A few professions are at last becoming more diverse in terms of gender, race, sexual orientation, language, and disability. In the Arts and photography, however, the bias favoring white men is still overwhelming, and diversity is so minimal it is almost inexistent.
An ongoing French equality commission, overseen by the French Ministry of Culture, found that in 2017 only 30% of professional photographers in France were women, even though there are more women than male graduates from photography degrees, and that they earned 40% less than male photographers. Also, of all the exhibited artists at the most recent 2019 Paris Photo show, only 25% were women. Coming from one of the largest and therefore influential, international photography festivals, this under representation of women photographers is both shocking and disgraceful. Unfortunately, these French statistics are not an exception, a similar all male bias exists worldwide.
Danielle Da Silva, founder of Photographers Without Borders says in a recent interview about the gender gap in photography, for Shutterstock by Tammy Danan :
“This is a systemic problem. We have to address the fact that systemic patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism, ableism, racism, and sexism were foundational to the photography industry, first and foremost. When white, cis-gender, able-bodied men dominate an industry from inception, they create the rules and institutions around it. They create the knowledge, the language, and a system where everyone who is not white, cis-gender, and male do not generally feel welcomed into.”
While women in general are vastly underrepresented in the photography business, white women do fair better than women of color. In an interview with National Geographic, Laylah Amatullah Barrayn, an award-winning documentary and portrait photographer born and based in Brooklyn, New York, said:
“ … the Western gaze is quite limiting, oppressive, and even violent. We are all humans experiencing the world from different perspectives. To move forward in a humane way, it’s important for us to respect the need to include a multitude of voices, eliminating the idea of a hierarchy as we share stories of human experiences.”
She explains that added to the gender bias favoring men, women of color also face,
“Unfortunately, the unwillingness of “gatekeepers” to understand that world perspective is not limited to one view. Social and political disruptions such as colonialism and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade have produced racial, cultural, and social hierarchies with a preference to Western values and whiteness—even in countries where whites are the minority. This world history leads to horrific problems, such as historical erasure, lack of representation, and the idea of the “other.” It is quite problematic to be perceived as the “other” or to see yourself reflected within the mainstream media through the white gaze. The media outlets, organizations, museums, and art spaces either ignore or display a very limited perspective of black women photographers."
Laylah Amatullah Barrayn and Delphine Fawundu have created the journal and website MFON: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora. The biannual journal features intergenerational photographers, and is dedicated to to establishing and representing a collective voice of women photographers of African descent.
“There is really powerful storytelling happening and we need to make sure that these narratives are getting the platform that they deserve,” Barrayn says.
Clearly intentional Equity is necessary to redress the balance in order to create Equality.
Equity and Equality are often thought to be synonyms. Their different meanings, like so many differences, are subtle, but no less important. In fact, the pursuit of equality can sometimes directly contradict the pursuit of equity.
By definition, Equality means, “the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, and opportunities.” While Equity means, “the quality of being fair and impartial.”
Equity is a principle and process that promotes fair conditions for all persons to fully participate in society and to reach their full potential. Equity recognizes that while all people have the right to be treated equally, not all people experience equal access to resources, opportunities or benefits. Therefore achieving equality does not necessarily mean treating all individuals or groups in the same way. Equity may require the use of specific measures to ensure fairness.
Inequity occurs when a society, community or an organization, consciously or unconsciously, engages in differential treatment or “double standards”, that disempower members of underrepresented groups, by limiting their access to opportunities and resources or participation in decision-making that affects them.
The rationale for policies that promote equity is that the economic and social class advantages that have created double standards, tend to accumulate and self-perpetuate. White (male) privilege has been self-perpetuating for centuries, so to achieve a fair balance of representation, it is necessary to intentionally promote and employ previously under represented members of society. Equity offers varying types of encouragement and opportunity, based on personal requirements or skills.
Although access to higher education has been greatly improved through scholarships, grants and targeted mentoring, the number of women photographers in work and earning the same income as their male colleagues, does not represent anywhere near half the pool of existing professional photographers.
Cynics like to invent derogatory reasons to explain the under representation of women in the professional and artistic sphere: young women leave work to start a family, women are less talented, women are less competitive and so on. The fact is that there are more women graduates from photography degrees than men, that young women now typically wait until their mid to late thirties to have children, long after graduation, and the higher educated a woman is, the fewer children she will have, if any at all. As for talent, although women may sometimes be less aggressive in their self-promotion, there is surely no scientific proof that competence and vision have a gender.
One way of striving for equity and not simply equality is affirmative action. Affirmative action is the policy of explicitly favoring those who tend to suffer from discrimination, it is a type of positive discrimination that aims to counter the effects of the historical discrimination towards certain segments of the population.
When a company decides to incorporate Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) as core values, they see a genuine shift in culture and the success of the business.
The authors of Harvard University’s “Diversity Equity Inclusion and Belonging Toolkit" state that,
“It is well researched and broadly known that diverse teams and organizations are more innovative, creative and productive in the workplace than those who are not. (McKinsey 2020, 2019, 2017, 2018).”
Business success is also defined by employee retention and how productive those employees are on the job. In the arena of photography, surely employing women photographers for women’s fashion, underwear and beauty shoots, for example, would dramatically improve not only the way women are portrayed in advertising, but also reduce cases of sexual harassment and aggression by male photographers. A win win proposition for the client, photographer and models.
Danielle Da Silva, also says in her interview for Shutterstock, by Tammy Danan:
“I have been in the industry for more than ten years. I started an organization called Photographers Without Borders. I filmed music videos, was a celebrity hip-hop photographer, and have shot many portraits. I have been what many people would call ‘successful’ in the industry. But along the way, I have been sexually harassed by so-called mentors, by clients, and by fellow photographers. I’ve been asked to work for free constantly and was told I wasn’t good enough; told that I have no business being the CEO of Photographers Without Borders.”
A systemic bias to block women from advancing in certain careers exists, whether you are starting out in photography or an experienced professional like Da Silva. While businesses can help by implementing equitable practices to move society towards workplace equality for all, it is also important that education institutions promote positive female role models in photography, to encourage young women. It is also up to us as individuals to persevere. A quick internet search with “opportunities for female photographers” brings up leads on articles, organizations, grants. We must take full advantage of the opportunities that are available and not hesitate to exploit to our advantage the current backlash against the historic male white privilege.