Writing on photography

To be a Photographer is to be Male

Disphotic now welcomes contributions from photographers and writers seeking space to discuss critical issues in contemporary photography. You can find all of these filed under guest posts.

Over the past few years, there has been a growing conversation about the under representation of women in photography. This has come in the form of panel discussions on the subject, conferences, support networks, online magazines and grants. Lists of female photographers who have made a significant contribution to the medium have sprung up, in an attempt to rewrite the history of photography, and add a female perspective. There is now another addition to this already long list, in the form of the competition Female in Focus, which is run by 1854 Media, organisers of Portrait of Britain and Portrait of Humanity. Recognising that only 38% of winners to these competitions are female, the intention of Female in Focus is to redress the balance (Female in Focus, 2019).

A worthy goal; so why does this make me shudder? I am a photographer (and I also happen to be female); but I didn’t submit my work to Female in Focus. This is partly because I feel a certain cynicism about the role of photography competitions; I question whether they really do have an impact on photographers and their careers. But this time, it’s also the fact that this competition is only open to women, and those identifying as such, that is a problem for me. Instead of addressing an imbalance, I worry that this may serve to segregate things further.

Let’s begin with the 38% statistic. I feel that this is a healthy percentage. One shouldn’t expect winners of competitions to be of equal gender. Photography competitions are often judged anonymously, without knowledge of the identities of the photographers, and I have no reason to believe the 1854 competitions are any different. One of the other hats I wear besides being a photographer is as co-founder of Portrait Salon, a salon des refusés for work rejected from the annual Taylor Wessing portrait prize. In connection with this I was recently invited to be the curator (in effect the judge) of the Portrait section of the Association of Photographers (AOP) Awards. This was an incredibly difficult task; all we were given was the image and a short caption. There was no way of telling which photographs were taken by a man, and which were taken by a woman. I hoped that our winners would be an even split; in fact only two of the 13 finalists were female. But I am confident that we judged the work on the merit of the image, and the message; the anonymity meant we were not biased by the gender, or felt the need to include or exclude someone due to an imbalance.

This experience made me wonder how many women had entered the AOP Awards in the first place, and by association, how many might have entered the 1854 Media Awards. Research suggests that women are less competitive than men, with one article stating that there is “a natural female propensity for cooperation rather than competition” (Price, 2008). This is confirmed by a quick search of “women in photography” in Google; the results list the sites which have come to the fore in recent years (as mentioned above); articles on key women in photography, online magazines and support networks offering exposure to female photographers. Cooperation is the key message; many of these endeavors have been set up by women in the first place.

It seems that, while women “shy away from competition, men embrace it” (Niederle & Vesterlund, 2007). Psychology and cultural influence suggest some reasons this might be the case. One is that men like to compete; this is down to evolutionary factors and also educational ones (boys at school are encouraged to be assertive; girls to show empathy). Other theories include the fact that men are overconfident, less averse to feedback, and less risk averse (Niederle & Vesterlund, 2007). It may be that these gender traits and the socialization of these traits explains why fewer women enter competitions; “Given a choice, women were less likely than men to opt into a competitive setting” (Price, 2008). Perhaps there are less female winners in the 1854 Media Awards purely because there are less female entrants. In which case, women making up 38% of the finalists is not so bad. In other words, a statistic such as this only makes sense if it is relative.

This leads me to ask, why have a competition which is just for female photographers? What is this going to do, and is it beneficial to the industry? One of the theories behind women being less likely to enter competitions is due to “stereotype threat” (Price, 2008). This is the idea that when members of a group who are stereotyped as less capable are put in a position which will only confirm that stereotype, they are less likely to put themselves in that position. (Price, 2008). So, if women are deemed less capable as photographers, they may feel that competing against men would only confirm this fact. On the one hand, a competition for women would put paid to this, especially as research also shows that women only respond positively in a competitive situation when they are competing against other women (Price, 2008). But on the other hand, a competition for women photographers may serve to widen the divide between the genders, by confirming the stereotype that women are not as capable as men. I come back to the Google search; a search for “men in photography” comes up with articles about how to photograph a man. There is no need for specific male support networks, or lists of male photographers; to be a photographer is to be male.

