Women, Not Content to Hide Behind the Camera

Autumn Eakin, a cinematographer, has a website devoted to female directors of photography.

 

It was the fall women’s meeting of Local 600, the cinematographers’ union, that kindled the idea. Gathered in the Nyack, N.Y., home of Ellen Kuras, an Oscar nominee who shot “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” female directors of photography, assistants and camera operators swapped stories of their trade — and the challenges of being underrepresented in it.

There was a sense of momentum, and being surrounded by nearly three dozen other professional camerawomen felt inspiring, Autumn Eakin, a cinematographer who was at that gathering last year, said. With the support of others, she decided to build on that camaraderie: a few months later, she inaugurated Cinematographers XX, a website and networking group showcasing the work of female D.P.s, or directors of photography. Her hope was to highlight their achievements instead of their scarcity.

“Yes, we need to talk about the fact that there are few women, because there are,” she said. “But it’s also important to advocate for people who are there. There have been women shooting, telling stories, for decades, at least. We are here!”

Cinematographers XX, whose website went up in February, is one of several new efforts among professionals in the industry to correct its gender inequity. TheInternational Collective of Female Cinematographers, a networking and resource site that went live in April, is another. It was formed, a spokeswoman said, “out of the desire to get rid of the singular excuse we hear so often: ‘There just aren’t enough female D.P.s.’’’ A documentary, “Cameraperson,” about the cinematographer Kirsten Johnson, has been making the festival rounds.

Local 600, the International Cinematographers Guild, is also taking steps on behalf of its members, publishing an ad in the Hollywood trade journals with the names of female directors of photography and camera operators, as a reminder that they exist and are hirable, and convening meetings with studios and producers. Branches of the union have also organized women’s conferences, like the one at Ms. Kuras’s house for the Eastern Region membership. And in January, the guild named Xiomara Comrie its national diversity officer, a new post, to coordinate and expand outreach.

From left, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons and Shameik Moore in “Dope.”
Rachel Morrison/Open Road Films

If Hollywood’s dismal track record with female directors is well known, lately the focus has shifted to other crew members, for whom the data is equally egregious. For the 2,000 top-grossing movies from 1994 to 2013, only 1.8 percent of the cinematographers were women, according to a study by the producer and researcher Stephen Follows. And the overall numbers for technical jobs have actually gotten worse for women since 1994, he said.

“We’re talking about breaking a longstanding cycle” of hiring that favors men, said Rebecca Rhine, who was appointed the national executive director of Local 600 in December. Even choosing her as a leader, she said, is a sign that the union is open to change, “and acknowledging that we have work to do,” in broadening the ranks. Still, most of its executives are male.

Women make up about 12 percent of Local 600’s camera department roster, Ms. Rhine said. (The union also represents entertainment industry publicists.) The group is just beginning to compile the numbers for people of color among its ranks. “You can’t have progress except by looking at the starting point,” she said, adding, “This is not going to fix itself passively.”

When Ms. Eakin graduated from film school, she said, she had little sense that her trajectory might differ from a male cinematographer’s. She began her career in St. Louis a dozen years ago, then moved to New York and worked steadily on commercials, documentaries, television and features.

But along the way, she said, she discovered that perceptions about her gender mattered. “There’s an assumption of incapability, a lot of times, when it comes to women, as opposed to the assumption of capability when it comes to men,” she said.

Rachel Morrison, a cinematographer who shot the indie favorites “Fruitvale Station” and “Dope,” agreed that women have to work harder to prove themselves. “I’ve had something like seven films at Sundance, one of which won the Grand Jury Prize,” she said. “I’ve noticed male counterparts who had similar successes getting a phone call” to do a big-budget studio film. “I wasn’t getting those phone calls.”

Women can still reach that level, she added, but have to shoot two $1 million movies before getting a $5 million assignment, and so on. “There’s never a call like, ‘You did great on your $5 million movie, here’s a $100 million project,’” she said. “My experience is that guys get to take the fast route.”

As in most fields, the timing of motherhood and balancing its demands are added hurdles. “Producers hear that you’re due in February, and they don’t want to hire you for a job that ends in January,” Ms. Morrison said.

Ms. Morrison shot “Dope” while she was pregnant, and the HBO movie “Confirmation” while she was breast-feeding, so she found ways to pump on set. (Both were directed by Rick Famuyiwa.) Pregnancy, she said, should be “viewed as working with a broken wrist.”

“It’s not something that has take you out of the equation,” she said.

Sharing ways to navigate issues like these is one goal of the meetings held by Cinematographers XX. It’s not affiliated with the union, although there is crossover; Ms. Eakin is a Local 600 member, and Ms. Rhine, the union director, said she viewed it and other sites as a complement to her work.

Ms. Eakin said she hoped that Cinematographers XX, which has about 40 established directors of photography and 18 who are starting out, would serve as a resource for hiring: Producers and studios can no longer pretend they don’t have access to any female cinematographers. Women must apply to join, and are vetted by Ms. Eakin and others; some have been turned away, or asked to update their production reels. For now, the focus is women who can work in New York or Los Angeles, although the group is allied with the International Collective of Female Cinematographers, which has over 150 vetted members. Ms. Eakin said Cinematographers XX and its Facebook group have already resulted in jobs for some members.

Ms. Morrison, one of the few women registered with Local 600 as a director of photography (most are camera operators or assistants), said she was inspired to join Cinematographers XX because she saw studios and producers responding to the renewed discussion about the dearth of female directors. “This dialogue is having an effect,” she said, though she added that she looked forward to the day when she could “just be referred to as a D.P.,” and not a female D.P.

Ms. Eakin said spotlighting the range and diversity of female cinematographers underscored their strength. “Everyone can stop questioning whether women can command a set and a crew and be creative and technical at the same time,” she said. “We can and we do. We just need to get past it being this rarity.”

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