Early metal detector for bomb disposal and de-mining, 1919
Designed by M. Guitton
The last couple of weeks have seen a rising discussion about the issue of sexual harassment within the photography industry. This was sparked by a post on Colin Pantall’s blog which acted as confirmation of what many of us knew or suspected; that there are unpleasant people in the photography (as perhaps in all areas of life) who don’t have any qualms about using their positions of influence as leverage to extort sexual favours from aspiring photographers, the very people they ought to be safeguarding and nurturing. I’ve certainly heard stories that support this even in the short time I’ve been involved in the industry, ranging from relatively minor if slightly weird behavior through to the downright unpleasant. I suppose like many I’ve always been reticent about writing or talking about these things beyond a small circle for some of the same reasons that many victims are probably hesitant about speaking out, that perpetrators are often influential, powerful people. Equally though I’ve seen the damage a malicious allegation can do to someone when it spreads, however well-intentioned the spreading might be.
Saying that, this is an issue which can’t be ignored and which the industry as a whole needs to wade out into this ethical and legal minefield and start digging for responses to it. So far there have been plenty of affirmations of support, but little in the way of concrete solutions. The most coherent answer that I’ve come across to date has been the establishment of a Tumblr called The Curators Couch, which at the time of writing has no contributions but which appears to offer a platform for people to anonymously report unwanted sexual encounters from influential photography professionals. While it’s good to see a response being formulated I have to say this one concerns me a little, not least because of the limited transparency involved and unresolved questions about the levels of anonymity afforded to both victims and alleged perpetrators. Equally it’s unclear what such a site can really achieve beyond increasing awareness of the problem, although you might say that this is achievement enough, at least to start with. From my perspective though a solution is not really much of a solution if it engenders a new set of problems.
Photography is perhaps a particularly difficult field to develop a response in, because it of its highly fragmented and international nature. There are no organisations which really represent even a small proportion of the industry, and photographers have a tendency to resent any organisation which they see as speaking for them (which might in part explain the ire that is annually directed at the World Press Organisation). This obviously makes it hard to establish a response with institutional backing from the start, and the international nature of the industry makes it difficult to identify a particular national legal framework on sexual harassment or discrimination to use as support. Beyond these problems the industry is riven with rivalries, cliques, and cabals, and whatever response is formulated has to take account of the problems these can bring, both in terms of the potential for potentially malicious false allegations and also the possibility of professionals to unquestioningly close ranks around those who are accused of misconduct.
In the end the best answer may prove to be one that comes from the ground up rather than top down, and it may be valuable to look to other similarly decentralised industries and grassroots campaigns that have sought to combat this problem in order to find effective solutions. I am far from qualified to provide a solution to this, but just one idea I’ve been thinking about is the possibility of establishing a code of behaviour for those in positions of responsibility, with influential figures pressured to publicly pledge to abide by it. The tenets of this code might be so prosaic that to many of us they barely need saying (for example ‘I won’t use my position to exploit or extort others’) but by encouraging people to make a public statement of support might offer a starting point from which to challenge those who unambiguously break it. Given enough support at a grassroots level this code of conduct might gather the momentum to see it adopted by larger organisations and institutions with the clout to more directly punish those who are found to have transgressed it.