What it means to be a female photographer

This year, for me personally, marks 20 years since I first set myself up as a professional photographer (and photographic journalist). Perhaps this puts me in a position to be able to comment on what it means to be female in the photographic industry although, of course, the following is just my viewpoint. What is frustrating is that, 20 years after starting out in the industry, there’s still the need to even be looking at the issues surrounding women in our industry.

I’m aware that, in many ways, I’ve been very lucky in my career. Raised by artistic parents (my Dad was a writer himself), my sister and I were always taught that we could do whatever we wanted in life. I entered the photographic industry without even considering the fact that I was female and was lucky enough to meet a lot of experienced photographers (predominantly male, it must be said) who gave me their time and wisdom to help me along. I’m also aware that my own personality has been an asset in many ways – I was brought up to be assertive and I don’t tolerate rudeness or sexism. But the depressing fact remains that these things are still out there and, as women, we have to find a way to deal with this.

Why is there so much misogyny attached to females in the photographic industry? It’s easy to say that photography is a male dominated industry, which it is and yet women have been involved in photography since its very inception. Constance Fox Talbot, wife of Henry Fox Talbot (one of the key players in the invention of photography) experimented with the process as early as 1839 and women have been taking photographs ever since. But the simple fact is that there are still many more male photographers than female.

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Photo by Rachel Martin

Women must work harder to be taken seriously in the photographic world and, despite the fact that it’s 2021, we still live in a patriarchal society. A lot of the world still expects women just to have a ‘little’ job so that they can concentrate on looking after a home and raising children. When we push ourselves forward, we’re being too opinionated, too ambitious, too bossy and yet these attributes are all celebrated in men! Is the issue simply old-school sexism or are women just seen as too fragile to handle the heavy kit and technical know-how of photography (which, now that I come to think about it, is pretty sexist too!)? Whatever the answer, the simple truth remains that most top photographers are still men. 

Manufacturers and clients don’t always help either. Back in 2017, Nikon’s Asia division scored a spectacular own goal during their launch of the D850 DSLR. Identifying 32 ‘creative individuals’ to test the camera out, they failed to include a single woman in the line-up. This certainly wasn’t for a lack of female talent being available – I suspect it was most probably down to sheer laziness and thoughtlessness. Nikon attracted a storm of protest and quite rightly apologised, but the campaign highlighted how little many manufacturers consider female photographers. Everything, and I mean everything, in the photographic world has historically been designed with a man’s hands in mind. Thank god for the swing towards mirrorless technology and smaller cameras that accidentally often work far better for women! And I think most female photographers have experienced clients they’d rather forget, from misogynistic dinosaurs who find it incomprehensible that a woman is taking their photograph to men who want to know if you photograph nudes…

But it’s not all doom and gloom, and nor do I want to give the impression that the industry is just one big battleground between men and women! I know hundreds of men in the industry who don’t treat me any differently, more and more women are entering the industry and the world overall is changing (slowly but surely). And there are many advantages to being a female photographer in the first place.

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Photo by Photo by Mariah Krafft

There are many genres of photography where a client would probably prefer to use a female photographer. Intimate work, such as pregnancy and newborn shoots often lend themselves to female photographers where women feel more comfortable with someone of the same gender. It can also be less intimidating for a woman to invite another woman into her home, if that’s where the shoot is taking place. A bride at a wedding will often feel more comfortable with a woman and that can extend to any portrait shoot involving women. I think a lot of this is down to the fact that we recognise how much the way we look in a photograph matters and we’re obviously more attuned to makeup and outfits that work on the female body. Even the extremely male dominated area of photojournalism has stories that only a woman can shoot – there are many communities around the world that wouldn’t let a man in to photograph them but will accept a woman. 

Women do approach photography differently to men. Often we are more interested in the emotional response to an image than in the technical aspects. That’s not to say that female photographers aren’t masters of lighting and equipment, merely to say that we also look for emotions. Quite often, the gender of a photographer is irrelevant but there are occasions where being female is a distinct advantage. 

Despite the positives (and there are many) it saddens me that women photographers are still often seen as second-class citizens. And, by extension, how many women are lacking in confidence in their own abilities. There are so many astonishing female photographers out there who deserve to be recognised. As a photographic journalist I consider it a privilege to champion them. And I firmly believe that it’s vitally important that women keep pushing themselves forward in the industry. It shouldn’t matter what gender a photographer is – let’s hope for a day when it truly doesn’t. 

If you’re keen to explore more work by female photographers, here are some amazing women to get started with:

Diane Arbus – https://www.artsy.net/artist/diane-arbus

Dorothea Lange – https://www.moma.org/artists/3373

Rineke Dijkstra – http://www.artnet.com/artists/rineke-dijkstra/

Julia Margaret Cameron – https://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/julia-margaret-cameron

Elke Vogelsang – https://elkevogelsang.com 

Jillian Edelstein – https://www.jillianedelstein.co.uk

And there are literally thousands more amazing women out there creating beautiful images!

Cover photo by Camila Cordeiro

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