Give Us Features, Not Flowers

Examining gender bias in the photography industry and digital landscape

Table of Contents

Summary

This research project was a labor of love, examining gender biases in the digital landscape. 

It is composed of original research collected by examining Instagram profiles of leading camera brands, their ambassador programs, and Google search results in the US and UK. In which we analyzed their presentation of women photographers compared to men. 

We also interviewed five professional female photographers over email about their experiences of gender bias in the industry. 

These results are also compared to statistics around the representation of women photographers in the industry, the discrimination they face in the workplace, unconscious bias, and the #MeToo movement of the photography industry. Closing the report up with how you can help support women photographers.

All data from this study was collected between Jan and Feb 2022. First published 4 March 2022.

Who Are We

Wallflower Studios is a creative content marketing agency based in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Founded by Sandra Potisek and Helene Jelenc. Learn more.

Both of us became interested in photography as children and grew up with cameras attached to our sides. Our frustrations with the lack of opportunities and representation inspired us to dive deep into the reality and lived experiences of women photographers. 

Introduction

Women have been equally active in photography since its very beginnings. Although not always credited, they were some of the earliest trailblazers who photographed alongside their male peers, developing and advancing the earliest photographic methods. 150 years on, we’re still very much involved and it’s safe to say there’s no shortage of women in photography these days. However, gender bias and inequality are still very apparent.

Not only are women photographers, on average, earning 40% less than their male counterparts, but we are being severely underrepresented in all areas – commercial projects, publications, awards, exhibitions, and even social media, which is especially frustrating.

Social media is the one medium that offers a somewhat equal playing field. No matter what your background is and how many industry connections you have, you can put your work out there for everyone to see. But despite us being active participants, the photography world on social media still feels like a boy’s club, with the leading photography brands, which have the power to change the dynamic, facilitating it.

Ambassadorships and brand deals are disproportionately given to men. Whenever a new camera comes out, YouTube gets flooded with camera reviews, but you can find barely any women creators involved in campaigns, like in this case

Unfortunately, even after being called out, brands fail to rectify the imbalance. Every camera brand out there has at least double, triple, or quadruple the number of male vs female ambassadors, and the representation of women photographers on the brands’ own social media profiles, which you’ll see from our research below, is also lagging behind. 

The research on the representation of women on camera brands’ social media accounts was prompted by our own frustrations. While Helene is more of a hobbyist, photography plays a huge role in Sandra’s professional work. 

Sandra wanted to share her experiences of gender biases in the community and industry. From camera shop assistants addressing a man by her side when coming in to buy new camera gear despite making it clear she is the actual photographer and paying for everything too, to a fellow male photographer being surprised she knows how to shoot manual when on a *photography* trip.

“Because women are usually not very technical and stick to auto”.

The number of times men try to haggle over prices or make sexist remarks while on the job is downright insulting, too. The list goes on, and every woman photographer I’ve ever spoken to had stories to tell. Men? Not so much. But dealing with sexist individuals is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s the ignorance on a large scale that hurts the most. Growing up, I’ve only ever been exposed to male photographers while browsing through my favorite magazines, feeling like I can never become “a part of the club”. 20 years later and scrolling through social media, the sentiment prevails.

Sandra Potisek

“It’s this weird assumption that women don’t know and understand technology and I have no idea where it stemmed from and why people decided cameras are boy toys only.” – Kaye Ford

Light on Representation, Heavy on Sexism

In 2019, Women Photograph found that the leading world newspapers were printing far fewer photographs from women than men. They continue to track the representation of women photographers and their latest data shows that not much has progressed since.

The problem with a lack of representation is that it doesn’t reflect current society. There are missing pieces to the puzzle. 

Women in photography is not new. They have been involved since the beginning and as early as the late 1800s there were professional women photographers. 

Doris Ulmann born in 1882 in the US is known for her portraits of the people of Appalachia. 

Julia Margaret Pattle was a British photographer that started a bit later in life after being gifted a camera from one of her daughters. Julia would go on to photograph Charles Darwin, among other famous men. 

How about Marie-Lydie Bonfiles, the first professional women photographer in the Middle East. Although of French descent, Marie-Lydie operated the most successful photo studio in Beirut and operated across Lebanon and surrounding countries. 

Gertrude Käsebier was an American photographer born in 1852 who helped start the Women’s Professional Photographers Association of America. She also went on to help found the Pictorial Photographers of America while mentoring other women interested in the industry.

