Júlio de Matos Photography

GENDER IN PHOTOGRAPHY [back]
by Mala Mukerjee

Contributions - Photography Criticism


A woman with a camera today, in the year 2010, is probably not an unusual sight. Not if the camera happens to be small, such as a small digital camera, an instamatic or a mobile phone cum camera. But how many of us can avoid a sense of disbelief if we are told that a woman makes a living out of photography? Our eyes and ears are not used to the unusual. Eyebrows rise naturally when we see a woman in a so called man’s job.

Suppose you are on an aeroplane and discover at take-off time that the pilot and the entire crew are women. Would your heart not miss a beat? We all know that many men drive cars badly and also that some women are excellent drivers. But if you face a situation where two taxis are awaiting you, one with a man and the other a woman on the steering wheel, which one would your instincts guide you to?

There are jobs that women cannot do as well as men can, as there are tasks that elude men. Men are born physically stronger than women. Physical strength can and does matter in many instances. But if you consider jobs in fields that are level, you will agree that women often do a better job than men. They apply themselves harder, attend to details better and are less happy to compromise on quality.

We are used to seeing women in kitchens, but don’t we always ask for a man when we want food cooked in large quantities? But you will not yet find too many instances where men are taking over traditional roles played by women. More and more women, on the other hand, are entering areas which used to be the preserve of men.

Like in any other art form, be it literature, painting, sculpture or even music, gender has very little relevance in photography. By looking at a photograph, it is impossible to tell if it is the work of a man or a woman. The camera is neutral. What matters most in photography is the eye that sees an object. But can one dismiss the gender issue so easily?


THE ROUGH AND THE SMOOTH
Let me share with you some of my experiences.
I started photography when I was a kid. I received nothing but encouragement from everybody. But when the time came to leave school and I wanted to opt for the Science stream, not many thought that was a good idea. An uncle of mine, and he loved me dearly, reacted in surprise, ‘Why Science? That is not the right place for a girl. Take Home Science instead. That will prepare you better for life.”

Girls at our homes are taken through cooking drills as a matter of course. But not boys. Games and athletics are for them. I was still in school when I joined the Rifle club in Kolkata. There was a lot of opposition in the family. I did not always win. My dream was to be an engineer. That I am not one still rankles.

Let me do a fast forward to the end of 1993 when I returned to Mumbai from the UK.
Customs rules in India those days permitted professional photographers on transfer of residence to import equipments free of duty up to specified values. I had studied their rules and had brought back some equipment with me. But the Customs in Mumbai had a different view. How can a woman be considered a professional photographer?

They confiscated my equipments and forced me to pay penalty for violation of rules and duty at exorbitant rates. I pleaded with them. I showed them evidence of my professional work in India. Nothing worked. Could I produce a post graduate degree in Photography ? They asked me. I did not have one. Even today, not many professional photographers I know have post graduate degree in photography.
The story ended happily for me. I won the case when I produced evidence of money I earned in the UK on professional assignments. But it took me two years of battle with Customs authorities, many days and nights of frustration and intense anxiety.

Those who are familiar with my work will know that my photograph of the last ball in the tied Cricket test match between Australia and India in Chennai in 1986 had made headlines. Noticing my camera on my shoulders, the editor of a leading newspaper group came over to meet me around lunch time. He sat next to me for a while exchanging pleasantries. The match, as we all know, took an exciting turn in the closing stages and ended in a tie. When I came home at the end of the day, I got a phone call from the editor. Did I capture the last ball? He asked. When I told him I had filmed every ball of the last over and much else, he asked me if I would mind giving him the pictures for use in his paper the next morning. I agreed.
On a visit to Chennai some years later, I heard a slightly different account of the episode doing the rounds. According to it, the editor had apparently sat next to me while the last ball was being bowled and gave me detailed directions on what to shoot and how!

Not so long ago, a famous film director asked me to take pictures in a Tollywood studio setting. The official photographer for the film did not like it. He told me summarily to vacate the spot I was on and find another one.
Sometimes, prejudices work in my favour. People, who would ordinarily never agree to being photographed, smile at me indulgently and pose for me. To them, I am an amateur playing about with an expensive toy. Why bother taking a stand on the right to privacy with a woman?


CHOOSING ONES NICHE
In my work, I often get my material from old dilapidated buildings, discoloured walls and discarded materials. Men on the streets find this habit of mine very odd. They stop dead on their tracks when they see me near a dump heap. Then they come near and peer over my shoulders. What is this woman up to? At times, they are deeply suspicious of my motives. I was once photographing a broken door of a neglected old building in North Kolkata. Out of nowhere appeared a visibly irate lady and accused me of being an agent of some predatory real estate promoter. I withdrew hastily.

I always prefer subjects that appeal to my senses the most and I accept work only if I am comfortable with the surroundings at the place of work. I know it is not possible for a woman to enter every field of photography. I have done a bit in news photography but will I ever want to be in situations where I may have to run for my life braving batons and bullets? No.

A fellow student in my London days chose to spend many winter nights in Waterloo station with pavement dwellers in cardboard boxes. A woman photographer I know well has produced powerful work on sex workers in Mumbai. She lived with and spent many hours with the ladies of the night to gain their confidence before they would let her photograph them.
I have great admiration for such work. But I know that those fields are not for me. A photographer, whether man or woman, must know what suits his/her style, temperament and taste best. If you analyze the work of women who have excelled in photography in India, you will find that they have all selected their niche very carefully.

