First Hand — Why visibility and representation matter: Vanessa Whyte on co-founding a platform for female cinematographers

Posted 08 March 2018 Interview by Indi Davies

With women making up less than seven percent of cinematographers in the UK, female DOP collective Illuminatrix casts a much-welcomed spotlight on a vastly underrepresented group. Set up by London-based cinematographers Vanessa Whyte and Catherine Goldschmidt, the initiative started out as meet-ups for female talent in the TV and film industry. It soon evolved into a cinematographer-only platform, and now showcases the work of around 30 women. We met up with Vanessa Whyte, who runs Illuminatrix alongside Catherine and the rest of the collective, to find out how the idea came about, her experience of working in a male-dominated environment, and why they are extending the network for the next wave of talent, with Illuminatrix Rising.

The catalyst for starting Illuminatrix was that many of us would be told “You’re the first female cinematographer I’ve met,” by someone on the set every time we did a job. Usually it was someone being positive and kind, but it was really frustrating to hear – not least because we knew lots of brilliant, talented women DPs, many of whom are more experienced than we were. It was just astonishing that they could be invisible, so we wanted to create a single resource for people to discover working female cinematographers quickly and easily.

It was also partly due to some blatant sexism; people asking if you’re “strong enough to hold the camera” on set. This experience was universal with every woman I knew in the business. I only started to notice sexism several years after I’d left film school, in my late twenties. Many of our male peers – all with the same experience and training as their female counterparts – would get their big breaks much sooner than the women.

“Unless we try to do something about it, nothing is going to change, and we might still be having the same conversation 20 years later.”

I had one experience where I had a brilliant phone interview for a job, but after we met, they told me that I “didn’t seem serious”. Women are seen as ‘risky’, especially in TV drama. The money is tight, and the DPs – more than the directors – have a responsibility to meet the schedule, as it has a big knock-on effect with the entire production. In the director or producer’s mind, they want a solid pair of hands, and for some reason they trust guys more – maybe because that’s what they know. 

I made a decision a few years ago that if I wasn’t able to take a job, I would pass it onto another woman. This was because I knew how hard it was to get a job or the opportunities – and if someone was going to offer me a job, they’d be open to another woman. I’d also meet directors or producers who said they would love to know where to find more women DPs. When producers are choosing their HODs [heads of department], they tend to consider the first five people that come to mind; so getting women into that top five is half the battle.

The Illuminatrix website

And since then, we’ve had the Weinstein and #MeToo stories, as well as seeing reports and statistics emerging about how bad the gender balance is. We feel like we have to at least try to be a part of the change. Hearing someone like Nina Kellgren (the second woman to join the British Society of Cinematography) talk about so many female DPs falling away when she was young, as they couldn’t get back into work after having kids, made us wonder: What’s going to happen to us? Will we have to find alternative careers? Unless we try to do something about it, nothing is going to change, and we might still be having the same conversation 20 years later.

Those are the public-facing reasons for starting up and running Illuminatrix, and then privately, it’s just nice to meet, chat and ask each other questions. Everyone featured on Illuminatrix has different agents, styles and experiences, but they all say that they have gained more exposure and jobs in the last year. This is amazing, and I do think that being on Illuminatrix has helped. We’ve also felt a lot of support – with the British Society of Cinematographers and many of the big rental and lighting companies all asking how they can help.

“Visibility and representation matter, because you want people to know that it’s possible.”

Visibility and representation matter, because you want people to know that it’s possible. In film schools, it’s often almost equal in gender parity, but it’s still mostly white and middle-classed. There are reasons that more working-class people or people from ethnic minorities don’t approach these jobs, and those decisions get made at such a young age. To fix that problem, I think you have to go really far back into the education system, and not be trying to deal with it at film schools, as it gets harder. Right now at Illuminatrix we have quite bad diversity – even though we are all women. We are looking, but we aren’t aware of as many women of colour shooting in the UK, and we’d love to hear from more.

I hope that Rachel Morrison being nominated for the best cinematography Oscar [for Netflix film Mudbound] signifies a shift. She’s a fantastic, talented and hard-working person, so it doesn’t feel like tokenism. But it does annoy me when people complain about women not being nominated for Oscars, because women are given far fewer opportunities to work on films that are likely to be considered for Oscars. The problem starts much earlier on. We are quite well-represented on the low-budget end of things, but this fades as budgets get higher. Something like four percent of cinematographers working on the 250 top-grossing films were female last year. 

Vanessa at work

In order to build trust from the creative agencies, producers or directors looking to Illuminatrix for talent, we have criteria our members have to meet, which includes five years’ experience as a DP and a certain number of credits. After a while, lots of women with less experience were approaching us to join, and it felt crap to turn them away, since the whole point is to support women. This is why we launched illuminatrix rising last month, which consists of new graduates, emerging talent and women making the transition into shooting from other roles on crew. We have a rolling showcase on our website, and illuminatrix rising cinematographers also have the chance to be mentored by Illuminatrix members, come to our meetings and events, and be promoted on our social media channels.

I personally never asked many people for advice when I was starting out, but I always needed it. I was shy, and didn’t want to feel stupid; you’re already nervous about being discovered as a fraud at the beginning. It’s something both men and women deal with, but some women might feel they have to behave in a certain way to fit in. So to be part of a supportive, generous and knowledgable network is really satisfying. However, I guess the ultimate aim is to dissolve Illuminatrix, because it’s no longer needed and everything is equal.

I do think the industry is becoming more aware – in terms of both gender and ethnic diversity. I hope it’s not a flash in the pan thing, and that it’s long-lasting change. I’m really encouraged by the amazing response we’ve had for Illuminatrix so far. Long may it continue!

Posted 08 March 2018 Interview by Indi Davies
Collection: First Hand
Disciplines: Film
Mentions: Illuminatrix, Vanessa Whyte, Catherine Goldschmidt, Nina Kellgren
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