Panel - Camilla Brown, Anna Fox, Natasha Caruana and Louise Clements, led by Bridget Coaker
written by Redeye's Jo Slack for LOOK/15
At The Photography Show this year, across from the main arena and in front of an audience of around 20-30 mostly female attendees, The Guardian's Bridget Coaker invited talks from Anna Fox, Camilla Brown, Natasha Caruana and Louise Clements on the subject of 'women in photography'. This one-off event seemed at odds with the show itself, where in an arena of predominantly men, women were used as models to advertise new products or draped over cars and motorbikes in faux studio scenes. Despite this, the panel discussion was a welcome addition to the show, and the speakers invited to attend made up a strong panel of successful female photography professionals.
To introduce the event, Bridget Coaker took to the stage and presented the audience with a real-life comparison. Google ‘women in photography’, she informed us, and you are presented with a list of the ‘top 25 female photographers’ alongside pages of articles on the subject. Google ‘men in photography’ and no such list exists. Nor do the articles, and instead, the search results vary, with no one thing taking precedent. Why is there a need to have such a list for women, Bridget asked? (Indeed, similarly we should ask why is there a need to have articles such as this?) This was to be the basis of the panel discussion and before Bridget introduced the first speaker, she left the audience to ponder the following question – when will women be identified just as photographers and not by their gender?
Anna Fox was first to present and pointed out that in institutions and on courses, there are a high percentage of female photography students, often around 80%. If this is the case, where are these female photographers going when they graduate? A pertinent point when across the corridor, in the main arena, a predominantly male profession was showcased. Anna then presented us with another telling comparison – the rate of technological change versus the rate of change for female representation in photography. Technology is advancing rapidly, yet the same cannot be said for female representation. She implored the audience not to ignore this, but to work out why, so we can work together to ‘catch up’ with technology.
Camilla Brown’s presentation asked ‘are we really ‘post’ feminism?’. Camilla cited Linda Nochlin’s 1971 text Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? and asked the audience – is it possibly female artists aren’t as good as male artists? She thinks unlikely, though again reminded us the change in representation for female artists has been slow. The 1985 Guerilla Girls campaign on the Met Museum reads: ‘Less than 5% of artists in the Met are female and 80% of nudes are female’. Fast forward to 2012, the advert is replicated, but the figures fail to represent the years passed: ‘Less than 4% of artists in the Met are female and 76% of nudes are female’. Evidently there has been little progression, but why?
Camilla told the audience that the need for feminism today is still very much there, but there are different things to consider. Women now have the opportunities to get in to work, opportunities that were not present 50 years ago, but many are being made redundant from their jobs when they become pregnant. Camilla believes that sexism manifests itself in more subtle ways that it did in the height of bra-burning feminism. Because of this, it’s harder to galvanise people and to spark a common cause. So what is our responsibility, as those working in the photography industry? For Camilla, it is around exposing the gaps in the history of female art. She told the audience that the way art history has encoded men as geniuses makes it harder for society to see women as relevant. We need to look back through history and fill in these gaps.
Natasha Caruana focussed on the visibility of women in the industry in her presentation. She is a Lecturer at University for the Creative Arts, Surrey and backs up Anna’s assertion that 80% of people on creative courses, particularly photography courses, are female. She asked, again ‘where do these women go once they leave University?’ Natasha offered her advice to female photographers. She told the audience to ‘be excited, be proactive, meet as many people as you can’. There is a statistic that shows when looking at new jobs, men will apply if they believe themselves to have 40% of the skills listed on the job description. For women, it takes a self-belief of 90% of the skills to apply. It is important to capatalise on positivity and self-belief in order to counteract these statistics. Natasha finished her presentation by remarking that there might be a traditional resistance amongst females to help each other through the common belief that there isn’t enough room at the top, but if we all mentored people coming up, we’d create a more sustainable industry.
