Among the classes that I taught while I was recently in Singapore, at the behest of Objectifs – Centre for Photography and Filmmaking, was a class on street photography. At the first meeting, I scanned the room like I always do. I saw Singaporeans of all ethnicities, a few Europeans and two people from India. What I did not see among the many eager faces were any men. The class went really well with only women and it set me to thinking about how, I could argue, the future of photography is women.
My Singaporean hosts said the gender disparity was partly a function of the fact that many women in the class were not working outside the home, so they had more free time in the mornings when we met. On an obvious level that was true, but having taught hundreds of workshops, I think this class was just a harbinger of things to come.
The gender division in my workshop classes has changed dramatically (and moved consistently) over the years. In the “early days,” the classes were completely disproportionately men. As time has gone on the balance has shifted ever more to women. I am not alone in this experience. Most of my peers who teach workshops have experienced the same thing.
It makes sense. When I started teaching workshops in 1995, the technology of photography was much like it had been for the previous few decades. The complexity of the technology often overwhelmed the artistic/aesthetic aspects of the medium. Auto-focus SLR cameras were just arriving, manual meter setting was predominant and film was the medium of choice. Each element in the chain of steps needed to make a good photograph required learning a complex technology. No offense intended, but at that point in the history of photography, men were more likely to learn the various required technologies.
I am not suggesting women were any less capable as photographers or any less able to learn those technologies. That was not my experience at all. I taught many women who were (or have become) great photographers. Still, men were more likely to put time into learning what were frequently tedious and repetitive processes, steps that seemed more like hurdles to be surmounted rather than gateways to personal expression.
In the street photography class in Singapore, I watched to see how the class would be different, being all women. I noticed a few things, which I had seen before in other classes that were disproportionately filled with women.
Women ask questions much more often then men. They are usually more willing to admit their lack of knowledge in a given subject. Many women I have worked with are much more comfortable asking me to repeat something so they can process the information, changing if from how I said it to how they will understand it. As a rule, women are more aware of how they learn than men. It may be a subconscious awareness, but it is there.
In a group, women support each other more than men. This is very important in a workshop where we spend a great deal of time critiquing student’s work. Again, I am generalizing, but not that much. There are plenty of competitive women and nurturing men in the word, but in my classes, most people play to their gender. The women I have worked with also seem more inclined to rapidly put their mistakes behind them and dwell more on their successful images.
What is speeding up this gender shift is the change in the cameras that the women are using, which are getting ever better at simplifying what were once very complicated technical processes. Auto-focus, auto-exposure, zoom lenses and TTL flash are just a few of the technologies that are simplifying technologies. As the cameras get easier to use and produce (relatively) better images, the more likely “non-technical” people will embrace photography.
The classic example of this is manual vs. auto exposure settings on the newer cameras. Women who attend my classes mostly start out photographing using the auto settings, as compared to men. Both men and women (in equal numbers) leave my classes understanding the value of setting their exposures manually. Both genders also leave the class committed to disciplining themselves to use manual exposure. The difference is that the women, as a rule, needed to get comfortable with the auto exposure setting process before going to manual settings, a two step process less likely to be followed by men, in my experience.
Over and over I have seen that women are as capable as men at being good photographers. The ever-easier imaging technology has taken away the “fear factor” that kept women away from photography for so long because the medium was once so “technical.”
In the future, when the camera technology and the imaging software align perfectly, then that same kind of anxiety will be “over.”
Think of the camera that will be sold in 5 or 10 years. It will have full time HDR technology (High Dynamic Range.) Don’t think of it as a camera that produces those weirdly toned, strangely colored HDR landscape images you see too many of these days. Think of it as the technology that negates the need to worry about getting a proper exposure because that technology will guarantee a (relatively) good exposure.
A similar technology already exists in the form of the Lytra camera, which does not require you to focus the image until after the fact. When the technology is such that I can point my camera at a scene now and decide what I want in focus later, at that moment, the skills that distinguished me as a photographer are “over.” By “over,” I mean that once my mastery of the technical skills is made worthless, all that is left to differentiate one photographer from the next are the soft skills and personal style.
So what should the average guy take away from all this?
I have blogged in the past about how, at least in the world of photojournalism, women have distinct advantages when it comes to accessing delicate situations. One example is how women will routinely be admitted to what appear to be men-only subcultures while men are never admitted to such women-only subcultures.
In the commercial world of photography, women often hold a distinct advantage. They are, as rule, better equipped with what are called soft skills, such as networking, nurturing, sharing and supporting each other. The largest growth in the world of portrait, wedding and event photography business for example, is among women, who parlay those soft skills, along with newly acquired photography skills to build their businesses.
The classic example of a soft skill that women tend excel at is being more in touch with their own emotional persona, in knowing who they are. They are, thus, broadly speaking, better at admitting their weaknesses and playing to their strengths. All of this makes them better at cultivating a personal point of view or style.
Guys, the photography world you know is on the way out. A new one is on the way in and women, as a rule will function better in that world. To succeed in the new one, I would suggest stealing as many pages as you can from their playbook. The skills they have, innate or learned, serve them better and once you learn them, they will serve you better. It really is classic example of the idea of the idea that if you can’t beat them, join them.