Women battling sexism in photography – a picture essay
Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore/ The Guardian, UK
From equipment ‘designed by men for men’ to clients assuming they’re the makeup artist, female photographers are still fighting against the tide
Push-ups and photography aren’t normal bed partners. But when Cybele Malinowski was starting out as a young photography assistant in 2005, she was told to do 100 push-ups a day. The reason? To “match the strength of a man”.
“It’s extremely physically demanding work,” recalls Sydney-based Malinowski, now 37. “Camera and lighting equipment has historically been designed by men for men.”
As her career gathered pace, Malinowski battled discrimination beyond heavy gear. Often when she arrived on set, the client would assume that her male assistant was the photographer, or that she was the makeup artist or stylist.
Today the majority of students in undergraduate and graduate photojournalism programs are women. Yet between 2012 and 2017, women made up just 15% of entries to the World Press Photo awards, according to the New York Times. A survey of major talent agency websites in Australia and their roster reveals that under 25% of agency-represented photographers are female.
This affects what we see on our front pages and billboards. In the US, as revealed in a TEDx talk by the celebrated photographer Jill Greenberg, 92% of adverts are shot by men, as are 85% of magazine covers. (This despite the fact that 85% of consumer purchases are made by women). Anecdotal evidence in Australia, where statistics are harder to find, suggests similar ratios. As Nadiya Nacorda once said: “Sexism does not stop at the photo industry’s doorstep. It comes inside, and goes in your fridge, cracks open a beer and sits on the couch.”Trying to get sexism off the couch has become Malinowski’s mission. Last year she co-founded Agender, a platform for female photographers designed to exchange ideas and advance careers, with the former investment banker turned entrepreneur Angela Liang. Their second annual exhibition, Balance for Better, will open on 9 March to mark International Women’s Day, with 50% of sale profits donated to Sydney Women’s Fund.
“This exhibition, on the one hand, is held to celebrate women and it’s also trying to put a mirror up on the industry itself: [to say] look at these incredible women, why are they still a minority?” says Malinowski.“We want to show future female photographers: yes, of course, you can do it. If you’re hungry, you’re talented, you’re driven, you can definitely get there.”
In Balance for Better, 22 female photographs have created responses to the question of what makes up the “female gaze”. Images include Malinowski’s Big Sur, Little Her, in which a naked woman with red hair is dwarfed by a sparse coastal landscape; Liz Ham’s Grumble and Moan Winter, showing a woman and girl swimming underwater; and Yasmin Suteja’s soulful portraits of African-American skaters in New York.Being a female photographer can be an advantage in certain situations. For example, gaining access to, and the trust of, children or women in conservative countries in the Middle East. But this also has a flipside. The documentary photographer and artist Anna Maria Antoinette D’Addario, who shoots for publications ranging from the New York Times to the Guardian and whose work is shown in Balance for Better, was recently at a holy festival in Vrindavan, northern India, where she found herself stuck in traffic. “I had my head yanked back aggressively by men wanting to paint my face … I witnessed foreign women on the streets being openly groped,” she says.“The temple was renowned for being packed full of male devotees and based on my experience during the day I knew that if I went there I would be putting myself in a volatile situation,” continues D’Addario. “The shots I wanted to get were not vital to my story so I returned home but I was frustrated and a little angry, as it was the first time I had felt that my being a woman had limited my freedom and safety in a place I wanted to work.”
D’Addario experienced a physical threat to her safety. Her fears were not unwarranted: women killed on the job in recent years include the German photographer Anja Niedringhaus, who was shot dead in Afghanistan in 2014, and the French photographer, Camille Lepage, murdered in the Central African Republic at the age of 26 the same year.However, Agender’s Liang believes that a far more insidious, and unreported, problem is unconscious bias. Liang notes: “Women are more susceptible to imposter syndrome … [they are] less confident about approaching or pitching if they don’t feel they are 100% qualified.”
Agender’s second annual exhibition, Balance for Better, is showing at Sun Studios, Sydney, from 9–31 March