Institutional Gender Bias, Sexism and Misogyny in Music Photography

Earlier this year, Vogue published an interview with Lloyd Wakefield, tour photographer for Harry Styles Love On Tour. This has been one of the most massive arena tours in recent memory, with Harry Styles at the pinnacle of his career and stardom. Wakefield's images for this tour are among the most viewed and shared in the history of music photography.

An important note: This article is not a critique of any specific photographer or artist. We love Harry in this House. Furthermore, Harry Styles’s previous tour photographers include acclaimed photographers Helene Pambrum and Anthony Pham. Harry has a record of supporting diverse talent, not only for his choice of photographer but more largely in his touring crew. The aforementioned interview was a catalyst discussion within the music photography community and I feel we must acknowledge it as a touchpoint.

In the interview, Wakefield mentions, “I’d never actually shot a live show before Harry. He was the first concert that I’ve ever shot.”

This article sparked tremendous discussion in the music photography community at the time of its publication, and this single quote was at the heart of it.

Acknowledging Gender Inequity*

For many music photographers, it highlighted the reality that circumstance, character and opportunity matter more than experience or honing one's skills with years in the game. 

For many women in music photography, it spoke to so much more. Specifically, the fact the institutional bias and sexism of our industry that continually challenge their experience and opportunities.

A man having an opportunity doesn’t take away from his story or his talent. But it does mean that he didn’t have to fight the sexism, misogyny and double standards women experience to get it.

Acknowledging the challenges of women is not an admission that men in this industry are not talented, hard working or deserving of success. Just as the success of others doesn't take away from our own accomplishments.

As a man, it feels important to understand that regardless of my own personal challenges, hard work and opportunities, there are subtle, persistent factors that work against women in this industry that I have had the privilege of never experiencing.

The Insidiousness of Institutional Sexism

Music photography is hard. The simple truth is that there are not the opportunities available to match the talent, the dreams and the passions of us who pour our lives into this pursuit. We don't question this reality.

But neither should we shy away from the specific and very real challenges faced by women that plainly men never fear or experience.

I've heard first hand stories from women music photographers about being rejected from opportunities specifically because of their gender, appearance or how band members or their significant others would feel “uncomfortable” with a woman as part of the crew.

I've been asked for a referral for a touring photographer when the client is specifically requesting a man to fill the role, due to “tour dynamics.” Even at the very least offensive, these insidious requests come under the guise of simplifying logistics, such as tight budgets for crew accommodations and the assumption that crew will share rooms or even beds.

While decisions like these may not be rooted in sexism or specific prejudice, what it represents is a systematic bias in the music industry where men are all too often considered as the default of convenience. The result of a patriarchy dictating the status quo is that women are denied space or forced to justify their qualifications based on their gender alone. 

To refute these gender specific biases — unconscious or not, malicious or not — feels like refuting fundamental facts of reality, like a round earth or the force of gravity.

Micro Aggressions, Harassment and Assault

Beyond barriers for equal opportunity, women working in music photography are met with further negative experiences that few men share to the same widespread degree. These range from gender-based micro aggressions and verbal harassment to physical violence and sexual assault.

My friends and colleagues tell me about being introduced to venue security by the tour manager as the tour photographer with full and unrestricted access, only to be immediately questioned or hassled once the TM leaves.

From press photographers, I hear of women having their credentials scrutinized, while male colleagues walk past them to enter photo pits without questioning. From others working on productions or on set, hearing of women photographers being paid half the rate of a man for doing the the same job.

All too often, we hear about women photographers being accused of being a girlfriend, a fangirl or a groupie by staff, fans or even fellow photographers — accusations men rarely face in the photo pit while simply trying to do their job. All while other men in the same space stand by in silence.

Colleagues have been physically assaulted, being violently shoved against the stage by security as they pass for no reason, while the same security personnel leaves men working without harassment.

Most harrowingly, women are at dramatically higher levels of risk for sexual harassment and sexual assault in the music industry when compared to men. From crowded live events and working in close quarters of touring to navigating power dynamics often controlled by men, music photography is not free from sexual violence perpetrated by men.

