Can Equal Lens tackle photography’s gender imbalance?

There’s no shortage of brilliant female photographers – so why are so many women missing out on commercial jobs? We talk to Equal Lens founder Jaki Jo Hannan about tackling photography’s gender gap

Emily Winiker

Across every type of photography – from portraiture to documentary, still life and landscape – you can find a wealth of women making brilliant work. Yet when it comes to commercial projects, it seems women are much less likely to get a break than their male peers. This gender gap is visible not just in commercial projects but representation, professional membership and awards wins: just 18% of the AOP’s accredited photographers and assistant photographers are women – compared with 75% of its student members – and men outnumber women on the books of most well-known commercial agents.

New platform Equal Lens is hoping to tackle this imbalance with an online platform showcasing work by women photographers. Founded by Jaki Jo Hannan and a team of female ad creatives, the initiative hopes to encourage more brands and agencies to commission women by highlighting the wealth of talent that is available.

The platform launched today and features 100 women so far – from CR Best in Book winner Julia Fullerton-Batten to Polly Tootal and Hollie Fernando. Equal Lens also plans to launch mentoring programmes and portfolio reviews for female photographers, as well as visiting universities to speak with female students and offering advice for women photographers seeking representation.

As a producer at adam&eveDDB, Hannan says she often witnessed women missing out on commercial projects because of a lack of representation or an existing portfolio of commercial work. She had the idea for the platform in 2017 and was encouraged to develop it after presenting the concept at Cannes Lions’ See It Be It programme. She has since recruited a team of creatives to help her get it up and running – including Google Creative Lab Art Director and Designer Haylie Craig, Another Production founders Helen Parker and Tanja Adams, Photographer and Art Director Nici Hofer and Zuleika Sedgley, a Senior Writer at Pentagram. She has also received support from Emma Reeves at Free the Bid, an initiative which launched last summer to increase opportunities for women directors.

The website showcases up-and-coming and unrepresented photographers alongside more established names who are already signed: “That was important because I think it gives credibility [to less established names] and raises everyone up,” explains Hannan.

Work is arranged by category, allowing people to search by genres or themes such as abstract, humour and tech, and photographers are asked to submit images without branding. Hannan hopes this will encourage commissioners to judge people on their work and creative ideas rather than their client list. She also hopes it will encourage people to be more open-minded when choosing photographers: “Giving someone their first commercial commission or getting a photographer to make a different type of work actually could be a really great PR opportunity for brands and advertising agencies,” she says.

Polly Tootal

The project’s long-term aim is to achieve a 50/50 split – with 50% of commercial jobs going to women and an equal number of men and women represented in client pitches, agents’ rosters and crews. “If all of the different areas – agents, clients, creative agencies – all do our little bit, we will see a shift in who’s winning work. And if more women can win the bids for commercial work, and get those higher budget jobs, then that will support them and allow them to do more editorial and personal projects,” says Hannan.

Free the Bid has seen an increase in the number of women winning jobs since asking agencies to commit to putting one woman forward in every pitch, and Equal Lens is considering launching a similar pledge. Equal Lens is also gathering details of DOPs and assistants to publish on the website, which it hopes will help address a gender imbalance in crews.

It seems ridiculous to think that women might be considered unsuitable for a certain type of job in 2017, but Hannan believes there is still a lot of unconscious bias in photography. “We need to break that stereotype that women just shoot fashion and children. Women can shoot tech, they can shoot cars, they can shoot huge landscapes and buildings and extremely technical sets. We need to break that unconscious bias of what a woman’s style of photography is – or a man’s,” she adds.

Hollie Fernando

This gender gap isn’t just down to unconscious bias. It is part of a wider problem that exists not just in commercial photography but across industries from tech to finance.

But by encouraging people to make a conscious effort to work with women – and putting more female photographers in front of commissioners – Hannan is hoping that Equal Lens can put a stop to women missing out on jobs just because they haven’t landed an agent or worked on a major campaign.

“I see so many women just miss out on jobs all the time and what happens is a lot of the male photographers who get that work go on to get more of it because they have [those jobs] in their portfolio, and it becomes this perpetual cycle that makes the gap wider,” she adds. “Obviously there are some really established female photographers who this isn’t a problem for, but for people just getting into the industry now, male photographers still dominate a lot of categories … and I think it’s really important for that lens of advertising to be shown from a male and a female gaze.”