Women Behind the Camera
Regan, Suzanne. “Book Review,” Journal of Film and Video 50.2 (Summer 1998), 58-60.
Krasilovsky, Alexis. Women Behind the Camera: Conversations with Camerawomen. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997, 213 pp., 25 photos. Paper and cloth.
Women Behind the Camera contains 23 interviews conducted by Alexis Krasilovsky between 1988 and 1996 with camerawomen at various stages of their film and video careers. Although the women are diverse in age, ethnic background, and class, the interviews have a consistent focus—the difficult task of competing for work in a traditionally male arena.
Krasilovsky’s research is extensive and wide-ranging. Presenting her findings in the words of the camerawomen themselves, she dramatically conveys their personal and professional journeys. The 23 interviewees offer multiple and diverse personalities and perspectives. Gradually, bits of truth about the film industry and the women who choose camera emerge.
The interviews reveal haunting similarities in the women’s experiences. Discussions of obstacles, harassment, and even subterfuge are prevalent. So too is the clear message that despite common beliefs that women aren’t strong enough to hoist a 35mm camera, are unable to gain proficiency in loading film, and are incapable of mastering technical challenges such as pulling focus, women can and do succeed in camera work. And these women offer far more than brawn. They have strong aesthetic visions, drawing on backgrounds in dance and the visual arts in their approaches to the myriad tasks of camera work.
The interviewees share moving stories of bitterness and joy. Although some tell of difficulties in getting hired and betrayal by male crews, others discuss the help they received from supportive male cinematographers. Haskell Wexler, director and cinematographer, gave several of the women their first opportunities to work in camera (59, 62-63, 79, 134).
The personal sacrifices and physical dangers the women describe are of concern both as practical challenges and in the ways in which they contributed to the myths that justify male dominance of the field. Camera operators and assistants tell of risking physical danger as they waited at the bottom of a ravine to capture the image of an exploding car (46-47) and of floating high above a crowd scene held aloft by only the slim arm of a crane.
According to Madelyn Most, “Cameramen, camera operators in LA are common fodder. Many get killed on the job in film accidents every year” (107). The weight of the camera, its delicacy, and the expense if it’s dropped, along with society’s ambivalence about practices that put females “in harm’s way,” provide rationales for the prejudice against women in camera. These myths play out not only in hiring practices but also in the ways women students are treated in cinematography classes.
For those who overcome the prejudices and gain entry into camera work, the emotional challenges are far from over. Although some of the women describe outright acts of sabotage aimed at humiliating them and forcing them off crews, others emphasize the more subtle reasons camera work is a difficult career choice for women: the stress of being a free-lancer, the problems of working on location far from home, and the lack of female camaraderie “below the line.” The problems of maintaining stable relationships and of raising children while traveling constantly, combined with the irregular, long hours, prompted more than one interviewee to say she wished for that person who seemed so easily available to her male counterparts: “a wife.”
Several of the interviewees mention the importance of dressing “professionally,” not “sexily,” on the set. Several have also felt compelled to maintain their distance from the males in the camera crew, to the point that one woman has not even allowed herself to smile while working for fear that it would be perceived as a come-one or a sign of weakness.
This fear of appearing too “sexy” or too “female” was more prevalent among the pioneers in the field, for whom gender-based prejudice was a fairly common occurrence. These women discuss their feelings of isolation, of being the only woman working camera, and the resulting emotional stress. The new-generation camerawomen have far greater support now that more women work below the line and male crews are more enlightened and less threatened.
Along with the problems inherent in camera work itself, many of the women complain about the camera unions. IA (International Photographers’ Guild, Local 600-International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees) is considered a nearly closed shop in which nepotism is the norm. Although several of the interviewees were admitted to the union through its training program, only those applicants who perform outstandingly on the IA-administered camera assistant test stand even a chance of being admitted into the program. Further, the test is offered sporadically, is given to thousands, and only 10 or fewer applicants are accepted for training.
