How can we fix the shocking gender imbalance found in UK photo competitions?

Photograph by Anna Gordon

Dear British Press Photographers Association,

In most industries and organisations in the UK the under-representation of women is recognised as a problem, which people are working to rectify. In contrast, when women photographers draw attention to the lack of diversity in the UK’s photographic industry, they experience a defensive backlash from the organisations that represent the profession, and an attempt to play down the significance and scale of the problem. The BPPA’s response to criticism of the under-representation of women photographers in its Assignments exhibition was typical in this respect.

We and the majority of our female colleagues have encountered a lot of prejudice. We are used to being in the minority and not being heard. Most women we work with have given up expressing their views on this subject, as the leading individuals and organisations that represent the profession consistently refuse to recognise that there is a problem. Instead, we are offered arguments that the problem is not that large, that it is not that important, or that it is less pressing than other issues facing photographers. There has been a total lack of culpability in the response from the BPPA so far — a “this is the industry’s problem, not ours” attitude.

The Assignments exhibition has thrown into sharp relief the industry’s reluctance to acknowledge that there is a problem. This is not intended as a criticism of individuals or their work. The exhibition looks fantastic and we know a lot of people put a lot of time and effort into curating it. But this is an issue that is larger than any individual. The current situation is damaging to the BPPA and to our industry as a whole.

An organisation that accepts into its exhibition 70 photographs taken by men but only six taken by women does not look like an organisation that cares about the under-representation of women photographers.

That the competition was judged blind indicates a superficial concern with fairness at the final stages of selection. It does not address the deeper issues affecting women’s participation in photography: the reasons why women are less willing to enter competitions like this, why they receive fewer opportunities from photo editors to cover the most compelling stories, and why the industry tends to favour certain subjects and perspectives in photographic competitions.

Unconscious bias in judging competitions can often occur, from both men and women, for photographs that have been published before by colleagues of the judges and an awareness of who shot them. The first step towards improving the under-representation of women in photography is to acknowledge that these deeper problems exist and are genuine barriers to female participation.

We would like to know what percentage of BPPA members are women and why so few of those women entered this competition. We would like to know what is being done to encourage more women to join the BPPA and to participate in competitions such as this one. And we would like to know what steps the BPPA is taking to support professional women photographers that are already involved, to make them feel that the BPPA is an organisation that represents them and listens to their views, rather than denies the existence of a problem when its members attempt to engage with them.

When we saw that such a painfully low number of women had been successful in this competition, our first response was to leave the organisation. This option is still very much on the table: we don’t see the point of belonging to an organisation that does not represent us or care about our interests. There is too much defensiveness and too little desire to change the situation for the better. We are happy to meet with members of the BPPA to discuss possible routes forward, but only if the BPPA is prepared to acknowledge that there is a problem.

Suzanne Plunkett, Anna Gordon and Susannah Ireland

Supported by Jess Hurd, Charles Bibby, Elizabeth Dalziel, Charlotte Graham and Claudia Leisinger

twitter: @womenphotograp1

We are female photojournalists who have worked internationally shooting for The Financial Times, The New York Times, The Times, The Guardian, The Observer, The Daily Mail, The Independent, Reuters, The Associated Press, Bloomberg News, and The Telegraph Magazine. We have had long term assignments in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

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