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Categories: Interviews

The story of women behind the camera, as told to and reported by cinematographer Catherine Goldschmidt…

I sat down with a group of eight estimable women the other night in Soho for the purpose of discussing our own experiences working behind the camera.  We were, between us: cinematographers, camera assistants, Steadicam (and regular cam) operators, gaffers, DoP agents and lighting rental account managers; hailing from countries as wide-ranging as the US, UK, Poland, Japan, Sweden and the French Caribbean.  It was a rich and varied group, and the conversation was free-flowing, open and honest.  At times, we were howling with laugher; at others, we were shocked and disgusted.  Overall, we were thoughtful, engaged, concerned, and positive.  

What exactly did we talk about, you ask?  Well, presumably you’ve heard the same frightening statistics as we have.  As Martha M. Lauzen, PhD reported in her annual Celluloid Ceiling study, in 2014 the number of women working behind the camera (as director, writer, producer, editor and cinematographer) comprised just 17% of the work force of the 250 top-grossing films in the US. 

Moreover, that low percentage has been stagnant since 1998.  Just 5% of all cinematographers working on those films were women, a 1% increase since 1998, and 96% of the films were shot by men.  Amongst the heads of departments reported in the study, female cinematographers comprised the lowest percentage of the work force, just behind directors, 7% of whom were women.  The numbers for Independent Narrative and Documentary films screening at US Top Film Festivals were only somewhat better, with women making up 26% of the HoD roles overall, and 12% of all cinematographers.  These numbers, again, show very little growth since 2009.

There are so many statistics out there, but as someone who’s been working in the industry in both the US and the UK for over 10 years now, I’m constantly shocked that the numbers are so small and so unchanging.  When I was asked to write this article for the “Women in Film” issue, all I wanted to do was hear what my female colleagues thought and experienced and felt when it came to being a minority on set. 

What started as a simple idea for an intimate round-table discussion like the one we had the other night turned into a larger survey that I sent out to my networks in both the US and the UK.  In a little over two weeks, I’ve received nearly 50 responses to my 20-question survey (not technically enough for a statistically accurate sample, but enough to tell a combined narrative).  The stories that I’ve been told via the survey, across our dinner table the other night, and while sitting on a “Women in Cinematography” panel at the Bristol International Cinematography Festival last week have been a mix of depressing, inspiring, maddening and funny. 

I feel I have to be better at my job than the men are, in order to generate the same opportunities”

Overall, I’ve been impressed at the thoughtfulness and energy that has been put into this discussion, which I believe is an important one to be having at this point in time.  As we struggle to make progress in our race for equality, the question of how women working in these technical roles are perceived and treated on and off set, and how we perceive and treat others, is an essential one to consider.  

When I made up my survey, I was after qualitative responses that would reveal some unifying trends about our experiences as women working in technical roles behind the camera.  The survey, which you can still see and respond to online here, begins by asking about initial impulses and inspirations, and then moves quickly into gender-specific issues. 

It was after I sent out the survey that several people told me about a slightly similar study Women in Film and Television (WFTV) had done in 2009 with Skillset called “Why Her?”.  In this study, they interviewed five UK-based women working in the disciplines of Camera, Sound, Direction and Screenwriting (so, 20 women in all), who were each considered “successful”.  The study asked the question: what qualities or circumstances made these women successful in their respective male-dominated and highly competitive fields?  

It’s an important question to consider, and it’s especially interesting to see how some of their responses stack against those I received.  If “Why Her?” was after the key to success in individuals, then my survey by comparison was after the ties that bind the group.  My hope was that through learning about what other women (not necessarily deemed the stand-out “successful” ones, but just working women in general) think and feel about their job and their role as a woman within the workplace, we might see some patterns emerge that would give us a more accurate sense of solidarity and togetherness that one doesn’t feel when reading about a few individuals alone. 

As director Lexi Andersen was quoted as saying in a recent article published in The Guardian on sexism in the film industry, “if everybody wants to be “the chosen one” or “one of the guys”, you won’t have unity and solidarity – the only weapons that can combat the status quo.”

We are all individuals.  It’s the perception of who we are we have to fight.” 

