The DP roundtable: IF chats to some of our leading female cinematographers

Tania Lambert shoots a Toyota TVC.

IF speaks to cinematographers Anna Howard, Tania Lambert, Katie Milwright, Mandy Walker, Bonnie Elliott, Emma Paine, Velinda Wardell, Sky Davies and Ashley Barron about rising up the ranks, the gender gap and the DPs that inspire them.

No woman has ever won the Oscar for best cinematography. In fact, no woman has ever been nominated. In Australia, ABS statistics to 2011 put the percentage of female directors of photography at around 6 percent. Were you aware of the gender divide at the beginning of your career?

Lambert: I was keenly aware of the gender imbalance in the camera department when I first started as a camera assistant. It didn’t bother me a huge deal, but I felt I had to work extra hard to be respected in that role. There were only a few female camera assistants I knew of and one female DOP, Anna Howard, who I worked for.

I was aware that there weren’t many women leading the camera department. Around the time I was finding out camerawork could be a career option, Jan Kenny ACS became the first woman to shoot a feature in Australia with the film Fran (1985).  In 1986 Jan was the first woman to be accredited by the Australian Cinematographers Society. In the last thirty years only seven other Australian women have been accredited. Women like Jan Kenny ACS, Martha Ansara, Erika Addis, Mandy Walker ACS and Anna Howard ACS were inspirational for me. When I first became involved with the ACS, I would often be the only woman in the room. Now I collect other female cinematographers like Pokemon.

Walker: I was when I first started to inquire about working in camera. I did work experience at Channel Seven when I was 15 and they told me there that women don’t work in the camera department. I ignored that.

Paine: I wasn’t aware of a gender divide at the start of my career. AFTRS was a great collaborative environment that was pretty balanced in terms of gender across all crafts. I had seen Tanya and Zoe [White]’s work and just wanted to be like them.

Elliott: Of course the camera department has always been a very male dominated field. But my teachers at UTS were mostly women, pioneering types like cinematographer and filmmaker Martha Ansara who was involved in setting up the Sydney Women’s Film Group in the 70’s. Later at AFTRS I was taught by Jan Kenny and Erika Addis, more trailblazing female cinematographers. But I was certainly aware that it was an area that only a few women seemed to be breaking through in. And one of those was Mandy Walker, who was shooting some really inspiring work when I started out. I remember seeing Love Serenade and being so excited. I think role models are hugely important in that way. I was also fortunate to assist quite a few women DP’s – Jackie Farkas, Cordelia Beresford, Carolyn Constantine, Justine Kerrigan.

Howard: It was apparent in that the producer said to me, this is the first time we’ve had a girl in the camera department, so that was interesting. There was another woman called Tracey Kubler working at that stage as well, and there were some women at the ABC. So I knew there were some women around, but there weren’t a lot of us by any means.

Did/do crew treat you differently?

Lambert: As a camera assistant, there were, of course, the occasional sexist remarks and the crew who assumed I was the make-up artist, not the clapper loader.

Walker: At first they did, when I was an assistant, because there were not many women at that stage and they would watch me lift equipment and question my abilities, until I showed them it wasn’t any different. I never tried to make a point of it, just did my job and ignored the issue really.

Davies: When I was an assistant my close colleagues never did, they knew me and I don't think my gender entered into our work place.  Now and again I’d work with crew from out of town that would take a while to adjust to a female in the camera department.

Milwright: I don’t feel like the crew have ever treated me differently as DP. It’s all about confidence. Working as an assistant made me confident on set and I’m glad that I took that route to shooting. 

I've found that experienced crews have never treated me differently, we’re all professionals and we get on with the job. Very occasionally, you get a male camera assistant who thinks their opinion is more important than yours. Sadly, I find [that] it’s talent that I have the worst experiences with. Inappropriate questions and comments are commonplace. On set last year a Sydney shock-jock called me a “stupid girl” because the producer was moving the auto cue too quickly for him. It was an awkward moment.

