Fashion Photography Has A Real Gender Equality Problem

Here's why the industry should actively push for more women behind the lens.
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Photo: @petrafcollins/Instagram

Photo: @petrafcollins/Instagram

There's no denying that gauzy, intimate film photos with intensely colored light — a signature of rising photography star Petra Collins — are becoming increasingly popular across fashion ads, glossy editorials and music videos, both garnering Collins more work and inspiring copycats. It's easy to see why: The 25-year-old has shot with celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Selena Gomez and Rihanna, photographed covers for Teen Vogue, CR Fashion Book and Glamour and has created ad campaigns for Nordstrom and Gucci. In short, she's made a name for herself. In an industry dominated by men more than twice Collins's age, that's worth a lot.

"If you look at the most successful photographers in the world, the top ten are all male, except for maybe [husband-wife team] Inez and Vinoodh," explains actress and photographer Amanda de Cadenet. "Photography has been a male-dominated business since it began."

As the founder of Girlgaze, a platform that exists to support young female-identifying photo talent, de Cadenet is excited to see the rise of a photographer like Collins. But she's quick to underscore that Collins — and her predecessors like Annie Leibovitz — should be treated more like rare unicorns than anything else.

Photo: @girlgaze/Instagram

Photo: @girlgaze/Instagram

In spite of Collins's highly visible successes and the budding careers of photography peers like Sandy Kim and Harley Weir, the stats back de Cadenet up. In 2017, 153 magazine covers from ten of the leading US fashion publications including Vogue, W and Harper's Bazaar were shot mostly by men, with only 13.7 percent of cover images being shot by women. Some "women's magazines," like Marie Claire, went all year without hiring a single woman photographer for a cover shoot. 

The advertising world was even worse. According to women's commercial content creator platform Alreadymade, data from major photography publications and awards organizations (PDN, Clio and Lurzer's Archive) recorded that male photographers made up between 89 and 96 percent of those in the advertising categories between 2013 and 2017.

For Jill Greenberg, who founded Alreadymade after more than two decades working successfully in the art world and commercial realm alike (her clients have included Urban Decay and Hulu), that's a big problem. Knowing that women make decisions about 85 percent of household purchases — "that includes cars and computers, not just Tupperware or food," she says on the phone — the idea that men shoot more than 85 percent of advertising imagery is baffling.

"I continue to see my male photo assistants — you know, kids — get hired and start working so much more than me," she says. "And some of them are good, and that's great and I get excited for them, but some of them are not good."

Photo: @jill.greenberg/Instagram

Photo: @jill.greenberg/Instagram

Greenberg's observation highlights the first part of a multi-pronged problem that arises from a dearth of female photographers at the highest levels: namely, that female photographers have a harder time "making it" than their male peers. This is true even though more photo school graduates are women than men, according to Australian photographer Cybele Malinowski, who also founded a women's photography collective to increase female photo representation on her side of the ocean.

"Over 50 percent of grads coming out of photo school are female, and yet when you look around at the assistants out there, the vast majority are male," Malinowski says via email. "Assisting is a physically demanding job, where strength and height are very helpful. I've spoken to countless women who tried to enter the field, but could not get assisting work. Two told me that some agencies outright stated they don't use female assistants. As assisting is the most common path to becoming a photographer, if you shut this door, that can be the end for some."

While that's obviously a negative for women who want to be photographers, it's also a net negative for women in general. It means that women will continue to see advertising and editorial shot mostly by men, who will be the ones making decisions about how women of all stripes are portrayed.

Photo: @cybism/Instagram

Photo: @cybism/Instagram

"We need to have a say in how we're represented," de Cadenet states. "What I see with women photographing other women is that we find the nuance. We often find different things interesting and beautiful and sexy and charismatic than when men photograph women. I think a lot of it, unfortunately, comes down to sexualizing."

Lonely, an indie lingerie brand from New Zealand with an international cult following, provides the perfect example of de Cadenet's point. Shot for the last five years by female photographer Harry Were, Lonely's photos feel intimate, affirming and body-positive in a way that many brands aspire to, but few actually attain. While Lonely designer and co-founder Helene Morris claims the brand didn't necessarily set out to hire a female photographer specifically, she does think it impacts the feeling one gets from the pictures.

"For us, having shared values and beliefs with our collaborators is more important than gender," she says via email. "I do think, however, that there is a certain sensitivity that our female photographers have that is difficult to pinpoint. Possibly the ability to fully sympathize with their subject, how vulnerable they can feel being photographed in lingerie and this empathy possibly helps them to be more comfortable and relaxed."

Photo: @lonelylingerie/Instagram

Photo: @lonelylingerie/Instagram

If the past year's news cycle has proven anything, it's that the way that models feel on set shouldn't be ignored. Accusations of inappropriate and abusive behavior have been leveled against big league fashion photographers like Bruce Weber, Mario Testino and Patrick Demarchelier (in addition to new allegations coming forth about Terry Richardson), not to mention those on the extensive list published by the anonymous Instagrammer behind Shit Model Management

While women are in no way immune to the temptation to abuse power, it's hard not to notice that the majority of the powerful photographers accused of misconduct are men. Whether that speaks to differences between men and women's ways of relating to models on set, the disproportionate number of men that reach powerful positions in the photography world or something else entirely, the points remains the same: there are a lot of lens-wielding dudes out there who haven't been using their positions for good.

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So why not seek out more equal representation for women in photography and see what happens? 

This is the goal that de Cadenet, Greenberg and Malinowski are all working toward. And de Cadenet has advice for anyone who'd like to join the charge: "You get in the room? Bring more women with you," she says. 

That means if you're a designer, editor, actor, singer/songwriter, ad professional, or anyone else in the position to hire a photographer or videographer, you should see if you can hire as many women as you do men. Think of it as fashion's equivalent of an inclusion rider, applicable in the context of this conversation to women photographers, but just as useful for increasing opportunities for photographers of color, non-binary photographers, photographers from minority religious backgrounds and other groups that are under-represented in the top ranks of the photography world.

"To shift the balance of power is going to take time," de Cadenet says. "We had to fight like motherfuckers to get in here, but we're in, so let's bring people in with us. We're in the room. Let's take the doors off the room."

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