Last September I went to the Photopia Hamburg 2021 exhibition. Two huge halls were filled with colourful containers and lights. They hosted exhibitors from the entire world: photography, software and technology companies, start-ups, and creatives. There were several stages with talks. As a side event, the Creative Content Conference took place. Here, for four days creative talks and live conferences for professional photographers and content creators took place on three stages. The exhibition was also accompanied by the second German Street Photography Festival, which took place within the frames of Photopia 2021. Lots of inspiring lectures and networking went on and the creatively stacked containers created a special frame for business and fun moments around the event.
What is meant to become the new photography highlight of the year and a recurring annual event to attract worldwide attention, has started in a great way. The attendants – photography and filming professionals and enthusiasts – were satisfied, Photopia received a lot of media attention, the next exhibition is already being planned for October 2022.
But throughout the exhibition, listening to talks and walking through the halls, I had this question in my head: where are the women? On which stage, in which presentation?
A woman held the patronage of the event: Ellen von Unwerth, a great prominent, charismatic woman who takes spectacular pictures. She was appointed as the key speaker. And the Female Photo Club was also present with a talk on the main stage.
But overall, where are all the women who take photos, who are interested in new gear and new inspiration, who want to expand their networks just like any other photographer? In terms of presence, I felt women were a minority at the fair, and on the stages they were even less present and hardly visible.
As an enthusiastic scientist, I like to refer to numbers instead of relying on feelings and perceptions. Numbers speak a clear language. I counted them: not the women photographers in large exhibitions and important museums. These are long-term and often political decisions. No, I counted them here in street photography around me and on the Photopia and its side events. I checked the various websites and flyers, on the stages and in the lists of names. The result is impressive.
During the four days, according to the program 7 women and 18 men spoke on the large Photopia stage. On the second large Photopia stage, the Speaker Container Stage, 5 women and 17 men spoke. The so-called key players of Photopia 2021, as they are defined on the website, are 2 women and 18 men. The Imaging Executives of Photopia consisted of 1 woman and 13 men.
It was 3-0 on the big stage of the German Street Photography Festival. Three men on the big stage and no woman…Do not get me wrong, I know the three: they are wonderful, creative, sensitive men who are aware of the problem of the visibility of women, and whom I never experienced as discriminatory, dominant or misogynist. But the fact is: there were three “white men” on the big stage (sorry Marco, Martin and Siegfried, don’t take it personally, I love you all). There was also a small stage on the GSPF area. This opened up for me too, I was the only woman to give three lectures and saw many women in the audience, but far more men.
I was also invited to speak at the Creative Content Conference. As one of 18 women versus 62 (!) Men who were guests on the three stages over the four days. Later, I gave one of three lectures at Meister Camera on their Street Photo Day, a side event of Photopia. Here, too, there were 3 men on stage and only me as a woman.
If I look outside the box of the Photopia multiverse, the picture remains similar. The German group “meet’n’street” was recently founded for street photography all over the German speaking community, and today (January 6, 2022) it consists of 58 men and 15 women…That was quickly recognized, and so a member of Streetcollective Hamburg, Britta Kohl-Boas created an equivalent for women: today this photo women group “Womeninstreet_Germany” has 13 members.
Britta was also in charge as ambassador for the 24HourProject (July 24, 2021), where humanity was captured in pictures for 24 hours and a photo was published on social media every hour. The team consisted of seven members, and here five of them were women.
I am not sure if this group is biased because it has been called to life by Britta, a woman. In the same way, the other groups may be biased as they were initiated by men.
I’ll stop counting now. I could count many other lists – members of street collectives, participants at street guerrilla exhibitions, published photography articles, podcasters and podcast interviews, workshops, members of associations and clubs. My impression is that the trend will remain similar. It would be exciting to analyse this in more detail and also to make long-term observations over the coming years. I strongly encourage anyone who has the time to do so – I will give my full support in counting and analysing.
Where are the Women?
I’d rather ask myself some questions at this point, based on the numbers I cited. Women make up half of humanity, so where are the women in (street) photography? And I apologise to everybody in the LGBTQIA2+ community – I am well aware that it is a bit old fashioned to speak of merely two categories for humankind. But for me this is the only way that I see if I want to understand: I have to simplify as much as possible and categorize – even though the categorization perhaps is the source of all evil in this whole discussion.