Elliott: I grew up with a sister, so joining the film industry sometimes felt like inheriting all the brothers I never had! There is a certain quality to film sets of joking around, winding each other up, that can feel quite male, so that took some adjusting to. Generally I think most crews are very supportive of women in the industry, and I have worked all around the world and found that to be true, even in countries like Iran, where I didn’t expect it. Very occasionally I come across someone who doesn’t seem to respect that I want to work the way I do, and will try and patronize me. And you can tell that it’s related to your gender, and it’s depressing. But it’s very rare these days.

Howard: When I went from being a camera assistant to operating and shooting, I did find that some of the people I had been working with were quite hostile towards me. But generally no, because all the best boys, electrics, grips, camera [assistants], all kind of came up with me.

The people who were hostile had worked with you in what capacity?

Howard: They’d been the heads of department and I’d been an assistant, and we had a good relationship in those crew roles. It wasn’t many people – maybe three.

And what changed when you were DOP, working with them as HODs?

Howard: I guess my needs changed enormously, obviously, and I think that they bullied me a bit. They were old-school kind of people, and they questioned my decisions.

Are these men or women or both?

Howard: Men. I did a big American film a couple of years ago, and there was one particular person on that crew who I don’t think enjoyed having a female DP. I did a TV show in the early 2000’s with a gaffer who was just totally unimpressed with having a female DP. But apart from those two, I don’t think I ever really had a problem with it.

Is there a shortage of opportunities for female DOPs, a 'trust gap' that you've felt?

Lambert: I haven’t felt a shortage of opportunities. There are certain areas, like documentary, where people are more comfortable hiring female DOPs. Whereas it seems big budget TVCs are still dominated by male DOPs.

Wardell: I love the work of Maryse Alberti (The Wrestler), Magdalena Górka P.S.C. (Jack Strong), Mandy Walker ACS, ASC (Tracks) and Anna J Foerster (White House Down) to name a few. When I see these names they stand out. The statistics do show an incredibly small percent of female DOPs in film and television.

Milwright: The gap I feel is in the numbers more than anything. People still tell me that they’ve never worked with a female DP before, almost like it’s a novelty. I don’t know if I’ve missed out on opportunities because I’m a woman.  I have been asked whether I would be okay to do an entirely ‘handheld’ job. I’m not sure that question would be asked of a bloke.

Paine: For any young freelancer, it’s hard work to get the ball rolling, though it feels like my male counterparts are offered a lot more commercial work than I am. I find that most directors and producers I'm approached by are female.

Elliott: It’s a complicated question, because I do think there are subtle gender biases that creep in, and I would say that as a female cinematographer you have to prove yourself a bit more, that it takes a little longer to be given the opportunities that men get. So I think it’s a slightly slower career, overall. But having said that I know there have been some jobs I have definitely got because I am a woman, because it was a consideration for the subjects or story, so I certainly don’t consider it to have been a negative thing in my career. But as the statistics show, there are a lot less female directors getting their films made, and that has a flow on effect, because a lot of the directors I’ve worked with have been women.

Barron: Opportunities usually come from relationships with directors. If there are more male directors, and they wish to just work with their male mates, then there may be less opportunity. Overall I think that the more commonplace female DPs become, particularly at the studio level, the more opportunity there will be.

Howard: I think generally women don’t get offered big films. I don’t know many. I mean Mandy [Walker] has obviously done really well, but as far as getting really big-budget movies, maybe you do get overlooked. With me it’s a unique situation where I’ve been a single mother, so that’s changed my decisions. I was doing a lot of big American films as a camera assistant, and I just felt I was away from my children a lot and I didn’t want that, so I stopped doing those. And of course, because of that, the opportunity of going further on those big films didn’t arise.

Do family considerations affect the careers of female DPs more than their male counterparts?

