Equality in Wildlife Photography Competitions – An interview with BigPicture's Suzi Eszterhas and Rhonda Rubinstein
In BigPicture Natural World Photo Competition's 8-year history, 4 of the grand prize winners are women. When it comes to the world of photography competitions, a 50-50 split of men and women taking the grand prize is really unusual. Here's how the competition is helping build equality in the typically unequal realm of conservation-focused nature photography.
There is some really exciting news rolling out in the wildlife photography world right now: the winners of the highly prestigious BigPicture Natural World Photography Competition
Typically in nature photography competitions, it's men who sweep the wins. And no wonder. For a whole host of reasons, wildlife photography is still a very male-dominated area.
But in the BigPicture competition, something unusual is playing out.
Since the launch of the contest eight years ago, half of the Grand Prize winners have been women. A gender-equal split is most definitely not the norm.
The competition is judged blind, so this equality is not contrived… but it is very purposefully assisted.
The folks who manage BigPicture are focused on building equality and diversity in conservation-focused nature photography. It is part of the team's goal to bring more voices to the forefront, and allow more space for a broader range of views in this field.
So when they noticed that there was a very low number of women entering this year's competition, they made some moves to bump up that number.
Now, you might be asking yourself, why do we care?
Why does it matter if the winner of a competition is a man, a woman, or a non-binary person? Shouldn't it just completely depend on the imagery?
Well, actually, that's a big, big topic to unpack. It gets into significant systemic issues like sexism in photography and particularly in wildlife photography, in the types of imagery that typically tends to win, what that says about how we view nature, and how we are shaping the way that other people view nature.
There's a whole lot that we actually need to unpack about this, and that's why I brought on today's guests to talk about it.
Today we're talking with Suzi Eszterhas, who is jury chair of BigPicture, and Rhonda Rubinstein, whois the Creative Director at California Academy of Sciences, the entity that hosts the competition. And both Suzi and Rhonda are co-founders of BigPicture.
We talk about why BigPicture puts so much emphasis on increasing the representation of women inside of this wildlife photography competition, why it matters, and what strategies are they employing in order to encourage women to enter.
It's a big sticky topic. You may agree with some things, you may disagree with some things, but it is something that we need to have a conversation about. So I invite you to come along on this conversation, and it might just open up new ideas about the entire concept of wildlife photography competitions as a whole.
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Episode 074: Equality in Wildlife Photography Competitions - An interview with Big Picture's Suzi Eszterhas and Rhonda Rubinstein
(Digitally transcribed, please forgive any typos)
There is some really exciting news rolling out in the wildlife photography world right now. Now as of when we're recording this episode and when we have already scheduled it to air, we don't yet know if the announcement has been made, so I can't name names, but what I can say is the BigPicture natural world photography competition is now or soon announcing the grand prize winner, and the grand prize winning image of this year's competition was taken by a woman, and that means that out of the eight years of this competition... The eight years, that BigPicture has been running, four of the grand prize winners are women, that's a 50-50 split, and when it comes to the world of photography competitions, that's really unusual.
0:00:50.3 JH: Typically, it's men who sweep contests, especially in nature and wildlife photography. Now, BigPicture judges, their photos completely blind, the judges have no idea who took what images that they're looking at, so it's not as if BigPicture is very purposefully trying to ensure that there is an equal split between men and women when it comes to that grand prize slot. But the competition is indeed doing things behind the scenes that help to increase the odds that there is a 50-50 split. To help increase the odds that women actually earn recognition inside this competition, and this year, they made an even bigger push than usual.
0:01:34.2 JH: Now, you might be asking yourself, why do we care? Why does it matter if it's a man or a woman? Or someone gender-neutral, non-binary who's winning these competitions? Doesn't it just completely depend on the imagery? Well, actually, that's a big, big topic to unpack. It gets into really significant systemic issues like sexism in photography and particularly in wildlife photography, in the types of imagery, masculine or feminine imagery that typically tends to win, and what that says about how we view nature and how we are shaping the way that other people view nature, it impacts the way that we tell stories. There's a whole lot that we actually need to unpack about this, and that's why I brought on today's guest to talk about it.
0:02:25.3 JH: Today we're talking with Suzi Eszterhas, who is jury chair of BigPicture, and Rhonda Rubinstein, who's creative director at California Academy of Sciences, the entity that hosts the competition. And both Suzi and Rhonda are co-founders of BigPicture. I asked them to come onto the podcast to talk about why BigPicture puts so much emphasis on increasing the representation of women inside of this wildlife photography competition, why does it matter, why do we care and what strategies are they employing in order to encourage women to enter. And also things like Why don't women enter competitions more often, and how we might shape competitions in the future to help encourage something that looks more like collaboration or camaraderie rather than competition.
0:03:15.0 JH: It's a big sticky topic. You may agree with some things, you may disagree with some things, but it is something that we need to have a conversation about, so I invite you to come along on this conversation, hear what Suzi and Rhonda have to say, and it may just change your opinions or open up new ideas about the entire concept of wildlife photography competitions and the concept of how that impacts all sorts of things down the way, including access to wildlife photography and opportunity in the professional sphere of wildlife photography. Alright, let's dive in.
0:03:57.3 JH: Welcome to Impact: The Conservation Photography Podcast. I'm your host, Jaymi Heimbuch, and if you are a visual storyteller with a love for all things wild, then you're in the right place. From conservation to creativity, from business to marketing, and everything in between. This podcast is for you, the conservation visual storyteller who is ready to make an impact. Let's dive in.
0:04:29.4 JH: Welcome to the podcast, Suzi and Rhonda, it's great to see you today and to have you here on the podcast to talk about what is really a surprisingly not often talked about, but a pretty weighty big topic, which is women entering photo contests and representation of women in these very prestigious photo contests. And you two are experts in this area in terms of understanding how photo contests work and moving forward inside of them, and I'm really excited that you're game to talk about the idea of women and the status of them entering and how that shapes narratives around storytelling, visual story telling.
0:05:08.5 Suzi Eszterhas: Thanks so much for having us, Jaymi. It's always a pleasure.