Carrie Mae Weems was born in 1953 and is still an active photographer. She captures issues and moments relevant to the lives of African Americans. Unhappy with the lack of black women in popular media in the 80s she sought to capture these women while sharing their experiences. 

A study from 2017 (Muñoz-Muñoz and Gonzalez-Moreno) looked at the representation of women photographers at top museums in the world. The results are bleak. The worst performance was by Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg which had 63 artists. 98% of them were men while women only comprised less than 2% of artists. 

Tate Modern in English had a total of 31 artists being shown, 94% were men, 6% were women. 

The best museum, for representation, KIASMA in Helsinki which out of 163 artists shown, 36% were women and 64% men. 

We interviewed a handful of professional women photographers to share their experiences in the industry and any advice they have to offer to others. These experiences and quotes will be shared throughout the project. 

Their responses made it clear that sexism and discrimination are historical and ongoing in the photography industry. Kris Smith, one of our interviewees, shared that they have considered using a more gender-neutral name when using forums due to the way men are praised for their comments and women ignored.

This is just another barrier in the life of women attempting to navigate a “boys club” industry. 

“Can you carry that kit, love?” “Do you need a man to help you hold that?”

Discrimination in the Workplace

Every single interviewee we spoke with discussed some form of discrimination they experienced in the workplace. From simple acts like asking to speak with a man instead of to far more detrimental ones like being paid less or passed over for a job simply because they are a woman. 

Kaye Ford shared “I used to cover London Fashion Week and I used to get a lot of sexual comments from male press photographers in the press pit”. She also shared that she is primarily hired by women and couldn’t even remember the last time a man approached her for work. 

Associated Press found that 86% of their photo staff are men. 

Reuters’ photographers are 80% men. 

When looking at the photo bylines by gender, women are represented between 6-23% of the time, depending on the paper. 

Over the past 60 years, only eight women have received the Pulitzer for feature photography, and six for breaking news photography. 

And since 1955, the World Press Photography of the Year has gone to only four women. 

The latest stats from the US Bureau of Labor claim that in 2021, there were 192,000 photographers employed and 49.3% of them are women. So we can safely assume that women are indeed photographers and account for nearly half. 

One might assume, well that is great! Almost half of the employed photographers are women. Well, it isn’t that easy. 

As mentioned repeatedly, women photographers are less likely to be recognized, featured, or celebrated as much as men – in spite of making up 50% of the industry. And these opportunities quickly disappear if you are not white. 

83% of photographers working in the US are white, with Black photographers at 7%, Asian at 5%, and Latino at 14%.

The State of News Photography report from 2018 shares that more than half of participants of their study were white, 80% men, and only 1% of respondents classified as Black. Photographers that identify as non-white were much more likely to cite physical risk at work and 69% of women reported discrimination in the workplace.

One participant shared the complexity of race in the industry, “a female photographer from a richer and better-connected family will have opportunities I will not have, but I’ll still be chosen before a black male photographer”.

This is not okay to discriminate based on the color of one’s skin. Do we really need to say that?

Kris Smith said she believes there are more opportunities for men and it’s for a variety of reasons

“First, it’s still a boy’s club and most of them won’t reach out to women to lead a workshop, go on a hike, do backpacking or other long trips or contribute to blogs, magazines, symposiums, or exhibitions. When they do it’s often a token position; an addition to round out the diversity. They won’t bump a man for a woman.”

The National Endowment for the Arts estimates that the median income for women photographers in the United States is about half of that for men.

Inequalities in Ambassadorships

Speaking of the workplace, ambassadorships from major camera brands is a coveted title for many professional photographers. 

Camera brands create these programs to promote their products. They invite people respected or up and coming in the industry and it is great exposure for any professional. Unfortunately, many of these ambassador programs continue to support a specific demographic – not the one that reflects society. 

In 2021, Canon US nominated 12 women photographers out of 38 ambassadors, and this year it is just 14 out of 36. It is even worse for Canon Europe which has 109 ambassadors and only 14 are women. 

In the Philippines, Canon ambassadors were all men. Nikon Asia announced their new brand ambassadors for their flagship camera and all 32 were men

I find it a bit hypocritical that Canon even wrote an article about why there aren’t more female photojournalists. Our response? Maybe if there was more representation or opportunities offered to women as they are to men. 

They aren’t alone in missing the whole picture. 

 

Sony Alpha US has 141 ambassadors and only 42 are women while the Europe ambassador program has 95 members and only 9 are women.