Getting work once one is in the union is up to the individual: the union seldom calls with work despite its extremely high entrance fees and dues. Networking and working one’s way up the apprenticeship ladder—from camera assistant to camera operator to director of photography—is the best way to keep working and progress in the profession.
The apprenticeship system has both positive and negative effects. On the one hand, those who do good work and prove their worth are often called back and work in crews with people who respect their abilities. On the other hand, the apprenticeship system discourages protests and complaints, forcing those with little power to submit to or ignore the whims of those with greater power.
The only way for women without power to advance is by keeping silent and suppressing their complaints. As they progress from camera assistant to camera operator to director of photography, they gain experience and ability, but they do not always benefit from the power they accrue. Being in charge often means being in charge of a predominantly male crew.
Ironically, women with power are considered threatening. Geraldine Kudaka explains:
A woman calling the shots is naturally emasculating in an industry based on insecurity. By this, I refer to our freelance status. We have no job security. We are only as good as our last job. Our self-esteem is based on our earning power, which is the only tangible proof of our worth (145).
Despite the problems, many women are attracted to camera work and find it a worth-while career. Kudaka believes that part of the problem between the men and women who seek careers in this field stems from a class difference:
The majority of people in this industry are basically blue-collar workers. Like any other industry, most of our jobs are trades, and most of the workers hold pretty conventional work values. Paradoxically, women who have the balls to get into crewing don’t have a blue-collar mentality of “doing a job just because it’s a job and they need a job.” Women with that kind of mentality are happy remaining secretaries (144).
The women whom Krasilovsky interviewed went into camera work for various reasons and by various routes, but most report a strong interest in the visual arts and a fascination with image, light, and technology. Amy Halpern explains: “It was natural to do camera work, because all of the preoocupations in my life had been visual. It was natural to move the camera, because I moved, and I lived completely in my eyes” (151).
Regardless of whether they went to a film school or had entry-level production experience, the interviewees describe going after the specific training they needed to work camera. Each found it necessary to take the initiative. Some hung around rental houses until someone let them help clean equipment in exchange for time using the cameras. Others found their way to the camera shop, where they volunteered to help load cameras in exchange for knowledge, while working at a TV station or film studio in entry-level positions. Halpern describes her learning process: “It was by necessity I had to pick up a camera, but I felt that it was an exclusive and occult sect of people who knew how to use them, and I didn’t find anybody forthcoming with the knowledge. So I borrowed cameras and practiced shooting” (153).
Declaring camera work both learnable and doable, the women Krasilovsky interviewed clearly want to demystify working behind a camera. These women are living proof that women can lift and lug cameras without mishaps. The problems, they tell us, are political and social, not technical. Camera work is complex only because of the nature of human beings, not the nature of film stock and camera lenses.
Four groups of readers will find this book especially worthwhile:
Students of film and television who want to work below the line will benefit from this insightful glimpse into the politics and pragmatics of a seldom-discussed area.
Parents of children who “live through their eyes” will gain insight into how to encourage their children to take advantage of their gift. The enormous influence of childhood experiences on these women’s careers is revealing.
Those whose research interest is gender relations in the workplace will find the case studies in this book valuable.
Film and video teachers should read this text to remind themselves of the import of their own gender-informed teaching practices. Sadly, the majority of the film school experiences related in these interviews were negative. Female students were ignored or disparaged for their interest in camera. Only one of the 23 interviewees, Alicia Sehring, talks positively about a faculty member. She describes Loren Cocking of the University of Texas, Austin, as “always right there for his students… You never felt ignorant, or that you didn’t know enough” (197).
Alicia Sehring’s upbeat interview is the last one in the book. She leaves you with the hope that if Krasilovsky interviews camerawomen in 2007, they will tell of an industry and academy that have made progress. The pioneering efforts of the women interviewed here, and the teacher and scholar who interviewed them, will help provide the basis for such change.
California State University, Los Angeles