Women in Photography

30 March 2018

SIG: Contemporary

Women in Photography


Earlier this month, March 8th, it was International Women’s Day.  On that day several organisations such as Magnum and Lensculture published some great articles discussing women photographers.  Whilst the photography industry is male dominated and women are fighting hard for their share of attention the articles from Magnum and Lensculture show us women photographers are producing great contemporary work, often with points of view unattainable by male photographers.


Eve Arnold first became involved with Magnum in 1951, becoming the first woman in that organisation.  In the article “In Conversation: Being a Woman in Photography” on magnumpotos.com the current female member photographers discuss their careers within Magnum and offer an insight into working in an industry still dominated by men.  There are interesting insights into being a female photographer, for example when working in a war zone, being a woman is “less threatening” providing some (little?) protection and increased access to subjects compared to being a male photographer in the same regions.  Taking that argument further the photographers discuss how being a female provides access to create projects that may be difficult for a male.  An extreme example of access that a male could never have is Olivia Arthur’s series on Saudi women, published in the photobook “Jeddah Diary”.


Lensculture’s International Women’s Day article celebrated 35 inspiring and up-and-coming women (and stretching that group to those wanting to be women) photographers working in portraiture, documentary and conceptual photography - all producing series of images about their chosen causes.  Their list of photographers was nominated by academics, press editors and curators (including Zelda Cheatle who gave a talk at the Contemporary SIG’s Photobook meeting in Manchester in 2017).  There’s some very interesting work to look at - too many to mention individually - follow the link below to find out more.


Vice-President Del Barrett, in the RPS Journal (p. 919, vol. 157, December 2017), discussed another side of women in photography - as subjects.  I agree with her comments that (the potential) exploitation of models is a problem.  I’m a member of a number of on-line photography communities, one, used by local photographers (many professional), studios, models and make-up artists, often has posts of sets of images of models which can be a bit uncomfortable - Barrett’s comment about awkward poses certainly resonates with me.  (Some) photographers have perhaps poisoned the well for those of us who might like to try working with models - it’s quite telling that Barrett told a story where the model for her project felt the need for a team of chaperones.  As for identifying and censuring the guilty photographers (Barrett’s proposition) I’m more than a little worried this could get messy.


Carolyn Mendelsohn’s portrait Maria, 10 is touring the UK in the RPS International Photography Exhibition 160 and she also has an exhibition of the related project “Being Inbetween” at the Crossley Gallery in Halifax until 20 May.  The project is an ongoing portrait series of girls aged 10 to 12, exploring their transition between childhood and adulthood.

Mendelsohn attended last year’s Contemporary SIG Photobook Event in Manchester, she showed us her work and discussed the potential of making a photobook - I hope she does, the images in the series are fabulous and the background work of interviews with the subjects talking about their aspirations for life will make for excellent reading.  I see so much of my own daughters in the images and the quotations that Mendelsohn has shared.


One aspect of Mendelsohn’s project that strikes me is that, in today’s climate, this could only be done by a woman photographer.  I suspect that as a middle-aged man I would be under great suspicion if I undertook such work - even if it was adolescent boys as the subjects.  Do others feel the same?  Would I find myself in some way being censured (see above)?  In the present climate I feel being a female photographer has some distinct advantages.


Further reading:








Image “Jeddah Diary Enclosed private swimming pool. Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. 2009.” © Olivia Arthur, Magnum Photos