FujiFilm has 28 US ambassadors in their program, only 9 are women. In their European ambassadorship, there are 256 members and only 29 are women. 

I do want to note that one participant works with FujiFilm Italia, and added that while they are one of her best clients, she also felt it relevant to add that the whole brand team is composed of women. 

Nikon’s numbers are a bit better, but this may also be due to the small size of their program. In the US, there are 15 women out of 34 ambassadors. For Nikon Europe, with 22 ambassadors, only 7 are women. 

The representation for POC was even lower than that of women.

We couldn’t help ourselves after seeing these results. We wanted to look into how often these brands presented women photographers in comparison to men.

Ambassador Program + Location

Total # of Ambassadors

Total # of Women

Nikon USA

34

15

Nikon Europe

22

7

Canon USA

36

14

Canon Europe

109

32

Sony Alpha USA

141

42

Sony Alpha Europe

95

9

Fujifilm USA

28

9

Fujifilm Europe

256

29

“When attending events with multiple photographers, I’ve often been the only woman.” – Bobbi Symone

Invisible on the Timeline

Sandra is a life-long Nikon user who stays current with the latest gear by following the brand on social media. Since she lives in Slovenia, their local Facebook page is one of her go-to, but she couldn’t drop the feeling that posts only contain features of male photographers. 

Why aren’t women being featured? Why are there no women Nikon ambassadors in Slovenia? Was she just missing the posts or is the profile really so men-centric? A bit of deep scrolling and — spoiler alert — it’s not the algorithms hiding the posts. 

In 2021, only three women had their work featured on the timeline in the entire year. With that in mind, we decided to see what the situation is on other camera brands’ social media accounts.

Methods

We analyzed Instagram accounts of five of the leading camera brands – Nikon, Canon, Sony, Fujifilm, and GoPro for 2021 posts. To allow us to have richer data and to maybe identify patterns we looked at both USA and European accounts. 

In cases where European accounts didn’t exist, UK accounts were used instead. We also chose to include Slovenian Facebook accounts for Nikon and Canon. The other brands are not present in this market. 

Instead of counting individual posts, this research counts how many times a woman photographer (or videographer) was featured. For example, if a carousel had 5 posts and 2 were from women photographers, 5 is added to the total, 2 is added to features of women. 

In the rare few cases where I couldn’t figure out a featured photographer’s gender by checking their social media profile or website, the feature wasn’t included in the count.

Results

Below are the results of our analysis. We can see that women were featured less often across the board.

Women photographers appeared in 16-39% of the features, with Nikon taking the lead (39% Nikon Europe, 38% Nikon USA), but also having their Slovenian account being one of the worst with only 17%.

At the bottom, Nikon Slovenija is also joined by GoPro (16% GoPro USA, 17% GoPro UK), which also goes to show how male-centric not only photography but extreme sports are as well.

Gender Bias in Search Results

When we first sat down and decided to do this project, we knew that we wanted to examine a few different angles. We analyzed Instagram representation as well as ambassadorships, but we were also curious about the search landscape. 

Methods

To create a comparison, we took two different keywords and compared SERPs from Google US vs Google UK. 

SEranking* was used to identify relevant keywords that matched a specific user intent. The user intent is someone who wants to find professional photographers to follow on the largest photo platform, Instagram, and if someone is interested in finding lists of top photographers. 

“Best photography Instagram accounts” and “best photographers” were chosen as matching this intent; the closest and similar keywords around these two yields the same results. 

Search results were exported for each keyword, from each country, and then we visited the top websites. 

Data was collected the first week of March 2022. 

Also, a VPN was used to access local results to identify any relevant rich results.

*affiliate link

“best photography Instagram accounts”

For the UK results, there were 276 photographers featured on the first page of the results. Of those, only 46 were women. 

For the US results, there were 216 photographers featured on the first page of results. Of those, only 61 were women. 

Women were represented 28% of the time on US search results and in the UK, only 17% of the time.

Articles like this or this or even this would make you believe that women just simply aren’t photographers – or not good enough to be on the list. Some articles don’t list a single woman, while others include us as an afterthought.

best photographers

The results for “best photographers” in the UK promoted 225 photographers on the first page of results while only 61 were women. That means women photographers were featured only 27% of the time. 

In the US, there were some slightly different results. There were 353 photographers found on the first page of the results and 142 of them were women. Before you celebrate a lovely 40%, these results are skewed for a specific reason. 