0:05:14.1 JH: So I would love to start out for those listeners who aren't familiar with either of you, I would love to start out with just an introduction from each of you about who you are and the role that you play also inside of the BigPicture Photo Competition. And Suzi, can we start with you?
0:05:31.1 SE: Sure, so I am a wildlife photographer, and I am also the jury chair of The BigPicture competition, which I've been involved in since it started. So it's a competition that I know very well and that I'm also really proud of.
0:05:47.8 JH: Wonderful. And Rhonda, this is actually the first time I've gotten to talk with you, so I'm actually doubly excited, and what is your role inside of BigPicture, and also just who's Rhonda in the world?
0:06:01.9 Rhonda Rubinstein: Well, I'm really happy to be here. This is my first podcast, so it's very exciting...
0:06:04.8 JH: Yay.
0:06:07.4 RR: So bear with me. So who I am? I am, I guess, by day, I am the creative director of the California Academy of Sciences, which is a science institution in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. And my background... Sort of, I guess... Well, briefly, I guess, I was always interested in photography, and that is what I wanted to do when I was a kid. I wanted to be Suzi, be a wildlife photographer, a nature photographer, but I eventually got into photography, design, photo journalism and telling stories in words and pictures. So I loved photography and the stories that they told, but I also wanted the full suite of the stories, and so really enjoyed the journalism aspect of it, so that ended up being, Design, as a great combination of those two. I ended up moving to... I grew up in Canada, in Montreal, but I moved to New York City, became a magazine art director, which was a great job. I got to work with photographers, I got to commission and curate the work of great photographers, and then I got more involved in documentary photography and environmental communications.
0:07:30.1 RR: So working for the Ocean Conservancy and the United Nations World Environment Day, and throughout all of this, really seeing how photography could really change, how we see impact in the world, and so then when I started at the California Academy of Sciences, as a creative director... Well, my job is really overseeing the design of all aspects of the museum, the exhibits, but I really thought that it was an opportunity to use photography to tell the stories of bio-diversity and really showcase the beauty of nature. And that's where the idea for BigPicture came and we realized it wasn't this sort of West of New York, there wasn't really a major wildlife, nature conservation competition, and there was an opportunity for us on the West Coast to do something.
0:08:28.0 RR: And so we talked with Suzi, who has been involved since the very beginning, could we really sort of create a unique wildlife competition, and could we offer something that's different than everywhere else? And so anyways, long story short, that was BigPicture, [chuckle] we said yes, we could. There was an opportunity, there was an opportunity to tell different kinds of stories about nature and conservation, and we were just the folks to do it. So BigPicture started in 2014, and so this is our eighth year now, and we have a competition that runs for a couple of months, and then we do an exhibit of the winning work in the center of the building, a piazza of the California Academy of Sciences every year. And if you're in San Francisco, you can visit it now.
0:09:18.8 JH: Wonderful. It's amazing to hear that it's been running for eight years, because the very first BigPicture photo exhibit was the very first time, Suzi, I ever met you in person.
0:09:28.5 SE: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
0:09:29.2 JH: And I was so intimidated, I was like, "Oh my gosh... " And now it's just like, "Oh yeah, it's Suzi, whatever." [laughter]
0:09:38.1 SE: It's right, 'cause I'm truly no big deal. I'm just a person, right?
0:09:42.9 JH: You're a very big deal, and yet you're also just a very normal human being.
0:09:47.9 SE: Yeah, we're all just people.
0:09:50.3 JH: Yeah, exactly, and I would love to actually dig in a little bit more into how did you guys, shape BigPicture, because Rhonda, you mentioned how you saw this opportunity for really telling stories differently and having a different way of putting imagery out there, nature imagery and talking about nature imagery. And so I'm kind of curious if you two would talk a little bit about some of the thinking that went into shaping this contest, because I say this fairly often, BigPicture and Wildlife Photographer of the Year, they're basically the only two contests that I ever recommend people enter because of how just thoughtful, I think, both the competitions are, but also you really care about photographers' rights.
0:10:35.1 JH: It's not a big old image grab, it's really celebrating the imagery that photographers take and what they create and put out into the world and protecting their rights for exhibits. And BigPicture has a special place in my heart because of the emphasis on conservation in the way that we relate to the natural world through the imagery. And so I know that all of this tangential thought was started with a question, so I'll go back to the question, which is what thinking went into really wanting to add a unique perspective and building BigPicture around something that is unlike any other competition in the world.
0:11:10.8 SE: Yeah. So I think one of the things when we were sort of conceptualizing the idea of BigPicture, first and foremost, we had really lofty goals to begin with, right from the get-go, we wanted to be one of the most prestigious competitions on earth. We wanted to do it the right way, we wanted to liaise with the right people, and we essentially wanted to be of the caliber of Wildlife Photographer of the Year, but also be our own unique competition. And so one of the things that from the get-go that we did was we really researched and made sure that we were respecting photographers' rights.
0:11:52.0 SE: So everything that we asked for had to be respected by people in the industry in terms of rights that they were giving us and also to... We wanted to work with people that were of the highest of caliber, so we immediately started to try to recruit judges that were very well-respected photographers in the field, and knowing that that would also in turn, bring a lot of entries that were really, really of the highest standards. And then we wanted to do something that was very unique. It was very important to the academy that conservation was the big theme and the big focus of the competition, and it was right down to the uniqueness, it was right down to the categories.
0:12:45.6 SE: Rhonda brought in a lot of beautiful creativity throughout the entire creation process of the competition, and some of the categories, I think, in terms of even just the titles of the categories are really beautiful and very different, and so we always wanted to be very, very special, and I'm really proud of the fact that I think, by the second year, it didn't take long, we were starting to be seen as one of the most prestigious competitions in the world, and we just sort of catapulted, and I think that was all the time and energy that the BigPicture team put into it, and a lot of it coming from Rhonda and the other people at the academy, for sure. It was very much a collaborative effort.
