As a woman, I can only speak to the microaggressions directed in gender-specific ways towards myself.
It’s been years of subtle stripping of humanity, constant questioning of my intellect, experience, and skill, and underminings of my opinions and feelings. I’ve already written about quite a few. Here, however, I’m speaking to a broader picture – the sense that we don’t belong because we didn’t pass enough ‘”tests” with a gearhead, or a demeaning comment about women was made in your presence, and how that divides and alienates women from the photographic community.
It’s a Boys Game
“I can’t count the number of times I could tell someone has promised future work to me not out of a strong collaborative spirit, but out of a desire not work-related at all.”
We all know it to be true. It’s certainly no secret – our industry is predominantly older, white, and male. It’s been opening up more in recent years and we’re working together to break down those barriers and create more equality and opportunity for all types and kinds of people. With that said, it’s still dominated by a pale uniformity in complexion and gender. Part of what keeps us in that conformity-rich space, are small, subtle things–microaggressions in our industry. They show up in a variety of ways and go unnoticed by the majority of people for the subliminal communications they carry under the surface. That’s partially what makes them so difficult to handle. They’re such a slow killer of creative fire–death by a thousand cuts delivered obliviously by colleagues, collaborators, and friends. It’s slow toxicity that builds up, alienates those other than the cis-straight-white-male, and ultimately leads to many people losing their love for the community. Imposter syndrome is so present in every aspect of our industry. When there is an apparent lack of acceptance it’s hard to keep pushing forward without feeling like a fake, a phony, not a ‘real’ photographer.
The Sexualization of Women
One of the most common behavioral perpetrators is the subtle sexualization so many men radiate in the photo world. It doesn’t matter the age, the marital/relationship status, or how long they’ve known me. As a means of protection, every interaction I have is laced with making sure I don’t give off any accidental invitations. It’s hard enough to avoid unprompted advances. And that’s certainly not to say all men in the industry do this. But it’s just enough that there is always a need to make sure I mention my partner. Incessantly needing to hedge my interactions to ensure no one gets the wrong idea is exhausting, to say the least. I can’t count the number of times I could tell someone has promised future work to me not out of a strong collaborative spirit, but out of a desire not work-related at all. Not only does this make it difficult to know who is safe to work with, but it also makes it clear to women that we’re not wanted for our talents or skills, but rather our bodies or beauty.
It’s not just the comments about our looks–it’s also the dismissal of our intelligence. One of the most prominent, respected photographers in the industry (let’s call him Al) thought nothing of it to say to myself and another woman, “…well, you know, women naturally have a harder time learning the technical side of things.” The irony is that the conversation with him began because I was thanking him for commenting that being a gearhead isn’t the same thing as being a good photographer. Thanks for putting right back in what you had just taken away, Al. He genuinely believed female brains are more ill-equipped to learn equipment somehow, as though we are naturally less evolved than the clearly highly superior male brain (written with all sarcasm). I think both our jaws literally dropped at his asinine statement, as he quickly ended the conversation, realizing the severe shift in temperament and tension. Talk about feeling like an imposter in this industry, he’s saying we’re not even intelligent enough to compete! Couple this with the fact that just about every male DP I’ve ever worked with has felt the need to play the “what kind of camera do you have?”, “Yeah, but do you shoot manual?”, “Do you even know how to shoot film?” game. It’s the prove-yourself-and-your-experience-to-my-level-of-satisfaction game, evaluating whether or not I pass the test to see if I’m a ‘real’ professional or phony photographer. (I’m saying for me, at least 7-10x this has been a routine-like drill. I’ve spoken to many other female photographers who’ve encountered this same experience.) Why does being a female automatically carry a questioning regarding legitimacy with it that male photographers rarely seem to endure?
“…well, you know, women naturally have a harder time learning the technical side of things.”
We Just Can’t Cut it, Huh?
On top of all that, there’s also being told flat-out that you just can’t cut it. My mother ran into another well-known photographer who happens to reside in my hometown at an art exhibit, not knowing who or how prominent he was. Long story short, he invited himself to critique my work of his own accord and proceeded to tear me to shreds in a brief but vicious email. It was the Mitchum-Rory journalist-intern scene straight out of Gilmore Girls. He informed me that I just ‘didn’t have it,’ and that I shouldn’t go to NYC because I was ‘a bunny rabbit who would get eaten by the lions and tigers’ of the city. Six years later, I’m still here. He refused to tell me what was wrong with my work unless I subjected myself to an in-person berating as well but he never followed through on my agreement to that. Now, maybe he was just a crotchety, bitter photographer who gets his kicks from tearing beginners down, regardless of gender. Still, I highly doubt he would ever dare to call an aspiring male photographer a ‘bunny rabbit.’ Diminutive, weak, small – the epitome of a visual representation of prey. His choice in terminology was a clear reflection of gender bias and perceiving women as weak, lesser beings. He had never even had a conversation with me, so who was he to determine the city would consume me? Thank god I didn’t listen to his advice and stay in Philly, or I’d probably still be thinking his opinion was worth something. My entire career would have had a different trajectory if I listened to his sexist feedback, and it certainly would have been to my detriment. People are always waiting in the wings to tear others down, and all manner of minority artists get a double dose of it.
Individually, these experiences are small blips on the radar, but when added up, they significantly erode the feeling of being a valued and accepted part of the industry. Women (and other marginalized communities I’m sure) reach their patience thresholds with objectifying comments, erasure of their contributions or skill sets, and constant nay-sayers who tear down the big and small successes. Oftentimes it becomes too much – it becomes not worth it. “I don’t have to deal with this sh*t” starts resonating, and rings louder with each mindless misstep made by our peers. Subsequently, too many of us leave, feeling driven out and discouraged. This industry is tough enough to make a living in, and this additional, perpetual hurdle often becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back. I’ve watched it happen all around me, seen friends come and go, knowing that one of the biggest reasons they chose to walk away was it was too exhausting and discouraging to tolerate any longer. If we say we want to make this industry more inclusive and more accessible to communities other than the cis-straight-white-male demographic, we have to start with the sexist undertones pervasive throughout our culture.