I’ve had a long career with a lot of successes and failures. Here are 3 tips with examples of lessons I learned along the way.
Get rid of the resistance in your life – Long before I became a photographer, I was on a different path. I was studying architecture at Syracuse University. During the summer of my sophomore year my friend and I went on a hitchhiking journey to Canada. Along the way we stayed with people we met while on the road. I remember one such stay very well. It was pouring outside and we decided to just hang out rather than face the elements. There were quite a few other travelers sitting around the room smoking dope and talking about what everyone talked about those days – their disenchantment with the war (Vietnam) and everything else that was status quo.
One fellow erupted and said – “I’m sick and tired of hearing the same old complaints – why don’t you all do something about it.” Those words have stayed with me my entire life. To this day I try to get rid of the whiners in my life and be the one who does something. My proudest achievement to date has been making the documentary Opening Our Eyes, a film about individuals who are creating positive change.
Don’t hide your vulnerabilities – It took me a long time before I could tell anyone one of my biggest embarrassments, but when I did it was liberating. I was working on an assignment about Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket for the National Geographic Traveler Magazine. I had made an appointment to photograph Walter Cronkite, who was a well-known figure on Martha’s Vineyard. The day before our scheduled appointment, I called Mr. Cronkite to confirm. This was way before cell phones and email and even before everyone had answering machines and his phone just rang and rang and rang. I kept calling throughout the day and the same thing happened. By evening, I was upset because I thought that Mr. Cronkite had stood me up. That night, I had a terrible feeling. I thought perhaps that when I had re-written my production notes and contact info for the job, I might have written down the wrong number for Cronkite. I had kept my old notes and discovered that I had been calling the wrong number all day. Imagine how horrified I was when I discovered that it was I who had stood up Walter Cronkite – not the other way around. I called the correct number, Walter answered and I was profusely apologetic as I explained the situation. He was kind and understanding and rescheduled and then he said, “Why didn’t you look me up in the phone book?” I replied that I assumed someone of his stature would not be listed. I learned never to make assumptions. It took me years before I could tell anyone this story. It’s really hard to admit mistakes but when you do, you gain trust.
Be who you are – not who you aren’t – I had just graduated from Brooks Institute and I wanted to pursue my passions. I wanted to be a photojournalist and use my craft to gain access to a world full of stories. Before I enrolled at Brooks, I had spent a year backpacking around the world. I had one camera and one lens and came back with my snapshots and a whole lot of desire. But it was a bad time for magazine photojournalism – Life Magazine had just folded (the second time) and everyone was telling me that if I wanted to make a living as a photographer, I needed to do commercial work. I bought into that and built a pretty good commercial photography portfolio. Then I went to see legendary NY photographer Jay Maisel, a man known for being blunt. He looked at my work, threw a print at me and told me it was “garbage”. Then he asked me if this was what I wanted to do. I told him no, that I wanted to be a photojournalist but that everyone had been telling me to pursue commercial work. He asked me how old I was and I replied “25” and then he looked me straight in the eye and said, “You’re 25 years old and you’re already making compromises”. It changed my life and I remind myself every day to be who I am and dream big, even though I may have to settle for less.
I’ve been a photographer for the better part of my life. It’s who I am. I’m also a filmmaker and love telling stories in this medium. And, I’ve been a woman living in a man’s world. Photography and filmmaking are professions that are dominated by men. The still photography business has changed dramatically since I started out – it has become far less technical and many more women have entered this industry. Nevertheless, I’ve spent a lifetime working in a profession where, as a woman, I was in the minority. I never really focused on being a minority. I didn’t have a corporate job and had to compete against men for equal pay and/or opportunities. I was an independent creative entrepreneur. My latest assignment photos were my calling card and they got me in the door and my next assignment. I worked hard, harder than most because I wanted to – I had a strong desire to do something good. There were times (probably more than I know) when I didn’t get the job because I was a woman and there were times, when I was paid less money because of my gender.
Things have gotten better for women in the business of photography as well as in other industries but it took the tenacity and commitment of countless women who needed to break down barriers. There have been gains for women but gender biases still exist and we can’t be lulled into complacency by saying, “well, it’s better than it used to be.” The movie industry is dismal in terms of gender equality, women are paid less and make up a small percentage in “behind the scene” roles in the industry, especially in certain sectors like directing and sound design. Other industries like engineering, architecture, computer programming, aviation, firefighting are all gender lopsided and less than 5% of Fortune 5oo companies are led by women. And that’s the key word “led”. We need more women leaders. It’s not just about equality and justice, but women’s leadership potential has been massively untapped. And that’s a fail for us all – economically and socially.
So, I’ve decided to do something about it. I am initiating a project called Breaking Barriers – Like a Woman. My plan is to use my craft (photography/ filmmaking) as I always have, to make a difference. My intention is to create still environmental portraits and short video stories of women who are working in male dominated professions – pilots, computer programmers, engineers, doctors, construction workers, mechanics etc. etc. I want to tell their stories about the barriers they had to break and are breaking. I want to share these stories with the hope they go viral and start a revolution that will empower other women and young girls. I have built a FB page and opened Twitter and Instagram accounts so please “follow” and “like”. But, more importantly, please share with me and with others your own stories about barriers you’ve broken.
CALL TO ACTION Are you a women working in a profession that is male dominated? Or know someone who is? I am looking for subjects to photograph and film. Please contact me: email@example.com
I have to get something “off my chest”, so forgive this mild rant.
Yesterday, I attended a conference in NYC. It was a trade show geared to video production with an educational track. I was sitting in on one session and there were only a handful of people in the room – I’d say less than 10. I was the only woman in the room. The instructor went to each person in the classroom and asked them what they wanted to learn from his workshop. He went to everyone in the room – but me!
I was sitting next to my partner, who is also my husband. I suppose the instructor decided that he didn’t need to ask ME that question. I didn’t count. Maybe because we were together and he felt that he only needed to ask one of us. But if so, why not ask me? I felt invisible. It was an all too familiar feeling that I have had in my 35-year career as a photographer and now a filmmaker. But I couldn’t believe that I was still feeling invisible after all that I’ve accomplished in those 35 years.
When I started my career in photography, it was definitely a man’s world. I was one of six women at Brooks Institute and the only woman in my graduating class. I fell in love with a “Brookie” and we headed back East to make our fame and fortune in photography.
We’ve done a lot of jobs together over our 35-year partnership and we’ve done a lot on our own. I needed to do my solo gigs because I felt I had to prove to myself that I could deliver the “story” or the task on my own. When I worked with my partner, it was always assumed by the client or our peers that I was the rep for my partner – never the photographer. People have always asked us why we refer to each other as partners rather than husband and wife – that’s why.
Perhaps that’s why I try so hard – but then again maybe that’s just my nature. And maybe because I always give it my all, I can’t help but be surprised when I’m treated like I’m invisible. At this point in my life, I can either let it bother me or I can think about who I am and what I’ve done and contributed to my profession. I focus on that and I take every opportunity to share and talk to young people – women and men.
The irony is, in photo schools these days the women far outnumber the men, yet there are still instructors out there like the one that I encountered yesterday. I have to ask myself why? I do know that in giving seminars over the last two years for ASMP, I would consistently get comments from women telling me how refreshing it was to have a woman teaching tech. But they also told me that I wasn’t intimidating like some male teachers they’ve had.
So what’s the point?
I only have one point and that is don’t hire me because you need to fill the slot with a “female” – hire me based on what I’ve accomplished. Hire me for who I am. Think past the gender and teach your children well.