0:13:29.5 RR: Yeah, I definitely have to say there's a team at the academy, it's not just me, [chuckle] a small team, but yeah, it is kind of funny when we want them to be like Wildlife Photographer of the Year, but without the 50 years of experience, an entire team devoted to running that competition and program. At the academy, it's a team, there's myself and then there's three other people who all have other full-time jobs sort of designing or doing other things at the academy, but I have to say, part of what has... We did and do have a great reputation, and recommended as one of the top photo contest to enter, but a lot of the prestige and ethics is due to Suzi's influence, I will say.
0:14:19.8 RR: Always, always making sure that we were sort at the highest standard for photo rights, for... One of the things that we still do as we're looking at the images that were voted highest for judging is, is there any unethical behavior on the part of the photographer, potential for baiting, or anything like that, so that has definitely been part of what has made it such a kind of high competition, and then I do think, from the get-go, asking great and respected photographers to be the judges from the beginning, so that sort of set the standard. And one of the other things that does make it different besides, I think, the categories, we definitely wanted it to be more...
0:15:20.0 RR: Not just the sort of predator/prey images that are part of so many of the other competitions, but other kinds of imagery that have to do with conservation photography. So there was a category human nature that was all about that and about how we, as humans, work with the larger natural world. And art of nature was another one of just a way to look at nature and the natural world, and in a way that is... Photography is how science reveals itself, the patterns and structures are revealed through photography, and we're seeing it as art and beauty, but that science aspect was something that is a key to this competition, and I think even what makes the exhibit a little...
0:16:15.5 RR: Well, to us, [chuckle] makes it different from some of the other competitions is that we have the scientist's perspective, so when we show the image, we have the photographer's perspective, what they were trying to do, what they accomplished, we tell the story of what's in the photo, the animal and the environment, but also from the science perspective, kind of giving a larger context of what is happening that you would not see in this photo, but is happening in the larger environment. So I think the combination of those things makes for a very unique exhibit. And of course, it is designed beautifully as well.
0:16:54.9 SE: Yeah.
0:16:54.9 JH: I think that is what really excites me about BigPicture, in and of itself, but also just talking about what it is that you're trying to do, because I feel like when it comes to photography, it's really easy for photographers to get wrapped up in creating a pretty picture and to look at the technical skills and everything that goes into creating a pretty image, but for us, like real nature nerds who also love photography, it really is about the story behind the image and the science that it communicates, and everything that you want to dig into in terms of natural history and our role in the world and how we interact and co-existence and so much else.
0:17:34.8 JH: And so the idea that you are creating space for that conversation to happen and to be in the forefront is really exciting and inspiring and engaging, so I love that. I also am really impressed that you do this with such a small team because I did not know that there were so few people behind such a well-run and elegant competition. Being able to actually go and see it in person is really something special, and I'm actually, before we dig into the big, the big overarching conversation, which is this hurdle that you are now faced with, because you've become such a prestigious competition, you now are looking at gender disparity and entries and how we can overcome that.
0:18:19.4 JH: But before we head into that, I would love to ask you how things are gonna roll out with exhibiting the work in dealing with COVID? Is there gonna be an in-person exhibit available? Is it gonna be online? How will people be able to see the winning images?
0:18:36.6 RR: The museum is open... [chuckle]
0:18:38.9 JH: Yay.
0:18:39.8 RR: And they are on display now, and actually, typically the exhibit runs from... There's an awards event, opening end of July, and it runs through October. And so last July, we were closed and we opened for I think 33 days [chuckle] the last fall before we had to close again. So BigPicture was open, but because of everything else, we did not de-install it because we were closed and other things were shifting around in terms of exhibits. So in the end, it's still up and open and will be... And we decided instead of de-installing it, we are just going to close it for a couple of weeks and then install the new exhibit that is coming up.
0:19:29.0 RR: Actually, BigPicture is one of the least impacted by COVID in a certain way than all the other things that the academy is doing. So last year, the competition closed in March just before the shutdown, so photographers had entered and then we do the judging virtually anyway, since that was done online. And we just sort of carried on, we had no idea a year ago how long this was gonna last, so we just kept moving on producing BigPicture, and it was interesting because it was for... When we meet with our scientists to show them the imagery and verify it, that they were like, "This is the best day that we've had in months," where we're getting to see sort of the see the world out there and what is happening, and it just... It has been, and even working on the exhibit, it is just... Everyone has just been so happy to see these images and just know that this is still happening. And so we wondered about this year, what were the entries gonna be like during this year of COVID, and we actually ended up getting more imagery than previous years, more submissions, which surprised us a little bit, but then we thought, "Well, maybe photographers aren't able to get out in the field." They're spending their days in front of their computers and digging up their files."
0:20:57.7 RR: We have just looked through, the judges select, the judges finish judging, and Suzi and the team and I have looked through just to kind of look at what ranked highest in imagery, and there definitely is a different sensibility from this past year, there's sort of a darkness to it, and it really does reflect the year that has been. Even the current exhibit, in a way, it's a prelude to what came to be the winning image, which was of this hare, sort of Arctic hare, just all bundled up in this ball of ice and just bracing itself against the cold and the year to come.
0:21:53.1 JH: [chuckle] That is really interesting. I don't think I would have thought of that until you said that, but... Wow. Yeah, how sort of quite the preview of what we were gonna need to do for ourselves for the next 12 months or so.
0:22:07.9 RR: Yeah, and there was another image, I'll just say, of a bat drinking. It was a spectacular image because the photographer was able to catch the moment that the bat was able to drink and fly, but it was also a little reminder of where the bats are traveling and connection between humans that is the cause of our current situation.
0:22:38.7 JH: Rhonda, you mentioned the imagery overall aesthetically shows a darkness or shows what we've been going through, through whatever photography people were selecting, whether they were going back through their archive and selecting things like, it's clear that there was kind of this mood and so that was a little bit different for you this year. You also mentioned something that was kind of different or surprising was the number of entries that you got, was higher than you might have expected, and something else that you're kind of experiencing and thinking about with competition entries is the number of women who are entering as compared to the number of men, those ratios.