I like travelling and do a lot of travel photography. But only once have I had to compete with an international group of male photographers. That was in 2006 when I was invited by the People’s Republic of China to participate in a three week long photo event. I was in a group of 14 photographers from different countries. We travelled over 5000 km of very rugged terrain in Xinjiang province in the far North West of China. We would set out every morning on a bus, take hundreds of photographs on the way before reaching a new city in the evening. We would check in a hotel, dine and work late on our lap tops to download our day’s work. Back on the bus again on the dot at 9 am the next day!
The tour was very tough but the experience unforgettable. I made many abiding friendships which I cherish. I can proudly say I have a home in many countries.


IS PHOTOGRAPHY MALE DOMINATED?
I think I have already said a lot of things on this topic. It might be useful to make a reality check on them by considering the views of a cross section of men and women who are engaged in photography and other creative activities related to art and photography.

Vivek Das, the doyen of industrial photographers in India, does not think photography is any more male dominated than life itself is. On why there are so few women in photography, he feels a likely reason is that it does not appeal to women greatly. Christopher Taylor, the well known English photographer who has worked in India, has a different perception. He finds male domination stronger in India than elsewhere. Christopher is also of the view that women photographers have a “different sensibility” that lends their work a “more introspective and contemplative” quality. To Julio des Matos, an outstanding photographer from Portugal, “male domination is just an heritage from the past.” It is destined to lose its hold as, he avers, “I strongly believe that in this new century women will have the upper hand. I don’t see this as an issue. I always saw women as equals and a mixed environment is just more human and stimulating.”

LisaHorvath, a professional photographer from Canada, finds male domination real but on the decline. More than their muscle, Lisa thinks men have better skills in handling studio light. They are also quicker in picking up Photoshop and other software applications, skills that very few photographers in the digital mode today can do without. Interestingly, she holds that “customers trust women more for their “superior emotional maturity” and empathy with their subject.

Rahnuma Ahmed, a noted intellectual and social historian from Bangladesh, who is involved in running an internationally reputed school in photography, says she has not come across any marked change in male attitudes towards women pursuing independent careers. Despite that, she confirms that many more women are entering the portals of photography these days.

Referring to the photographer who had shot scenes of the gruesome Mumbai massacre on 26th November 2008, Gita Doctor, a well known art critic and journalist, observes that women cannot be expected to match men in every situation. Fashion photography is dominated by men, but then, she notes, “there are women who do industrial photography with equal skills.” Here are no thumb rules.


PHOTOGRAPHY AS A CAREER FOR WOMEN
A career in Photography is obviously not a bed of roses. With all its expensive accessories -- cameras, equipments, lights and computers -- it can be quite daunting for a woman. But yet, women are being attracted to it in larger numbers. Some of them are producing work of the highest order. Are they doing the right thing? Or is it the first flush of the excitement that digital photography has generated all around? Will it be sustained? Or will it leave many broken hearts and crushed ambitions?

I am not a pessimist. Despite all its difficulties, I believe the field of photography is wide enough for women to find slots to suit their mental propensities and physical abilities best. Finding ones place is, to my mind, the crux of the matter. To succeed, a photographer must have a sense of fascination for the art and a passion for it to help her tackle the many challenges effectively. It is also necessary for her to feel secure and comfortable with her surroundings.

But how wide is the reach of photography? Where does a woman begin to look for her niche? My answer to that question is simple : It is much wider than you think.
Let me try to give you a flavour of its immense reach. Shall be start with Adventure? And then go on to Abstract, Art and Architecture, followed by Commerce, Fashion, Forensic and Industrial? And you have Macro, Medical, Micro, Nature, People, Science, Sports, Travel, Wild Life and who knows how many more. It is everywhere!

I have no wish to try your patience, except to say that the above list is only illustrative. A woman can take her pick. Photography is being taught in many places today. They are there to help a woman in her search for a niche.

And yet, nobody should think it is easy for a woman to make an independent career in photography quickly. The economics of the trade are tough. It takes time to establish oneself in any profession. In the interim, there may well be a need to rely on other supporting avenues of income. This problem can, of course, be alleviated by taking up salaried jobs in newspapers /magazines etc or even by freelancing. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize the need for capital to stay afloat in the preparatory stage.

Ms Janatul Mawa, a young professional photographer friend from Bangladesh, tells me that although more women are entering photography there, social and cultural attitude towards the profession continues to be less than friendly. Not many newspapers encourage women on their rolls. And worse, although no wedding is complete without photographs, the marriage market is not at all disposed well towards a bride with a camera slung on her shoulder!

While these realities cannot be ignored, I take enormous comfort from the fact that their hold seems to be weakening steadily. How else do we account for the growing popularity of photography among women everywhere?

To sum up, there are opportunities for women in photography. The number of women in photography is on the rise. I have no doubt it will accelerate when we have more facilities for training. I also believe that women who are in the profession today have a role in facilitating the future for women in photography. The better the quality of their work, the stronger is the demonstration effect that women can do it well. This is happening.

Finally, allow me to digress a little before I draw the concluding line.
An important aspect which many young people tend to neglect while choosing a career is to remind themselves of their wider goals in life. Every woman needs to think through her priorities before considering a career. Do I have a taste for photography? Am I tough enough for it? When do I want to make a home, raise a family? Will that be compatible with my career? Will I earn enough? And not the least, What if I do not succeed?

These questions have to be addressed first. After all, a career is only an enabler to a meaningful life. The horse has to come before the cart. That does not mean that all our wishes will come true. Nor does it imply that our plans will never change, get reviewed, updated and revised. All it means is that our lives should have a focus.

Mala Mukerjee
Kolkata, 2010


© 2010 Text by Mala Mukerjee

malamukerjee@gmail.com


© 2009 All Photographs and texts by Júlio de Matos | All rights reserved | © Júlio de Matos, 2009