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Friday, 2 October 2015

Is Photography a Bit Cowardly

I put this post about sexual harassment up yesterday and my inbox started pinging which was rather distracting as I had work to do.

I'm rather naive, so what I thought might be a relatively isolated problem is far more widespread than I imagined - a statement which will leave half the readers of this blog snorting in derision.

But everybody who got in touch told me this is exactly what large numbers of young women photographers talk about when they get together. At Arles, at Paris Photo, at Unseen, at Houston and so on.

One woman mentioned her experience of the curator's casting couch, something that doesn't feature in any professional development how-to-get-a-show features that you periodically see. She didn't visit the couch. She didn't get the show.

Another woman extended it and told me that when she's with her artist friends, they play The Curator's Game. This is where they tell their curator stories through role play. It's a bit more creative than your basic casting couch scenario; one where Performance, Installation, Action is all part of the game and pig's heads and clogs completely relate as a normal part of growing up. We're talking major museums here as well.

Then there's the Sex Spammer. I used to think that the screenings were the best attended events at Arles, but it seems that the Sex Spammers Correspondents' Club is even bigger. It starts 'Hello Sexy, let's hook up..' and then never stops until you tell him where to go. And if you don't, then it's 'I imagine fucking you by a river' and it's screen-grab time. Not nice.

The problem is nobody wants to talk about it in public for several reason. One reason is they don't want to be seen as 'difficult'. And the other reason is the possibility it will close off career opportunities. One person said, when you consider that '60% of men in some kind of position of power has engaged in this kind of behaviour, you will understand why people don't want to complain. You'll never work in photography again.'

It is difficult. And it's ironic that in photography, in the arts, where the rhetoric of telling the truth, effecting change, and being honest and raw is so prevalent, that we're not honest enough to recognise this problem or talk about it. There are no structures in place that help women to complain or talk about what happens not just to a few, to the vast majority of young photographers.

And if we can't talk about this, then it renders all that talk about truth, change, honesty, rawness for what it is; empty bullshit. We talk about things that we are comfortable being raw about, but not those that really matter. Which isn't really raw or honest at all.

It's a bit like all those debates about ethics in photography. We can discuss at length the amount of dodging in a shadow, or worry our fingernails to bits about Bruce Gilden or Boris Mikhailov, but when we are faced with something that really matters, it becomes something we simply ignore.

Bullshit to that!Dare I say it, but is photography just a little bit cowardly. Are we all yeller?

My question is what little step can help make it easier to talk about and act against the kind of behaviour mentioned above.

Something really basic might be a simple Equal Opportunities Statement of the kind all major educational establishments have in the UK.

It could be something led by the major organisations (I mentioned World Press Photo, Arles, Aperture, Deutsche Borse, Magnum, National Geographic, VII, Paris Photo, and lets throw all the major museums and galleries in there as well), with an opportunity to complain. As I mentioned, I'm sure many of these organisations already have something in place because they must all be very aware of the dangers of people offering access for sex. That's what it boils down to.

That would be a start.

And given that so, so many women photographers (like 100%) have experienced the things mentioned above, it would good if they could somehow speak out. I'm not sure how though.

But I've worked in various educational establishments over the years, with young people, with vulnerable people, and they've all managed to have policies in place. And many people (not all) who have experienced sexual harassment, racism, or discrimination have been able to complain about it and give others powers to act against it. It's difficult, but it's not that difficult.

This, for example, is lifted from Bath University (I don't work there) equality statement.

Equality principles 

Our equality principles are:- 

1. To maintain an organisational culture and environment in which all staff and students understand fairness, inclusive language, positive attitudes, and the value of equality and diversity, 

2. To remove barriers which may be experienced by members of protected groups including tackling unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation, 

3. To continue to foster good relations between staff, students, contractors, visitors and service users by promoting an inclusive work/study/leisure environment, 

4. To assist staff and students to achieve their potential at work and in their education through relevant policies, practices, equality analyses and monitoring. 

So it's a cut and paste job. And then you add a contact email for complaints.

The alternative is easier of course; just ignore the problem. We've got by so far by ignoring it. But if you do that, can we all please drop the language about photography and the arts being raw and difficult and challenging and effecting change. And drop all talk of ethics and values.

Because if you can't change something as simple as this, even in some little way, if people stay scared of talking about their experiences in public (while talking about them at great length in private) it really is all just so much hypocritical hot air.


colin pantall said...

Hi Anonymous who just posted a comment starting 'Thanks for writing about this...' - can you contact me either on facebook or by email to colinpantall@yahoo.co.uk


Stan B. said...

Gotta admit, I was naive enough to think this problem wasn't a major player within the hallowed halls of photography.

Anonymous said...

By why stop with the people in the organizations? Should we also be looking at the artists like Araki and Richardson that exploit women? When the work itself promotes this exploitation, should we be condoning it? It seems like a vicious circle.

colin pantall said...

I've edited your post - you are posting anonymously. I am not naming anybody, though there is proof out there in the form of screen grabs and the experiences of women around the world. I am not doing it because I'm a bit cowardly too.

But I have been involved in promoting him, and told people he's a great guy (and had people tell me he's a great guy - that's why I worked with him) so share some responsibility for his acts and the fact that people think he's a great guy.

So the morality play on my part relates to me.

It is easy to be sarcastic about it, but the truth is that doesn't help. I have heard of maybe 50 women who have had the treatment from this guy, including women who studied at the university where I work - and of course there are others who, if not so prolific, are far far worse.

It's time for this to stop. And it won't if we do nothing and all stay quiet.

I don't enjoy doing this. Nobody enjoys it. But I would enjoy it even less if I just shut my mouth and continued to write about brave, challenging photography, bla, bla, bla, equal rights, bla bla bla, photography can make a change bla bla bla.. It would be a bit pathetic even.

So for me, it alleviates the hypocrisy a bit. And maybe it will make a difference somewhere.

'Sex has been governing the world since its creation. Stop dreaming and name harassers so that people can protect themselves. What you are doing is useless and self congratulatory. When there are accusations, there needs to be proof and naming. That is if you have decided to become some kind of moral figure in this scene. Were you just born in the world Colin? WOW photography has sex offenders. You mean that thousands of mediocre artists with personality disorders do abuse themselves psychologically and sometimes sexually? Thank you man, this is really something I could never have imagined provided it happens in all parts of society.'

Stan B. said...

Unfortunately, until more women come out in numbers, name their abusers, and spill the details- little if anything will get done. I realize this puts a double whammy on women (first, they're exposed to abuse in private, and then must relive it in public for all to hear)- but that's what's gonna get things done. Men count on their fear and silence to continue their abusive ways. Getting out the sordid details is the only way to out these abusers and at least curtail their actions (eg- Bill Cosby).

If I was a women (yes, being a tad presumptuous here), I would record all my 1:1 interactions with the powers that be behind closed doors- I don't care what privacy law it may or may not violate, if they don't attempt to violate you, then you got nothing on them.

Or, the abuse will continue unabated...

colin pantall said...

Thanks Stan - interestingly enough there are quite a lot of screenshots of recorded conversations.