The discourse about women in photography is all very well, but it’s nothing new. Almost 50 years ago Linda Nochlin wrote her seminal essay, Why have there been no great women artists? She concluded that the answer is there have been none, not because women aren’t capable, but down to the societal constraints put on women. She argues that genius is not necessarily innate, but that it needs time and education in order to be nurtured. Because of women’s obligation in a domestic role, she argues, they haven’t had the space and time to become “Great Artists” (Nochlin, 1971). Her question refers to the lack of women in classical painting, and she does recognize key female artists who have had success more recently. But it is also more recently that women have had the chance at an (art) education, and the profession of artist (or photographer) has come to be less frowned upon as a career. It’s astonishing to think it’s only really been in my lifetime that it has become normal for women to work; I remember my sisters-in-law (who are 20 years older than me) in the 1980s and early 1990s hiring a nanny to look after their kids so that they could go back to work, much to my mother’s disdain.

These problems are starting to be addressed albeit slowly. Female in Focus will however barely contribute to discourse, because it is a competition. By its very nature, some people will gain, others will lose. Those who will gain the most are not the women who win the exhibition in New York, with added exposure and a certain validation of their work. Those who will gain the most will be the organizers. Herein lies my cynicism with photography competitions generally; all too often it seems that they are more for the benefit of the organizers than the photographers themselves. The industry must play its part and support women (The British Press Photographers’ Association is a case in point; 34 out of 36 of the chosen images to be in an a high profile exhibition are made by men; there is a way to go yet!) but it must also be careful not to create a “women in photography” bandwagon that exploits us with false promises.

Georgia O Keefe famously said, “The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters” (Chadwick, 2012). Similarly, the term “women in photography” is patriarchal. I am a photographer; I don’t want to be judged by my gender, but rather by the merit of my work. And to do that, my work needs to stand besides, not apart, from the work made by men.


Carole Evans is a photographer, lecturer and co-founder of Portrait Salon. Themes of heritage, nostalgia, and community are recurrent in her practice. She is Senior Lecturer of Contextual Studies at Ravensbourne University London, and contributes to the Theory Lecture programme of the BA (hons) Photography course at UCA Farnham.

Photo: Rockcliffe Leek Club held its sixth annual show at the Rockcliffe Arms, Whitley Bay. September, 1913 [Source]

Chadwick, W (2012) Women, Art and Society London; Thames & Hudson
Heartney, E (2004) Postmodernism London; Tate
Niederle, M & Vesterlund, L (2007) “Do women shy away from competition? Do men compete too much?” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 122, No. 3 (Aug., 2007), pp. 1067-1101
Nochlin, L (1971) Why have there been no great women artists? Available on Academia.edu [Accessed May 2019]
Price, J (2008) “Gender Differences in the Response to Competition”, ILR Review, Vol. 61, No. 3 (Apr., 2008), pp. 320-333
Female in Focus (2019) Available at: https://femaleinfocus.com/. Accessed May 2019.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

1 comment

Leave a Reply to Lucy Carolan Cancel reply

  • There are other factors to take into account, not mentioned in this piece. One thing that bothered me personally is the word ‘female’. In French, ‘femelle’, when applied to women rather than animals, is pejorative, intended to be insulting.

    But, more importantly, there’s the fact that ‘Female in Focus’ is pay-to-play – like all of 1854’s competitions, you either pay a fee per entry, or can enter for ‘free’ if you take up paid membership. The cynical side of me immediately thought, oh look, BJP has finally clicked that there are a lot of women photographers out there, and found this specific way to make money out of them?

    Are women really less competitive than men – is not forwarding such an idea a way of reinforcing a stereotype, suggesting women need a different way of competing? What if we just can’t afford, or refuse to ‘compete’ when this means financially supporting an organisation like 1854? I haven’t bothered entering any of its other award, such as ‘Portrait of Britain’, for the exact same reason. In this respect, being a woman has nothing to do with it.

Writing on photography