The 9th result in the US is for wedding photography and features 109 photographers of which 81 of them are women. Women are often associated with wedding, pregnancy, or family photography. Kaye Ford shared in her responses that “That isn’t always the case. The general public sees a woman photographer and assume a majority of us shoot romantic images.”

Rich results from Google US
Rich results from Google UK

Rich Results Inequality

The SERP for “best photographers” also contains a slider of various famous photographers along with their photos. Click on the photo will bring up Google search results for that person. It features 53 different photographers and only 9 of which are women.

On the side of the US search results, there were 51 results and only 9 were women. 

So is this a reflection of the industry? Or is it more of society? What does it say about Google, as these pages were considered quality enough to be on the first page?

I don’t entirely have the answers to these questions. From our research, we found that women are indeed photographers and seemingly at the same rate, if not a bit more than men, but that would be difficult to assess if simply looking at who is featured or getting the jobs. 

Let’s face it. Photography has been a boys club for a long time. 

Women are photographers, too. Just look at the thousands and thousands of blogs and Instagram accounts of talented women behind a camera.

In the US, as revealed in a TEDx talk by the celebrated photographer Jill Greenberg, 92% of adverts are shot by men, as are 85% of magazine covers. Despite the fact that 85% of consumer purchases are made by women.

Unconscious Bias

The most uncomfortable part of this research project was the implicit bias that is embedded throughout. An implicit, or unconscious, bias is social stereotype that an individual may have about certain groups of people. This can be around age, sex, gender, religion, nationality, race, etc.  

Everyone has some degree of unconscious biases. Scientists believe they develop very early in childhood and while they do affect your behavior, they can be unlearned. 

McKinsey and Company researched implicit bias in the workplace and found that it is a barrier holding women back. They also clarify that it is slightly different than sexism 

Some interview responses mentioned that women have less time than men since they are doing most of the work in the home or raising children. That it isn’t possible for women with children to take job assignments that require them to be away from home. 

Just to challenge this notion, why isn’t the work within the home shared by the family? 

Others discussed how women are socially conditioned to act in a specific way which leads them to be less likely to speak up or be overshadowed by male colleagues. 

Kris Smith shared “Speaking frankly, the ugliest and most incompetent male vlogger will be better received than a polished and accomplished woman. Oh, and she better be drop-dead gorgeous. Otherwise the trolling will be merciless. Women just aren’t willing to put up with that and so their expertise, wisdom, and creative power is hidden and we aren’t able to take up a leadership position in the same way men can and do.”

Photography’s #MeToo movement

While there have been several #MeToo movements within the photography industry, there is still much to be done. An article posted in the Columbia Journalism Review shared accounts of sexual harassment and abuse perpetrated by David Alan Harvey at Magnum Photos. 

Vox dropped an exclusive in 2018 exposing a photo editor, Patrick Witty from National Geographic, who was harassing his colleagues with predatory behavior. 

World premier photojournalism agency, VII, announced Antonin Kratochvil’s resignation over allegations that he was groping and intimidating colleagues. 

Several fashion photographers have also lost work contracts due to their sexual exploitation back in 2019. Aperture reported on the fashion photography industry’s need for the #MeToo movement offered an in-depth analysis on why we need to question who is behind and in front of the camera.

One of the participants we interviewed worked as a model before becoming a photographer. She shared how she was sexually objectified by male photographers, that the clothing choices were sexualized and the poses were lewd. 

The lack of women photographers motivated her, she shared “to give other women what I always wanted, the chance to create the photos I really wanted while not feeling pressured and/or unsafe”.

“I mainly work as a music photographer, which is already a very male dominated industry. In the past, I’ve had to put up with male artists making a ‘pass’ at me while working, being kicked out of DJ booths because they couldn’t see my camera and just thought I was a ‘groupie’. I’ve also been groped in crowds (a lot!).” – Pippa Rankin

Statistics about women in the photography industry

  • Only 18% of The Association of Photographers’ accredited members are women.
  • Equal Lens has found that less than 25% of the commercial photographers represented by 70 of the industry’s leading agents are female.
  • 69% of women photographers said that they faced discrimination in the workplace. When further asked about obstacles to success, they cited sexism (54%), industry stereotypes or practices (53%), and lack of opportunities for women (49%).
  • 18% of the AOP’s accredited photographers and assistant photographers are women – compared with 75% of its student members.
  • Between 2012 and 2017, women made up just 15% of entries to the World Press Photo awards, according to the New York Times.
  • While teaching workshops and classes, Sim Chi Yin has seen a surge of young, female Asian photographers who look to her as a mentor. Many of them have to struggle to be taken seriously, because of prejudices against both gender and age, particularly in China.
  • The National Union of Journalists says their female membership of photographers and videographers is 17%; the British Press Photographers Association reports 12.5%, and the Association of Photographers puts their female Accredited and Assisting Photographers at just 18% – by contrast, 75% of their student membership is female.
  • Although 70-80% of recent photography graduates are female, women still make up only 15% of professional photographers.
  • Women photographers are earning, on average, 40% less than their male counterparts.

