Photography’s Macho Cult

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If you haven’t read Kainaz Amaria’s Photojournalism needs to face its #MeToo moment, yet, you might want to do that right now. There appears to be some sort of reckoning in the world of photojournalism happening even though as Amaria makes clear, the extent of that reckoning is not clear. A well-known photojournalist quietly resigned from an agency he had co-founded after a report was published “in which several women accused him of groping and intimidating a number of female colleagues.”

The agency itself — VII — let it be known that inquiries concerning the various alleged cases of sexual harassment be directed at the photographer — as if it had absolutely nothing to do with any of what is alleged to have happened in its midst. Hmm, OK. My feeling is that the bad-apple approach used here is unable to address if and how a problem might have been related to a larger context, that larger context here being VII itself and the world of photojournalism. But what do I know? Maybe that’s the plan?

Like most people, I’m not part of that world. I mostly know about it through stories that are being told and through talking to photojournalists themselves. “When an industry is so dominated by men at every level and at nearly every major institution,” Amaria writes, “a toxic culture toward women is the inevitable result.” The numbers presented in the article certainly are damning: it’s an industry dominated by men, “responsible for visually representing the world and its most vulnerable people.” (my emphasis)

Much to Amaria’s credit, the article outlines why exactly this dominance is so problematic. It’s not “merely” the fact that female photographers are systematically being disadvantaged. There also is the outcome in the form of the pictures. The following quote by Nina Berman aptly summarizes this outcome that we’re all visually so familiar with: “It’s basically an othering that comes from the belief that the man behind the camera has a privileged artistic sense, an inherent superiority despite rarely knowing the local language, or living in the region or neighborhood he’s covering, or having any sustained connection to what he’s seeing.”

It is, in other words, what makes photojournalism photojournalism: usually highly stylized pictures that more often than not are highly manipulative on an immediate emotional level, while at the same time shutting down any further, deeper insight into what is being depicted. It works (just look at the front pages of news sites or newspapers), and it doesn’t (ditto).

The conversation could easily stop right there, and that would be very convenient for all those who — like me — are not part of the world of photojournalism. But it’s really not that simple. What you see in the world of photojournalism is merely an expression (and variant) of something you can see everywhere else, something that can be summarized quite simply as a macho cult, which rewards very male aspects of photography and disadvantages the rest.

I realize this is a huge topic, and it’s very unlikely that I will be able to do it justice. Still, I want to give it a shot.

From what I hear, female and non-binary photographers are very much aware of the systemic disadvantages they have to deal with in an industry they are just as committed to as their male counterparts. These disadvantages are too numerous to list here. But you could start with, for example, this (or any previous) year’s Rencontres d’Arles Photography Festival, supposedly one of the most important photography festivals. A large number of artists have just published an open letter in one of France’s major newspapers, urging the festival’s director to take meaningful steps to fix the problem of a severe underrepresentation of female and non-binary photographers.

The overall problem goes further and deeper than this. I’m obviously writing this piece from the perspective of a white middle-aged male who simply does not have to deal with the challenges and obstacles faced by the people who are not part of my privileged group. I know what I know from trying to talk to as many people outside of my group as possible. That knowledge is incomplete.

But I also believe that even within my privileged group there are opportunities to witness the scales being tipped in our group’s favour. After all, the world of photography is built not just on institutions, it’s also built on a shared set of values, ideas, and assumptions, many of which have become part of what we call the history of photography. I believe that it’s not very hard to see how these values, ideas, and assumptions themselves betray a clear male bias. And that is what I want to get at in the following.

Here’s an example. Hear a group of photographers talk about Garry Winogrand, and you might imagine they’re describing a heroic firefighter who ran into a burning building to save a little child plus, magically, the child’s cat and its litter of newborn kittens. But no, it’s really just about a guy with what sounds like a bundle of issues who took pictures of people in the street in ways that most ordinary people, especially these days, would consider to be rude if not outright sketchy. Somehow that’s supposed to be cool, that you shove your camera into people’s faces and laugh off their discontent (it’s not). And the cult created around this particular photographer is mirrored by the cult created around many other of photography’s greats, the large majority of them men.

Or take the idea of the American road trip. There’s this romanticism about the lone-wolf photographer driving around in the United States with their van and 4×5, “for whom,” to quote from the the press text of a recent book about the subject, “the American road is muse” — today’s photo-world equivalent of the lone cowboy riding into the sunset. The book comes with an exhibition, with 17 artists in it (I’m counting the artistic duo as one artist here). Two of these 17 artists are women.

