (with the forward-thinking feminist phrase “a well-read woman is a dangerous creature”) and my purse. (You know, the kind of feminine possessions that apparently strip men of any and all masculinity when forced to physically handle such ‘degrading’ items.) He carried on and on about how I wasn’t watching my own stuff, how dare I make him carry my things, and how I better never do that to him again. He even went so far as to start blustering about his working with the photographer for 20 years to try to gain some clout and discredit my own connection with said photographer.

The altercation was excruciatingly embarrassing and unnecessary, and it was evident that sexism was in play by how he repeatedly made it about carrying my personal possessions. His tune changed immediately however, upon the two photographers returning from their own bathroom breaks. Instantly, it became about my “abandoning the equipment.” His ‘issue’ switched about what he was upset about as soon as the photographers realized the situation was escalating and came up to address the profoundly problematic scene playing out. Both tried their best to resolve the situation but unfortunately approached it from the wrong side. The two photographers both vehemently tried to calm down my understandably upset feelings. The public humiliation I had just endured left me pretty depleted, struggling to regain some semblance of internal serenity. By the end of the confrontation, I was physically, visibly shaking, and it was clear I had to swallow it for the rest of the shoot. Immediately upon wrapping the shoot, I had to go hide in the bathroom for another 15 mins. I was STILL shaking and on the verge of breaking down four hours later, trying to get back to a decent place. Throw the stereotypical ‘overemotional woman’ card out if you so choose, but know that women who experience sexism are “three times more likely to experience depression” and a myriad of other side effects that are far more long-term and harming than the end of the shoot day.

“He carried on and on about how I wasn’t watching my own stuff, how dare I make him carry my things, and how I better never do that to him again. He even went so far as to start blustering about his working with the photographer for 20 years to try to gain some clout and discredit my own connection with said photographer.”

The largest source of frustration was the fact that his outburst was not seen as the outrageous, out-of-hand expression of anger that it was. He screamed at me openly, on set, in a public forum, and all for no good reason. My frustrated, emotional reaction, however, was immediately branded as damaging and endangering of the job. Why is a man spewing anger seen as acceptable, while a woman’s frustration and agitation is considered out of hand (hint: this article hits it pretty well on the head)? The double standard of policing female emotions while dismissing a man’s equivalent emotional outburst was clearly well in play. The two photographers did little to correct the first assistant’s awful behavior and instead moved on to just trying to manage me. I believe it went so far as to suggest I go home (you know, instead of the other guy, the one who made this whole escalation). From start to finish, it fell far short – they saw my emotionally reactive state as the more immediate problem than the source of that emotional response, the trigger of my frustrations.

And the two kickers? When the first assistant came back with a half-*ssed apology attempt, he made the mistake of saying “I’m sorry that I upset you” (which if you aren’t aware yet of what makes a good apology, here’s why his attempt was pretty pitiful). I quickly and vehemently responded, “THAT’S NICE, but maybe you should be sorry for talking down to me in such a disrespectful and condescending manner instead of apologizing for my reaction to it.” Surprise surprise, a man failing to take any ownership of his own horrible behavior, spinning it into falling under MY actions/responsibility instead of his own. That, however, is the milder of the two fallouts from this situation. The photographer still hires that photo assistant that abused and berated me, while we have yet to work together on set again. Rather than punish the perpetrator, the one who created the entire situation in the first place, ultimately I paid the price. I’ve been left off subsequent shoots because of an altercation that I was subject to, not the creator of, as I predicted would be the case. Regardless of why I lost my cool on set, regardless of how reasonable and understandable under the circumstances, the man in question has been forgiven, while the woman will forever pay the price for sexist garbage dumped in her lap. Case in point, just this week, said photographer hired the photo assistant in question, as well as another assistant instead of myself because I’ve been branded as the problem.

Had I quietly shut up and taken it, maybe it would have turned out differently. Because I made it clear what was happening was unacceptable, I was perceived as sharing a mutual responsibility for the situation and subsequently burned myself and the potential future promise of work. That’s the reality of the sexism women deal with on set – if we swallow it, we’ll get more jobs, where subsequently, chances are we’ll need to swallow more of it – a vicious, endless cycle. If we push back, stand up for ourselves, establish boundaries, challenge scapegoating, we’re deemed the ‘problem,’ or branded as ‘difficult to work with.’ (Let’s not forget how Megan Fox refusing to put up with Michael Bay’s bullsh*t basically blacklisted her in the industry.) And if we express any emotions not of the happy, bubbly, bouncy variety, our emotions are twisted and used against us, weaponized as the reason we are unable to perform, whether as a photo assistant, chef, or politician. I dream of a day where women don’t have to subject themselves to sexist nonsense for the benefit of professional pursuits and aren’t punished for speaking up when they find themselves in those situations. Clearly, we still have a long way to go.