This is a question that's been bothering me for a while now, since way before July, when I attended a videography seminar led by a leading light in the dSLR film-making movement and took a look around the room to see seven women in the audience. Seven women out of 100. Since before October last year when, at a conference, I was one of two women in a room of fifty photographers. Maybe even since before I started paying even more attention to professional photography last summer.
Every day, I sift through hundreds of photographs of women, taken by men. Of the thirteen category winners at the Sony World Photography awards (just about the biggest awards going in the industry) earlier this year, three were women. Most photography writers are men. (And men with beards, if you listen to my editor.) When Kathryn Bigelow won her Oscar for Best Director in 2010, she was the first woman to ever do so. If there's a lack of female photographers, female film-makers are distinctly hard to come by.
So, where are all the women?
Well, as one of my friends points out, lots of women do take photos. They take photos with compact cameras and their mobile phones. They take photos of their children and of their friends. And women have always taken photos, it's not some new-found idea that women can suddenly pick up a camera and produce an image. When it comes to film-making, that is usually a step on from photography; if there aren't that many women who take photos, even fewer of those who do will progress to film-making.
Let's rephrase that question then, why do so few of the women who take photos of their families, when they're on holiday, or just because, not make the leap to photography as a serious hobby, or even something professional? Why is photography not regarded as a viable career option for so many women?
Of course, there are professional female photographers, but they are vastly out-numbered by men. And there are female film-makers, but only a handful of them. So before anyone pipes up and says 'Hang on! I'm a woman and I'm a photographer!' Yep, I am too. Or, 'But I'm a female film-maker!' I'm not denying that you exist. I'm more interested in working out why there are comparatively so few of us.
One of my closest friends, who is by her own description a radical feminist, has suggested that the dearth of female photographers is a result of us, as a society, not encouraging our daughters to engage in activities that aren't either 'interruptible' or don't somehow contribute to the household. What we encourage girls to do are activities such as sewing, knitting, or cooking. Not only do they fulfil essential functions, but they can be interrupted if a baby cries, and rather than being expensive, they're economical. Photography is none of these things. You can't eat photographs and you can't wear lenses. It requires time, dedication, and a serious injection of funds if you choose to pursue it at a level above holiday snaps and 'just because' photos.
Now, this argument does have its merits, but it also has its flaws. Learning a musical instrument is not cheap and if you want to get good at it, demands dedication. Still, I don't think that this deters girls from taking up the violin or their families from encouraging them to do so. Woodwork tends to be a male preserve, but that can be interrupted and it can contribute to the household. It's mostly girls who learn to ride horses and that is definitely not cheap. It's also damned dangerous. I recently managed to get myself locked in a church yard in central London whilst taking photos, but that's the most hair-raising it has got. I can't say the same for my exploits on horseback.
So whilst this theory might apply in some cases, I'm not convinced it's universal.
Is it because photography is 'technical', then? I've heard quite a few people suggest this might be responsible for putting off women. Well, there is a definite technical side to photography; it involves physics, geometry, and before digital technology came along, chemistry, too. But the physics of braking distances has never stopped women from driving cars and this newfangled electrickery malarky is just as much in evidence in an iPhone - which plenty of women use - as in a digital camera. You know, I've even heard a most shocking rumour that women might be surgeons in these 'modern' times. Who'd've thunk it?
What's more - photography isn't just technical. It's the fusion of the technical with the creative. And I've never heard the argument that women aren't inherently creative before now.
Maybe, though, there's a perception that photography is for techies, and this might be responsible for deterring women. Well, some women, anyway. Perceptions can be so much more fast than reality that if women really do believe that photography is overwhelmingly technical - more so than it is creative - and that technical things aren't for them, then it will have an impact on the number of them pursuing it as a high level hobby or even a career. So whilst I don't for one minute think that women are intrinsically less technically capable than men, if we carry on thinking that we are, and perpetuating that myth, along with the misconception that photography is all physics and no vision, there will be fewer female photographers.
The argument that riles me the most, and possibly it's because there is some weight in it, but I'm sickened that there should be, is that Daddies take photos of their little girls and their little girls become accustomed to being photographed, rather than taking photographs themselves. As a consequence, photographers and models are trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle: men snap, women pose. Honestly, I'd like to think that this really isn't how it goes, but how many male supermodels can you name? Now how many female ones? How many female photographers can you name? Now how many male ones? Is there, perhaps, some kind of correlation? My automatic reaction is to dismiss this theory because I find it so infuriating, but if I stop to ponder it, I can't deny it might be worthy of some attention, especially if you consider it in conjunction with something my brother and I discussed over the weekend.
As a consequence of there being so few female photographers, there are few female photographer role models for girls and young women to aspire to emulate. Just because something hasn't been done before doesn't mean to say that it can't be done - crikey, the wheel would never have been invented if that were the case - but having a precedent helps. It's part of that self-perpetuating cycle of the photographer and the photographed. If more women were to photograph men, the balance might be redressed somewhat.
Ultimately, none of these theories is entirely responsible for a lack of female photographers, and by extension, videographers. Very rarely does one factor determine an entire circumstance, but when they collide, things happen. Therefore I'm inclined to think that a combination of all these factors is conspiring to deter women from getting behind the camera.
So as one of these minority female photographers, how did I end up where I am? By being the exception that proves the rule, I think. Growing up, my parents encouraged me to learn how engines work just as much as they encouraged my brother to take up ballet. It was my father who first showed me how to focus an SLR, but after that the person who taught me the basics of photography was a woman. Then my parents continued to support me: they've bought me cameras, they've got up at stupid-o'clock in the morning to take me to photo shoots so that I can catch the golden hour light, and they've loaned me money for lenses. After I gave up photography for a hiatus where I decided to spend every spare minute of my day coxing men's rowing boats, it was a man who put a camera back into my hands and told me to start taking photos again because what I did was good. I've been able to catch these breaks and I've seized the opportunities that have come my way, but if just one of these factors had swung against me, how different might my life be now?
What, then, is the solution? Well, complicated problems don't have easy solutions; there is an entire gamut of issues at play here that need to be addressed. We need to look at perceived gender roles, at role modelling, and at misconceptions surrounding photography itself. Still, I think that if fathers let their daughters have a go with their cameras and women photographers didn't hide their lights under bushels, we could go a long way to closing the gender gap.