0:23:21.0 JH: And this is a conversation that I know Wildlife Photographer of the Year has, they care quite a bit about trying to have some sort of equilibrium in the number of men and women who are entering. This is something that it's tough because all the entries are anonymous, so you don't wanna know a lot about who's entering what, and yet at the same time, you wanna ensure that you are welcoming in as much diversity, that you're welcoming in women and... So BigPicture did something a little bit different this year, which was you really went all out in encouraging women to submit and you had a discount code, it was a lower price for women to enter for a portion of the competition to encourage more women.
0:24:02.9 JH: Why did you feel the need to do that? So first, I'm gonna say, let's talk about why you needed to encourage more women to enter, and then we'll go into some of those strategies that you used to help with that. What were you seeing as you were noticing entries for women versus men, the ratio with this year's competition?
0:24:24.9 RR: Yeah, so it's kind of interesting. So obviously, the judging is blind, which I think is such a weird word to describe the visual medium, [laughter] so judging is blind. Anyways, and so we never know the relation of male photographers to female photographers until the very end. And we didn't think that there... I mean, there was that much of a discrepancy. It's basically a women-led team, and when we pick the judges for each year, it's always been 50/50 women and men judges, photographers and photo editors, I'm trying to get international photographers and trying to get as much diversity as possible, but the gender split has always been equal.
0:25:19.0 RR: And we had, out of the previous seven years, like three of the grand prize winning images were taken by women, and so we had... There's been women winners, and so we didn't really think that there was too much of an issue, but a couple of last year, we got a new platform, and with that platform, it sort of requested the age, the gender or country of origin, and so the last year's competition and this year's competition, we were able to see the stats on that, and we realized that it was... We were starting to look at that, we actually had got together to see the exhibit and we were looking at the photographs of the photographers in the exhibit and noticing how many more male photographers are there than women.
0:26:16.7 RR: And it felt like it might have been sort of more than previous, and so then we looked at the stats for the BigPicture of competition for this year, and what was that proportion, because we knew that if you only have a tenth of the women entering, then they're not gonna be represented in the final imagery, which is kind of the logic. And so we realized that it was only 19% of the submissions were from Women with a month to go, so that's like a fifth of it. And then we looked at the previous year, and previous year was also less men and women, and so we decided we needed do something, we wanted to get more women to enter the competition and therefore be part of the finals and winners.
0:27:12.5 JH: Why do we care about this? Why is this something that we put weight on, what are your thoughts about the need for equality or equilibrium in terms of entries in competitions, especially in nature competitions?
0:27:28.1 SE: I think we have to care because I think women bring a unique perspective to nature photography, the same way a man would. So we all view the world differently, and I think our gender or the gender that we identify with, it plays a role in that, and photo editors will tell you that very often, if they hire a woman, they're gonna shoot the story differently than the way a man would. And so I think we have different... As individuals, we have these artistic perspectives that we bring to the world, and I think it's going to be limited and skewed if we only include one gender or one gender that people identify with, and I think that...
0:28:18.2 SE: It's really interesting talking... I talked to a photo editor friend of mine recently, and she said that when she hired women, one of the things that she noticed is that women worked a lot harder than men, she said that she thought for an assignment... There was a joke that 90% of it was hard work and 10% was talent. And she said that in general, women tend to work harder than men do. Now, obviously that's a generalization and it's a stereotype, but she said undoubtedly in her experience, that was the case. And so I think when we take into factors like that, that someone may put more of their heart and soul, time and energy into something, but also just they grow up with a different way of seeing the world because of their gender.
0:29:09.4 SE: I think that it does matter and I think that often in competitions we see winning images are very masculine, this has historically been very much the case with a lot of competitions throughout the world, and you get a lot of that sort of masculine feel to the images or another one that's a classic competition winner that is very male-dominated is camera trapping. Camera trapping, there were years when camera trapping was sweeping the awards all the time in various competitions and most camera trapping photographers are men. And so I think that there definitely has been a sort of historical precedence for these masculine images to be the ones that really win competitions, and I believe that BigPicture has changed that, and we don't get as much of those sort of typically masculine images winning our competition, and I think that largely is just because we have...
0:30:20.6 SE: And Rhonda is gonna talk about this more, I'm sure, but we have a judging panel that's 50/50, 50% women, 50% men, and I think that makes a difference for the kind of images that they are scoring the highest. So yeah, I do think, I think we have a responsibility, and I also think that there's a real loss if we don't include women in the winners, and we're not seeing those images and those images aren't being seen by the world.
0:30:50.5 JH: Can you give me a few examples of what you mean by masculine imagery?
0:30:57.0 SE: Well, Rhonda had a great... We were just talking...
0:31:02.8 RR: Yeah.
0:31:02.9 SE: Rhonda, tell her your example, 'cause I think it's a fantastic example.
0:31:04.7 RR: Yeah, Suzi and I were just talking, and I was just sort of thinking about the idea of what is the difference between how sort of women see and shoot the world and men see and shoot the world, and obviously, one doesn't want to generalize completely, but thinking about that grand prize image that I was talking about by Andy Parkinson, that was that mountain hare, and it was... It's beautiful, it's like, you can see it on the BigPicture website, but it's cold and it's steely, and it's like this hare, this rabbit, it's really just going into itself and it is going to survive and that is the story...
0:31:51.9 RR: I mean, it's a great story it felt like. He got to know the hare over the course of three years and just in this freezing, freezing cold. So that is one side of one of the panels is the grand prize winner, on the other side of the panel is the Photo Story, and the theme for last year's Photo Story was co-existence. It changes every year and of course, little did we know when we picked the co-existence thing what was going to happen that year and how relevant that would be. But the winner of that photo story was Ami Vitale, and she was photographing in Kenya, this sanctuary, and it was really one of the...
0:32:35.8 RR: I think it's been around for about a decade, and it's one of the first sanctuaries that was created by indigenous people because they realized that they needed to take... Poaching was obviously sort of a huge issue, and by creating the sanctuary, they could take care of the animals, they could take care of the landscape, they could take care of people, and so once they had this, the poaching decreased dramatically because the larger community was intact like the community of people, the community of animals. And it was really, from her point of view, it's about how that human connection is so important in conservation photography, and so much of that sort of leaves out sort of the human community.