I’d like to make clear, though, that I don’t want to imply that there isn’t any artistic merit to either Winogrand or the road-trip book/exhibition. That’s not my point. My point is, and I could go on and on with examples: vast parts of the world of photography center on very male-centric topics, whether they’re male artists (who dominate the history of photography to a large extent because of the choices of a very small number of people — think John Szarkowski) or male ideas or approaches. And some of the most prominent examples veer into the territory that’s not merely male, it’s outright macho.

It might come as a surprise to some people that not all examples of a male-dominated world of photography are, for a lack of a better word, historical. Even relatively new developments such as, for example, Instagram are openly and explicitly biased against women. In the case of Instagram, this means its censorship concerning the depiction of the female body, whether it’s nipples or breastfeeding. Of course, these kinds of more recent examples can be directly traced back to Silicon Valley’s own huge problems with gender discrimination.

The “macho” above doesn’t mean a literal machismo — some guy swaggering in and talking as if this were a saloon (needless to say, examples of this behaviour certainly exist). Instead, I also and especially mean a widely accepted dismissal of many other and equally valid approaches to the point that we aren’t even aware of them.

“One thing about which fish know exactly nothing is water,” wrote Marshall McLuhan in War & Peace in the Global Village, “since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to perceive the element they live in.” We all are the fish, and this very male-centric, often outright macho environment of photoland is the water. It’s pervasive. It’s everywhere.

This situation is problematic for a large variety of reasons. The most extreme examples are described by Kainaz Amaria in her article. But these examples aren’t disconnected from all the rest — it’s maybe just those patches where the water is murkiest.

We have to come to a much better understanding of how much we have accepted and internalized so many ideas in photography that derive from a very male mindset. This is especially important since the rest of the world is moving ahead, and it will continue to move ahead with or without us.

The world of Winogrand — street photography — is already trying to come to terms with it: people on the street don’t want some guy stick their camera into their faces without their permission. It’s simply not acceptable any longer. In many countries in Europe it’s now outright illegal to do so. Europe’s new privacy laws treat photographs as data, and it gives its citizens the right to decide what can and cannot be done with their data. If you take a photo of someone, it’s not your data — it’s theirs. You will need their consent. Some countries have enacted legislation to make sure photographers’ rights are protected within reason.

There are two possible responses to this situation. One would be to do street photography anyway, the public be damned — what do they know about art anyway? That’s the macho approach, right in line with street photography’s inherent machismo. The other response would be to acknowledge the changed times and to come to terms with it. At the very least, that might entail a changed approach. After all, what good is photographing in the street as if it still were 1960 or 1970 anyway?

For many photographers the fall back is to basically revert to what an outsider might see as self-indulgent posturing. This solution revolves around dismissing larger concerns and insisting on one’s role as an artist, an artist who in the name of art can do anything. For me, that doesn’t cut it. I get where that’s coming from (the history of art). And I understand the idea of the freedom of art. But if your art comes at the expense of someone else — isn’t there then that other person’s (or group’s) freedom that needs to be considered, too? In general, what good is your freedom if the same freedom is explicitly or implicitly denied to others?

At the core of discussions around the many problems around photography, this encroachment of another person’s or group’s freedoms is the main topic to be considered, whether it’s photojournalists helicoptering in to make dramatic pictures for their newspaper’s front pages, female and non-binary photographers being denied the opportunities that males take for granted, the public rejecting the idea that it’s simply OK to photograph them without explicit consent, or whatever else.

Ultimately, acknowledging and solving these problems can only enrich the world of photography. It can only lead to a situation that is more and more and finally fully inclusive in all senses of the world, where, for example, 50% of photographers are female, whether it’s at Arles or in the scrums around a Supreme Court nominee. It can only lead to a world where the voices of all are being heard, and they’re not only heard but also depicted using the sensibilities of all — not just, to take the example of photojournalism — the aggressive male.

We fish have to become aware of the water we swim in. And when I say “we fish” I am mostly speaking to my Western male colleagues. I don’t mean to exclude the other fish — having talked to them I know very well about the problem. The world of photography has served us male fish well. But it must not serve us well any longer at the expense of everybody else. That has got to stop: the sooner the better. And for that to happen, we have to start looking at how some of the most basic ways we deal with and talk about photography find their origins in male thinking.