Of the 47 females (including one “identifying as female”) who answered my survey, it was a fairly even 50/50 split between women living and working in the US versus the UK (with just a couple outliers in Pakistan and Brazil).  Roughly speaking, around 45% reported having worked in the industry for 5-10 years, 40% for 10-20 years, 12% for less than 5 years and about 3% for more than 20 years.  Of these people, the vast majority identified themselves as cinematographers, then camera operators, then 2nd ACs, with Loaders, 1st ACs, Gaffers, Key Grips and DITs in much smaller representation (note: these numbers are just who answered my survey, they are not necessarily representative of the working population as a whole).  

Age-wise, the majority of responders were 30-44 years old(~60%), followed by those who were 18-29 (~30%), while the older generation, 45-59 years and 60+ years, combined made up less than 10% of responders. 

Ok- so that’s who responded to my survey, but what did they say?   In answer to the question of how they got started in the industry, and who were their mentors and role models, it was interesting to see that many cited both male and female role models and mentors, though some complained about the lack of the latter:  

“All of my mentors and role models are or have been men. If you pick up your average American Cinematographer magazine, most of the films you read about, the work you admire, is done by men. Those people you read about become your role models. Not having access to women in these forums, and women not having access to films that make it into these forums, makes it difficult for us to recognize their work.” 

“I always look up to the ladies doing well in this industry: Ellen, Reed, Rachel, Autumn, Amy, Mandy, Nicola, Uta – I try and keep up with all of them.  I could go on.  I’m stoked for all of them, and I look up to all of them.” 

 Many referenced a pure love of cinema, photography and storytelling in general as their initial inspiration, and most also cited university as the time and place where they first came into contact with the actual job of cinematographer.  A few referred to their father or grandfather’s video camera as being an early jumping-off point, and a couple also mentioned painting, too:  

“I wanted to be a painter. Shooting is an extension of being an artist.” 

“Like a lot of kids growing up in the 80s/90s, my parents were obsessed with making home videos.  Every Christmas or holiday, my Dad would lug around a massive camera filming everything from our first steps to 7 minutes of landscapes…Now […]I would be lying if I said those rubbish home movies weren’t a massive inspiration to me ending up in this job.” 

Most of the films you read about, the work you admire, is done by men…women not having access to films that make it into these forums, makes it difficult for us to recognize their work.”

Only one woman mentioned her mother, which is interesting when you compare this to the findings of “Why Her?”, where strong mothers/matriarchs/female-dominated households seem a common thread.  But then again, I didn’t ask specifically about family or early childhood, which I think was a key factor in the WFTV study.  

Finally, several women told specific stories of when they first saw another woman doing the job as being a catalytic moment for them:  

“I was in a little once-a-week, one-unit film class my freshman year in college. One day, we just watched the behind-the-scenes extras from the first season of “Lost”, and there was one woman in the camera department. They only showed her for a minute, and they spent a lot of that minute focusing on how she could “lift heavy things just like a man!”  It was ridiculous.  However, it was the first time I had seen, visually seen, a woman anywhere near the camera, and a light just went on for me.  That was something I could do.” 

I asked both if they felt like they had and also had not gotten a job due to being a woman.  Across the board, almost all responders told me that yes- they had definitely gotten jobs because they were female, either due to subject matter, “sensitivity”, or the personalities of the people hiring.  A few responded that they had gotten jobs for negative, sexist reasons. 

When it came to not having gotten a job due to gender, the answers were much more mixed.  Most people told me initially they thought not, couldn’t possibly know for sure, but in hindsight… maybe.  In other words, many had the impression that this had happened before, but they had no proof.  Some, however, were definite on the subject:

“[…]I know for sure that I was overlooked for operating jobs early in my career, as I was such a rarity in broadcast camera operating and people weren’t confident I could handle the job physically. This was never said out loud, but I knew it was happening.”

“Usually, if I’m in line for a job with other ACs who are men, unless I have worked with the DP before- I’m almost certain that I won’t get it.”

“I can’t say that anyone has not hired me because I’m a woman, but I don’t know because those are usually conversations held behind closed doors.  I think everyone, especially all the studios, would never admit to that for legal reasons.”

It was the first time I had seen, visually seen, a woman anywhere near the camera, and a light just went on for me.  That was something I could do.”

