I make a point of looking over each group of Luminous Endowment winners when they are announced, taking some time with the pictures, maybe doing a little further research, and so on. To my eye, the caliber of work has been steadily rising, which has been a lot of fun to watch.
Something else caught my eye in the most recent set of winners, though. Of the ten awards, eight of them were given to women.
My first thought was that perhaps in this cycle there had been a special appeal to women. Or perhaps there had been some behind the scenes shenanigans. I could find no hint of either, and the work was excellent. Nobody was sand-bagging to beef up the female side of the roster. As part of my research, later, I learned that the applicant pool included 57 women which, while not the 80% figure represented in the grantees, was still a lot.
Throughout history, women have always been represented in the field of photography. There is hardly a year since the beginning when you could not make a case for this female photographer or that being the “best photographer” in that year. Still, female representation has always been thin, taking the field as a whole. In the Victorian age, men were simply a lot more likely to enjoy and to have the opportunity to muck about with smelly chemicals and glass plates. The trend continued and continues today, with each wave of technology having its own fiddly technical challenges which, for whatever reasons, draw in more men than women.
Something like 15% of photojournalists are women. A quick check of any online forum, or a comment thread on a popular blog, shows again a very low percentage of women. Certain niches are dominated by women, but in large strokes photography appears to be male-dominated.
So what the heck was going on with the Luminous Endowment Awards?
Looking through what I could see of biographical details did not resolve the mystery, the women came from everywhere. Professional photographers, Fine Art photographers, Amateurs. Based on given biographical information, one can roughly infer a wide range of ages, a wide range of experience, a wide range even of ethnicity. The only common thread that I could identify was that so many of the grant recipients simply happened to be women.
I contacted Kevin, who generously gave me the email addresses of the female recipiants, and allowed me to mention LuLa in my request for information. I asked these winners a couple of questions. The answers were interesting.
Of the women who gave me their time and responded to my questions, only one was what we might call an experienced grant-applier. While the respondents generally acknowledged the male dominance in the field, I was a little surprised to see that several specifically noted that they have not personally been particularly disadvantaged by that.
“I have a small group of photographer friends from around the world (all male, incidentally) who have nurtured and encouraged my work” — Paula Van Every
But Paula goes on later with specific notes on the sorts of prejudice she has personally encountered which, thankfully, does not seem to have prevented her from making some excellent pictures!
This raises the question, to which I have no answer, of whether there is a population of women who have been disadvantaged, who have been shut out, who are not represented here.
Don’t take this as Science with a capital S, these is a small sample. Not all the women replied, so I have only a handful of replies to work with. Still, three themes emerged:
- the overall attitude of the Luminous Endowment: “pay it forward”
- accessibility: Easy to apply, few restrictions on who may apply
- specificity of the awards, leading to a “good fit” with each project
Notably missing was any hint of any of the usual methods for increasing female participation. There was no special appeal for women to submit, there were no awards specifically for women, there were not categories apparently designed to appeal to women-friendly photography, whatever that might even mean (‘this month’s theme is PINK!!!?”)
“most of the sites looked complicated, I couldn’t find necessary information and what was the most important – they were not international, they allowed applications only from the US and EU. Luminous Endowment was open to Ukraine too – Anastasiia Kotelnyk
“I felt my work was suited.” – Teri Havens
“I particularly liked the gracious nature of the organization through its many grants and their tagline of “paying it forward” was especially welcoming. As a mom, I feel like these are virtues that I hope to pass on to my children and feel the endowment is an organization worthy of support. ” – Angela Wan, Esq.
“There was nothing unwelcoming.”
“The LULA Endowment seemed welcoming to unknown photographers”
“LULA’s Southern Exposure grant seemed to be a really good fit for my project” – Paula Van Every
It seemed to boil down simply to ease of access, and an overall attitude. It wasn’t so much, as far as I can tell, that any effort was made to specifically appeal to women.
The Luminous Endowment web site describes the grants with very much a collaborative rather than a competitive flavor, though of course they are awarded competitively.
The process for applying is simple, look here. The grants are clearly defined, are are largely focused specifically on helping emerging photographers to grow as artists, to complete modest projects, or both.
You could say that these features are making things specifically woman-friendly, I suppose. Women tend to be, allegedly, more collaborative than men, maybe women are more focused on modest growth and less on a competitive death-match to be the very best. But specifically women-slanted? No. To be blunt I can find nothing in the nature of the Luminous Endowment grants that I cannot, with real feeling, say is not an excellent feature which ought to be replicated across all competition in the field.
All the Luminous Endowment needed to do to attract women, as far as I can tell, was to not chase them away.
That’s a bit startling.
What should you do if you’re running a photography contest, giving out grants, that sort of thing? Well, you can certainly add on some women-specific initiatives, shaping aspects of your program to specifically permit or appeal to women. This is the standard procedure, and I applaud it.
More broadly, though, what I think the Luminous Endowment has illustrated so well, is that you can simply structure your existing program differently.
Rather than awarding a Grand Prize of the Best Photo of The Year in such-and-such a genre, instead simply name it a Grant, and drop the Grand/Best hyperbole. The judging process is the same for Grand Prizes as for Grants, anyway.
Rather than simply making an award, restructure your award to be money plus a collaboration opportunity. Isn’t $5000 and an editor more useful to a real photographer than $10,000 without strings? Who do you want to attract to your organization’s work?
Make it easy to apply. By setting up roadblocks and checkpoints, you select applicants who are good at navigating administrivia, who are stubborn. I don’t think either of those relate much to photography. If you have too many applicants, make application by-invitation, set up a system of nomination, or set up something else. But make it easy, and be sensitive not only to women, but to all photographers who would rather be focused on doing their work than on dealing with paperwork.
These are all things which, let us be honest, you should be doing anyways. Right?