Does Being a Woman Make it Harder to Be a Photographer?

On balance, not so much.

That was the consensus of the women photojournalists who participated in the panel discussion “Groundbreaking Women in Photography,” organized by the International Center of Photography in New York on January 10. The first in a series of annual “Spotlight” events ICP will hold to raise funds for its programs, the panel was made up of photographers Mary Ellen Mark, Gillian Laub, Samantha Appleton, Stephanie Sinclair and The New York Times Magazine director of photography, Kathy Ryan. NBC anchor Ann Curry moderated the discussion.

Photo © ICP. Left to right: Mary Ellen Mark, Stephanie Sinclair, moderator Ann Curry.

Gillian Laub, who has photographed intimate portraits of young people on both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian divide, noted that being a woman has often helped her gain access to people’s homes. “I’m not an intimidating person,” she noted. When she enters strangers’ homes, “People feel comfortable with me” in a way that they may not if she were a man.  Being a woman can be an “asset, depending on the kind of work you want to do,” said Stephanie Sinclair, who has photographed in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon and covered gender issues such as female circumcision and the problems faced by child brides. Luckily, Sinclair said, “I like to do intimate work.”

Samantha Appleton, who covered the war in Iraq, said that early in her career covering conflict, “I worked hard not to be classified as a woman photographer. I fought to be one of the boys.” Over time she’s let go of that battle. “There are a thousand things in your personality that affect how you tell a story. Being a woman is a part of it.” Ryan concurred. While noting that in certain countries or political situations, sending a woman photographer can be risky, Ryan said that when she has to choose the right photographer for an assignment, she first considers their vision and eye, then she considers their personality and what it might add to the assignment.  “Some women are forceful, some are quiet,” she noted.

With the discussion of gender out of the way, the panel proceeded to other topics.

Noting that each of the photographers on the panel have documented “profound suffering,” Curry said to the panelists, “You have to have suffered some PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder].”

Sinclair said that people she has photographed have suffered far more than she has. “When people have suffered so intensely, you think to yourself: How can I feel bad?” At time, she has photographed “through tears,” she said, “Or you’re so blocked off, you have nightmares later.”

Sinclair said in 2011 she sought therapy for trauma. “It’s been really helpful. It’s helped me appreciate my job more. It’s made me more patient in the field.” Since then, she has been vocal in encouraging other photographers to ask for help. “You have to be healthy,” Sinclair said.

Appleton noted that the military has recognized the importance of  talking about a traumatic experience immediately after the event, and photographers should follow suit. “You debrief with the people you are with. Most of my best friends are people I’ve worked with in the field.” Photojournalists who claim not to have PTSD, she believes, are going from one dangerous place to the next. Appleton noted as long as a photographer continues to work in dangerous situations, the signs of PTSD are harder to detect. “You don’t know you have it while you’re there. You realize you have it when you stop,” she said.

More information about ICP’s lunch-time Spotlights, which will support ICP’s exhibits, education programs, publications and community outreach, can be found at www.icp.org/support-icp/spotlights.

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5 Responses to “Does Being a Woman Make it Harder to Be a Photographer?”

  1. Travis Alex Says:

    Simple Answer:

    No

    Extended Answer:

    Gender should not play a factor into art making and photo taking…if you are bad, you are bad…if you are good, you are good…if you are great, you are great…whether you have boobs or not.

    On that same form, this argument angers me as a male photographer highly ( I know, I am going to contradict myself for a minute, but for good reason).

    Reason for this: I have women photography friends who perpetually use their looks to drive attention to their blogs/fb/twitter etc…erotic self portraits, pictures of them all dolled up looking sexy every month, every week, sometimes once or twice a day…

    The male gaze be damned when a woman puts herself as a object to drive attention to her networking sites…it gives all photographers a bad name when women do this…especially when their work isn’t even on par with mediocre skill levels…

    Some women ask to be made markers in cases of my generation…it’s a shame to say it.

    If you think I’m being sexist…follow the blogs of women photographers I went to school with, you will see EXACTLY what I am talking about.

  2. Samuel Taddy Says:

    No. Being black? Yes. Just look in magazines, on blogs, sites like Clique, WPPI, PPA… It’s as if black photographers, especially females are non- existent.

  3. online magazine for women Says:

    I don’t think any thing is impossible every women can do every thing the only thing required is will power that have a lot of effects on any work.

  4. ndimella Says:

    I didn’t attend the panel but my guess is that the topic was not if women photographers can be good – they obviously assembled a group of outstanding photographers – but to discuss the challenges and advantages in a male-dominated profession, with the focus on photojournalism. I wish I did attend – as a feminist and a photo editor, this is a topic dear to my heart.

    Travis, I can’t imagine the topic of sexy portfolio pix came up here. But your scenario perfectly depicts how men dominate the profession and are perceived as having the most interest in photography. Women must either work harder to prove themselves or fall back on stereotypes to stand out.

  5. Gigi Embrechts Says:

    In response to Travis. I do not like women who use sex to attract people to her work either, but do we really want the customers they are attracting anyway?

    This will never change until men stop obsessing over women sexuality and women stop using this weakness to draw attention.