0:33:29.8 RR: And so the humanity in her story sort of contrasts so much with the Andy Parkinson's image on the other side of the wall, and that was just a fun example of a difference of perspective.
0:33:44.8 SE: And I think, you find those examples and it's absolutely nothing against the more masculine images, I love that hare photo by Andy. And I love Andy as a photographer, I think he's insanely talented, but it's just showing the other side of the coin, so to speak, I think is really important.
0:34:08.1 JH: I do wanna give a little bit of context as well for listeners that when we're talking about this, because gender in and of itself is a very nuanced topic, and so I wanted to just provide a little bit of context in that gender is very much a spectrum. And so when we talk about gender, there's masculinity, the very stereotypical, masculine of masculine on one side and feminine of feminine on the other side, but everybody falls somewhere along this continuum of masculinity and femininity as gender. And when we talk about men and women, those are gendered terms and so when we talk about gendered imagery, or we talk about masculine imagery or feminine imagery, we're talking about it in terms of what we understand of stereotypical identifiers on that spectrum. So we're thinking about math on the very far end of the masculinity scale we're thinking about those stereotypical things like steely, cold, raw, red and tooth and nail, hunting, predator-prey, all that. And then on the far end with a very, very feminine side of the spectrum, we might be thinking community, connection, brightness, like bright colors, softness, those sort of things.
0:35:20.4 JH: So everything kind of fall somewhere on a very, very detailed continuum, and I just wanna provide a little bit of context for listeners and understanding a little bit about... That we're not saying that there are two genders and that something is either masculine or feminine, but there's a spectrum along that. So, Rhonda, I think your example is beautiful in an even more interesting way, which is that the image that you had as an example of the masculine image and the story that you had as an example of a feminine story are on opposite walls in the exhibit.
0:35:57.6 RR: Yeah, back to back. [chuckle]
0:36:01.1 JH: Which I think even placement-wise helps to illuminate that there's this big, wide spectrum of shooting. And I think that it is really important to talk about this because it's something that I identified with for sure and struggled with, and I've been... I've talked about this multiple times, so either on the podcast or in other speaking opportunities, I've talked about the idea that I battled my own style in photography for a long time, because I always felt that I shot with too much femininity, too much softness. I like play of light, I like gentle looks, I like in between moments and boca and that sort of thing, and I always thought, "Oh, if I shoot like that, I'll never get hired for assignments because that's not how you're supposed to shoot if you're gonna go shoot stories." Because what's usually getting published as much, more masculine ways of approaching a story, much more like gritty. So I know that I personally battled my style because of that gendered spectrum of how we view the world and the lens through which a lot of photographers who are getting published shoot and so I wanna add that in, just like my two cents on why I think this is such an important topic.
0:37:08.0 JH: And photo contests are known as something and especially prestigious competitions, like BigPicture and wildlife photographer of the year, where a lot of aspiring photographers will enter because that's where a career can get made. It's where you can get recognition, it's where you can gain opportunities by placing, and so there's this big responsibility, I think contest have to allow space for everyone to enter. And you guys worked really hard this year to make sure that you brought more women in when you saw that it was at 19%. You guys worked really hard, can you tell us about some of the strategies that you used to try and encourage more women into this competition?
0:37:49.7 SE: Yeah, and also, Jaymi, can I just add something to that that I think is important to add too...
0:37:55.7 JH: Of course.
0:37:57.7 SE: I wanna make sure that I am not being misunderstood in the fact that women are always gonna shoot feminine, and men are always gonna shoot masculine because that's not what I'm saying at all. Everybody knows my work is largely as a whole quite feminine, people have said that to me my whole life, it's an easy one, it's a no-brainer, shooting moms and babies, right? But I also will sometimes shoot predator-prey interactions that are incredibly gory, and when I post them on my social media, people hate it and they flip out and they're like, "This isn't what I'm used to." So I shoot both and people will always shoot both, and there are a lot of male photographers that bring in a very soft approach to what they're photographing, and so this isn't... We're not saying that this is always going to be women shooting feminine. I think one of the things I always go back to that photo editor and how she said that women bring more work to it, meaning they're just gonna often work harder and bring more time and energy to it because they've had to fight more in this career because there's fewer opportunities. So not necessarily that the editor is looking for a feminine perspective from the woman, just that she's working for it and she's looking for someone who's gonna work their butt off. And so I think that's a really important distinction to make.
0:39:19.9 JH: Well said, well said.
0:39:24.2 RR: [laughter] I forgot you asked me the question. I'm still wrapped up in what Suzi was saying.
0:39:28.9 JH: I know, and this is the thing. This is such a... It's a big, big topic with so much inside of it to unpack because there are so many ways that we can dive into what can be really difficult conversation, and that is fewer opportunities for women. And so how women behave differently inside of an opportunity or how we generate different opportunities and ally-ship on the part of men to help women advance their career inside of this. There's so much we can talk about, for sure. So I appreciate you adding some clarity inside of that, Suzi.
0:40:11.4 RR: Yeah 'cause obviously stereotyping is not the answer, and it's not to say there's certain kinds... As Suzi was saying, not certain kinds of images that are feminine or masculine or women shoot certain ways.
0:40:28.0 SE: What is often really hard, it's a tough issue because it's hard to talk about without stereotyping... That question of, "Why don't women tend to enter competitions as much as men do?" You cannot address that without stereotyping. There's no way of studying that and that is a widely studied, popular subject that goes beyond federal competitions and it goes into the STEM careers. And why aren't there more professional women nature photographers out there? There's so many fields where this has been studied in terms of women are just typically less competitive than men, it's out there. Some women don't like to admit that or to believe it, but all you have to do is Google it. There have been numerous studies, there's stats to prove it, and so it's... How do you dive into that? Without stereotyping. So this is it, again, as you say, a very challenging subject.
