Street Photography’s Man Problem

When the Italian Street Photography Festival launched their April 2018 event late last year, there wasn’t a single woman named among the nineteen guests on the festival program. 

The Italian festival was not the first to launch with such a big man problem, so when Julia told me to check out the program online, my expectations were low. 

After all, male guests outnumbered women five to one at the three main European street festivals in 2017. For featured presenter and workshop leader roles the gender gap was even greater. American street festivals had a better record during the year, but men also dominated in presenter and workshop leader roles at their events.

It’s been argued that the absence of women from street events is just a consequence of the participation gap between men and women in street photography. There are more active male street photographers, so all other things being equal, it’s understandable that more men are invited to festivals, right? 

Indeed, when I’ve asked festival organisers about their man problem, they have pointed to the raw numbers as their first line of defence.  London Street Photography Festival (LSPF) organiser Dmitry Stepanenko told me that the festival wanted to feature more women, but they just couldn’t find them. Dmitry wrote:

“I completely agree that this is a problem and really hope that more women become active photographers and show their works to the public. We welcome all women photographers to take part in the festival and are going to discuss this issue at a panel discussion.”

Italian Street Photography Festival organiser Alex Liverani was a little more direct. The main problem, he explained in a recent Skype call, was that while they had invited a few women prior to the launch, they were struggling to identify any who had a sufficiently high profile in the street community, and who would qualify to be featured alongside their high status male guests. 

Alex and Dmitry were both arguing that women’s invisibility is, at it’s heart, a consequence of scarcity. If only more women were active and promoted their work, and if only some of those women were good enough to have a high profile, then more of them would be invited to street festivals.

That reasoning is rather superficial, and problematic, in at least three ways:

First, it suggests that the work already being produced by women is not of a high enough standard to merit their inclusion at festivals. 

Second, it suggests that women are solely responsible for their own invisibility, and must spend time and energy fixing the problem. 

And most importantly, it ignores the historical and social context of women’s participation in street, and the social factors that influence their interaction with the street community, and the work they make. 

It’s true that there are more men than women doing photography and that’s probably even more true of street, for complex reasons that are beyond the immediate scope of this post. And the way that internalised sexism works, women are less likely to promote themselves, enter competitions, start or join collectives or be active on social media.

But scarcity is no justification for exclusion when there are talented women already producing great work. 

Spend time at Casey Meshbesher’s Her Side of the Street website to see what I mean. Casey has tons of articles, galleries, interviews and videos of women street photographers from across the world.  In her interviews she asks her featured photographers about their experiences being women in street. Go read their responses . Casey maintains a canonical list and a map, and there’s an interview with her here where she offers some thoughts about why women may not be so attracted to the street genre. 

(In my original post of this article I neglected to link to this important piece, an interview by Siri Thompson on women in street with Charlotte Reynolds, Didi S. Gilson and Chris Moxey).

So if there are talented women already shooting street, what’s behind the gender gap at street events? What is keeping women from active involvement in the street community?

What little research there is on women in street photography has found that the genre has always been a male domain. Tracy Packer, in her BA(Hons) dissertation Where are the women street photographers?  (University of the West of England, 2012), found that women were largely absent from the published texts on street she analysed. 

Packer found that even in the language of street, masculine culture has been dominant. For example, she notes that words like “hardcore”, “guerrilla” and “elite” are used by men to describe popular Flickr groups where edgy, confronting images, almost all made by men, garner the most praise. And from the pre-internet age, Packer quoted photographer Joel Meyerowitz:

“Tough!” meant it was an uncompromising image, something that came from your gut, out of instinct, raw, of the moment, something that couldn’t be described in any other way. So it was TOUGH. Tough to like, tough to see, tough to make, tough to understand. The tougher they were, the more beautiful they became. It was our language.’(1994, endplate.) 

According to Packer, “Meyerowitz … is referring to the shared language of a kind of street photography tribe.” 

The most active and influential street tribes have been top heavy with men. And they defined the language and culture of street in their image, a legacy that is largely intact today. 

That explains why some women experience the street community as a boys club. They feel tolerated, but don’t feel like they fully belong, and that the deck is stacked against them. And that’s not just the view of women; many men I’ve spoken to are also alienated by the overtly male culture of street.

That situation isn’t unique to street photography;  it’s a legacy of history. 

It’s not so long ago that only men were considered good enough to play in orchestras or have their paintings shown in galleries. And it’s only relatively recently that women have been, to any significant degree, free to have creative lives of their own. 

