Why Photography Cant Get Woke

When Nikon Corp. hired 32 photographers to travel around Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, taking pictures to promote its new $3,300 D850 camera this fall, the Japanese camera company made sure to select people from different countries—more than a dozen, including India, Indonesia, Kuwait, South Africa, and Australia. Nikon also made sure the photographers specialized in diverse range of genres, from sports to wedding photography. But there was one glaring omission: All 32 of the people they chose were men.

This didn’t go over well with women—or photographers. “Guess they forgot to invite me?” tweeted conflict-zone photographer Lynsey Addario, whose work has appeared in and , and who, ironically, is listed as one of Nikon’s so-called ambassadors in America. The BBC called Nikon sexist, while the popular photography website Fstoppers joked that maybe the D850 was designed purely for men. When I asked Nikon what happened, the company admitted that it hadn’t considered gender when selecting photographers. “This was an oversight and reflective of an industry-wide concern,” the company said in a written statement.

Even if Nikon had thought to select female photographers, it wouldn’t have had many to choose among, statistically speaking. According to a survey conducted last year by the Dutch nonprofit, World Press Photo, only 15 percent of working news photographers are women. That means women are better represented in Congress (19 percent), in the partner ranks at big law firms (20 percent), and in computer-science undergraduate programs (18 percent) than in professional photography. 

World Press Photo’s survey focused only on photojournalists, but the numbers for the field as a whole aren’t much better. A 2008 National Endowment for the Arts survey found that while more women than men pursued photography as a hobby, two-thirds of people who listed it as their profession on U.S. census forms were men. The upper echelons of the field skewed even more heavily male, to the point that the average annual salary for female photographers is just 45 percent what it is for men.

It’s not that women aren’t pursuing photography careers; they’re actually the majority in undergraduate photography programs. But in professional settings, success often depends on knowing the right people and being able to persuade them of one’s fitness for a job. Those interested in fashion and portrait photography, for example, often get their start as an assistant to an already established photographer, schlepping equipment and setting up lighting for shoots. Many female photographers say that those positions aren’t always open to them.

“I’ve had people look at my resume and say to me, ‘Oh, we don’t hire women assistants here,’ or ‘Oh, but this photographer likes his assistants to only be men’,” says Fischer Cherry, a New York photographer whose work has appeared in , and , among others. Cherry says she was so frequently told she wouldn’t be able to carry heavy lighting equipment that she added weightlifting stats to her resume.

When women do work in photography, they’re more likely to end up as photo editors—organizing photo shoots and selecting which pictures to publish—than taking pictures themselves. No one has conducted a comprehensive survey of photo editors, but one I spoke with tallied the roughly 900 photo editors in a private Facebook group she belongs to and found that about four-fifths were women.

That ratio hasn’t translated into more assignments for female photographers, however. An analysis conducted by the organization Women Photograph, for example, found that women had taken only 8 percent to 25 percent of the photographs appearing on the front pages of 12 major newspapers. Some photo editors I talked to explained that while they aspire to balance their rosters, during breaking news events it was easier to hire a photojournalist they already knew and that, given the preexisting gender imbalance, this person was probably going to be a man. Of course, monthly magazines or those focused on fashion can’t use that excuse.

Some women photographers say it can be difficult to persuade editors of either gender to offer them physically demanding assignments or send them into conflict zones. It’s true that the work can be dangerous: Some 91 percent of the photojournalists World Press Photo surveyed said they’d felt unsafe during an assignment over the past year. Still, “To not send someone somewhere because they are a woman and are at greater risk is a pretty paternalistic attitude,” says Daniella Zalcman, a photojournalist and founder of the organization Women Photograph. “Women and men both know they’re at risk going into the profession. They can make decisions for themselves.” She also points out that women are at greater risk than men of being physically or sexually assaulted, regardless of where they are or what they’re doing.

Photography’s unwelcoming posture toward women isn’t just an issue of fairness. The way we view the world depends upon the people we choose to show it to us. If those people all have a similar background and viewpoint, theirs is the only one we’ll see. This came into stark relief for Tara Pixley in August 2014, when, as the only minority photo editor present during a meeting to decide which photograph would print to represent the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., she watched her superiors, who were all white, select a photograph of an armed looter. Pixley argued against it: “I said, ‘We’re picking the one image that believes represents what’s happening here. Is the story of Ferguson really a black guy robbing a gas station?’ ”

Her argument worked.  ran a photo of men with their hands in the air, asking officers not to shoot.

Hard numbers for photography’s racial demographics are difficult to come by. World Press Photo, for example, surveys photographers’ genders but not their ethnicities. Anecdotal evidence suggests, though, that the industry is racially homogenous. All 20 of the photographers depicted in a widely circulated shot of James Comey during his June testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee appear to have been white men, for example. And a 2013 review by the photography news site PetaPixel of photographers hired by major camera companies to promote their brands found that 97 percent were white. So are most of the photographers selected by Canon Inc. for its “Explorers of Light” showcase. And last year, the photo department of ran its own analysis and discovered that roughly 17 percent of photographs in the magazine were taken by women and 8 percent by people of color. ( has since made a concerted effort to assign more women and minorities, although our editors admit that the magazine is still far from where it needs to be.)

Photography’s broader issue with homogeneity may stem, at least in part, from the financial investments requirements to get started, which often dissuade low-income people from pursuing it as a career. “You have to have money to be able to buy the equipment and travel,” says Pixley. “As a result, you get a lot of people who’re white and middle-class.” World Press Photo estimates that 85 percent of working photographers earn less than $40,000 per year, yet they’re expected to own expensive gear such as Nikon’s new, $3,300 camera. “I was sleeping in my car in Wal-Mart parking lots, working with old, second-tier equipment,” says Stacy Kranitz, a Kentucky photographer whose work focuses on impoverished communities across the South. Kranitz now shoots for such places as , , and , but she says that for the first decade or so, she made from $20,000 to $40,000 a year, a good portion of which went toward travel and camera equipment.

The industry is slowly changing, though. This year, Zalcman launched Women Photograph, ESPN photo editor Brent Lewis started Diversify Photo, and Pixley founded Reclaim, all organizations that collect data about industry demographics and compile rosters of photographers available for hire. Instagram, whose user base skews female, has spurred millions of amateurs to experiment with photography without expensive equipment and has boosted the profile of professionals, giving them an alternative to the traditional it’s-who-you-know approach to finding work. Kranitz says her career took off after named her “Instagram Photographer of the Year” in 2015.

When we speak, she’s in the midst of a 13-week road trip shooting back-to-back assignments for major publications and ad campaigns. “Honestly, I didn’t think I’d make it this far,” she says. “By now I assumed I’d have given up and just be teaching in some town in Idaho or something. But I have nice cameras now. When I travel, I stay in hotels.”

    Claire Suddath
    Bloomberg Businessweek Columnist

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