0:41:25.8 JH: Yeah, and we are actually gonna... I have a question for you for a little bit later on as well, which addresses the idea of verbiage that we use with competition. Because as you said, there's been studies that have been done, and one study showed that, and I can go... It was in a book called The Confidence Code. I think I'll go look it up and I'll link to it in the show notes so that I've got some references. But I remember that it's been shown that women will typically apply for a position if they meet upwards of 90% of the qualifications, whereas men at something like... If they meet 30%, they're like, "Sure, throw my hat in there." And I think that that is one big barrier that we can talk about in terms of photo competitions as well, but I wanna reverse back a little bit, because you two care so much. Because the competition as a whole California Academy of Sciences cares so much about making sure that everybody along the whole spectrum has space and is represented for how they view the world and how they shoot, and that we're showing that wide spectrum to others the way that we see nature, the way that we tell stories. We're allowing space so that everybody else can see that diversity of perspective. You two and the whole team worked really hard to ensure that women knew that they were welcome and encouraged to enter. What were some of those strategies? And also, why did you come up with some of these strategies?
0:42:52.2 RR: Yeah, so it was probably a month... It's a three-month competition, it was probably in the last month, but that's when everybody enters anyways, which is always very stressful because you think, "No one's gonna enter this year," and then they all enter in the last week. We saw that it was only 19% of the entries were from women and it just was concerning because then we kind of looked at last year's stats as well, which we had sort of a year to go back on and realize, "Okay, there were more last year but it wasn't equal, and so if we didn't do anything about it, we may end up with only a fifth of the entries being from women, and therefore, if that translates into the winners that's a low number." So, we talked with a number of people in the industry and found out that we were not the only ones having this issue, but it was mostly these conversations behind closed doors that were happening.
0:44:06.0 RR: And so we realized this was a huge opportunity for BigPicture to address the issue head on, to be direct and transparent, and if we could figure out a way to welcome those who might need encouragement to enter their work, this could be something that could be obviously a step forward, sort of a model. So what could we do? And of course, the Academy did do a live stream with you guys on this to talk about certain women in wildlife photography, along with Megan Hein and Susan, and that conversation was definitely worth listening to. But it raised a lot of the issues, but how can we solve them in a month, and so what we decided to do after a lot of conversation was to offer a 50% discount to women for the last month. And it wasn't that the competition is expensive it's like $25 for 10 images, but the discount was a good starting point for a conversation, for discussion and promotion, like we could talk about it on social media and we could begin that conversation.
0:45:21.7 RR: And then we created a web page to discuss this issue and we featured some of the female photographer winners, like a slide show of winning photographs. We did a grid of all the female judges to encourage women to see themselves in these photos, and then we reached out to those past judges and the BigPicture community directly to spread the word individually. And actually, it was the encouragement of the people they knew, one former judge reached out to photographers personally, and she had heard this, "You're right, I should enter. I hadn't thought of it," but the photographers needed that sort of extra encouragement to and also if they were joining a community of women to enter competition, and so it actually did work. So we went from only 19% female submissions to 34% by the close with the competition. So we were quite happy to see that.
0:46:30.9 JH: Yeah, that's a really nice jump.
0:46:34.8 RR: The webpage is still there and there's resources on that page of things that are other organizations that are supporting women, some of your projects are on there, wild vision, and I think that's kind of a way to keep the conversation going.
0:46:55.2 JH: So last year, as well as this year, inside of the free Facebook group that I host for conservation photographers, we talked about entering the competition and talked about the need to really encourage women to enter, and so that became sort of a space for bolstering each other up and making sure... Kind of holding some accountability in there, too. There was some community around trying to encourage each other to enter with that, and then inside of Wild Idea Lab, we held a special bonus event for bringing your photography for critique, group critique, and helping each other make those final selections for what they were going to go ahead and submit and having some conversation around that was really helpful for the women who brought imagery in, and where we're saying, "Okay, a lot of these... "
0:47:36.4 JH: I let people bring six images, and we were gonna give some feedback on stuff, and so for the women who brought their portfolio in, and we went through their six images and talked about why these were the strongest, and why to leave out some other ones and just to have that conversation, I feel like it opened up some level of confidence or camaraderie or community around mindset for entering. And so anyway, all of that is to say that I feel like your strategies for having discussion around it and your strategies for having financial incentive around it seems really helpful. Suzi, do you wanna add in anything else on this topic about how you strategize for encouraging women to enter?
0:48:19.1 SE: One of the things that I was thinking about, and this is probably not something that people really want me to say, but I think sometimes with women... I was thinking about your strategy for trying to get people... Women to join the competition. And I think one of the things that I think many women just truly don't care, and that's probably not productive to throw into this conversation, but I think that... Yeah, I think for some women it's a confidence issue, right? And that's undoubtedly the case, and that has been studied in the competitive studies and all that, but I also think there's a huge amount of women who just really don't care about awards and accolades, and it's just not really their cup of tea, and I think what this might go back to is how... We're talking about the nature photography profession is male-dominated, right? And so already the top of "serious shooters" are going to be skewed towards men and the sort of less serious shooters are gonna be skewed towards women, right? And so I think the more serious you are about your nature photography, the more likely it is you're gonna enter a competition, and so I think what some of this competition conversation goes back to is truly the gender disparity in nature photography as a whole in terms of serious shooters.
0:49:55.5 SE: And not to say that this all comes back to women not being serious about their nature photography, that maybe women who just chose not to pursue it seriously for various reasons, whether it was not wanting to or the competition being too fierce or being intimidated by all the men, whatever it was. And so I think it's basically, this is a symptom of a larger problem is what I'm getting at here, 'cause I have a lot of tour clients that travel with me that are women, that will say to me... It's funny out of my male tour clients versus my female, my male tour clients are way more likely to enter a competition than the women. And I ask my women, 'cause I'm curious, "Why don't you enter BigPicture?" And they'll say, "I don't really care about awards, I don't really need that, and I don't really care." They're just not into it. So I do think there's an element of that as well, that woman just that they're not necessarily as prone to going for awards as men are.