“Yes.  [I] worked for several 1sts who “liked to hire women” – either because they liked working with someone more submissive or because they liked being the guy that showed up with a cute 2nd. “

“I’ve been explicitly told in an interview “I’m really looking to work with a woman on this project.” When I’m hired due to gender, in spite of it- it’s a hard thing. Often it seems due to female directors having felt so unheard or disrespected by male crew […] So there’s a larger context there that needs to change.  I don’t particularly enjoy my gender being a part of the hiring process from any angle…”

“I often pick up work that requires female-only crew, or when male directors feel that it would be beneficial to have a female DoP or camera operator to ‘balance things out’. Situations like childbirth, breastfeeding, female detention centres, female nudity, women’s refugee centres, domestic violence…the list goes on…”

“Yes, [I’m hired because I’m a woman] all the time. These “girl power” sets that have women producers and want to empower other women and have sets full of only women.  On one hand, I think it’s great to empower each other. On the other hand, I think it’s weird to let gender play any factor at all in who you hire[…] And[it] makes me wonder[…] Maybe I’m only getting all these women empowerment jobs because I can’t get the regular ones.”

So, most responders felt that their gender affected whether or not they got hired, and most went on to say that yes, they felt that their gender did affect how they do their job also.  I asked them to speak about what they saw as the physical, mental and/or emotional effects of being a woman on the job, and the various subjects that came up frequently included: physical size and strength, sensitivity, multi-tasking, confidence and ego. 

Most women, while identifying certain characteristics within themselves that were “typical of women,” also recognized that these were personality traits that a man could have as well.  Many identified that rather than gender itself affecting them, it was more often a case of other people’s perception of their gender (aka: gender assumptions, and subsequent treatment) that influenced their behavior.  For example, many women felt that they had to work harder than their male counterparts to stay competitive, just by virtue of other people’s perceptions of their abilities.

“I feel I have to be better at my job than the men are, in order to generate the same opportunities…”

“Appearance and Strength: When I started out, I assumed I needed to look more of a tomboy (which I never was) and always carried the heaviest items on set to prove I was strong. In the past few years, I’m dressing increasingly as I please and carry as little as possible.” 

“I am physically small, so people are sometimes impressed by this petite woman [carrying] gear around.  I try to stay in shape, rock climbing, running, etc so I can handle the long hours and physical labor.  In terms of emotional [effects], people stereotype women as being indecisive and yes, I question my decisions a lot and looking back, sometimes I wish I was ballsier, for lack of a better word.  However, I’ve talked to men who feel the same way…”

“Being a woman definitely changes how I approach my job, but not how good I am at doing it.  Earlier in my career, I worked as a set lighting technician.  I was strong, but I didn’t have the same physical strength as one of my 200 lb. coworkers.  It made me work smarter to achieve what I needed.  Brains not brawn.  As a cinematographer, I don’t have those same kinds of demands on me physically, but my brain has been trained to really think through all aspects of my work to achieve the end goal.”

“The work that you do and the way you approach your craft should speak for itself, and not the fact you are a man or a woman.  The way you do your job depends on your background, education, sensitivity, personality, beliefs, will to work hard, experience, patience, obsession, passion, budget, opportunity, but not gender.  Men and women can be equally sensitive and tough, and the criteria on which we are judged is just old-fashioned.”

Being a woman definitely changes how I approach my job, but not how good I am at doing it.”

“I just read an article about a study on minorities, and the fact that if you are a minority you might have more empathy for other people because of your experiences. That makes sense to me. I think that my empathy plays a big role in how I run my set. I feel I am more caring of my crew than male DPs that I have worked for as an AC. On the other hand, I’ve had women treat me much rougher than men have, so maybe that’s more personality at play than gender.” 

“[…]We are all individuals.  It’s the perception of who we are we have to fight.” 

“I think that women […in]my field have to be more resilient, and it’s a field that already takes a good deal of resilience to begin with.  We become masters of the polite retort.  Shutting someone up without giving them the opening to call you a “bitch” or “angry” later.  Artistically?  Everyone has their social training, gender, race, cultural background, all these things impact the way others interact with you. Those things make the artist.  So, in that way, sure- gender will impact everyone. However, my vagina never operates the camera. That would be highly inappropriate. Also challenging. That would be both challenging and inappropriate.”

