A few months ago, I was getting together with some friends—open-minded young-and-passionate indie filmmaker types—for a happy hour hangout. I met a few new people and we exchanged the customary “So what do you do?” inquiries that inevitably make me into an oddity. “I’m a cinematographer,” I said.
You see, I am discouraged that while we are (thankfully) launching into increasingly impassioned discussions about the underrepresentation of women in film production, those discussions seem narrowly focused on women in the directors chair and in the writers’ room.* Don’t get me wrong. I do agree that women (and people of color, and—for crying out loud!!!!—people from more diverse socioeconomic backgrounds) are embarrassingly underrepresented as writers and directors.
However, if the representation of women writers and directors in Hollywood is upsetting, that of women cinematographers is infuriating. Though an exact percentage is difficult to identify, most estimates are in the 2-5% range. In charge of three of the most predominantly male departments of a very male-dominated industry, a female cinematographer encounters at least as much sexism as any other department head.
Most sets are not actively hostile to a woman cinematographer (though some are…), but every experience with a new crew is bound to begin with that look of disbelief in their eyes; the assumption that you’re not competent until you prove otherwise (For men, it’s the opposite, in case you didn’t know…); and the occasional well-intentioned, if ignorant, query: “Um, excuse me, are you the 2nd AC?”
In trying to find statistics about female cinematographers, I ran into a Local 600 post of a guardian article (which made not a mention of female cinematographers, by the way) about the underrepresentation of women on blockbuster film crews. The comments section of this article was full of typical chauvinistic prattling of the “I’m ok with hiring women, just make sure they’re qualified” (see preceding paragraph) and the “Women just aren’t interested in making these kinds of movies” ilk.
Let us now address the latter of these injurious statements. I cannot count the number of times I have been approached about a project and the producer tells me: “We’d really like to have a woman’s perspective on this project.” Very often, these projects require a young, inexperienced actress to be in a sexual situation and my presence is expected to make her “feel comfortable.” Other times, the project involves some kind of “woman’s issue”—not that I’m averse, quite the opposite. I care deeply about issues affecting women. (The fact that I’m a feminist is not a shocker at this point.) But I like stories about other things, too.
In case you didn’t know, women filmmakers love breathtaking images; women cinematographers love condors and cranes and steadicams and process trailers and awesome stunts and choreographing amazing shots; we love test shoots and prep days that empower us to show how talented we are; we love great locations and brilliant Production Designers and effects people, and fantastic actors who put their exceptional work in front of our lenses.
And, by the way, women cinematographers love good day rates, too. It seems quite convenient that the categories of films that women supposedly “prefer” to work on fall into the lower budget range. No offense to those projects, as they have their own artistic merits, but my biological makeup does not preclude me from liking bigger budget productions with more opportunity for spectacle and, yes, paying my bills. Cause this is my job.
So, maybe the next time you meet a woman and she says she’s a Director of Photography, try not to let your chin drop to the floor. Do your best to keep your eyes inside their sockets and any remarks about her gender to yourself. Instead, maybe ask for her card.
Then go home and watch her reel. Who knows, maybe it’ll surprise you.
*Since this article was written, Deadline Hollywood released an article by David Robb, “Female Cinematographers A Rarity In Hollywood.” However, the content of the article focused largely on the lack of women members of the ASC. While the female membership of the ASC is very low, it is fairly consistent with the numbers of women working as cinematographers in film and television under the umbrella of IATSE Local 600. In fact, I have encountered great support from current ASC members, who are eager to support the next generation of Cinematographers. My remarkable mentor, Michael Goi, ASC, formerly presided over the professional group and has a tremendous commitment to uplifting talented women cinematographers.