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Working in fashion has required Kristiina Wilson to develop a thick skin. She’s faced criticism because of her age, her weight, and even her sense of style, she says. The twist is that Wilson doesn’t work in front of the camera, but behind it. A fashion photographer for more than a decade, she says that sexism in the industry leads to women being judged for how they look, landing fewer jobs, and earning less money than men for the same work. As the fashion world reflects on sexual misconduct in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein controversy, female photographers in the field see a connection between sexual harassment and the systemic sexism they routinely encounter.
Gender bias in photography may not garner much attention outside of industry circles, but female photographers say the discrimination they face working in the mostly male profession is, at times, blatant.
Wilson says that she’s been told outright that some clients simply prefer men. She recalls a PR agency telling her, “The client really loved your work, but they’re just not comfortable with a woman photographer. It’s a technical job, and they feel more comfortable with a man doing it.”
This wasn’t the only time Wilson says she’s been turned down for work because she’s a woman.
“I had another client for lingerie or bathing suits who didn’t feel like a female photographer would work because they thought the photographer needed to be flirting, to have a sexual energy, with the model.”
What’s more, Wilson is often mistaken for an assistant on shoots rather than the photographer, she says.
Philadelphia-based photographer Kia Caldwell says she’s had similar experiences. Caldwell has shot campaigns for Saks Fifth Avenue and NBA star Chris Bosh’s necktie collection, Mr. Nice Tie. She regularly shoots models as well. She recalls once that when an acquaintance introduced a model to her in need of a photo shoot, the model “talked to me the whole time about a male photographer.” Caldwell took that to mean the model thought she wasn’t just as capable of doing the job.
Caldwell had never heard of the male photographer, but after her meeting with the model, she looked him up and wasn’t impressed. “He does okay work, but it’s not even on the same caliber that I put forth,” she says.
She thinks the model talked incessantly about the male photographer instead of first considering her (they ended up working together later) because of the widespread idea that a “male photographer is the industry standard,” she says.
Although photography remains slightly male-dominated — the National Endowment for the Arts estimates that 55.2 percent of photographers are men — women are peppered throughout its history. English botanist Anna Atkins (1799-1871) is not only credited as the first woman to take a picture, but also the first person to publish a book with photographs. And female aristocrats, including Queen Victoria, are reportedly to thank for photography’s emergence from a science to an art. During the turn of the century, Kodak even launched its Kodak Girl campaign in recognition of women’s interest in photography.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and female photographers are fuming that as recently as September, Nikon launched a PR campaign that featured 32 photographers, all men.
“You would think with women having such buying power that companies would catch on, but they don’t,” says Catherine Kirkpatrick, a member of and former archivist for Professional Women Photographers, which offers support to women in the field.
“I know that in addition to overt discrimination, women have also had to deal with ‘soft’ discrimination that often starts at the camera store with the salesman looking down on them,” she says.
As a female fashion photographer, Wilson says she sometimes faces egregious sexism. She says that male photographers can report to work with “scraggly beards” without comment while she’s repeatedly had her looks scrutinized.
“I’m a normal-sized lady, but I had a client tell me I’m not getting bigger ad jobs because of how I look,” she says. According to Wilson, 40, the client said, “You’re not on brand. You’re overweight, and you’re too old.”
The women who work for the brand wear bright clothing and makeup, Wilson says. Because she doesn’t, she was deemed a mismatch. When she started out in the early aughts, Wilson says that clients focused more on her work than her looks. But in the social media age, she feels clients care more about her appearance and with whom she’s partied than her extensive experience. Wilson has shot for the industry’s top magazines, including Allure, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, and international editions of Elle, Esquire, GQ, Vogue, and Glamour. American Express, Opening Ceremony, and HBO have used her work as well.
“It’s really very sexist if you’re not a white man,” she says.
According to the National Endowment for the Arts, not only do more men work as photographers than women, but women only earn 74 cents for every dollar their male counterparts make. Fredda Gordon, president of Professional Women Photographers, says she’s still baffled by the gender divide in the industry.
“I can’t figure it out,” she says. “It’s not like you need to technically be stronger to be a photographer. It’s not like sports. There is a pretty even playing field. I think there’s somewhat of a boys’ club. Men are seen in a different light.”
Adrienne Andersen, a photographer in Tampa, Florida, with 15 years of experience, says that the industry can be insular, which gives men an advantage. In Miami especially, an old boy network operates, according to Andersen. She’s done work for several Florida clothing boutiques and for companies like Crystal Geyser.
“You’re going to get editors and brands used to working with a certain guy and whoever that guy knows, and women don’t have that clique,” says Andersen, a black woman. “We have to push our way into the clique. It’s part of the patriarchy. People are going to pick a guy, and me being a minority woman, I have to show them, ‘Hey, by the way, I can do this.’”
Some models would like to see female photographers work more. A model who did not want to be named for fear of the impact it could have on her career says that female photographers typically conduct themselves more professionally.
“Before I had an agent to speak for me, I experienced a lot of different kinds of predatoriness from photographers,” she says. “There were these telltale signs. Male photographers would ask to meet beforehand for a drink.”
She says she turned down these requests because it felt as if the photographers were either trying to turn the shoot into a date or lower her inhibitions so that she would not enforce boundaries during the photo session. She’s now represented by one of the world’s top modeling agencies but still deals with treatment that makes her uncomfortable, like when photographers demand that she disrobe without warning. Even when she has agreed to appear nude, the model says she’s often found herself on set for hours with no access to her clothes or a place to change back into them.
“It feels like models are really just a commodity,” she says. “You’re no longer a human being with feelings on the set.”
