By Aishling Heffernan

femLENS has completed its first Community Survey, which aimed to examine the needs, challenges and ambitions of women and non-binary documentary photographers.

The inspiration for this survey came from noticing the lack of accurate research into the lives and challenges of female and non-binary documentary photographers. For example, an Industry benchmark for data on documentary photographers comes from the World Press Photo, where the majority of members and competition winners are male.

Themes and topics for the survey were decided on by the femLENS team over a series of months, which, when decided, began a literature review of the decided themes. When the team completed the literature review, the survey was officially born. After multiple edits, it was finally open to the public. The survey was open for a period of five months, took 30-mins to complete and contained both matrix and open-ended questions.

For the research methodology, and for a full look into this survey and our findings, we highly encourage you to read the survey itself, which is (in this blog-post writer’s opinion) a highly engaging read all on its own. If you would like a summary, however, read on!

The survey is broken down into four sections, titled (in-order): Education and Access, Precariousness of Photography, Being a woman in the Industry and Community, Activism, Social Justice.

97% of respondents were female, and 1% were non-binary. Due to the small number of respondents, the survey does not have statistical significance. What it does contain is real-life insights and anecdotes from our community that bear qualitative significance for any investigation or discussion of the themes outlined above, and expanded upon within the survey.

Education and Access

While the femLENS team recognises that there are many types of education, in the institutional sense, 35% of respondents had a postgraduate degree, and 31% had a bachelors degree. Nearly a third of the respondents use photography as their main income, or are working toward that goal, but most respondents earn less than USD $10,000 a year for their photographic work. 56% reported facing discrimination on the job due to their gender (74%), among other factors. One anonymous response pointed out the need for Black and Brown artists vs just Black and Brown images. They stated that:

“Emerging artists are looking for jobs everywhere but often we see the same artists winning awards. We need for the fair and inclusive. Black and brown bodies in the images is not enough, we need to see more work created by black and brown people regardless of what the project is. We need to see us represented as image makers and even better if they are female black and brown photographers from all backgrounds.” – femLENS Community Survey

Tellingly, our research team found that despite high-formal education, and awareness of competitions, grants and awards, respondents were rarely successful, or even had access at all, in gaining them. Out of 58% that had submitted their work to photo contests, just 39% of respondents had won an award. However, out of the 10% that tried crowdfunding to create work, 69% were successful. The gap in access leads to interesting questions when this is taken into account.

So, when we asked survey-takers what they would like, their response was:

“When asked about what resources and tools the participants would need, e.g., in a hypothetical workshop for women documentary photo practitioners, surveyees stated that they wanted more accessible opportunities for mentorship, collaborations, networking with other women photographers, as well as professional, educational and promotional resources.” – femLENS Community Survey

Precariousness of Photography

A revealing finding in the Precariousness of Photography is the income gap based on geo-location; photographers in South America, Asia and Africa earn less than those in Europe, the U.S. and Australia.

Additionally, while at first the statement/finding above that a third of respondents use photography as their main income/are working toward that goal, seems positive, our reasearch and surveyees’ responses show that full-time photography is a dwindling profession for our photographers. This mirrors industry research, too. During not only the pandemic, but the global political unrest seen before the COVID-19 crisis, documentary photography has never been more important – which begs the question, why is it now becoming a job that is becoming an “endangered species”?

As photography is an artistic expression, it is often seen as a ‘labour of love’ – this means that photographers will struggle ‘willingly’ because it is a process that they love. However, how does a labour of love impact ones life? One respondent shared that:

“I feel guilty because it is not my work. And I spend a lot of my hours with photography when I don’t work [as a photographer]. I do four things: I work, I stay with my dogs, I run, and I do photography. I really feel guilty because for my photography projects…” – femLENS Community Survey

Van Asche (2017) offers an explanation of the theory of precariousness with creative workers as:

“the hardships of working as a creative worker are often negated by considerations of the gained rewards. Creative workers are, in many cases, more or less intentionally in a state of precarious employment, which some theorists refer to as self-precarisation. This is a theoretical concept that could involve emotional labour.”

Our team wanted to understand what respondents thought of helpful frameworks, to assist in their creative working life. We asked what surveyees thoughts of unions, and found that 42% did not know that unions exist. Did you know that creative unions do exist? Of course, our team asked what support respondents would want from a creative/labour union:

“Regarding the kind of support that they would want from a union, more than half of the participants (55%) indicated for legal protection such as: help with contracts, health insurance and other legal issues, and 23% for financial support. More specifically, the participants that want financial support are mainly from Asia and Africa.” – femLENS Community Survey

Being a woman in the Industry

“Photography remains stubbornly male-dominated. As it can be seen from the data collected by Women Photograph, an initiative to promote and support female photographers, eight of the world’s leading newspapers for years are printing far fewer lead photographs by women than by men.” – femLENS Community Survey

In the WPP report 2018, on the state of photography, nearly 68% of women respondents stated that they faced discrimination at work.

