Is the Photography World Hiding a Dark Secret?

Sexism flourishes still today in all walks of life. If women aren’t treated as second class citizens you can be sure they’re still held in contempt. Colin Pantall, author, photographer and lecturer at University of South Wales believes that the photography world is no exception. Recently he wrote an article on his blog exploring the harassment some female photographers face in the workplace when trying to ‘make it big’. Phogotraphy reached out to Pantall and asked how we could help lift the lid on what he dubs the ‘curator’s casting couch.’ What follows is his response.


I’m rather naive, so what I thought might be a relatively isolated problem is far more widespread than I imagined – a statement which will leave half the readers of this blog snorting in derision. But everybody who got in touch told me this is exactly what large numbers of young women photographers talk about when they get together. At Arles, at Paris Photo, at Unseen, at Houston and so on.

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One woman mentioned her experience of the curator’s casting couch, something that doesn’t feature in any professional development how-to-get-a-show features that you periodically see. She didn’t visit the couch. She didn’t get the show.

Another woman extended it and told me that when she’s with her artist friends, they play The Curator’s Game. This is where they tell their curator stories through role play. It’s a bit more creative than your basic casting couch scenario; one where Performance, Installation, Action is all part of the game and pig’s heads and clogs completely relate as a normal part of growing up. We’re talking major museums here as well.

Then there’s the Sex Spammer. I used to think that the screenings were the best attended events at Arles, but it seems that the Sex Spammers Correspondents’ Club is even bigger. It starts ‘Hello Sexy, let’s hook up..’ and then never stops until you tell him where to go. And if you don’t, then it’s ‘I imagine fu**ing you by a river’ and it’s screen-grab time. Not nice.

The problem is nobody wants to talk about it in public for several reason. One reason is they don’t want to be seen as ‘difficult’. And the other reason is the possibility it will close off career opportunities. One person said, when you consider that ‘60% of men in some kind of position of power has engaged in this kind of behaviour, you will understand why people don’t want to complain. You’ll never work in photography again.’

It is difficult. And it’s ironic that in photography, in the arts, where the rhetoric of telling the truth, effecting change, and being honest and raw is so prevalent, that we’re not honest enough to recognise this problem or talk about it. There are no structures in place that help women to complain or talk about what happens not just to a few, to the vast majority of young photographers.

And if we can’t talk about this, then it renders all that talk about truth, change, honesty, rawness for what it is; empty bulls**t. We talk about things that we are comfortable being raw about, but not those that really matter. Which isn’t really raw or honest at all.

It’s a bit like all those debates about ethics in photography. We can discuss at length the amount of dodging in a shadow, or worry our fingernails to bits about Bruce Gilden or Boris Mikhailov, but when we are faced with something that really matters, it becomes something we simply ignore.

Bulls**t to that! Dare I say it, but is photography just a little bit cowardly. Are we all yeller?

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My question is what little step can help make it easier to talk about and act against the kind of behaviour mentioned above. Something really basic might be a simple Equal Opportunities Statement of the kind all major educational establishments have in the UK. It could be something led by the major organisations (I mentioned World Press Photo, Arles, Aperture, Deutsche Borse, Magnum, National Geographic, VII, Paris Photo, and lets throw all the major museums and galleries in there as well), with an opportunity to complain. As I mentioned, I’m sure many of these organisations already have something in place because they must all be very aware of the dangers of people offering access for sex. That’s what it boils down to.

That would be a start.

And given that so, so many women photographers (like 100%) have experienced the things mentioned above, it would good if they could somehow speak out. I’m not sure how though.

But I’ve worked in various educational establishments over the years, with young people, with vulnerable people, and they’ve all managed to have policies in place. And many people (not all) who have experienced sexual harassment, racism, or discrimination have been able to complain about it and give others powers to act against it. It’s difficult, but it’s not that difficult.

This, for example, is lifted from Bath University (I don’t work there) equality statement.

Equality principles 

Our equality principles are:-

1. To maintain an organisational culture and environment in which all staff and students understand fairness, inclusive language, positive attitudes, and the value of equality and diversity,

2. To remove barriers which may be experienced by members of protected groups including tackling unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation,

3. To continue to foster good relations between staff, students, contractors, visitors and service users by promoting an inclusive work/study/leisure environment,

4. To assist staff and students to achieve their potential at work and in their education through relevant policies, practices, equality analyses and monitoring.

So it’s a cut and paste job. And then you add a contact email for complaints.

The alternative is easier of course; just ignore the problem. We’ve got by so far by ignoring it. But if you do that, can we all please drop the language about photography and the arts being raw and difficult and challenging and effecting change. And drop all talk of ethics and values.

Because if you can’t change something as simple as this, even in some little way, if people stay scared of talking about their experiences in public (while talking about them at great length in private) it really is all just so much hypocritical hot air.


Colin Pantall has since set up an online service for victims of sexual harassment in the workplace to come forward anonymously and share their stories. If you have any experience of the so called curator’s couch, please get in touch with Colin.

All words used with Colin’s explicit permission. All images from Phogotraphy‘s personal archive.

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