“I see so many women just miss out on jobs all the time and what happens is a lot of the male photographers who get that work go on to get more of it because they have [those jobs] in their portfolio, and it becomes this perpetual cycle that makes the gap wider,” – Jaki Jo Hannan for Creative Review

How to Help Support Women Photographers

We need to develop a culture that supports the education of digital skills to women, girls, and other marginalized populations as tools to succeed.

UNESCO wrote a report around this topic and found that even if women are tech-savvy, they might not understand how to leverage digital technologies to their full potential (West et al). This is regarding networking, sharing their portfolios, or simply looking for a job. 

The solution? Access to education. They found that it narrowed the gender gap in internet access, allowed more independence for women, and had a multitude of positive effects.

This problem will only continue to persist. Women should be encouraged to learn technical and digital skills. They are the industries of the future and are currently paying above-average wages. 

Another part of the UNESCO study found that despite their strong performance in computer and information literacy, girls do not have confidence in their skills. 

The solution? Support and mentor girls and women in the industry. Create or join a local community group where you can provide workshops or programs for young people interested in photography. 

Kaye Ford offers advice to budding photographers by sharing to network as much as possible. Send those emails with the confidence of a man and don’t be afraid to take risks. With all of the tools available today, it is much easier to connect with like-minded people. Pippa Rankin also stresses to work with each other, not against each other, and to not fall short on your fee. 

Adding to that, Sara Lando shared that making space for others as you grow, nurturing communities, and sharing opportunities with your network. Bobbi Symone said don’t get discouraged, and she also agrees that joining an online community can help improve the experience. 

Bella Falk, another interviewee, shared that it can be hard to balance work and family, especially if you have children. She believes there is an appetite to hire more women, but we need to break out of our shells.

If you’re a new photographer, Elsie Kibue-Ngare suggests to start at the local/grassroots level and work your way up. She also stresses the importance of having a website (even in this day of social media) and recommends sticking to your niche. “In the case of sports photography, if you can, put your focus on one sport that you enjoy and photograph it. It is the best way to grow as a photographer in that field.” 

Digital skills, including photography, are skills that can not only allow women to express themselves in creative ways but can also bring economic benefits. This of course depends on the availability of opportunities for marginalized groups. 

Therefore we suggest the following solution. Hire women, especially women of color, non-binary, and other marginalized voices. Include more women in your projects, campaigns, and pay them a fair and equitable wage. 

  • Black Women Photographers has a global directory of over 1000 black photographers to hire, or Native Agency which features professional photographers from under-represented regions. 
  • Organizations like Hundred Heroine offer support for women in photography.
  • She Sees’ is an organization to support young women in film.
  • Foto Feminas supports women photographers in Latin America and the Caribbean.
  • Authority Collective is a group with more than 200 women, non-binary, and gender-expansive people of color working in photography, film, and VR/AR.

Are you a photographer that is feeling underrepresented? We encourage you to apply for grants this year. Get that cash and make your art. 

Women Photograph and Black Women Photographers keep an ongoing list of grants and deadlines. 

Ethnovision also offers a range of financial grants to support photographers.

Enough gatekeeping.

Enough misrepresentation.

Let’s create a supportive, inclusive, and collaborative environment because there is enough room at the table for all to eat. 

“Western photo editors prefer sending American and European photojournalists to cover Egypt and Middle East, instead of giving local photographers like me the chance to work.”  – Eman Helal for Lens

Sources

Muñoz-Muñoz, Ana-M & Gonzalez-Moreno, Maria. (2017). The Presence of Women Photographers in the Permanent Collections of Ten European Museums. Curator: The Museum Journal 2151-6952. 60. 205-2016. 10.1111/cura.12198. 

West, Mark, Rebevva Kraut, and Han Ei Chew. (2019). I’d blush if I could: Closing gender divides in digital skills through education. EQUALS and UNESCO.