The female gaze and why we need more women taking our pictures 2
Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

The female gaze and why we need more women taking our pictures

A long history of misogyny in the photography community have caused women photographers to keep to the sidelines or abandon careers altogether 
RHIA GRANA | Jul 23 2021

Canon Philippines’ most recent marketing blitz highlighting a gallery of all-male brand ambassadors did not only trigger an outrage in the local media and photography scene, it inevitably opened a discussion on the place of women in a field long dominated by men. 

Photojournalist Eloisa Lopez—who earned the Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award in 2019 for her coverage of the Duterte administration’s drug war—shared her insights on the matter in a virtual forum hosted by GRID Magazine last year. One of the highlights of the forum touched on the reasons why in the Philippines there are actually fewer women photographers than men.

“Honestly, it’s a long history of misogyny and sexism,” Eloisa told the panel. But the better question to ask, she said, is why there should be more women in photography, especially in our present time. “I think we have to think about the dangers of this gender imbalance in photography, especially in the news industry,” she pointed out, “because what we photograph, what we see in our lens, our perspective is what the world sees.”


The female gaze

Eloisa explained why presenting only a male perspective in visual reportage would be dangerous— it will be the only reality the public will get to see. “I think that it’s not fair for photographers, and it’s definitely not fair for the people we photograph,” she said.

Photojournalist Hannah Reyes Morales shares the Reuters photographer’s statement. It’s a loss not to be able to see things from different vantage points and only see stories through the lens of men, says the National Geographic contributor. “One of the best gifts of looking at photography is being allowed to see through others’ eyes,” she says, “and we’re missing out when we don’t recognize the views from where women and non-binary photographers stand.”

The female gaze is especially important when presenting the current realities faced by Filipino women. One example would be the story of political detainee Reina Mae Nasino and her child Baby River. 

Reina Mae was arrested for unlawful possession of firearms. As she awaited her trial, she was separated from her baby, who eventually succumbed to pneumonia. Eloisa’s photo of Reina Mae’s handcuffed, gloved hands holding a white flower in front of Baby River’s tomb was the defining picture of that story, and it was very telling of how a woman understood the plight of another.

“From the beginning of the ceremony, relatives and lawyers repeatedly begged jail guards to remove Reina’s handcuffs even for just a few minutes so she could hold Baby River for the last time. They repeatedly refused,” Eloisa told ANCX October last year. “When I realized that they were not giving her this chance, I knew I had to highlight that in my photographs.”

The female gaze and why we need more women taking our pictures 3
Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

Repping your subject

The De La Salle University graduate stressed in the GRID forum that photographers should be representatives of the people they photograph. How photographers capture their subjects, along with the nuances, make a lot of difference in the storytelling. “There’s a lot that could be misunderstood or mistranslated in what the subjects are trying to say,” Eloisa pointed out.

There were other times when being a woman offered certain advantages in the performance of her duties—for instance, in her coverage of the drug war in Manila in 2016 and 2017. Going to wakes with fellow photographers, mostly male, Eloisa was often requested by colleagues to go inside homes and approach the families ahead of everyone. 

The male presence, with cameras dangling from their necks—tools that almost look like weapons—could trigger fear or cause trauma instead of what the moment usually calls for: sympathy, comfort, a listening ear. She is aware that her presence, her appearance, suggests those things, “and I think a little comfort like that is important especially in sensitive stories,” Eloisa said.

One thing she noticed doing these coverages is that most of the widows of those who were killed were close to her in age, and the mothers or grandmothers are as old as her own. Which somehow makes her naturally more sensitive to her subjects’ struggles, and makes her subjects easily connect to her. “So that was one thing that really I thought was important and powerful in having more women photographers in the field,” she said.

Photographer Veejay Villafranca thinks that because the voice of women has been greatly limited due to the imbalance in the photography industry, they do have a lot to offer, adding “Their stories will offer an intimate perspective different from what we are used to.” 


Beyond the news 

The gender imbalance extends beyond the documentary and news community to fields like music photography. Music photographer Niña Sandejas laments always having to prove that she deserves to be in the position she’s in, only because she’s a woman. She rues the fact that she didn’t have women role models in the field when she was starting out. 

Niña recalls a time when men who had power and experience could make or break someone’s career in the industry. “When someone more experienced tells you that you can only walk the path that they’ve created, it keeps you one step behind the possibility of what you can do. It's all about control,” she tells ANCX. “The kind of men who belittle women and younger artists project their insecurities from not being the ‘top dog’ or trying to hold on to whatever invisible mantle they've wrapped themselves in—a result of their own toxic masculine culture where there always has to be a dominant figure in the scene.”

“There were a few women photographers before primarily because of the abusive nature of some photographers and the communities that foster this behavior,” says Veejay, echoing Niña’s observation. He is, however, hopeful about the future, at least when it comes to representation. “I believe that’s changing because women have fought back and they stand for each other.”