The model says that male photographers are more likely to treat her like an object. She views this as a symptom of misogyny. She points out that even when she’s worked with lesbian photographers, she’s never felt like they were sexualizing her.
“Just because you’re attracted to women doesn’t mean you have to be disgusting,” she says.
Fashion photographer BriAnne Wills, who has been in the industry for three years, says that male and female photographers tend to approach the craft differently. Wills has shot for domestic and international editions of Elle as well as Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Maybelline, SELF, Opening Ceremony, Nylon, and more.
“I can pull up a photo, and ask my friends, ‘Male or female photographer?’ And we can usually determine the gender,” she says. “But it’s mostly me illustrating the point that males tend to photograph females in an overtly sexual way. It’s not that females don’t photograph nude subjects, but we do it differently and with more subtlety.”
She acknowledges that there are male photographers who don’t sexualize their subjects but says that being a woman gives her a certain amount of empathy as a photographer. While men frequently take a “what would I like to view” approach to photography, Wills says she approaches her subjects how she’d like to be photographed. She asks herself, “How would I like to be viewed if I were her?”
Wills says many talented female photographers don’t get the credit they deserve. She speculates that men are drawn to the work because of the opportunity to work with beautiful women. But by researching and asking for recommendations from people in their networks, photo editors and producers can get referrals to female photographers, she says.
Wills recently took to Facebook to get recommendations for female assistants.
“Many people responded with names of female assistants and digitechs, and now I have more options,” she says. “I will always hire a female assistant first.”
Stacy Kranitz, who has shot for Elle, Entertainment Weekly, ESPN, and others, says she’s faced bias as a female photographer. Rather than the blatant sexism Wilson discussed, Kranitz has faced “subtle gender-based harassment,” she says. For a decade she struggled to make more than $20,000 a year as a photographer, and she says that men are often quoted higher rates than women.
“The day rate is only semi-standardized,” she says. “They’ve been quoting men and women differently, and women have been shyer about pushing back. I won’t ever say yes to the first day rate I’m offered.”
Dennis Keeley, chair of the photography and imaging department at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California, said that professors teach students, be they women or men, how to negotiate better rates.
“The only word that’s negotiable is ‘no’,” he tells them. “The reason you’re in negotiations is because clients are interested in you doing a job.”
But if a client offers too little, it’s better for a photographer to ask for the money they need to survive than to accept too little, Keeley says.
“It can’t be done too cheaply,” he says. “People settle too quickly because they are scared to lose a job.”
ArtCenter has a student body of roughly 2,000, and a slight majority of them are women. Keeley views that as a sign of progress in the industry.
“The work they will do in their lifetime will change the world,” he says.
Kranitz saw her financial situation change drastically when Time named her Instagram Photographer of the Year in 2015. The media attention that resulted from the honor led to so much work that she’s quadrupled her income.
Still, Kranitz says that just weeks ago she had a negative experience with a French media company she believes stemmed from sexism.
“It’s a 90 percent white-man media company,” she says. “I was treated very poorly by one of the reporters. It was very misogynistic, very domineering.”
She says she had to beg to get basic information about the shoot. Afterward, the photo editor left a barrage of nasty phone messages when she couldn’t deliver the images right away because she was traveling, Kranitz says.
“It was really derogatory,” she says. “It felt like he was entitled to behave like this to another professional, and he felt like he could get away with it because I’m a woman.”
Kranitz says that female photographers face unprofessional behavior from colleagues as well as bias for aging or having children. While Kranitz doesn’t have children, she says the industry isn’t very accommodating of female photographers who do. “The older generation of female photographers — I don’t think any of them have kids. That’s an industry-wide problem.”
Andersen is the mother of a toddler and a 10-year-old. She says she doesn’t travel much for work as a result. She also won’t work events that last all day, such as weddings.
“When I get a job, I go there, and I go right back home,” she says. “That’s why I don’t do work for some of the bigger brands, because I need to help with homework and cook and be a ‘taxi driver’ for my kids.”
Gladys Bensimon, a documentary filmmaker and photographer with 25 years of experience, is also a mother of a two. She’s now working on a documentary featuring a plus-size model and shoots models regularly for clients like Shutterstock. Her children are now grown, but she says motherhood is a definite challenge for female filmmakers and photographers.
“If you’re a journalistic photographer, you have to travel,” Bensimon says. “It makes it harder if you want to bring your kids, and I wanted to be part of my kids’ lives. So when you have kids, you can’t get as many jobs. You have to decide how to balance your life. I have an amazing husband, a great situation, and it’s still very hard.”
Bensimon says the industry can be “horrendously chauvinistic” for all women, mothers or otherwise. The fact that she’s a Venezuelan immigrant, coming to the US after receiving a scholarship to New York City’s Parsons School of Design, has posed additional barriers.
“You’re competing with everybody, and as a foreigner, if you still have an accent, that’s another thing.”
Ageism is also an issue for female photographers, Kranitz says. Although she hasn’t faced overt age discrimination, she recalls visiting the offices of a top fashion magazine and finding it run entirely by twentysomethings.
“It’s been gutted of all the old staff, so they can pay at a much lower rate,” she says.
Kranitz’s fear of ageism is so real that she declined to give her age for this article.
Despite the challenges she’s faced in the industry, she feels privileged compared to other photographers. She grew up middle-class in the suburbs and could borrow money from her brother when her career stalled.
“Most people didn’t have the ability to stay in the industry for 10 years before they started making an income,” she says. “There’s a lack of women or people of color [in photography] because they left. They didn’t have the income. They turned 30, and they had to.”