These are events no one should go through in any context, let alone our peers in music photography, but their instances are far too familiar among so many women in our space. What we see is that even when women succeed in the world of touring and live music, with access, opportunities and work, the same spaces that are safest for men have no such guarantee for women.

Tour Photography and Gender Bias

In the world of music photography, touring is held up as the pinnacle of the profession in many ways. Working closely with an artist or band, with unfettered access and a romanticized life on the road have their clear appeal. Because of this coveted position and the rarity of it — there’s so often only one tour photographer or even a single creator doing both photo and video on a tour — it’s all that more elusive for so many.

While women represent a huge proportion of music photographers, what do we see in touring? Particularly at the highest levels?

Consider the iHeartRadio Music Awards, which is one of the few if not the only honors for tour photography. For the 2023 category of “Favorite Tour Photographer,” out of eleven total spots, three women were nominated: Yasi, Ashley Osborn and Elizabeth Miranda.

To be clear, this evidence is not a slight against any photographer nominated. But it does raise a simple question: Is this what our music photography community looks like? Is this what our talent looks like?

Since the addition of the tour photographer category in 2019, we have seen similar or worse levels of representation, with white men dominating the nominations. In 2020, we saw no women nominated in this category. 

Acknowledging Our Challenges to Overcome Them

Why does this matter? The iHeartRadio nominations show us how the biggest artists hire. These are tours that have the budget for touring women-only crew rooms. Without the need to share beds or the entire crew to sleep in a van together.

These are the most successful artists who should be in the best position to skip past the inequity of this industry to hire diversely and to seek out the best talent. And yet even here, we see a sampling of photographers that doesn’t match the breakdown of talent in the music photography community

Why is that?

The reality is that the upper levels of tour photography skew heavily towards men because they are a reflection of a system that positions men as a default. Of what is easy, what is convenience. Of who has time and time been referred to as a “good hang.” This fact is why we must acknowledge our challenges as a whole. 

In numerous aspects of photography, we see women dramatically under represented, despite reporting that globally women make up 75% of photography students. Shifting our industry and community must start at the lowest levels, so that we can see this change at the highest, most visible levels.

The Fallacy of the Good Hang

In touring, there's the common understanding that being a “good hang” or someone who can “vibe” with the band or artist is essential to joining a tour. When it comes to tour photography, we implicitly understand that this aspect is as important if not more important than the quality of one’s work.

This vague signaling of personality fit is essentially one of comfort and trust. An understandable and reasonable expectation for artists and crews, where the boundaries of personal space and intimacy can be nearly non-existent. But when the norms of what is comfortable and who is trusted are shaped predominantly by men, the connotation of what constitutes a “good hang” cannot be taken at face value.

What this simple truth belies is the systemic gender bias, sexism and misogyny present in our society, where men cannot universally welcome women without qualification or as equals. That at worst, in a patriarchy, a woman must choose between being “one of the guys” or being their true authentic selves.

When we point out inequality, no one is asking for women to be considered based solely on their gender. This is not equity. We are striving for the day when gender is simply not a limiting factor to the opportunities women have. 

Smashing the Patriarchy in Music Photography

So, you're a man reading this. Ask yourself: Who are you referring for jobs when you have the position and opportunity? Who do you choose to associate with, lift up and champion? What do they stand for, and who are they supporting?

If you've witnessed sexism and misogyny in the photo pit, or backstage or on a tour bus, are you speaking up? Are you advocating for pay transparency with your peers?

We must do better. This change starts with our community. And it starts with you.

* A few notes: 

First, women are not the only group that faces inequity in music photography, but they are the largest single group facing discrimination. Women of color, trans women, queer and non-binary or gender non-conforming people face even more inequality. While this article focuses on the experience of women and the inequality they experience, we are fighting for all groups that face forms of underrepresentation, discrimination and unequal access to opportunities despite the ability, talent and drive to succeed.

Second, this post is directed primarily at men. Simply put, men are in positions of power at every level of the music industry and as a result, the burden is on men to change a horribly flawed system.