I find myself thinking about the representation of women in photography and why it is not as common to see women’s work in some of the bigger magazines. Is it because their work isn’t good enough? I would definitely dispute that as a fact: there are some phenomenal female photographers out there. Then why aren’t they represented in the same volume as men?
My background is books. I studied literature for my degree and while I studied as a mature student, I wrote reviews of poetry collections and anthologies for small press magazines to earn some extra pennies to keep the wolf from the door. I found a similar thing in the poetry world. The constant lament that 80% of the poetry in the small press magazines was written by men. I spent some time looking into this as I was interested to see if I could find any reason why that would be. Or even whether there was a reason.
It seems I was not the only one intrigued by this and I was able to find quite a bit of written conversation between publishers and poets that was preserved online. I was most interested to find that one magazine in particular worked on blind submissions. When you submitted, you had to ensure that your name was not on the sheet of paper that contained the poem but was on a separate sheet of paper along with your contact details. The submission panel was given the poems only without any information on the poet. The poem was allotted a code that was written into your submission sheet so they could find your contact details if your poem was selected. I was also interested to note that this particular publication had rejected Andrew Motion’s work and since he was Poet Laureate at the time, I was convinced that this publication was not necessarily biased. When asked about this disparity, they looked into their submissions and found that around 80% were from men.
Hang on – that must mean that their publication actually carried a fair proportion of work from women then.
Further to this, other publications noted that if they refused work from a man, he would resubmit almost by return of post. However, if they rejected work from women, it would be weeks or even months before they submitted again, if at all. Obviously, there will be exceptions to this rather tentative rule, but nevertheless, it does begin to build a different picture. I can visualise the man who stares at the rejection and says, ‘no. I’m not having that. I am going to bombard them until they realise I’m brilliant’. And I can equally visualise the woman who is devastated that the work she put her heart and soul into has been rejected and then takes time to rebuild her confidence before submitting again. Yes, I know they are dreadful generalisations but assuming that women aren’t as well represented as men purely due to a paternalistic bias is also a dreadful generalisation.
Maybe, just maybe, the publications themselves are not at all biased and they do actually publish a fair proportion from the 20% of women’s poetry they receive. It also follows then that if there is a dearth of women’s work in those publications, it is because the women are not submitting the work – or not in a great enough volume to see them being featured as often as the male of the species!
So, what should we do about this.
Should we complain bitterly about discrimination?
I don’t think so because there isn’t actually enough evidence to show that there is discrimination in play.
Should we form women-only platforms to make sure women are represented equally?
Again, I don’t think so because that will never find any kind of parity that way. It simply removes us from the mainstream arena and into some kind of marginality. And we had also better have an answer when men start to mutter about discrimination.
I don’t think there is any harm in acknowledging that women may approach photography, or poetry, in a different way. There is a school of thought that says that women are more likely to employ ‘creative’ techniques in their work and so it is different from men’s work. However, I can very easily call to mind some contemporary female photographers who are fabulous landscape photographers, and some male photographers who use fabulously creative techniques and are at the top of their field. Why do we feel a need to separate the two. It’s far more use to separate documentary photography and fine art photography than it is to separate men’s photography and women’s photography.
The evidence actually shows that the only way we can be assured of any kind of parity is to compete on equal terms, and in equal volume.
Dare I say that maybe it is our own fault for being less willing to bombard publications with our work and feel convinced that they are in error if they reject us and submit again by return – and again and again if necessary. Or maybe we should forget that male and female exist and be confident that excellence in technique and subject matter will prevail regardless of gender – IF we get brave enough to submit.
I think it’s a shame that we are so hooked up on all of this. Surely the way to being a good or even great photographer is to follow your own creative vision and seek to be better today than you were yesterday? Being published in a magazine doesn’t make you any better. If you want to judge your photography, take a critical look at it and see if it pleases you. If it does, why does anything else matter. It’s all about as subjective as it is possible for it to be. And if you take a critical look and it doesn’t please you, get out there and take more photos, try different things, find your voice and your eyes and do your thing in your own way. Don’t bend to what you think the magazines want because that way lies madness for sure.
As a last point here, I note that this month’s issue of Outdoor Photographer has a letter from a reader on this very subject. Have a look at their response to it.
Until next time . . . . I’ll leave you with a picture because we all know that no one reads anything without a picture 😉