When it came to sexism in the workplace, almost everyone replied that yes- they had experienced sexism, but the individual stories varied greatly.  The women who answered my survey, as well as the ones I spoke with over dinner, reported everything from the odd “sweetie pie/honey/darling/etc.” diminutive address, to full-on sexual harassment, to the aforementioned gender assumptions related to physical strength, etc.  Personally, I find this the most disturbing and difficult part of the conversation, and yet – I had to ask the question. 

In the free-flowing discussion over dinner, the sexualized difference and frequent abusive energy between the genders was brought up again and again as a disruptive and upsetting issue.  I went home and asked my husband about it: why, for instance, would a man send a female colleague a picture of his penis (something that a dinner companion of mine had reported happening to her more than once!), when you’d never hear of a woman doing that to a male colleague?  My poor husband was unable to explain.

The next question on the survey was about percentages and how that affects the atmosphere on set.  I asked the survey responders to describe both what being one of the only females on set was like, versus being one of many; being in the minority vs. majority.  When in the minority (which virtually everyone reported was the most common state of affairs), women reported:

“I am often one of a small handful of women on a film set.  It just doesn’t register with me as being unusual, as it’s so common.”

“They literally call me one of the guys and tell dick jokes in front of me as if it were appropriate.” 

“I couldn’t even say really.  I don’t even notice it any more.  Most of these guys really are my friends and [the] Transpo[rtation department] hits on you if there’s one woman or 5.” 

“Sometimes totally fine, sometimes quite a lonely experience, depending on the men involved.” 

“Yes, most of the time [I’m the only woman on set.] But every situation is different. Sometimes the best way to behave is to be more like one of the lads and joke around, other times it’s to simply remain quiet and confident in what you do.  It’s about being sensitive to the kind of atmosphere you’re working in and making the best of it.”

“In general I get along well with men, so it is not an issue.  But, there is definitely a sense of “don’t rock the boat” when you are the only female in the crew.  If some of the guys start telling raunchy jokes or sharing sexist opinions, I usually have to ignore it or act like I’m not offended, because as the odd man out, I don’t want to say anything to make our working relationship more difficult.” 

I am often one of a small handful of women on a film set.  It just doesn’t register with me as being unusual, as it’s so common.”

When asked if they’ve ever been in the majority (or at least, with more female co-workers) on set, most women reported that they preferred being in a balanced workplace.  Only some had experienced working with an all-female crew before, but responses were somewhat mixed (though most enjoyed the novelty!):

It was awesome.  Friends and I went to the desert and made a film with women only.  It was experimental in its process and very fulfilling. I think the urge to try things out was much more welcomed on a set where we felt we were not expected to constantly “prove ourselves” and instead invited to engage in creative collaboration.”

“[It was]ok – but I think all women crews often spend too long discussing/ being open to each others suggestions. I think the ideal is a good balance of men and women on set – everything seems to run better when that is the case, and everyone has more fun too.”

“I’ve been on 50/50 sets, and only noticed because the men pointed it out. Those are fun though. Usually it’s in the indy world and the hiring is very conscious. You end up with good people. I’ve never been on a 50/50 set that wasn’t positive and fun. I’ve never been on an all-female set.”

“I had the pleasure once, and it was a very nice experience.  I think the tensions between women can be different from the tensions between men (or men and women) so it was a bit of an adjustment. But in general, I felt more comfortable and more confident working with other women. I felt a sense of camaraderie that I don’t always feel on mostly-male sets.”

“No, [I’ve never been on set with mostly women.]  I think it would be awful though…I like having men around and working with men.”

“Yeah, not that different really. The lo/no budget stuff I do is nearly always 50% or more women on set. High/industry budget stuff is nearly always 75% men, especially as HODs…..”

About 42% of the women who responded to my survey said that if they were in a position to hire other women, they did so sometimes.  About 30% replied that they hired other women often.  13% said that they always hired other women.  A few women replied that they hired the best person for the job, regardless of gender.  A few said they felt they could never hire women because there were no female applicants. 

