Photography as a male sport

Camera as phallic symbol Image courtesy of Corinna, at

A week or so ago I met up with my friend Corinna in Birmingham, and we went to the Focus on Imaging exhibition at the NEC.  It’s basically a photographic equipment fair – not something that interests me overmuch, especially when I can’t have a spend, but it was a good opportunity to meet up for a long chat and a wander round.

The first thing we noticed – and it was hard not to – was that the place was full of men pretty much all of whom were wearing their cameras round their necks, longest lenses attached and lens hood on the end to make it even longer.  Since there was absolutely nothing to photograph, these could only have been for the purposes of display – I hope you’re keeping up with the symbolism here.  Just in case you’re not, Corinna started referring to them as ‘willy wavers’, a name that brought a nod of agreement and a broad smile to the people manning the stalls.  Naturally, we had our cameras with us too, but they were stashed in our shopping bags like Jane Bown used to do when she went to posh London hotels to photograph the Beatles.

Seriously, there were hardly any women there at all (if you discount the heavily made-up, scantily dressed, pre-pubescent ones that tripped around the place wearing advertising signs).  Moreover, none of the equipment or clothing was designed with women in mind and much of it was unusable if you were female.  I was rather taken with a camera harness, for example, that carries your camera on the front of your body, but having my fair share of female curvature made it not only very uncomfortable but positively obscene – it’s got a solid metal plate on front that sort of divides and pushes things out the sides if you get my gist.  Camera straps worn across the body do something very similar, but they are at least narrow enough to more or less go down the middle.

Weatherproof jackets and those vests you get with all the pouches on them were mostly available in men’s sizes only, and there were some photographer’s gloves that we’d have bought had they come in female sizes.  (Just in case you’re wondering, the index finger and the thumb have little caps on them that push off, leaving you free to operate your camera with the two essential digits while keeping the rest warm.)

One stall had some very innovative products; the one I liked was a set of photographer’s spectacles.  When you get to the stage I’m at with your eyesight, you find that you need your glasses on to see what you’re photographing but you need them off to be able to read the display screen or do anything else that requires looking closely.  So you end up in the sort of scenario where you’re trying to change camera lens – which involves enough juggling about with various bits and pieces anyway – while adding a pair of glasses to the twenty-three other things you’re trying to hold onto all at the same time.  The photographer’s glasses have lenses that tip up out of the way, and you can even tip one of them up and leave the other one down, making it a cinch to see whatever you need to see without any need to remove them.  I tried them on: ‘these seem a bit big’ I said, and got the reply ‘yes, we only do them in men’s sizes, I’m afraid’.  Oh well, I guess I should have known.

Not only do camera bags only come in dull, male, colours – black or khaki, anyone? – but they’re often too heavy (even empty) and too large to work well if you’re female.  Now I know there are plenty of women who’re probably quite happy with black, and this is not even a particularly genderised thing – I’m married to a man whose work briefcase is bright turquoise, for goodness sake – but there are other issues here.  Men have pockets in their clothes.  They use those pockets to hold their wallets, their handkerchiefs, their spare keys, and basically all their little bits and pieces.  Women’s clothes mostly don’t have pockets; that’s why we carry bags all the time.  So we need room in a camera bag for things like purses, and keys, and a packet of tissues, and a hairbrush, and even, if you’re that way inclined, a lipstick.  You may have noticed that camera bags don’t allow for this.

There are times, too, when we’d rather it didn’t look as if we’re carrying a rather expensive piece of equipment around with us, especially if we’re walking around in the less salubrious parts of the inner city.  (This may apply to men too, of course)  So why can’t we have some colourful, attractive camera bags that have room for more than the camera and don’t make it too obvious that that’s what you’re carrying?  We put this question to a variety of stall holders, none of whom seemed to know why, but more than one of whom mentioned that you can get these things in the US but not here.   Seems to me there’s a gap in the market in this country.

I know from teaching workshops that there are at least as many women interested in photography as men, and women usually outnumber men on these courses.  If I was being unkind, not to mention sexist, I might say that this could be because men don’t like admitting they don’t know something and would rather fumble around by themselves than actually go and get some instruction.  But I’d never say anything like that.  The fact remains, though, that there are vast numbers of women out there who like taking photographs and they’re not being catered for.  Walking round this exhibition felt a little uncomfortable, almost as if we shouldn’t have been there, in this very male territory.

I’ve thought for a long time that photography is very male-centric. In our local newsagents, photography magazines are displayed under the heading of ‘Male Interest’.  The content also has this bias, with portraiture articles only using young, slim, conventionally pretty girls as their models.  I’d love to see something on photographing men, or ‘ordinary’ women, or old people, but you never do.  Camera reviews assume you’re male, referring to things like the finger grips not being big enough – yes, they’re not big enough for large male hands, perhaps, but might suit some of us very well.  A minor issue, true, but the whole impression if you’re female is that you’re not included in the gang.

All of this is true of the amateur photography market; it’s not nearly so true for the professional side of things, where you’ll find plenty of women in key positions.  There were more women behind the stalls in the exhibition than there were in front of them, for example.  But we all have to start somewhere, and I know from talking to them that many women are put off by the male emphasis on photographic technology and the sometimes condescending attitudes towards them of men with cameras.  I’m really not saying all men are like this – I know some absolutely lovely male photographers – but the amateur, ‘camera club’ brigade do have a tendency to think you’re incapable if you’re female.  Add that to the total lack of accommodation photographic manufacturers make for women and the impression is that this is not an area of life in which you’re welcome.

I’ve leave you with a little anecdote. When I was teaching regularly in London, I’d have to leave on a very early train on a Saturday or Sunday morning.  The man who sold me my ticket asked if I was doing something nice that day.  I replied that I was working, and he asked what I did.  I said ‘photography’. An intense look of puzzlement came over his face for a moment and then (I could almost see the lightbulb going on) he said  ‘oh!………you must be the model then?’  ‘No’, I spluttered, ‘I’m the tutor!’.  Sigh………it can be hard to get taken seriously sometimes.