I focus on women now. Why is it that women are not as present? Or are they present, but just not visible? Kai Behrmann asked me these questions: which structures and patterns of behaviour may have led to this lack of presence or visibility, and how can this be prevented in the future? Is the discrepancy also expressed in the applications for memberships and appearances, which means, the women try to be part of the game but are excluded? Or do they not even try to get to the same positions as men? Are there structures which make it more difficult for women to get a place on the big stage? How much of it is discrimination by men, and how much is it a lack of interest or struggle by the women? All of this would provide material for another article.
In her thesis on the role of women in street photography Brigitte Bohlscheid wrote in 2017: “Street photography can often be found in the special literature. Here, the focus lies mostly on techniques and well-known street photographers, such as Eugène Atget, Brassai, Henri Cartier-Bresson to Robert Doisneau, Bruce Gilden, Martin Parr, Steve Mc Curry, Garry Winogrand or Eric Kim, Siegfried Hansen and Thomas Leuthard. However, female street photographers only play a marginal role in specialist literature. There are books and treatises on Diane Arbus, Helen Levitt and – of course – Vivian Maier, but it is estimated that more than 90% of the specialist literature deals with male street photographers.”
However, time goes by, and a lot has changed since 2017. I see women who take photos, who are active in groups and collectives, who give lectures and win prizes, lead juries and sit on important committees. Again and again, these days I see male photographers who are looking for female photographers to consciously break open their purely male ranks.
In street photography, more and more collectives are no longer purely male groups as they mostly used to be in the beginning. They are – often deliberately – more mixed, and I have never seen men resist the presence of women, on the contrary, we are wanted!
Perhaps the doors are particularly wide open for women in street photography, because this is a genre which is not about making money or getting jobs. So, I feel that street photography is less influenced by commerce than other photographic industries.
Street photography in its idealized form is about sharing and about the collective experience. It is about empathy and sensitivity to interactions between people. If we want to stick to the cliché, these are exactly the strengths and qualities that women are ascribed to.
Unfortunately, but this is the subject of yet another article, I also notice that street photography is not really taken seriously as a discipline within photography. It does not play an important role, perhaps precisely because it is not commercial.
Even in the women’s group “Female Photo Club”, the concept of street photography is missing from the 29 genres for which one can apply. There is everything from architecture, beauty, drones, events, fashion, food, industry, journalism and landscape to artistic photography and social projects, travel and underwater photography. But no street photography.
In this context, it is great that the German Street Photography Festival at Photopia, with its cool stand, the inspiring lectures and the guerrilla exhibition, was clearly visible to everybody. It duly represented street photography, and by its mere presence at the event acted as an ambassador for street photography. There was a lot of noticeable support and recognition. Street photography will continue to develop and become more visible. Now we just have to get the women on board.
Some others might get there faster. Magnum Photos, the independent, international photographer agency that is recognized to include the great names of photography, is now taking on more and more great women photographers. Although fewer women than men are listed on the website, the proportion is increasing and the members are on average also getting younger. The shift from “old white man” has long begun.
I had the chance to spend a fabulous dinner with Andrea Holzherr. She has been working as global exhibition manager and curator for international business for Magnum Photos in Paris since 2008. I met her on the fringes of the Trieste Photo Days (TPD) – another wonderful street photography festival, this time in Italy. Again, at the TPD fewer women than men were featured on the stages.
The conversation with Andrea underpinned my thesis that although women lag behind in photography when it comes to presence, they are generally on the rise. And it is precisely this perspective that I would like to bring forward with this article.
We are there, we are many, we are good, and we have to get involved, have fun, be active – at eye level and with a big smile on our faces. There is no reason that we should not dare to be visible.
Let us use any opportunity to show ourselves, to boldly go in new directions, to exhibit our work, to have us be invited to actively participate in such occasions as trade fairs and festivals, to shape the photographic world and to steer it in new directions. We have to be part of the decision-making and we will be heard. After all, it’s about photography, and as Britta Kohl-Boas says: “A good photo is a photo that works”, regardless of the sexual orientation and socialization of the photographer.
So What to Do?
Lift your head up, put your camera in your hand and get out on the streets! We enjoy taking photos and should have the courage to be part of photography at every level. Let us show what we can do.
