It felt like a glamorous fever dream. The sound of music blared from invisible overhead speakers and flashing lights illuminated celebrities as they crowded the front row. There was the feeling that something big was happening and I was in the middle of it. I found my place on the crowded risers with other photographers and waited in anticipation.
As the lights went down and the music began to fade, we all tensed up and aimed our lenses carefully toward the runway. The pressure to capture the perfect shot of each look is intense.
The show began and we started snapping. But within minutes, the photographer next to me slammed his camera into the left side of my head. Instead of apologizing, he told me to get out of his way. I was in shock, and with very little room to move, I only managed to adjust my body slightly. But he persisted. I felt his elbow hard in my ribs, shoving me with such force that I almost fell in the lap of the person to my right. As a result, I missed two looks. I turned to him and said, “Seriously?” He didn’t answer.
After the designer’s final bow and the lights blinked back on, I got up and turned to the man who had purposely hit me. Just as I opened my mouth to give him hell, he stood up, towering over me, and shoved me with both hands backward into the riser wall. His face was red, dripping with sweat. “I’m the house photographer,” he said, spitting on my face. As he turned away, I felt the urge to lunge toward him. But then I saw the editor from the magazine I was shooting for. She, completely unaware of what just occurred, was smiling and waved me over. Humiliated, I wiped my face and walked to meet her. I was still a new hire and I didn’t want to be any trouble. So I said nothing.
It was not the last time I would be harassed or made to feel small as one of the few female photographers at Fashion Week. Since then, I’ve been shoved, elbowed in the face, and called every derogatory name—all by my male peers.
"I'm the house photographer," he said, spitting on my face.
I predominantly shoot backstage now and I’ve fallen in love with the chaos of capturing hair, makeup, first looks, and the frenetic getting-ready energy. But even during these moments, which can feel like magic, a few aggressive photographers can step in and change the temperature in the room. Just last year, as I was shooting backstage at New York Fashion Week, I was shoved hard from behind. An older white man wearing cargo shorts yelled to get out of his way and to make room for his shot. His saliva hit my face as he screamed and waved me away. Another photographer laughed and pointed to the dressing room. “Model call is that way, sweetheart,” he said. Unfortunately, this is a far too common experience for the women who shoot backstage.
Like many industries, fashion photography has a gender equality problem. Reported as recently as 2017, just two percent of photographers working with major commercial agencies were women. Only five percent of the images used by leading publishers were taken by female photographers. The number of women of colour behind the lens proves even more dismal. This lack of representation has allowed for inappropriate behaviour to thrive at photo shoots and major events like Fashion Week—and the issue spans beyond high-profile photographers who have been accused of harassing models.
I remember the first time I witnessed a photographer lift his camera to take an image of a young female model as she was changing backstage. It was 2017, the year before fashion organization CFDA and the Model Alliance instituted private dressing rooms.
The fact that this guy, who was shooting for one of the top publications, was standing in the open with such authority, instead of hiding behind a clothing rack, showed that he had probably done this before. He didn’t care about getting caught. His actions were standard. No big deal. My heart started racing and I began to feel nauseous. No one had intervened because his behaviour had become normalized, something models were made to accept as part of the job.
I worried that if I made a scene I could lose my opportunity, a dream that I was finally living after many years of hard work.
I wanted to grab his camera and have him escorted out. But I, like many witnesses, felt powerless. It was only my second time backstage. I worried that if I made a scene, I could lose my opportunity, a dream that I was finally living after many years of hard work. In my mind, I was still earning my place. I had too much to lose. Now, I regret not speaking up, and it haunts me to admit my silence.
The year’s first New York Fashion Week starts this week and as I embark on my seventh season, I find myself asking over and over again, Why are these toxic men allowed to take up this much space? There are countless photographers of all colours and genders with talent and dignity waiting to take their place. Why are these men, who continually exhibit unprofessional and predatory behaviour, hired and protected in a post-#MeToo world?
The fashion industry has made some advances in recent years, like the current campaign for the Respect Program that was put in place by The Model Alliance. There are also new rules that make dressing rooms private for models. But we still have a long way to go when it comes to inequality and mistreatment in all areas of the industry.
Over the years, I have found relief and camaraderie with the few other female photographers at the shows. There’s an immediate bond, one that forms through quick glances and hushed conversations, as we stand our ground to shoot first looks before they hit the runway. This is the time where tension builds and everyone vies for the best shot of each look. During this time, I’ve seen other female shooters be shoved or pushed to the ground, elbowed and boxed out, laughed at, and harassed.
And this problem doesn’t just affect the women with cameras. I’ve watched as models tense up in fear as a photographer barks orders to them or when these guys come on to them near the catering table. I’ve seen handlers and bouncers be yelled at and ganged up on by these photographers when they’re banned from going backstage while the models are changing—even after they became private. I’ve seen these same men even harass show attendees, just so they can get their perfect shot. I know the stress and pressure that comes with being a photographer, but the lack of respect is evident, and it almost always comes from a man.
I've seen other female shooters be shoved or pushed to the ground, elbowed and boxed out, laughed at, and harassed.
I love Fashion Week and I love my job. I’ve fallen deeply for the art and design. To me, the clothing is an escape as much as it is a raw creative expression. That’s why I believe fashion can be used as a vehicle for change. While shooting Fashion Week, I have met some of the most interesting and talented people and had experiences I dreamed of as a young girl. I still find myself enchanted by it like a wide-eyed child, but I also know that I will continue to feel like I don’t belong there if I don’t speak up against people who claim this space as theirs and only theirs. I, like women in many industries, just want to do the work I love without unnecessary burden. There is no limit to what we can contribute to the world when we aren’t plagued by feeling unsafe and unwelcome.
I have seen the frustration and disappointment on the faces of female photographers who I meet one season but who decline to come back the next. Although I can’t blame them for their departure, I will urge those already here to stay and fight for the people who will come after us. We must continue to show up and step into the rooms where we are not wanted or respected. It’s how we will move our industry forward.