I consider myself a reasonably good photographer. Of course, that’s subjective, and some may disagree with me. But when I look at my photographs, I’m filled with immense pride. They continue to move me and touch the part of my brain where art translates to goose-bumps and emotion.
They say if you want to be a good writer, you must write, read, and practice over and over. The same is true for photography. I’ve spent almost a decade clicking the shutter, editing my work, and admiring thousands of other photographs.
The learning never ends, and that’s the fun part. I know my work will continue to improve, and it’s exciting to think that there’s still room for me to surprise myself with new work.
A sa woman, I’m aware that I possess the exact same brain, heart, and creativity as any man. This should mean that the photographs I create would be of the same artistic quality as my male counterparts. But sadly, this is not the case.
Like any profession, when it comes to photography, men absolutely dominate the playing field. They receive all the awards, the prestigious jobs, and most of the accolades that can be had within the photography profession.
After many years of clicking the shutter and examining the work of other photographers, I’m beginning to understand why men rule in this profession. I’m not saying that there aren’t many female photographers who defy the odds and produce incredible work, there’s just far fewer of us than men.
There are many theories as to why photography by women may not be given the attention it deserves. I won’t bore you with the common gender issues that many women face in any work we take on.
However, with photography, I’ve noticed three specific differences with the options that women have in our ability to tell a good story with our photographs.
I’m speaking particularly for photography genres, such as travel, journalism, and environmental portraits. These genres require moving into unknown territories and telling the stories of people and their lives.
Although these options are more available to male photographers, that’s not to say that all men take advantage of them. But the fact that these options are less accessible to women photographers may shed light on why our photographs are not revered in the same way within these genres.
Option #1: Men can get in people’s faces more
Some of the best photographs I’ve ever seen are so close and personal that you can literally feel the emotions from the person in the picture. Sometimes, you can almost get a sense of a boundary invaded such that the intimate story becomes compelling.
If I were a man, I might take the chances they often take in walking into a person’s boundary and snapping those quick shots. I wouldn’t worry so much about safety or whether the invasion is the right thing to do.
Men are taught that it’s not only appropriate to take risks, but that it’s their right to do so. And by getting in people’s faces, we see more intimate details of people living their lives. And that kind of intimacy tells a powerful story. That kind of story sells in a world where we thrive on the raw guts of what it is to be human.
As a woman, I have not only felt unsafe getting in people’s faces, but I also can’t separate my conscience from invading people’s space. The cost of telling these intimate stories matters to me. Therefore, my photos will always have a bit more distance and space.
Option #2: Men can go to exciting places regardless of safety
Again, many rich stories abound in places deemed unsafe.
If I were to explain the complexities behind what makes a place safe, it would take me ten or so pages to write it out. I don’t think I’m even qualified to tell that story, which is why I can’t, in good conscience, take photos in these places. These stories are not mine to tell and will undoubtedly be colored by my privileged lens.
However, most men are born with certain rights to safety and can often traverse in places that women wouldn’t dare to go. This makes it easier to trespass into areas with rich stories, regardless of the complexities behind whether this is appropriate or not.
Option #3: People are more open to getting their photo taken by men
As I said above, men are taught that it’s their right to invade boundaries and get in people’s faces. But also, other people accept that they have that right and, therefore, are more willing to let them in.
I find this quite remarkable because, in this case, there is a mutual agreement to allow a story to be told. For me, I genuinely wish this option was more available to women, as nothing tells a story better than two parties willing to share and record.
As a woman, I must carefully negotiate this with the people I photograph. I’m met with more distrust not only as a person but also that my talent and abilities are never assumed to be good. My photos are still effective, but they lack that little bit extra when it comes to authenticity and openness.
To be honest, I’ve learned to accept these limitations, and quite frankly, I wouldn’t even want to exercise the first two options. For me, those options pose ethical issues that don’t feel right to me.
The third option is the only one I pine for sometimes. If I were to be taken more seriously by the people I meet, I’m confident that we could co-create some beautiful stories together.
As with anything, women have to work a little harder to prove ourselves and to be taken seriously. This is certainly evident in travel, journalism, and environmental portrait photography.
It will likely take us more time, creativity, and effort to gain the trust of our subjects. We also need to be careful of our safety as we attempt to capture good stories in our photos. Also, we’re more likely to choose our conscience over getting the perfect shot at the expense of ethics.
Some tips I learned to transcend the limitations as a female photographer are:
- Work as a team with another photographer, friend or partner. It helps with safety and gaining trust of your subjects.
- Spend extra time talking to people, show them some of your photos on your camera, and be willing to compensate if it’s appropriate.
- Learn proper techniques for taking photos at a distance so you can still maintain sharp photos that utilize the available light.
- Work on your people skills. Communication is going to be even more important than it is for male photographers.
Keeping these things in mind, we can work within our limitations as female photographers and find the best ways to tell the stories of our subjects.
And in some cases, our limitations may even be our strength as our photographs tell stories in ways that respect boundaries and ethics.
About the Author
Gillian May is a former nurse turned writer, photographer, and traveler. She currently lives and travels in Colombia and does portrait and travel photography. She also uses her nursing skills to write about important health topics like mental health, addictions, and trauma. You can read more of her work on Medium. You can see more of her photography on her Facebook page and Travel and Portrait Instagram accounts. This article was also published here and shared with permission.