“In our survey, 68% of the participants said that in their country they have noticed a gender gap in documentary photography. More specifically, 56% of the respondents said that they have faced some sort of discrimination as a photographer.” – femLENS Community Survey

The issues related to discrimination range from: sexual harrassment, assignments being given to, or higher paid for , male photographers. Age, socio-economic situation, location all fed into discrimination for our respondents. For example, 74% of surveyees stated that their gender was cause for discrimination, while another 54% cited age. Participants also cited the discrimination they faced when given the chance to elaborate in the open question section:

“In Kenya, not a lot of women are photographers. It is not considered a job but a hobby with aunties and uncles always waiting for you to get serious with life.”

– femLENS Community Survey

“While my classes were full of women, once I reached the professional world, I only saw men. I have also rarely seen women in positions of authority or in hiring or top editing positions.”

– femLENS Community Survey

It’s imperative that we understand that women also contribute to sexism in the industry. Hannan, a producer at adam&eveDDB, states that we need to remember that women can shoot tech, cars and “hugely technical sets”. She believes that the industry is rife with gender based unconscious bias, and gendered styles of photography (labeling something as male or female styles) needs to be broken to increase equitable working conditions for women in the industry.

On sexual harassment, survey respondents stated that women are often seen as weak, and vulnerable (liabilities on set). “Mansplaining” also seems to be a large issue within the industry. One respondent shared that:

“When I was still living in Berlin about two years ago, I was photographing an exhibition of a colleague of mine who asked me as a friend to take some photos at quite a fancy gallery. There was a photographer from the gallery who came up to me and started telling me how to use the flash. And I stood there and I thought, I cannot believe I am almost 40 soon and this is still happening… after all these years. I had much more expensive than his equipment, and it did not stop him from getting into my face and telling me what to do.”
– femLENS Community Survey

Have you experienced something similar?

Access to the Industry seems gate locked by an ‘elite’ few, that are primarily male. Overwhelmingly, our respondents believed the industry should be more inclusive toward women.

Community, Activism, Social Justice

In ‘Community, Activism, Social Justice’, a respondent shared that:

“The documentary photography in my point of view is the most humble/real type of photography. We can show to the world the reality of the World with only one shoot.”
– femLENS Community Survey

For many, photography acts as a way to challenge power. We asked surveyees if they felt photography should be political. 32% said yes, while the remainder (unsure/depends, and no) made up 34%. What do you think, should photography be political? Is it inherently political?

One respondent stated that:

“Everything is political, understand that and you can make more influential storytelling images.” – femLENS Community Survey

Using photography as a way to challenge cultural norms, can also build, enhance or re-create community. In 1974, after a community workshop held in Blackfriars, London, Paul Carter stated that:

“In addition, by providing the means for local people to learn photography themselves, diverse groups are brought together and they discover more, not just about photography but also about the community in which they live.”

This understanding of the social network in one’s immediate environment allows marginalised groups to reframe dominant narratives of their culture. Challenging or changing these dominant narratives leads to empowerment. With this in mind, our team asked:

“Empowerment was understood as a process which comes from the grass-root and challenges the vertical structure of power. This can be seen in our survey from the question “Are you satisfied with the news photography you see?” to which 60% replied that they feel that news photography can be more inclusive because there are still many stereotypes.” – femLENS Community Survey

With all of the above in mind, our team asked surveyees whether they felt that photography could be neutral. 61% responded no. 85% shared that being ethical was important to them.

“For the participants, photographers must obtain permission to take pictures and then to use them. Then there are ethical issues regarding representation: what photographers choose to show and how they are presenting it…” – femLENS Community Survey

Is being ethical important to you? Are you comfortable with how certain photographers choose to present communities?

Concluding the Survey…

The femLENS Community Survey led to engaging insights, mirrored data when compared to industry benchmarks, and a recognition that documentary photography as a full-time job (despite appearances) is endangered.

Our team recognised that:

“…further inquiry is necessary to better understand the vast experiences of those beyond the cis man/woman binaries, those who are disabled, non-white and non-English-speaking, as well as those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, and/or otherwise historically marginalised or left out of the photographic canon. The photo industry needs to acknowledge and actively address current inequities that exist. It cannot be done overnight, but it is long overdue…”
– femLENS Community Survey