Visibility of women working behind the lens can influence better gender balance in the industry and create opportunities for female camera crew, according to an expert panel at the Media Production and Technology Show, reports Sheryl Hickey.
The panel included Co-Founder of community-led database, Women Behind the Camera (WBTC) and camera operator Aga Szeliga, DoP Ashley Barron (ACS), focus puller Samantha Patterson, and Steadicam/ Trinity operator Svetlana Miko.
“When I was (finally) in the industry, there were not a lot of women. I’d heard of other women being in in the camera department, but I’d never seen them… They’d get to a certain grade like a loader which is a second assistant, but very few focus pullers, very few operators, and if any DOPs… I couldn’t see myself as an operator as I didn’t know any other women doing it,” revealed Samantha Patterson.
“I couldn’t see myself as an Operator as I didn’t know any other women doing it,” - Samantha Patterson
The WBTC community actively seeks wider representation and access to opportunities - in part through its database of female camera crew. It’s a community built by its members and serves as a support network and a place to celebrate one another, give advice, and share information.
As Chairperson, camera operator Aga Szeliga explained that the database is a response to the lack of gender balance and what inspired her to enter the industry, “I come from Poland. I grew up in a very small communist town, and it really felt a long way from any film industry. And since I remember I always wanted to be part of the camera department. As a child, I was glued to the television. And then one day I saw these beautiful stills from Hollywood sets of the 1940s and 50s of the huge camera with men gathering around it and I was so hypnotised. I just wanted to become the person behind the camera.”
Women Behind the Camera: A Growing Network
Coming to the UK finally led Szeliga to becoming a camera trainee and five years ago, as the only woman in a male dominated camera department, her and two other women created WBTC. Now the database includes close to 300 women in tech roles in TV and Film, and over this time has become a community of women supporting each other, offering free courses, moral support and networking events.
Szeliga then shared: “I feel like for many of us, especially young women joining the industry, it really plays a huge role of being part of that community - seeing other women doing the jobs knowing that you can do it too.
“(Within the database you can) look for and also veto people so you can you can get recommendations because sometimes you go in blind and you don’t know what anyone is about, so that’s really important.”
Women Behind the Camera: A Community at the Helm
“Community support is invaluable,” Ashley Barron, now a DoP, started as a camera assistant, “I’ve been (in) other roles in the industry besides the camera department, besides cinematography, but then I was able to navigate my trajectory to cinematography.”
Barron praised WBTC as a free place to speak and a nurturing environment, “(It’s somewhere you are) able to find and veto people and find a crew you can rely on and (find) mentoring.” She explained it is a bonus for young women entering the environment knowing that they will be supported.
“It’s important to show women - for men to see and for young men to see - women in roles that are traditionally considered as male, you want to be able to see that both men and women can do it. It’s just the presence, full stop.” – Ashley Barron
Patterson pointed out the strength in female crew being visible to others: “For me having those people around me that are like me, that’s a really big help. If you can see yourself in other people doing the job you want to do, it makes it so much easier.”
Svetlana Miko, Steadicam/ Trinity Operator described WBTC as a hub: “It’s accessible. There’s always that chat about should we only employ women? No, but I think it’s part of the bigger talk where it’s about us being aware of making a difference and about being encouraging – it’s a big part of it.
“Being specialist has helped me to grow on my career ladder which is an important thing to consider. I remind everyone we know there’s a certain way of growing in your career but do consider and look around you what the ‘on top’ things are, you know that can be (shooting) underwater. Those [things] are always important to consider.”
Of the organisation, Barron added: “It’s in the name, there’s no gimmick, we are women behind the camera…it’s very to the point. The people behind the helm – it has such an interactive presence in the industry, in London and beyond. It’s important to show women - for men to see and for young men to see - women in roles that are traditionally considered as male, you want to be able to see that both men and women can do it.” She described it as a powerful collective, to show that women are there, that they are ready and capable for the roles, “it’s just the presence, full stop.”
Women Behind the Camera: Proactively Forging Change
“I live in this amazing place called London, one of the most diverse places on earth,” Miko reflected on her introduction into film, “Whenever I stepped on the film set, it was always very white, very male dominated or middle class. I was like, what’s going on? But then in time I realised that we’re going against this culture and all those habits.”
On Patterson’s point on visibility she echoed: “Slowly, slowly by visibly introducing this other force, you know, the more diverse backgrounds and the more of this presence, the more of interest from other parties like DoPs, the same crews suddenly say, oh, okay, you know, there is this working force here we could try. It is a proactive approach, not just the agencies, but everyone from the department. It’s about finding the balance.”
Szeliga agreed: “There is slight progression in the industry. From being the only woman to achieving gender balance. The progression is really slow sadly, we’re asking everyone to help us out but I feel like we’ve taken it into our own hands, to support change by being visible.”
Patterson shared her experience on this: “(When) I saw that one woman who was an operator, I was like, ‘I can see me, I can see me doing it,’ but it took such a long time. So I think this is why Women Behind the Camera is so important because if you can’t see you, it’s the mental block as well as anything. It was you know, a lot of men and sometimes you don’t get seen. So now I feel visible, I feel so much more visible.”
Women Behind the Camera: Presence is Key
On the topic of having more women on sets, Miko noted: “I don’t see myself as ‘I’m female so I’m special,’ but it’s more like, as I did not have many role models, even in the UK. I started when there weren’t many females empowered in higher roles. You know, we have seen many (female) assistants, but not many operators and I have seen maybe in the past eight years, which is when I started - the change. Now when you look on the sets, (mostly) drama sets, you can see the difference. It is still a lot of work to do, but you can see the difference.”
The panel have discovered that the more there is presence the more there is interest. Since the growth of WBTC, other directives have started to support them and collaborate, such as Illuminatrix and the Association of Camera Operators (ACO). It is all part of the greater goal of inclusion and accessibility – knowing who to identify with and expanding the conversation.