Lambert: Unfortunately the film industry isn’t the most family friendly industry. We can’t drop our kid at the crèche at 4:30am or pick them up late because we’re doing overtime on-set. For the last five years I have put off having children because I wasn’t ready to put my career on the shelf for a few years.

Walker: I think it’s only an issue if you make it one. I’m lucky my husband was willing to help out with child care and was full time dad for our daughter. I think men also have to deal with the situation of juggling children and a career too, whether they are a single parent or both parents work.

I think family considerations have definitely affected my career decisions. I know I don’t want to be away every week like some other DPs, but being away is definitely part of the job. Having said that, I’ve shot 3 features since my daughter was born 4 years ago, interstate and overseas. My partner is very supportive but that’s the only way it would work. I was conscious not to step away from work for too long when my daughter was born. I didn’t want people to decide for me that I was not available. I tried to be flexible even when it was difficult because it’s easy to disappear in this industry.

Absolutely. I’m always so aware of it any time I go to an ACS awards and all the guys are up there thanking their wives. Of course there are many supportive husbands and partners and extended family networks who allow female cinematographers to work, but it is complex. The timing of when to have a child is often very difficult as you establish your career. But on a positive note, so many of the really high profile female DP’s like Mandy Walker, Reed Morano and Maryse Alberti are mothers too, and again that gives you hope that it can be done! But it does mean making choices about the work you do – I know Maryse Alberti has spoken about choosing to shoot more documentaries to allow time to raise her son.

Barron: There are of course exceptions to every rule, but it’s obviously easier for a man to have kids and continue their work because they don’t physically have to have the child. By the time you reach the point at which you would want to have children if that’s your choice, that’s the time when your career should be kicking off and you should be working and thus frequently on the road.

Howard: I’ve got some single-father friends working in the industry, and I’m sure it’s exactly the same. I don’t think gender really comes into it.

Are things changing in terms of numbers?

Wardell: In Australia we have 371 Accredited ACS members, eight of whom are women. The Australian Cinematographer’s Society, led by Ron Johanson ACS, has set up the ACS Women’s Advisory Panel chaired by Erika Addis. As part of this initiative, women holding ACS membership were encouraged to participate as board members. This resulted in an equal number of men and women on the board in some states. We still have a long way to go.

Walker: I think slowly there are more women in my job, and many more in Europe than in Australia and the USA.

Davies: Things are definitely changing in terms of the amount of female DPs that are coming up through the ranks; perhaps only in the lower to middle levels though. I think advertising agencies and, sadly to say, some funding bodies, still subconsciously balk at the mention of female DP for larger jobs.

Paine: Over the past few years I've met so many more female DOPs and camera assistants. Yet to meet any female gaffers or grips – but I would so love to. With groups like the ICFC, CXX and Illuminatrix, I’ve never been more excited to be a female cinematographer.

Howard: I think ageism is also a bit of a problem in the industry these days as well. I think that hits men as well as… myself (laughs). Because there’s not many old girls like myself around. I have a lot of friends who I assisted for who are great DPs who are finding it really tough out there. It’s a young business. Documentaries not so much. That seems to be more stable and [full of] people who are a lot more experienced in a sense. There are a lot of films I would like to go for that young people are already on. The whole structure of the film industry has just changed enormously. When I was trying to break in and shoot, I missed out on Lantana – which I was asked to do – because you had to get through the completion guarantors.


  1. You should interview Susan Stitt ACS a female cinematographer who has a very successful career filming high end televison commerials both in Australia and internationally over the last 20 years
    She is based in Sydney.

  2. I absolutely agree with David – Ive known our Susan Stitt as a hardcore veteran Commercial Cinematographer who brought in a whole bunch of innovations in how we look at things.-She’s been almost as inspiring to me as Riefenstahl.

    -(Brandon Hendroff Story & Concept Guy 30 years in Industry)

  3. Unfortunately I’m one of the women who had to choose between the camera department [I’ve worked with most of the women interview in this story] and Motherhood. There was no way I could sustain both, living in a state seperate to family members.

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