Amongst the eight panelists who will be speaking at SILK INSPIRE 2017, only one photographer is a woman. This fact raised several comments criticizing the decision for not consciously creating a gender-equal panel. But should festivals like SILK INSPIRE pay special attention to ensure equal representation of men and women panelists, or should the panel be decided based on other criteria and disregard any gender issues?
Including only one woman in a panel of eight certainly is problematic in many ways. It’s a overesight that Sephi Bergerson, the organizer of SILK INSPIRE festival, admits to committing. However, he continues, this was not a deliberate decision, and gender certainly had nothing to do with it.
“Photography as power distributed equally among both the sexes has a long way to go. As we have observed, there are so many talented women who aren’t taken into consideration to represent us in conferences. Ironically we never realised that women weren’t there in the conference until it was pointed out! That’s the state we are in… we accept and respect men as superiors generally… nothing by force actually! Women in this profession are respected but not to the extent that power can be handed over”. – Bagavathi Aditya
The truth is, that even if you asked me, a woman writer and photographer, to list six of my favorite authors, I would not have made a conscious attempt to include more female authors than males, or have a list where the female to male ratio is equal. I would have given you the names of the authors that have impacted me. This was the same thought that drove SILK to select the 2017 panelists—the best of the best in the wedding industry. It’s not that there aren’t female photographers who fit the title, they simply went with the ones they were most familiar with, or whose work they have been following for a while. But, familiarity can be limiting. This is where Bergerson admits to be wrong. However, why is the quest so difficult?
The Differences Among Photographers Cannot Be Simplified Down To Gender
In the five years that I have spent writing on the subject of photography, I have interviewed a wide range of photographers. And a majority of them were male. The thought had come up a few times, and over the years, I have made an effort to consciously interview female photographers. However, my list has yet to reflect the equalization of this disparity. Then again, the expectation that photography as a profession should equally represent or distribute power to male and female photographers is not something that can only be achieved by those holding important positions in the industry. It’s up to all of us (women) to make our voices heard. There are opportunities today. Yes, they’re hard to acquire, because as women, we have to try a little harder, and constantly prove that we too are capable of taking up strenuous tasks associated with photo assignments and projects.
But let’s face an important fact. You and I don’t quite feature in this group, for the only reason that most of us do have some resources at our disposal (an education, some finance, access to individuals from the community). But what about the women who don’t have access to these resources? How are they supposed to transcend the deeply ingrained cultural differences, without access to any of the primary resources? I say this with reference to a recent story I did on the photographs made by children rescued from sex trafficking and children of sex workers. I was happy to see that a majority of the photographers were females, and quite a few of them are interested in pursuing photography. The only question is, how do we ensure that they pass all the cultural and economic barriers to not make it big, but to earn a living by photographing full time?
“Photography, as a profession, can’t “distribute power evenly” to both sexes and/or “give it’s due to women.” Both of these ideals have to be achieved through people (like you, yes you… the person reading this post), the decisions they make, the things they decide to stand up for, the things they decide to ignore and, most importantly, their actions (not their intentions). That being said, many of those at the forefront of the industry, responsible for the “distribution of power,” are not yet to the point where they are taking a systematic approach to ensuring equality. This is evident, for example, in the current Silk lineup, and the 2017 PEP lineup (to mention but a few of many examples). Equality will only be achieved when there is an intentional deviation from the norm. Unfortunately, “the norm” throughout history and to this day, has most often been determined by males. The “new norm” must come from having a standard for equal representation, regardless of who is considered to be at “the top.” Only then, can the system of inequality start to change.” – Erika Mann
With regards to the wedding photography industry in India, there has certainly been a rise in the number of female photographers who have made their presence felt in the recent years. Not enough though. “Ideally the gender of the photographer shouldn’t matter at all, when selecting a photographer for a wedding assignment. But we don’t live in an ideal world. Assumptions are made and judgments are arrived at based on that. However, based on my personal experience, irrespective of gender, the photographer needs to prove their worth and the value that they’ll add to the assignment. A sensible person will take decisions based on talent, connection, trust and comfort,” says Sharmila Shah, a wedding photographer from Bangalore.
Adding to this, Erika Mann of TwoMann Studios, a renowned wedding photographer couple from Canada, mentioned, “The differences among photographers cannot be simplified down to their gender. Every single photographer brings a different set of experiences. It’s these experiences that shape the way they see the world, and as a result, the way they photograph it. Even though females may have similar experiences, they ‘live’ and process these experiences differently. I see and experience this bias all the time with Lanny (her husband, and business partner) and me. People automatically put us in boxes, assuming that Lanny takes all the ‘epic landscape’ shots, and I take all of the ‘moment’ shots. It’s our human nature to put people into boxes based on what we think we know about them. The problem arises when we don’t admit we have these biases, and we let our ego get in the way of admitting them. We all have biases, every single one of us. It’s only when we acknowledge them that we can work to rectify them.”
“Neither can photography as a profession distribute power evenly between sexes, nor can wedding photography give it’s due to women photographers. No one asked Erika (Erika Mann A.F) to put the ball in our court. She is using the “power” she holds in the community to create a balance. A top-down approach definitely helps. Equality does not come easy. Every single person can make a difference, whether big or small. When I decided to take up photography as a career, I unknowingly became a source of inspiration to everyone I know, as did all of us in the community. People distribute power, people give their dues, people make a difference. Most importantly, people shape the industry. And if people fail to even recognise an issue, there is not much to be done.” – Prasheila Lookhar
One important point that Erika has raised is the assigning of different roles to female and male photographers. Why is it assumed that men are better in photographing ‘difficult’ or ‘elaborate’ subjects, and that women are better at photographing subjects or situations that involve emotions? And if this is really the case, then why aren’t there more females running studios specializing in family portraits, or for that matter, women photographers covering the impact of conflict? “I’ve read some arguments as to why women are better poised as wedding photographers because they are more sensitive than men, understand the stakes involved in a wedding, etc. I find these to be sexist, even misogynist arguments.
Indian Society Still Sees Men As Naturally Suited To The Photographer Role
Having said that, the wedding industry has always been a highly gendered space. From Chettinad to Chandannagar, Indian society still sees men as naturally suited to the photographer role while other behind-the-scenes labour is relegated to women. But the trend in cities is encouraging as more and more women are finding satisfying careers in photography, mentions Mahesh Shantaram, a wedding and documentary photographer.
There are no immediate solutions to any of these questions, mainly owing to the fact that the answers lay buried, deep within difficult social and cultural issues. But the very fact that a lot of conversation is brewing up with regards to the disparity amongst male and female photographers is at least a step in the right direction. While it is important to consciously think about including more female artists in photography-related forums, what would really be ideal is to live in a world where none of us have to make special efforts to include women or for situation where women have to prove their mettle. Regardless, Sephi and SILK INSPIRE festival vouches to include an equal number of men and women on the panel of SILK INSPIRE 2018, and onward.
We would absolutely love to continue this discussion in the comments below, and we welcome constructive criticism. Please let us know what you think, and share your experiences. Let us use this platform to raise awareness to gender equality in India, and especially in the wedding photography industry. The more we talk about it, the more we contribute to change. We will also try to do a follow up post and elaborate further on the difficulties and challenges faced by women in the Indian wedding photography industry. See you in the comments.