In response to how often they were hired by other women or had female bosses, about half said that they were often hired by women.  About 25% said that they were sometimes hired by other women, while 20% said that they were rarely hired by other women.  A few reported that they were always hired by other women, but no one reported never having been hired by a woman.  There were a few NAs.

I asked them to rate on a scale of 1-10, how important it was to them to work with other women.  The resulting graph is a bell curve, with 6 being the most popular choice.  See below:

Scale1-10

From the graph, you can see that most of the women who completed my survey think it’s pretty to extremely important to work with other women.

To finish my survey, I made some statements which I asked people to simply agree or disagree with.  About half of the women agreed that men have an unfair advantage when it comes to working behind the camera.  Some clarified that this advantage is systemic and not inherent (I, myself, assume this to be the case in most people’s opinions!)  About 13% said that they weren’t sure if they agreed or disagreed, but only 2% disagreed completely. 

When I asked if they thought that affirmative action policies of any kind were OK to balance out the numbers of women working behind the camera, about 72% of responders said they agreed this was OK, while only about 11% disagreed.  About 4% weren’t sure, and the remaining people told me they thought that talent alone should be the deciding factor.  One woman said she thought that the bigger issue was to empower women at a young age.  

Another woman told me that affirmative action policies would never work in a freelance industry that is founded on personal choice and creative freedom.  We talked about this issue of affirmative action and quotas over the dinner table as well, and a woman from Sweden brought up the fact that the Swedish Film Institute has a 50/50 quota policy in place to fund an equal number of projects directed by men and women.  That policy and several others implemented by CEO Anna Serner has successfully increased the number of women directors working, according to a recent article in Vice on the subject.  Could a similar thing be done for women cinematographers?

When asked whether they would agree with the statement: “I am likely to say yes to a job, even if I haven’t done that specific job before”, 62% of women responding to my survey said yes!  This happily surprised me, because I had always read that women are statistically unlikely to put themselves confidently forward for work they haven’t been specifically trained to do.  (By way of some example, “Why Her?”, reports that women are statistically speaking better educated than men working in film).  

No one will know we’re here, no one will know they even have the option to hire us, if we don’t speak up.”

Speaking with the dinner table about this very issue, some women said that it might have been the way I formed the question.  They clarified that if offered the job, of course they’d say yes, but they wouldn’t go out of their way to put themselves blindly, brashly forward.  “Men are more likely to blag their way into a job”, said one woman.  “It’s a bit of a confidence issue- and women are too honest.  We apologize for our lack of experience, instead of bigging it up.”

Finally, my last Agree/Disagree statement on the survey was: “I feel I am often seen as a “bitch” or a “diva” on set, just because I’m taking my job seriously.”  45% disagreed with this statement, while 19% agreed and 17% were unsure.  I confess I was a little surprised by this as well, as many women in the past had complained to me about this issue.  Perhaps my language was too strong here (as one woman told me it was!), but the issue at stake is similar to the criticism that Hillary Clinton often receives: that strong leadership from a woman can often be negatively construed more easily than strong leadership from a man.  In other words, a woman is called imperious, where a man might be called macho; the two are not synonymous by any means, but you can see that the vocabulary itself has a gender/positivity bias.

In closing, I think I’ll end with some of the last remarks that the generous women who took the time to answer my survey left me with.  I will say that overall, this investigation has given me a deeper understanding and appreciation of the diversity of viewpoints and experiences of my fellow female colleagues.  

I think that the more we reflect on these issues for ourselves, and the more we discuss them openly and honestly with each other, the more they will dissipate and hopefully positively influence our workplace environment and the mindsets of more of our colleagues and employers.  I also want to acknowledge that gender equality is obviously only one of many equality battles to be won, including race and sexual orientation.  It may be a long road, but if we stick together- we’ll get there.

It’s hard to speak up; it’s hard to speak up on set or in internet forums or in an interview. But there are A LOT more women working behind the camera than people think. No one will know we’re here, no one will know they even have the option to hire us, if we don’t speak up.”

“At the end of the day, people want to hire people they are comfortable with. And since most hiring is done by or on behalf of men, they hire people just like themselves.”

