June 12th, 2013

Abigail Heyman on Women, Photography, and Being a Women Photographer

butcherbakercabinetmakerheymanIn her obituary, photojournalist Abigail Heyman, who died May 28, was remembered for her pioneering work on the changing roles of women.

She produced her landmark books  Growing Up Female and Butcher, Baker, Cabinetmaker in the 1970s, a time when artists, academics and social scientists were still being told that devoting time and attention to so-called women’s issues could be a career killer.

I found an interview with Heyman in the 1994 book Truth Needs No Ally: Inside Photojournalism, by the legendary photo editor Howard Chapnick. Chapnick interviewed Heyman and other women photojournalists, including Susan Meiselas, Lori Grinker and Donna Ferrato about their work and the discrimination they faced. Heyman’s answers were direct, honest, illuminating and smart.

Here’s are brief excerpts from the interview:

  Q: Is it difficult for people to get past the stereotypes of women only as fashion, portrait, or social happening photographers?
  Heyman: Is that like being just a housewife? That is, should we feel embarrassed about not being interested in “more important things” that would matter to men? I do a lot of work about social events that I think are deeply important. I don’t feel stereotyped in that. I often feel treated as though what I am doing is unimportant to a male oriented world, which of course, includes women.
  Q: Are women photographers more inclined to choose different subjects to photograph than men?
  Heyman: Yes, but that has been severely tempered by their knowing that, to be successful, they have to photograph the subjects that men think are important. Being a woman influenced my ideas about what I wanted to photograph. My interest in women’s issues, in family issues, in social relationships came out of my experience of growing up as a female. I instinctively incorporated what has recently in the psychological field become known as “women’s values” and those are deeply my values. The fact that those stories have been considered unimportant by a male-dominated society, of which photojournalism is only one small part, is the discrimination I feel, not the fact that I only receive assignments to photograph these issues.

Here’s a quote from the interview that made me laugh out loud. It was a laugh of recognition. I suspect women in any field will know what Heyman was talking about here.

  Q: Do you think that some women use their sexuality to gain access?
  Heyman. Yes. And so do men. Women flirting to gain access are called “using their sexuality to gain greater access,” while men flirting to get access are called “charming.” I think it was an early feeling I had that I wanted to avoid accusation so badly that I never learned how to flirt or be charming.

Related article:

Obituary: Photojournalist Abigail Heyman, Documenter of Women’s Changing Roles, 70