Stories from Set: How a Sexist Comment Derailed a Perfect Photo Shoot

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.

There is a perpetual dance around the sexism where you’re walking on eggshells while trying to stand up for your rights as an individual. All versions of these situations on a photoshoot are entirely unacceptable and damaging to all parties involved. I would argue that nothing is harder to handle diplomatically than when a sexist experience transpires between your paying clients to one another. As previously accounted in Stories from Set: When Clients Sexualize Each Other During Your Shoot, we witnessed a similar situation develop on another shoot.

We were photographing executive portraits for a financial firm. An add-on they requested was to create some environmental group shots. They were looking for images that showed cohesiveness within the firm with enthusiasm and positivity. Easy in theory, and we set out to create the most powerful delivery we could for the client. So we drafted a standard setup: a boardroom with some whiteboards, with one of the women writing and presenting work to two of her male colleagues, looking interested, riveted in her engagement with them. All was working well. The team members had high energy between each other and we were beginning to hone in on getting the shot that felt real, genuine, and powerful. It was at this moment that once again, we were faced with the difficulty of the position between a rock and a hard place. This was something entirely out of our control and completely unexpected.

The windows to the boardroom were glass–so other employees in the office could observe the shoot as they walked past. A male colleague casually walked by and derailed the entire shoot, destroying the creative energy we’d spent the last 45 minutes building. As he strolled by, he made what he believed to be a lighthearted joke to his male counterparts in the shot. “Hey man, keep your eyes up here, I see where you’re looking!” implicating that the men we were photographing were looking at their female colleague’s breasts instead of her face. She was completely covered up with a professional, full-collared blouse.

“The photographer did not even catch the comment, so he didn’t realize what caused the shift in tone until I was able to inform him in a more appropriate time. Even if he had, we would still have been stuck dealing with the same lose-lose situation.”

It was amazing in the most awful way how quickly the energy in the room turned on a dime. It’s a comment that should never have been made. This was disrespectful to everyone involved, would likely be deemed a gross violation by any HR person, and managed to send the whole thing crashing to the ground. Instantly, the vibe on set changed, and the magic of the moment was lost. Here’s what happened:

    • This oblivious man’s comment unnerved everyone involved in the shoot.
    • The two men we were photographing immediately became more walled off, more on edge. They were clearly concerned that their innocent enough interactions with their coworker would be perceived as inappropriate or out of hand, and tempered their engagement accordingly to hedge against causing any damage.
    • The woman tried her best to maintain her confidence and composure.

Female to female, I could see how much he’d knocked the wind out of her sails. It was an ugly, off-hand reminder that no matter how professional and how high-achieving she is with her work, all of that can be erased and dismissed instantly. It reminded her that she’s able to be objectified and sexualized at any moment. I wondered how many of these small, micro-aggressive moments she and her other female coworkers have to endure on a daily basis. I’m a woman who adamantly advocates for women supporting women instead of the girl hate culture we as a society are steeped in. I wanted to comfort her and acknowledge the inappropriateness of what she just happened. As a photo assistant, I had neither the freedom or the means to do so.

Instead, we both suffered silently, reflecting furiously (at least I was) on the situation. While I can’t speak to precisely what she was thinking or feeling, the read I was getting from her body language, change in behavior, and facial expressions said all I needed to know. He had taken her out of the moment and out of herself, and it showed. We were able to get a solid enough shot, but sexist comments have no place in work environments, and we never should have had to encounter such a damaging devolution to our culture on set. The photographer did not catch the comment, so he didn’t realize what caused the shift in tone until I was able to inform him at a more appropriate time. Even if he had caught it, we would still have been stuck dealing with the same lose-lose situation, unable to call out the unacceptable, sexist behavior. Such seems to be the experience consistently; many of us see things go wrong, but the nature of freelancing that depends on happy clients prevents us from advocating during moments of opportunity.