0:51:03.4 RR: But when you say it's sort of symptomatic of the problem, it also perpetuates the problem.
0:51:08.6 SE: 100%, 100%.
0:51:09.3 RR: And so, for example, why enter a competition, and then I don't really care about awards, but thinking about what the awards do, or what winning a BigPicture award does, is one of the things that we do. We have our media partner, bioGraphic, publishes those images, so they actually license the winning images plus a selection of other ones from the photographer, so they pay them and then they license them out to media outlets around the world, so print and digital. So these stories and these images get dispersed and recognized everywhere, and it is something that I mean competitions in general are a great news story for publications, because you've got the best images, really interesting images, stories are already written, you've already got... Essentially sort of rights to showcase those images, and there's a news hook because this was recently announced, these awards happened. And they're also in a lot of places where they are competitions international, so if there's a winner in a small town in Poland, that is a great story for that town. And so that kind of dispersion of the stories and amplifying the ideas and the work of these photographers happens because of that, and so if you're not entering the awards, that's one less place for your work to be published and the cycle continues.
0:52:50.8 SE: The cycle continues, the same women that really don't care about awards and competitions, don't care about their images being published either so that... But that is perpetuating the cycle, and I think this goes back to Rhonda, your... In our previous conversation, your idea and suggestion for how do we sort of reframe this, and I think it goes back to, this is something that could really speak to those women who aren't really wanting to enter for themselves, then this idea of maybe entering for other women would be really speak to women because let's face it, sometimes women aren't... They're more prone to do something for someone else than themselves, like this is just... Again, I'm stereotyping, but this is a thing, and so Rhonda, you had this idea, which was similar to what Jaymi did and her Wild Idea Lab of paying it forward. So I think that's a really good one if you wanna talk about that.
0:53:48.6 RR: Yeah, we were just sort of... Because Jaymi had already posed the question, what can we do? Suzi and I are like, "Hmmm, how do we address this?" But one thought I had is sort of a pay it forward idea, sort of a shoot it forward. So basically, so I would pay for Suzi to enter the competition. And then she enters an image of hers, but then she is paying for another photographer to enter her work, and so you're a little bit more obligated to enter, but you're doing it because you're encouraging someone else to enter, and so that part of it, that sort of community part is what a lot of people, and especially women, are responding to or could respond to, so you're not doing it so much for yourself, you're doing it for... I'm doing it for Suzi and doing it for the larger photography community.
0:54:42.3 SE: It's a sisterhood thing, right? And I think that the power of that is really important and that sort of lifting each other up, we as women are so good at doing that, and it's such a beautiful thing to do as a human being, man or woman, to lift someone else up. And so I think that... Yeah, I think, as women, we do have a responsibility to lift up women in general, and sort of even if you don't care about awards and accolades, to consider entering a competition to elevate the status of women nature photographers in general, because your skills and talents can really do that, right?
0:55:31.9 JH: Yeah. I really like the idea of this because someone else was... We were talking about the same issue, and she had mentioned that women, you know how... There's so many times where people in your Facebook group or circle will do a challenge and they're like, "Oh, it's a five-day challenge, I'm gonna post once a day, and then I challenge so and so to take this on," and so it's sort of like a chain mail thing, and she's like, "So many women do that." And it's sort of this fun, it's less competition, and it's more like a collaborative community calling each other out to show up. And so I feel like this pay it forward or shoot it forward concept really plays into that mindset.
0:56:08.3 JH: And Suzi, I know that you said that you're totally stereotyping, so I'm gonna go ahead and admit that I absolutely fall into the stereotype that you just made because I don't like to enter competitions unless I feel like there's a purpose to it, so if I win, it's because I am... The way that I justify entering a contest is if I win, it's because it advances a conservation issue, because that conservation issue gets in front of eyeballs, so I'm only gonna enter if I have something that I feel like stands a chance of winning and it surrounds a conservation issue I care about. So I've entered like coyote images, and endangered fox images and that sort of thing.
0:56:45.3 JH: Because it's stuff that I wanna get out in front of people, but this year, I was not going to enter BigPicture because I didn't have anything that I felt like would fulfill that criteria, and so then the whole idea of having a low turnout rate I felt like I need to enter, not because I want to or have anything I feel confident about, but because I need to show up for other women, and if I managed a place as a woman, then I can help to show other women that there's a place for them as well, and that women are like, "Yes, we have a chance," so it was really more of a, "Jaymi, you need to enter so that you show other women and you walk the talk." Of course, I did not get myself together in time to enter, so I apologize for that. [laughter]
0:57:33.1 JH: I felt really awful and the day came in when... I know, you should smack me through the microphone because I felt really bad and it was... So I apologize, but I also fully agree and fall into that category, that stereotype of like, "I'm not really in it for me, but I am in it for ending the perpetuation of women not having space inside of this as a profession, or inside of it as like... A past time or an amateur side hustle that you're very passionate about."
0:58:06.9 SE: Yeah, yeah.
0:58:07.7 JH: All of this kind of wraps around the idea of re-framing the conversation around competition, so we talked about how we can change up the way that we think about it by this pay it forward or shoot it forward idea, to make it a little bit more collaborative. Is there something inherently problematic about talking about photo competition or contest or awards? Is there anything that can be done or should be done or needs to be done, or do we even worry about it when we talk about verbiage around contest like this?
0:58:46.8 SE: I can't think of any sort of reframing the verbiage, but one thing that just dawned on me is that one of the things of BigPicture that's really important to us is diversity in the judging panel. We're trying to get all walks of life in there that's like our thing: Gender, cultural background, race, all of it, and I think by having all walks of life.
0:59:15.2 SE: This is a bit of a tangent, but by having all walks of life in the judging panel, I am hoping we'll get a more diverse set of winning images, and we're not gonna be left with images that can be stereotyped as masculine or feminine. We're just gonna get this lovely variety of gorgeous images, and I think some of that in itself, where if we don't have sort of stereotyped images winning, will encourage more people to enter because one of the things that I've often thought in my career, and I hear from other photographers is my style of shooting doesn't win awards. And that's not a confidence thing, it's just that the way I shoot is not likely to win awards, that's more like, this genre of shooting, that kind of thing.
