Last Updated on 10/17/2019 by Mark Beckenbach
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.
Working on set can be challenging in a multitude of ways, from demanding clients, high-profile talent, tech, equipment, and doing undesirable or frustrating things. We sometimes forget that navigating what we can discuss on set and how can be just as difficult. Frequently we’re thrown together in a mishmash of producers, other assistants, or photographers we barely know. We’re stuck contending with how to work closely together. We try to collaborate, create conversation, and find ways to connect with each other in the span of a few hours. It can often feel like walking through a minefield, unsure if what you’re saying will land well. If you’ve been in this game long enough, you learn the art of the quick connection, or how to thicken skin and work insulated and unaffected by this social quicksand.
Through photo assisting for strangers enough times, I’ve gained thick skin. I don’t stress as much or put as much energy into considering my words before I speak them. I’ve come to learn and trust that most folks I work with will gel with me. I’ve grown through the anxiety of micro-analyzing what I do and say, and trust that we’ll work well together. I wasn’t watching my words as carefully with a photographer I’ve assisted a handful of times; and was already feeling comfortable in our working relationship. I made a comment that, in hindsight, was opening an unfortunate can of worms (though the point of this piece is ultimately to say how it never should have even been a can to open).
As we were building out the various lighting rigs for a set, our conversation veered into families/kids. I felt an appropriate response in passing was, “That’s why I’m never having kids.” In fact – I will never have children. I’ve known and felt this since I was 15 (I just turned 30), giving me well over a decade to grow confident in this statement. With others, it’s always treated as an opinion rather than a decision. The perpetual “You’ll change your mind…,” I’ve heard since I was younger has diminished and people know me better than to say that. The running joke is that I’ll forever be the crazy cat-mom. So needless to say, I wasn’t thinking about or prepared for the response I received on set, though I probably should have been.
“Well, I wouldn’t say that, you might change your mind – my sister did.”
He then further explained that she said the same thing in high school. She changed her mind upon an accidental pregnancy at age 20. When he and I had this conversation, I was 29. This photographer failed to see the world of difference between a young woman barely breaking into adulthood, and me, nearly a decade beyond his sister’s change in perspective. Somehow, he thought his family’s individual, personal experience was reflective of a potential ‘lack of certainty’ in my own decision. A man who will never know the experience of being a woman or have to personally consider childbirth thought he could better explain to me how I might change my mind. He must have more insight into my own desires than I. Our society dictates that woman equals mother, and we have a horrendously hard time seperating those two entirely independent ideas. It is not written into my DNA that I must give birth to receive my rightly earned ‘woman card.’ For 15 years I’ve been counting enthusiastically, waiting for the day when what I say I want for me and my life is heard without pushback. You know everything else I’d be? A great doctor. A fab engineer. A dope architect. I’d be a bomb-ass makeup artist. A killer fashion designer. None of that matters, because at the end of the day, I have no desire to be any of those things. With regard to the most significant decision I could possibly make regarding my own life, everyone (both men and, unfortunately, a lot of women) presumes to know what I want for myself, what I’ll be good at, and how I want to invest the limited time I have on this planet better than I do.
What I want is to be a professional photographer. I want to work long hours, stay up late passionately creating work, be shooting on set all day, and traveling for on-location work. (You know, a bunch of stuff that is not at all conducive to having a family.) And let’s be clear – I knew I didn’t want to have kids before I knew I wanted to be a photographer. My chosen profession does not determine my decision regarding bearing children, but rather the other way around. No matter what else I choose to do with my life, I’ve known that having kids would never be a part of it.
So how can I even begin to contend with the photographer sitting there, mansplaining to me about how I can’t possibly be sure of my own wants and desires for my future? While he’s a nice guy/photographer overall, I’d encountered differences of opinion with him enough. I knew there would be no changing his mind. Once again, I was faced with a situation where I had to swallow my anger, find a way to turn the other cheek, and keep working with him in spite of his dismissal of my own ability to know myself. He didn’t see how he was ultimately saying that I couldn’t trust myself or my own mind. I have to say, that’s probably the most infuriating part of this too-often-repeated experience.
“What I want is to be a professional photographer. I want to work long hours, stay up late passionately creating work, be shooting on set all day, and traveling for on-location work. “
I mean, really, how much older do I need to get? This photographer is not that much older than me and has known me for years now. While I’m clearly still young enough to start a family, 29 going on 30 wasn’t something to scoff at. Most folks have committed to a life partner by that point, including the photographer in question. I didn’t feel the need to say, “Well, you know, you might change your mind about your wife one day…” If you can know you want another person for your whole life at that age, why is it presumed that a woman can’t know whether or not she wants to be a mother?
She’s not me, you’re not me, and you’re certainly not in my head. I’d prefer that you don’t dare presume you know what I want out of my own life unless you’re going to let me choose your house, spouse, and every other personal part of your life. See how outrageous it sounds when we put it in context next to anything comparable in severity/scope? And yet, on a photo shoot, none of this could be said. Calling out his sexist comment probably would have resulted in me never being hired again. In these situations, I always choke down a bitter sexist pill that eats at me all day under the surface. It never left. The only form of freedom I found from it was at the end of the day, when I was able to write an angry Facebook rant, venting out my frustration on ears that would hopefully listen better than the photographer in question. We should all be able to speak our truths on set and have them be heard and respected, so long as those truths aren’t creating a compromised situation for the shoot.