Does Photography Have a Gender Problem?

Photographer Videos

Where Are All the Women?

It’s that time of year again. As we come up to The Photography Show next month at the National Exhibition Centre near Birmingham many companies are announcing new models to their lineups. Olympus have announced the OM-D E-M1 Mk III (following on the heels of the OM-D E-M5 Mk III last year), Fujifilm announced the X100V following the X-Pro3 last year and are soon to be launching the X-T4.

All of these cameras offer incremental improvements on the previous generations (i.e. the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mk II, OM-D E-M5 Mk II and Fujifilm X100F, X-Pro2 and X-T3 respectively) and slightly more features compared with the models before that (I’m sure by now you get the idea with their numbering scheme so I won’t bore you with those any more).

I generally make a point (most of the time) of not upgrading from one generation to the next of cameras as the additional features generally do not justify the extra money. Maybe two generations is worth looking at, so moving from my (in camera terms) ‘ancient’ OM-D E-M1 Mk I maybe worth looking at, I’m not sure?

Whilst looking at these new models (yes, I must confess I’ve been partaking in a bit of ‘camera porn’) I was struck by something when looking at the manufacturers own promotional videos and (especially) YouTube reviewers – where are all the women photographers that use this gear?

This is the typical video we see.

  • A rugged male photographer, somewhere in his 30’s or 40’s or, if we want some real Cartier-Bresson or Steve McCurry ‘authenticity’ maybe an older guy in his 50’s or 60’s, sometimes seen unpacking the new camera for an extra bit of titillation.
  • Next we see said photographer striding out into some drop dead gorgeous landscape or, if the McCurry/Cartier-Bresson variant, out into some busy metropolis. At this point we either get some nice classical piano piece overlaying the film with maybe the photographer telling us why he ‘enjoys’ being outside at some godforsaken hour of the morning feeling the “cool breeze” or “light rain” (code for, “hey this new camera is freeze proof and waterproof”).
  • We then see the photographer either standing behind a tripod (unless he wants to show off the cameras amazing image stabilisation of course, in which case the tripod is left back in the 4×4) or, if he’s the epic street photographer, we see him hanging around suspiciously on some Hanoi/Mumbai/New York street corner snapping ferociously away at anyone who moves.
  • Finally, we may see what’s on the back of the camera and/or actual images, each one perfectly composed and exposed implying, buy this camera and you too will create perfect images every time.

So what sort of message is this giving out and how are these camera companies (and I’m not just picking on Olympus and Fujifilm by the way, Nikon, Canon and Sony et al are all as bad) think they are going to survive when they are only marketing to 50% of their potential market? This, especially when we hear that 2019 saw the end of a terrible decade for camera manufacturers.

If you want an idea of how women are seen by these camera companies it’s worth taking a look at their ambassador programs.

So what’s going on here? Why are women so under-represented by these programs and in photography in general? Maybe because:

  • Japan, where most camera companies have their corporate headquarters, is seen as a predominantly patriarchal society which struggles with women’s rights.
  • Women tend to be less interested in the gear side of photography and more interested in interactions with people (hence why you see more female baby, portrait and boudoir photographers but less motor sport and landscape photographers I suspect).
  • Because there are less women overall in photography there are less women to be role models for the next generation hence the problem perpetuates itself.

Some organisations are trying to address this issue. The Royal Photographic Society has a Women in Photography group and in 2018 identified its hundred photographic heroines. The Photography Show actually has women fairly well represented on its Super Stage lineup this year with three out of the seven currently announced speakers being women. There are usually a reasonable number of women on the manufacturers stands showing off equipment as well (though sadly many of the models in front of the cameras are women still).

So what should camera manufacturers do if they want to see more women using their products? Here are a few things I’d try:

  • Instead of focusing on all these macho videos of men wondering around the world brandishing the latest cameras and lenses why not run some competitions that target places where women and men ‘compete’ on a more level playing field (like Instagram) to show what can be done with these cameras by real people (yes, men and women). Offer some kit on a loan basis to do this with and some training on how said kit can offer improvements over smart phones (hint: it had better be able to do this).
  • Go into universities and colleges that are running photography courses (which I suspect are pretty evenly matched with male and female students) and run some demo days, again offering some kit to use for free on projects and offer some as prizes.
  • For goodness sake start using real role models of working women photographers and show them using your cameras and lenses. Don’t worry if the cameras are one or two generations old, these are still perfectly good cameras and should not be discarded because they do not have the latest whizz bang features. In fact, use this to your advantage to show your environmental concerns.

But who am I to be making these statements? A (late) middle-aged, white male who is typical of many of the people featured in those camera manufacturers promotional videos. Mainly it’s because I’m fed up of seeing the same old, same old stuff. I want to see some new and innovative work that these electronic and optical marvels can create which is surely best done when they are put in the hands, and bought before the eyes, of a lot more than 50% of the population.

To make my point a little more forcibly here are some of my favourite female photographers making it in some of the traditional male dominated genres of photography.

Take a look at some of these photographers and let me know in your comments of some of your favourite female image makers.

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