Why are women so underrepresented in photography?

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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It’s no secret that women have been woefully underrepresented throughout art history. The stories of men have classically dominated most artistic fields, from music to literature, for decades.

But while the landscape has improved considerably for women in recent years, the picture for females attempting to forge a career in photography is still considerably bleak.

Consider these statistics: only 5% of the pictures used by leading photography publishers are taken women, and just 2% of photographers on the books at most commercial agencies are women.

These are the research findings of photographer Anna Fox, and they reveal an undeniably sexist landscape across the field.

At a time when females can achieve anything they want, the question of why women are so underrepresented in photography has never been more important.

Fashion photographer Lara Jade is one example of a successful female creative who has managed to smash through the proverbial glass ceiling of the photography industry.

Born in the West Midlands, she developed an interest in self-portrait and conceptual photography at 14 years old, before moving to London when she was 19 to pursue fashion photography.

Two years later, with a number of high profile clients including Harper Collins and The Observer under her belt, she moved to New York, where the 26-year-old’s business has been flourishing ever since.

But although Jade has seen sexism in the photography industry gradually progress from the days when male “rockstar photographers” dominated, there is still a long way to go.

“I feel like it’s harder to have your voice heard as a woman in fashion photography. Like many industries, such as acting and singing, women in photography are still dramatically underrepresented.”

The lack of recognition for female talent in photography is, Jade says, particularly apparent when she attends talks and seminars on the industry. As a rising talent, she is regularly asked to host panels and discussions on forging a career in photography, but is constantly surprised to find she is the only woman who has been invited to speak.

“There are so many fantastic female photographers out there who are majorly talented, but when I get on a stage, every other speaker is male. Wait! Why?”

Jade hints at intrinsic differences between men and women that could have, historically, helped swing the balance in favour of males within the industry.

Physically speaking, all of her assistants are male because, she says, she would “feel bad” asking a woman to hold heavy photography equipment for hours on end. 

When it comes to propelling their careers forward, women are also more likely than men to be riddled with self doubt and the feeling that they aren’t good enough. Which is sadly not surprising, as Jade herself has faced discrimination from people who believe she doesn’t have the power to run a photography set – simply because she is female.

“I’m very softly spoken and a nice person, but I feel like I have to have a different personality when I go to meet people.  I know how to be a leader on set but, because I don’t have that powerful persona, and as a woman, people question whether I would be able to do this.”

Fortunately, there is one area of photography where women rule the roost – but it’s not for the right reasons.

“Females dominate the family portrait industry,” says Jade. “I don’t know if that’s because it’s easier, or because it’s expected that women will do it because they have that link with children.”

So what can be done to address the imbalance? Shining a spotlight on the talents of female photographers seems key – and luckily, a number of art institutions have already started championing their work.

Last year, the Tate held a two-day conference called Fast Forward: Women in Photography, celebrating females in photography. The Imperial War Museum are currently running a popular exhibition looking at the importance of female war photographer, Lee Miller's work, Lee Miller: A Woman's War.

And Jade has solid advice for any woman looking to enter the photography industry. The digital landscape means it can be harder to get your voice hard, but social media can be a hugely viable marketing tool.

“Keep your exposure going and reach out to people. Never underestimate the value of face-to-face meetings,” says Jade, who herself used the early days of social media to network and promote her work.

With current followings of over 152,000 people on Twitter, 180,000 on Instagram and over half a million fans on Facebook, she is a prime example of a woman who uses digital to advance her career.

“Be creative and stick to your voice as an artist. People will tell you to do something different and change, but every photographer is building toward a certain style so keep your voice,” she adds.

Jade is also keen to emphasise her hopes that, over the next decade, the current landscape of photography will change.

“There are more female leaders in photography now, and more women are encouraged to follow that. In the next five to ten years, there will be a huge change.”

Lara Jade's top tips for running a successful Instagram account

  • Give your followers a peek behind the curtain
  • Art direct your own images by thinking carefully about content and colours
  • Be mindful of your feed and consider how your images will look when placed next to each other
  • Most of all, be authentic

Main image: Getty


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Sarah Biddlecombe

Sarah Biddlecombe is an award-winning journalist and Digital Commissioning Editor at Stylist. Follow her on Twitter