On the 8th of August, Studio 1854 hosted a panel discussion with British Journal of Photography titled In the Frame: Increasing Work for Female Photographers - in collaboration with Mother London, Creative Equals, She Says and Creative Review. Its motivation was this: 65% of all photography graduates are female, yet only 15% of commercial photography work is commissioned to female photographers. Members of the BJP were invited to hear photographers and commissioners discuss and debate the reasons for this disparity and potential strategies to reverse it. The goal of the evening was to begin the very necessary conversation between the two sides of the industry. And both sides agreed – there is a systemic imbalance that needs to be prioritised and changed, now.
The opening address, by Ali Hanan (founder of Creative Equals) and Selma Nichols (founder at Looks Like Me), framed the issue at hand with the wider context of diversity and equality issues within the creative industry. Selma reinforced the point that any bias behind the lens shapes the narrative that is being told, so diversity is needed for an authentic narrative and storytelling. She gave another statistic: only 12% of people in creative director roles are female. Of this 12%, only 1-2% are women of colour.
“Make the space to work with different people. Together we can create more.
They spoke about the power of networks, which are an indisputable foundation of the industry, but are now very established and have an affinity bias in the hiring process that reduces the necessary access to opportunities for new photographers, especially women, to break through the door. At this point, Equal Lens joined the conversation and echoed that it can be difficult for creatives to give opportunities to people who don’t have “the perfect book.”
“We need stronger commissioners and leaders to give people the chance - because without these opportunities, no one can build up their books in the first place.
The photographers’ panel, moderated by Alice Zoo from BJP, was made up of Alice Mann, Catherine Hyland, Laura Pannack, Rhiannon Adam and Francesca Allen; all very insightful and passionate photographers whose work predominantly focuses on social documentary and portraiture, with the addition of landscape photography for Catherine. The opening questions set the tone for the evening’s discussions; ‘What is the value of the female gaze? Why should we be giving more commisioned work to female photographers?’ Francesca summarised it perfectly with her answer; “It’s normal. We shouldn’t need a reason, we’re 50% of the population.” The whole audience erupted in applause, rightly so!
The conversation moved to discuss the seeming trend towards women photographers (open calls, exhibitions etc.) that create specific and targeted opportunities, and whether the photographers find this divisive rather than constructive. Most agreed that these platforms are necessary until things are equal, to create a safe space until we no longer feel the need to use gender language to differentiate between a male and female photographer, and until opportunities and recognition are balanced. But today, the shocking reality is that most female graduates immediately start looking for alternative career paths, before they even start (I myself have been fighting this very urge in recent months). After hearing more about their personal experiences in the industry, all five of the photographers agreed that one of the most fundamental reasons why we need female photographers, is because we have to take control of our own narratives. Ultimately, each story needs the right person to tell it, and we need to be in a position to tell our own and those of our fellow women who trust us to. Rhiannon highlighted that when a woman is photographing another woman, the balance of power is the same – and this is crucial.
“We shouldn’t have to learn to be tough. That’s not a solution.
The industry panel, moderated by Eliza Williams from Creative Review, was composed of Sereena Abbassi (Worldwide Head of Diversity & Inclusion at M&C Saatchi), Tom Curtis (Executive Creative Director at Mediacom), Kate Congreve (Senior Producer at Mother), Teri Henman (Head of Global Creative at The Body Shop) and Dr. Rebecca Swift (Global Head of Creative Insights, Getty Images). The conversation began with an agreement that the field of creative direction is still quite male-dominated. The first question asked was whether gender imbalance is discussed within their workplaces, and the answer was yes – though only in more recent years, a fact that is shocking in and of itself. Brands are now increasingly concerned with “authenticity,” and so the choice of photographer has become more important. While most of the professionals reassured the audience that a concern regarding this issue is at the heart of their culture, they also conceded that ‘tokenism’ can be a major obstacle for other leaders in the field. The point that was made, however, was that if people are still worried about appearing tokenistic, nothing is going to change and progress won’t be achieved.
Risk-taking by decision makers was brought up for a second time, as the panel admitted that decision makers who aren’t necessarily creatives themselves tend to be less likely to take risks on people who don’t have the ‘right books,’ employing a “have to see it to believe it” mentality. One of the most emphasised points of the evening became the plea for commissioners to take more risks, spreading opportunity to people who otherwise wouldn’t get the chance to prove themselves. As it currently stands, putting a man behind the lens is assumed the ‘less risky’ option. In order to change this, we need bigger collections of successful women photography, and this will never be possible if they’re never given the jobs. But this process isn’t starting early enough; female photography students and graduates need to know that they can enter the industry and be given a chance.
“The goal is to have a big enough collection of work that counterbalances the current belief, so that we don’t need to persuade someone to use a female photographer.
In her closing address, Alessanda Luriu (Co-founder of She Says) supported everything that had been discussed during the evening, confirming not only that we have a very long way to go, but that the right approach is both top-down and bottom- up. She concluded with the notion of advocacy – being accountable for somebody else – and urged the audience to start by recommending someone for a job, because change will always start with individual effort. During the final applause, I smiled to myself, honoured to be a part of Foto Femme United and the advocacy it’s already established.