my mama told me when I was young we were all born SUPERSTARS
Whether you've been doing this a long time, like me, just starting out or you are somewhere in the middle I guarantee that sooner or later you will face prejudice within the photography industry. If you are female then your chance is way higher.
For me it started right from the get go. I was looking for experience as an assistant photographer and after the first couple of calls, it became obvious to me that I was trying to join a boys' club. 'A lot of the work is quite physical and technical'.. erm well technical I'm good at picking up but maybe they had a point on the physical side. So I made it clear that I was happy to do a trial. Yes, I admit I couldn't lift all the things that the male assistants could but I think I made up for it in many other ways. As an assistant I went into a studio without ego and developed an intuition for preempting the photographer's needs and for ensuring that the other people in the studio were taken care of. Where male assistants often interrupted with their own creative ideas, I was good at predicting what was needed next and helping to manage the whole shoot. I soon worked my way up from third, to first assistant and then second photographer. Then it was time to branch out on my own.
I secured an agent who started sending my portfolio to record companies and magazines. When she called for feedback one of them said, "Oh we don't use female photographers, we did once but she must have been having her period as she didn't do a good job". WTAF? Hmmmmm, I could see this might be a problem. So I dropped Lisa... I resent my portfolio out as Devlin and booked my first jobs. I was able to build a career from those first contacts and by doing the job to the very best of my ability and yes maybe even better because I had something to prove. I spent over ten years working as just Devlin and yes people did often say that they had assumed I was a guy but they soon got over it. I wouldn't say I was held back in any way after that initial foot in the door.
Fast forward to 2000 and I fell into shooting weddings. Surely that is a more female friendly profession? Well much as it often goes in my favour with clients, wedding days can be a tad frustrating. Right from my first weddings to 15 years on, I will inevitably face some level of friendly 'advice' on taking photos. From the Uncle Bobs behind me telling me that my images will never come out as I'm shooting into the sun, to my last wedding. After an entire day of being told what and where to take pictures by almost every member of the bridal party, I finished coverage as the guests sat for dinner. But just before I could leave, one chap took it upon himself to cross the entire banquet hall to tell me where best to stand for the light. So I asked him what he did for a living and does he like other people to give him input into how he should do it. Apparently not... Of course normally I would just smile and give them my thanks-now-jog-on-face but it did make me think, 'is there any other profession that you could do for a long time but still get utter amateurs constantly try to tell you how to do it?' I asked the question in our Farmers Facebook group and the only line of work that anyone came up with was Porn Actor, ha!
Joking aside, I've pretty much accepted that this is par for the course but I do wonder if the male photographers get offered quite so much 'help'.
Now for what I think is the worst prejudice that I face is from the industry itself. Over the year, it comes together for Trade Shows and they will be a combination of education and selling product. My very first experience at one was in central London about five years ago. As I walked from the Tube and tried to navigate my way to the venue, it became clear that the couple in front of me were heading to the same place. He was a short, balding middle-aged Brit and she was a young tall Russian girl in mini skirt and bare legs despite the January chill. Maybe this wasn't my crowd but I'd arranged to meet some people there so I persevered only to be greeted by a male promotions model dressed only in pants, handing out the goody bags.... double erghhhh! The majority of the stands were corporate looking and remarkably dull for a supposedly creative industry. I engaged with absolutely nothing there with the exception of the Folio Albums who had brought a VW campervan in!
I have since been to WPPI in Las Vegas where it seems the US makes a lot more effort to appeal to Generation Y than the UK. I have been to a few industry shows now as a speaker and to promote Farm and there is still far too much sleaze. Next to our stand at one show this year was a stage where one male presenter was demoing lights with a young female model. He repeatedly tried to demean her but when he referred to her as a 'street walker', she walked off the stage and made an official complaint. Yet there he was again at the next show I went to reeling out the same old highly offensive sexist lines. The preconceived opinion here seems to be that the majority of attendees are in fact members of some greasy camera club where men invite 'models' to pose provocatively for images that are for nothing beyond personal soft porn collections.
Inevitably when I speak at these events, there will be at least one bloke who just can't wait to put his hand up at the end when questions are invited. He will be super keen to ask a technical question with the sole intention of trying to show that he is in fact more clever than me... it no longer phases me. With 25 years under my belt as a photographer, I think I've earned my stripes and if he really is that clever, then why isn't he the one on stage speaking?
Talking of which, I had the misfortune of tuning into an internet broadcast a few weeks back from one well known male international photographer and speaker. He started out by explaining his theory that women only entered the industry with digital as they couldn't handle the technical aspects of photography before that, such as loading film. What followed was utter drivel... at best just patronising and old fashioned but at worst highly offensive. Thanks to the live stream of comments, viewers could express their opinions and it soon became clear that most of the audience both male and female were passionately disagreeing with the content. Later, the main defence for this even getting aired was that the presenter had done the same talk at other shows. Really? How was this ever allowed? How do people like this keep sponsors? Surely there is some kind of responsibility. This photographer was very proud of his status as a Nikon Ambassador. Well at The Photography Show this year Nikon put some incredible female photographers on their stage including Miss Aniela and Kirsty Mitchell. I thought they were being more progressive and I'm surprised they want to remain associated with anything so ridiculous.
It makes me sad that our industry isn't more millennial in its thinking. Yes there are more women entering the industry now but that isn't because they finally figured out where the on/off switch is... it's simply down to women coping well in a recession because we are good at adapting. Many of the ones who come to us for training, will be looking for ways to incorporate photography into their income streams. When that redundancy strikes, they explore other ways to provide for their households that are less rigid than the nine to five. As a generation, we have much less security than the one before and the people who thrive are the ones who are prepared to live a more unstructured life. Wedding photography is one of many industries where girls have caught up or overtaken the boys. One of the things we do at Farm is spend a long time looking at Generation Y and how we can market to them. We are at the more creative end of the market and we have a great team of male and female mentors. Our biggest geek is a girl, Tigz Rice and the biggest shoe fan is Adam Bronkhorst. When you come to us for training we don't see a male or female, we only see a photographer. We are just getting on with it and looking to the future not getting stuck in the past.
Growing up with one Catholic and one Protestant parent in the Northern Ireland of The Troubles, I know just how ugly prejudice can be and I'm passionate about standing up for myself or others when I see it. So what can we all do to make a change in the industry? There isn't much that we can do about the preconceived opinion that gets presented to us but we can have an affect on that person or part of the industry from then on. When you see an article in a photography magazine or something presented online that offends you, write in and let them know. If you attend a trade show and feel that there wasn't enough there that appealed to you or you saw something particularly sexist (I spent my last trade show looking at a pair of female butt cheeks in 3-D that a frame company was using) then fill out the feedback form and express your feelings. Thousands of companies are trying to sell you something now that you are a photographer, from cameras to albums and everything in between. You have the choice of where you are going to invest so show support to the companies that are not stuck at 1995. Get on your social media and call out prejudice when you see it. Finally do what I feel I've always done... get your foot in the door even if that requires some creative thinking and then do the job better than was expected from you. Bit by bit progress will be made. Meantime I'd love to know your experiences, has anything like this ever happened to you? Are you a male photographer finding that actually it's the other way round? What are your ideas on how we can make this better?
Lisa Devlin is based in Brighton and shoots weddings all over the UK. She has spoken for Hasselblad, The Photography Show, at B&H in New York and at UK universities where her work has been studied as part of the New Wave of British Wedding Photographers. She was the first wedding photographer to be given an award by the British Journal of Photography and she is Head Farmer at Photography Farm.