1:00:05.5 SE: And so I feel like that's a small part of the thing that makes the competition thing so daunting, is that we do have this history of these sort of stereotyped images winning, which historically in each photography has been like masculine kind of in your face, blah, blah, blah. Or camera trap, or whatever it is. And so if we have less of that, there might be more diversity in the people entering, not just in terms of gender, but just in terms of diversity anyway, that's a bit of a tangent, but that's what occurred to me when we were talking about making competition like less daunting.
1:00:50.8 JH: Yeah, no, I love that.
1:00:53.3 RR: Also, just competitions are... There's some challenges with competitions, and we actually... In the past, we had six judges and this year, three men, three women, this year we thought, let's... We want to represent more areas of the world, let's get more judges, we want more diverse opinions and points of view and perspectives, why not have eight judges? [chuckle] So again, so we had eight judges, four men four women. And looking at, as we reviewed, the final tallies, wondered about, is there... There's sort of a challenge in that, because it's for things that are out of the ordinary or just a little more unusual, like those are probably gonna get either a really high score or a really low score, and that may balance things out to be just kind of average.
1:01:54.2 RR: And so how do you get the perspectives that are kind of newer and fresher and not the typical perspectives to be the award-winning images and so it's one of the... Because when you're judging, you have this idea perhaps of what an award winning images is, as Suzi was saying, and tend to things that you have seen before, perhaps you also think, "Oh yes. This is very good." So one of the things that we were discussing and they do is an honorable mention or some kind of judges or jury pick... Not pick, but so BigPicture pick so that the more unique voices in photography can also get recognized, so it doesn't have to be something that all eight judges thought was great, and perhaps that increases the range of photos that are entered and win and are seen.
1:02:58.4 JH: Yeah. I really love that this is where the conversation led, because even though overall, we're talking about trying to bolster, trying to really bring more women into the competition, the whole reason for caring about this at all is building more diversity into what gets recognized so that viewers and photographers alike see the diversity of what's in the world. See the diversity of stories, see nature and new and interesting ways from different emotional perspectives and different storytelling perspectives, and it's really about... Overall, what we're talking about in a fine-tuned way with women entering competitions is we want to see more diversity in how we see the world, and I love that by focusing on who is jurying and building diversity into that...
1:03:52.6 JH: The gatekeepers, as it were, and also in recognizing uniqueness, even if it's not winning because of what the judges say, but having the competition recognize something that is surprising or unique or something that might inspire. I think that that is a beautiful way to build the diversity into this field that we care so much about, which is conservation and nature, visual storytelling. It isn't ultimately about us as the photographers and awards and recognition, it really is about the viewers and who gets to see these things, and how the photographers change other people's perspectives in the world, and I admire you, both of you, Suzi and Rhonda, and the team at California Academy of Sciences and behind the competition for working so hard to allow us to see that world in so many unique and beautiful ways.
1:04:47.8 RR: Yeah. And actually seeing the exhibit, seeing people in the exhibit, you really see how that changes their perspective, you see the little kids who are looking at this unusual creature or relating to something that they would never have seen and sparking that sort of interest in wonder and appreciation of the world. And it's such an easy way to have that conversation. And a one-to-one with something on the other side of the world, and hopefully begin to sort of ask questions and learn about it and care and then act in that way that's gonna help our planet.
1:05:32.0 JH: Well said. Well, Rhonda, I also will just say that I think that you diving into the deep end of sexism and stereotypes and competition and everything for your very first podcast episode ever is quite brave. [laughter] Thank you. Thank you so much for being willing to hop in here with Suzi and talk about everything that you are doing. I'm greatly appreciative.
1:05:56.8 RR: Well, sort of doing it, not because I'm comfortable doing it, but for the sake of conservation photography and women photographers and doing it for everyone else, which is what we've said, one of the reasons that women do enter competitions or do things is not for their own glory or verification, but for the benefit of the greater community, and so that is why I've put myself out there.
1:06:29.5 SE: I get so uncomfortable because there's no way you can discuss this without pissing some people off. It's just gonna happen, it's not an easy thing.
1:06:40.9 JH: But that's okay, because you piss someone off and then they come back and give their perspective and it allows you to re-evaluate your own or to hold fast to what you feel is true to you, and so it's just pissing other people off I think is a great way to make sure that you are really standing behind whatever it is that you have to say, so it's healthy. [laughter]
1:07:01.8 RR: We did get comments on social media, of course, of like, "Why are you giving women discount? Is it harder for them to hold a camera?"
1:07:10.4 JH: I'm so glad I don't read comments like that anymore.
1:07:14.1 RR: We explained, we explained it to them and directed them to the website so they could educate themselves.
1:07:19.0 JH: Very nice. Well, done.
1:07:23.2 JH: Here you go. Educate yourself, my friend.
1:07:24.3 RR: Yes. [laughter] Read this and then come back and ask me that question.
1:07:28.6 JH: Perfect. Well, I appreciate you both for coming aboard and talking about this topic, and for all of the listeners to dig into the BigPicture competition a little bit deeper, I will go ahead and add some links in the show notes for some of the things that we've referenced but where should folks go, I think it's kind of obvious, but just in case where should folks go to find out more and look through all of the amazing imagery that has been part of BigPicture competition?
1:07:56.3 RR: BigPicturecompetition.org is the website. And so we have the winners of since 2014, we have this year's judges, we have a page for the women in photography that we've been referring to, and much more.
1:08:14.4 JH: Wonderful, thank you so much.
1:08:16.8 RR: Thank you, it's been fun.
1:08:18.4 SE: Thanks for having us, Jaymi.
1:08:24.5 JH: Before we wrap up, I would love to ask you to do one quick thing. Subscribe to this podcast. As a subscriber, you'll not only know when each week's episode goes live, but you'll also get insider goodies, like bonus episodes. You might miss them unless you're subscribed and I don't want you to miss out on a thing, so please tap that subscribe button, and I will talk to you next week.
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