“I hope that we do get an even workforce in the camera department eventually – wouldn’t it be interesting? [… ]Let’s just shoot stuff and forget the one chromosome that made us slightly different. This year I’ve had 10 women say to me – it’s great to see a woman in the department.  That makes me proud.” 

My gender will only hold me back if I allow it to.”

“I think it would be easy to get angry about the stats of how few women work behind the camera in film, but it’s a basic fact of the industry we work in. I’m not actively fighting against it, but I’m doing my best to encourage other women in trainee and assistant positions to have the confidence to progress in the camera department.  It’s challenging being a woman in a man’s world, so mentoring and support is key if we want to start tipping the balance in the other direction. This is still many years away, but I strongly believe that the female point-of-view can bring a valuable level of understanding to visual storytelling and ultimately the audience experience.”

“As a female working in a male dominated industry, I think it’s important to remember that there will always be people who will give you a hard time and think that you can’t do your job as well as a man. It’s very important to recognize that it’s their problem, not yours…”

“My gender will only hold me back if I allow it to.  If someone doesn’t hire me, I don’t question the reason, I just move on.  The competition is fierce.  Why should it be a surprise I didn’t get a job? I certainly don’t want to feel I only got it because of affirmative action.  I want to get it because I was the best candidate, period.”

“I just think that if we keep doing what we are doing, being great and confident, we can inspire the next bunch of great camera women. When I was younger, I was told I’d never be able to do this job-  and hey, I’m doing it!”

“…I personally want to take some time out to have children and raise them – that is a common female trait and the mothering instinct is in-built to most women.  If that were ignored or taken away, you’d have to have more females than men working behind the camera to make up for the time they took off for raising children.” 

When men say to me, ‘well, I’ve worked in the industry x amount of years and I’ve never seen any sexism’, I laugh and say, ‘well, you’re a man and you are surrounded on set by other men!’”

“I disagree about parenthood being difficult while doing this job.  You mustn’t think that way!  Parenthood makes you brave.  You have only to look at Charlotte Bruus Christensen to know it’s possible.  You just sort it out.”

”Obviously, I care a lot about women in production, and do feel we’re underrepresented […]At the same time, I hate to characterize myself as a “woman in the industry”, because I want to be judged by the merits of my work, and not my sex.  I think we all feel that way.  In some ways, I think this is our time and we’re being given a soap box and we should damn well use it.”

“I feel like all women need encouragement.  I recently had a camera operator tell me that I was inspiring her because I was getting jobs as a DP and this made her feel more confident that she can do this too.  She is now Dp-ing her first TV show.”

“I just wanted to say that I would be highly, highly in favor of hiring quotas for women in the industry, in crewing and above the line. We will only see true meritocracy then.”

“I know that this survey is dealing with gender, but I don’t think that I can discuss my experience as a woman while completely ignoring the fact that I am a woman of color. I think that my race has affected my experience just as much as my gender.  I’ve only been hired by a white man twice.  Both times it was because I knew the producer or director from college.  Other than that, the only men that have hired me are men of color.  I’ve also mostly been hired by women of color as well, but in my experience, women are more comfortable working with other women regardless of color than men.”

“When men say to me, ‘well, I’ve worked in the industry x amount of years and I’ve never seen any sexism’, I laugh and say, ‘well, you’re a man and you are surrounded on set by other men!’”

“I love what I do. I wish I could get into the next level of production and work on larger and bigger budgeted projects…”

“I can tell you that I think it’s insane a woman has never been nominated in cinematography for an Academy award – and even more insane we’ve never kicked up a fuss about that.”

Catherine Goldschmidt

Catherine Goldschmidt is a Director of Photography, living and shooting in London, Los Angeles and anywhere the next job takes her. Her work, both narrative and documentary, has screened at film festivals all over the world including Sundance, SXSW, Toronto and the London Film Festival, among others.

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Posted on Oct 5, 2015

One Response to “Women Working Behind the Camera: Our Story En Masse”
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  1. It’s interesting to read this from the Raindance perspective as most arts orgs are female dominant – except for Raindance where we are 50-50. And the British Indepednent Film Awards is run by 2 women,a dnt eh board of 7 has 4 women. But film sets have traditionally been dominated by men. I suppose its because of the so-called heavy lifting! And shame on my fellow males for telling sexist jokes.

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