Louise Clements of Format Festival took to the stage next and gave a candid admission that the more progress she makes in her career, the more she feels the pressure of gender. In many professional situations, she finds she is the only female in the room, and whilst she wants to maintain a level of professionalism, she also has to work to combat inherent sexism in the industry and elsewhere. She gave an example of the insistence of male colleagues to talk about football, rugby, or other activities that they might share with their male counterparts. As a female, and an individual who is not involved, or interested in these subjects, she asked – should she pretend to like them so she is able to join in? When instances such as this happen, females are faced with a decision – to nod and laugh along with no real knowledge or interest in what is being discussed, or speak up to bring the conversation back to something neutral and relevant to all, with the risk of being branded 'rude', 'bossy' or 'stroppy'.
Louise used the remaining five minutes to move away from the issues being discussed and instead to celebrate emerging female photographers she is excited about. Among them were Poulomi Basu, Taslima Akhter, Lisa Barnard, Chloe Dewe Matthews, Briony Campbell, Tanya Habjouqa and Anastasia Taylor-Lind.
The first question to kick off the audience Q&A session asked if conflict photography was less accessible to female photographers. Bridget Coaker believes it takes a certain type of person to go into this area, and in part it has to do with the photographer who is seeking 'the glory' that conflict photography brings. A conflict photographer in the audience disagreed with this, and remarked that she ‘fell into the industry’ through having previously been in the army. For her, it is a job much like any other photographer has, but agreed that it is male-dominated. So what about working in the Middle East where threat of rape and sexual violence are prevalent? Do editors decide against sending women there because of this? Bridget answered on behalf of The Guardian to say they would choose people who want to go and are psychologically prepared, regardless of gender. This is a comforting answer to the question, when many of the issues raised seem to have solutions based in positive discrimination, which in itself can be problematic.
A photographer who works in racing car photography asked if fellow female photographers should ‘suck it up’ and become ‘one of the lads’ on a job in order to fit in. Natasha answered first and implored the photographer to ask herself ‘it is inherent in me to act this way?’. For Natasha it is about being self-aware, and thinking about the reasons you choose to act in a certain way. Anna agreed, and said you can choose to perform in a certain way to benefit yourself if you have this self-awareness. The problem occurs when female photographers feel like they have to act in a certain way to succeed. Camilla added that we are in a time where we can’t rely on advertising, so instead we have to rely on our networks. Men choose to be around men. Females in the industry should become the Guerilla girls and speak up. She is aware this is difficult as nobody wants to be seen as a troublemaker, but also believes there is strength in numbers.
The final question is about research and exploration of women photographers. Is this just as important as commissioning new photographers? The panel unanimously agreed it is just as important, if not more so, and that we all have to work together to be advocates for that research and exploration. Natasha adds that we should teach about future careers at Universities. For her, the seeds of ideas about becoming journalists or war photographers in female students get quashed before they come to fruition. Opportunities for internships in these fields are also limited for females. We need to work together to make stories about photographers more visible, and present young female photographers with role models. Whilst this is true, it’s comforting to know that there are already people working on this, for instance, Firecracker, a project that was set up to support female European photographers by Fiona Rogers, who recently announced an award to celebrate female contributors in the industry who have supported photographer’s careers.
The discussion finished on issues of family, when Louise told the audience that careers that compromise family life make a huge impact on the amount of women in the industry. Louise is very rarely at home because of her job, and some women with children would choose not to be away from their families, whilst others take time out and would then have to rebuild their career. Anna concluded by telling the audience she believes there isn’t enough money invested in childcare. At a recent exhibition in Sweden, she noticed there was a high percentage of femal artists exhibiting - perhaps down to Sweden's financial investement in this area. A review of where the money is invested could make a big difference to women in varying industries, but particularly to those where many work freelance.
Many more hands were in the air at the end of the discussion, and still issues remained unresolved - what is the best way to act with male colleagues? How can female photographers be taken seriously? How do we encourage female photography students to pursue career paths they might be conditioned to believe is not for them? Where are the opportunities for female photographers? Does positive discrimination work? Or could this be damaging for photographers who should be chosen on merit alone? Despite these unaswered questions, the very fact that The Photography Show decided to host an event such as this, and the passionate response from those that attended, made one feel that progression is inevitable, even if it's taking a while for the industry to catch up.