I was woken up when I was invited to create a project about women artists in the corona pandemic. It was specifically about women and their struggles and throw-backs during the pandemic period 2020/2021. When I asked the female artists what was particularly bothering them, a great many unanimously replied that it was tough, yes, but they made the most of it and enjoyed having time to carry out a long-awaited project. Many have eased their worries through their art and drew strength from creativity. They did not want to be portrayed as the suffering woman, but as a strong artist who managed to get through. Yes, some had really tough times and serious financial problems, but none lost their smile and confidence. On the contrary, the old rule that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger is really true here.
Power to the Women
It is up to us to expand our influence and increase our presence. We, the women, have to show our strengths, show what we have, our capacities, our phantasy, our power of creativity and of communication. I have found my way, and not just since I passed the 50 year mark, with my motto: take it easy. I know that I don’t stand for all women. I am perfectly capable of ignoring, with a nonchalant smile, the arrogance when a nice gentleman wants to explain my camera to me. However, I am the type of woman who does not see it as humiliation when a man holds the door for me. I like these little games, they fit into my Italian origins. It does not impress me to just being surrounded by men, neither in the world of science nor in photography. I know what I am, and what I am needs no excuses – you’ve surely heard this before?
Stay cool, say something relaxed and intelligent – it will impress the others. Empathy wins. And I’m not angry with the nice gentleman either, because part of my strategy to become “invisible” is that I play the unsuspecting tourist who fiddles with her camera to distract from the fact that I photograph people with a lot of specialist knowledge.
I learned to let harmful comments roll off like water drops on a lotus leaf. I enjoy what I do, I have fun and go my way straight forward. This is how I pave my path.
Get on the Stage!
I do not think it is easy to get on any stage. And men who want to show their capacities are not just on the stage because they are men. They are on the stage because they bothered to ask. They probably sent in the question to be given a slot at the meeting, they used their network and their connections, besides their portfolio, to be brought up there. And that is what I did. I asked the GSPF men if they were interested in me giving a talk, and offered them some titles for potential lectures. They were happy to accept and took, not only one, but all of them. It sure took a lot of effort to dare to stand there, and I was very nervous, but in the end it was enriching and fun.
Women, of course, just like men, have this inner strength. We have our capacity for enthusiasm, and the wish to transmit it. We should pass it on unadulterated. Get on the stage! Just try it and have fun.
And besides making your own experience and growing with it, you will be a source of inspiration and motivation for other women through your mere presence. Yes, it is possible to be on the stage, it is normal, and it is fun. No matter what character, what gender, what photographic discipline you stand for.
We have to be female role models, expand our network and provide insights into our practices. I am consciously calling for more courage, more naturalness, more presence.
Women, show yourselves! Have fun with creative photography and show it to everyone, regardless of gender, origin or motivation. Not only women, all people of all origins and skin color, sexual orientation and ages, who do not see themselves represented on stage by the establishment, can do the same so that the dialogue takes place on an equal level.
My way of resisting and fighting is subtle, get past the obstacles to the right and to the left, and head directly towards the stage in front.
Britta Kohl-Boas wrote to me: “I believe that we women can achieve anything in today’s world if we are willing to devote the time to it.”
Share your joy and creativity with everyone and they will invite you. Or be active, join a collective, join a group of discussion, give some interesting input. And most importantly: do not wait to be asked, but ask yourself. Write articles, put together photo series and exhibitions and look for ways to show them. Organize women’s guerrilla exhibitions and women’s photo slams. At some point the men will ask us to participate.
We can do what street photography is all about: get out on the street and use your camera to capture the stories you see there. Grab your camera (it can also be a cell phone) and have fun. And if it’s together with others, even better.
Photography is creativity, sharing, learning from one another and building together. We can do it, together.
Pia on Stage
Some Photos from Photopia 2021 in Hamburg:
- Brigitte Bohlscheid (2017): “Die Rolle der Frau als Fotografin in der zeitgenössischen Streetfotografie”. Studien-Arbeit SET School of Entertainment and Technology, Studiengang: Medienfotograf (FH).
- Pia Parolin (2021): “Frauen in der Streefotografie, zeigt Euch!” Soul of Street # 38
- All of the street photos of women in this article are ©Pia Parolin