There is overlap between women and men’s creative visions, and they can also be different and distinct. But historically it has been men’s ways of doing things, men’s perspectives and men’s vision that have been the standard against which creative achievements have been measured.

Is that dynamic present in street? Of course it is. By what miracle would street photography not have been touched by that kind of systemic and casual sexism? That said, I don’t believe women’s exclusion from festivals is malicious or intentional. It is instead the consequence of a kind of laziness, an absence of forethought, and the unconscious weight of tradition.

Organising a festival is complicated. And change is uncomfortable, disruptive and takes more effort. 

But gatekeepers in the street community - curators, festival organisers, and online and print publishers, influential collectives - must show leadership by listening to women, thinking seriously about gender in street photography in all its complexity, and making decisions that move things forward in creative, inclusive and equitable ways, for the benefit of us all.

In the past few weeks festival organisers have let me know about some of their plans for this year’s events. They appear more informed and more committed to equity, and not just in terms of women’s participation - they recognise that diversity and inclusivity is a broader issue. 

For example, London Street Symposium organiser Nick Turpin tells me that their festival is committed to featuring women and people of colour in visible roles at their next event, and also as members of the organising group.

They are also thinking about why women might be less drawn to street than to other photographic practices. That’s a useful discussion to have, but only if it focusses on gender and street photography in the broadest sense, and not on what’s (apparently) wrong with women!

The LSPF is also moving to improve their record. So far, for the 2018 festival, they expect to have roughly equal numbers of women and men on judging panels, and plan to have a strong representation of female photographers as presenters. I hear there are more women on their organising group, too.

And in a better-late-than-never move, the Italian festival eventually sought advice and reached out to more women, and at the time of writing five have been added to the guest list, alongside the nineteen men announced on launch day. It’s a low fence to jump, but now at they have at least matched the other festivals. 

Have we reached a turning point? Will the Italian festival be the last to launch with a serious man problem? 

We’ll see. 

With the future in mind, here are a few ideas that might help organisers create inclusive events, and an inclusive community. Some of these ideas have been gleaned from conversations with women and festival organisers, and some are my own:

  • Men, speak up and give way. If you are invited to feature at a festival, ask the organisers about inclusivity, and suggest that your place on the program be balanced by an invitation to a woman. If the festival has poor or non-existent policies on inclusion, decline the invitation and tell them why. Turning down an appearance will be difficult, but as a high profile male street photographer, you can make a difference by speaking up.
  • Festival organisers, seek advice and start talking with women at the start of your planning process, and launch your event with women already confirmed on your guest list. 
  • I have heard from women who received invitations some time after events were announced, but they were unable to attend at short notice. Invite women early, recognising that they might have caring responsibilities, or less flexibility to travel, and need as much notice as possible.
  • By all means invite a couple of big names to attract interest, but cut it out with the revolving door of familiar male faces. Critically examine the criteria used to assess who is deserving of a featured role, and learn why context and diversity of experience need to be taken into account in that decision making.
  • Don’t reinforce perceptions that street is a boys club, and definitely don’t select your own friends e.g. your fellow collective members, to feature heavily on your festival programs. That strategy might make things easier in your first year, but it’s lazy, and really dodgy.
  • Don’t invite collectives to feature unless there are women in that group. Featuring all-male collectives (especially in a program already top heavy with men) can tilt the balance of your program into “boys club” territory.
  • Some great photographers, including lots of women, want to speak at events, but currently lack the confidence to do so. Be encouraging. Schedule simultaneous smaller sessions so that new presenters can gain experience in less intimidating settings. Bonus: smaller sessions are good for encouraging audience engagement too.
  • More broadly, include emerging photographers on your program. Some of the most interesting work is being produced by photographers who are relatively new to street, or are less involved in self-promotion and less concerned with status. Many of those photographers will be women. Find them and recognise their work.
  • If you are tempted to forensically explore only women’s participation in street in a panel discussion, consider instead a panel that explores street’s male culture. It’s not a bed of roses for all men, either.
  • Involving women in event organising groups is great but please don’t use those women as cover to defend bad decisions about the gender balance of your program.
  • If you don’t already use anonymous judging, start using it. Anonymous judging has increased the number of art awards given to women. Who would have thought?.
  • Recognise that while the fuss is currently being made about the absence of women’s voices, inclusivity doesn’t stop with women; there are other people and voices that are near-invisible in the cultural landscape of street.