A week ago editorial photographer and artist Daniel Shea published a post on his Tumblr, titled “On Sexism in Editorial Photography,” hoping it would “initiate a broader conversation.” Shea began the post with the disclaimer that he is “a white, cis male photographer” who didn’t claim to speak for anyone but himself, before pointing out that, to him, “It would seem that the biggest magazines with the most hiring power hire mostly male photographers.”
The post has generated nearly 550 likes and reblogs on Tumblr, as well as a number of comments.
Without naming names, Shea cites informal conversations with photo editors who offered some interesting explanations as to why a gender imbalance might exist. Some editors said they didn’t know women photographers whose esthetic fit with their magazines. “To further complicate this issue,” Shea continues, “one editor mentioned that most media, art and literature is made to fit a masculine perspective, and perhaps that’s why men are more ‘apt’ at photographing that content.”
Shea notes also that most photo editors are women; one editor floated the idea that women are “natural nurturers” of men. Shea says he’s “skeptical” of that explanation. Instead, he suggests other reasons. One is that sexism in editorial photography is a microcosm. “Larger systems of oppression, like sexism and misogyny, replicate themselves very effectively on smaller scales,” Shea wrote.
Shea also noted there may be a perception that women photographers will struggle to handle a tense shoot, on which the photographer has to “be aggressive and assertive in a time-crunch situation.”
Another idea he floats is that women may not get assisting jobs because photographers who could hire them believe them incapable of doing the physical work necessary on the shoot.
Shea, who “identifies as a feminist,” says the perceived gender-related opportunity imbalance in editorial photography has “been weighing on him for awhile,” and notes that he’s “complicit” in the imbalance because he is part of a group of white male photographers who “tend to present ourselves as a crew of available freelancers, a tight circle of friends,” with no women among them.
The post, Shea noted, was triggered by a conversation with Elizabeth Weinberg. Weinberg responded, noting that she started the conversation with Shea after remarking that “magazines I used to shoot for all the time just didn’t hire women anymore. AT ALL.”
Weinberg writes, “Most photo editors and art buyers are women. Women tend to not like other women.” Also, she notes, “The male photographers out there who are in this circle are all are good looking…. Sure, they also do good work. But let’s cut the crap. It’s the reality of the situation.”
In another response, photographer Erin Patrice O’Brien wrote on her own Tumblr that she’d recently been on a shoot with a male photo editor and a nearly all-woman crew. “It occurred to me that this was probably [the editor’s] first shoot where he just happened to be surrounded by all women,” O’Brien wrote.
“There are plenty of amazing women photographers out there who are not getting hired by magazines in spite of the fact that the majority of photo editors are women,” O’Brien wrote. “I’m pretty sure the break out among photo editors is 80% women and 20% men. With that figure in mind, I realized that of the editors who hired me it was a 50/50 split of female to male. The same thing goes for art buyers. Seriously.”
O’Brien says she was treated as a female assistant on set and at the equipment rooms of big studios. “The men running the equipment rooms were bullies who hated their jobs and took it out on assistants who were not part of the cool club,” she wrote.
“I can’t tell you the number of times that people would come to my shoot and walk right past me looking for the photographer,” she adds.
While she credits women photo editors who have given her opportunities, O’Brien believes, as Weinberg suggests, that some of the imbalance has to do with how some women photo editors treat women photographers. “Women don’t frequently help other women in business, even when it benefits both. A lot of times my work and that of other female photographers is relegated to the front of the book, while male photographers get the cover or the big feature story. Conversely, some of the male photo editors that I’ve worked with have given me some of my most challenging assignments that I am sure a female photo editor in the same position would never give to a woman.”
In her point-by-point response to Shea’s post, Emily Shur says that while she was assisting, “I worked for many photographers when I was younger that never let me assist on shoots.”
Shur adds: “It’s lazy to generalize and say that all women photographers do one thing or all women photo editors do another. Although I will generalize for a second and say that all of the female photographers I’ve had the privilege to call friends have been extremely hard-working go-getters. I would even venture to say that perhaps this topic doesn’t get brought up that often in public amongst female photographers because we can’t ever risk being perceived as weak and whiney, bitchy, overly emotional girls. It’s not cute or flattering to sit in a corner and cry ‘woe is me’ about all of our hardships as people who get paid to take pictures. I mean, come on.”
Today Shea began posting these and a handful of other responses he’s received. The responses suggest his post struck a nerve.
If you have something to say about this, weigh in on Shea’s original post if you’re on Tumblr, or leave comments below and we’ll pass them on. If you’d like to offer something anonymously, please feel free to send comments to email@example.com.
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