In 1985, feminist art collective the Guerilla Girls famously posed the question on a public billboard: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?” At the time, less than 5% of the artists in the Met were women. Meanwhile, 80% of the nude bodies depicted were… You guessed it. Women.
It’s no secret that women have been gravely underrepresented throughout art history. From literature through to painting, photography and beyond: since storytelling began, the masculine experience has consistently framed and filtered how we see the world. The meteoric rise of popular feminism in recent years might reasonably lead one to assume things are changing. In the art world? Not so much. Almost three decades after their original campaign, the Guerilla Girls revisited the Met’s numbers: in 2012, only 4% of artists in the Met’s modern art wing were women. 76% of the nudes were still women.
In 2019, Huck reported that work by women still only constitutes three to five per cent of major permanent collections across the US and Europe. And, as Daniella Zalcman – photographer and founder of Women Photograph – explains: “photography, the most modern of representative art forms, has done little to distinguish itself from the centuries of Botticelli, Klimt and Picasso that precede it”.
To this day, gender disparity in the photography industry remains nothing short of astounding. 80% of photography graduates are women — yet women make up only 15% of professional photographers. Over 75% of commercial photographers represented by the industry’s leading agents are men. Women photographers are earning, on average, 40% less than their male counterparts.*
It was in light of such glaring inequalities that, in 2019, 1854 Media launched its inaugural Female in Focus award: purposed to discover, promote and reward exceptional women-identifying and non-binary photographers around the world, harnessing 1854 Media’s global reach to help create the conditions for wider change. A year on, and Female in Focus remains as vital as ever.
This is not to say we have not seen shifts. In 2019, Les Rencontres d’Arles dedicated a section to women-led narratives after 340 industry specialists signed an open letter criticizing the festival’s paucity of women; gradually, more women-only collectives and galleries have been appearing, following in the footsteps of trailblazers before them. Such determined efforts to break the ceiling have been building, steadily, for decades now — but the gender disparity in photography remains deep-rooted and institutional. The cold, hard numbers have changed little: as we enter a new decade, still, an overwhelming minority of women are being commissioned, published and exhibited around the world.
Conceived to combat this legacy of inequality head on, Female in Focus gives global platform to women’s work, opening up new generations of remarkable talent to the wider photographic community. Naturally, the work we were able to shed light on through Female in Focus 2019 – alongside the incredible response it garnered – redoubled our commitment to growing the platform.
In Priya Kambli’s winning series, Buttons for Eyes, she explored the migrant narrative and challenges of cross-cultural understanding, offering a much-needed personal perspective on the fragmentation of family, identity and culture inherent in the migrant experience. It’s crucial to note that women of colour find their narratives ripped from their grasp more acutely, perhaps, than any other demographic: one need only scratch the surface of a despairingly masculinised art history to find colonialism, racism and white supremacy inextricable from its canon. “As significant political forces try to suppress the concerns of those who are perceived as different,” says Kambli, “the need to present a variety of perspectives is simply more urgent. Sharing our stories has a civic and social impact.”
Our second series winner, Cosmic Drive by Katinka Schuett, explored the contradictory relationship between hard science and science fiction narratives. “I’m fascinated by humans’ preoccupation with things that are not visible or tangible,” explains Schuett. The implicit gendering of subject matter is too often a barrier that plagues women’s practice: of course, women telling women-focussed stories is vital, but by no means should it stipulate the beginning and end of their contribution to the field. Everything in this world affects women. And so women’s voices must be heard on everything. As we push for growth in the industry, we must do the work to amplify women in more masculinised cultural spaces — Schuett being one outstanding example.
Both Kambli and Schuett were flown to New York for the opening of the Female in Focus exhibition at United Photo Industries gallery in Brooklyn. Alongside Kambli and Schuett’s series, the show exhibited 20 winning single images from other exceptional women photographers around the world. The exhibition garnered international coverage and acclaim, and was extended due to popular demand. It is still on show. As of 13 January 2020, the call reopens for women-identifying and non-binary photographers of any level to submit their work.
Like last year, one of the defining features of the award will be the lack of any strict theme. The winning images will share a subversion of the status quo – disrupting homogenous masculine tropes; reframing the world through the female gaze – but otherwise, will vary significantly in style and subject matter.
With the second edition of Female in Focus, 1854 Media will continue its commitment to elevating the careers of women photographers worldwide, and fighting for a gender equal photography industry. Because when people aren’t telling their own stories, we’re not getting the whole picture.
If you are a woman-identifying photographer, apply to Female in Focus today