Women and Minority Cinematographers Still Face Challenges

Elen Lotman: There are still very few women cinematographers working on bigger-budget pics

Women and Minority Cinematographers Still Face Challenges
Courtesy of Camerimage

BYDGOSZCZ, Poland — The struggle for diversity among cinematographers won’t be over any time soon, say women and minority DPs — but a strong focus on breaking down myths and building up opportunities early is moving the needle, however slowly.

Industry figures show that film schools now have student bodies that are about equal in gender, says Estonian DP Elen Lotman. But when you look at percentages for big-budget feature films, women still make up about 3%, she says, with numbers a bit better for lower-budget work and better still, around 21%, for publicly funded film.

“Under-representation occurs at a certain point,” says Lotman.

Progress is hardly to the level where “next year we can have a bunch of white men sitting here whining about not finding work,” she joked to a group of colleagues and students at Poland’s Camerimage fest this week.

A talk organized by the U.K.-based lensers’ platform Illuminatrix and Imago, the European Federation of Cinematographers, prompted 10 DPs to share experiences and expertise in battling deeply entrenched stereotypes and institutions that have remained largely unbudged despite widely held knowledge that filmmaking remains deeply unequal.

Veteran DP Nancy Schreiber (“Blair Witch,” “The Celluloid Closet” and “The Nines”) says women still face particular hurdles in one of the areas where there is also the most opportunity: television.

“Not much has changed,” she says, with “extremely demanding” production schedules, few resources for women camera operators with small children and a wall of myths still widely held: That women don’t have the physique to shoot handheld, for one.

“That’s bullshit,” she says.

And, as Lotman points out, in an industry where there’s already substantial risk, “risk-averse” producers are not inclined to try working with new kinds of DPs.

The reality is that women cinematographers sometimes offer unique abilities over male counterparts, says Ed Lachman, one of Hollywood’s top lensers, who shot last year’s Camerimage grand prize winner “Carol.”

“I prefer working with women in many ways,” he says, “because I find there’s less of an ego problem.”

Mexico-based DP Maria Secco says the situation is a bit better there, perhaps because 75% of film output is supported by the state.

Not surprisingly, it often takes a woman in charge of hiring to affect real change, says black cinematographer Bradford Young (“Selma,” “A Most Violent Year”), who says he still encounters suspicion on the set regularly.

“Ninety-nine percent of my opportunities have come from women,” he says.

If Schreiber has learned anything, she says, it’s that confronting prejudices “quickly and publicly” when they’re encountered is crucial.

That’s never easy, of course, for emerging filmmakers concerned about building their career. But, as DP Catherine Goldschmidt puts it, there’s no other option than persisting and raising the profile for minorities. “We should have a public face.”