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Storytelling, Layering, and Gutsy Setups: Tips From Top Women Photographers Today

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When I watch events, and the cameras swiftly pan by the crowded photographers trying to get the cover shot, I can’t help but scan for women. I do it when the receiver runs full force out-of-bounds and accidentally crashes into the sideline photographers. “Was there a woman in that crew?” Or on CSPAN when the camera pans back to the counsel’s table and you get that quick glimpse of the photographers sitting like sardines on the floor with their cameras. At the Olympics, especially, I’m always eyeing women. I don’t see them as often as I wish.

According to database collective: Women Photograph, although 70-80% of recent photography graduates are female, women still make up only 15% of professional photographers.

International Women’s Day is a great opportunity to celebrate that 15% of women. In this article, I interview some of them, with the hope of inspiring even more.

Deanne Fitzmaurice

Our first photographer needs no introduction: Deanne Fitzmaurice. If I ever did see a woman on those quick camera pans, she would have likely been one of them. Fitzmaurice has photographed major sporting events including Super Bowls, Olympics, and the World Series. She has also documented earthquakes, pivotal Supreme Court rulings, wars, and climate change. Her resume includes shooting for National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and others. She is a Nikon Ambassador. She is the co-founder of ThinkTank Photo. She has even gone so far as to achieve the Pulitzer Prize for her photographic essay documenting a young Iraqi war victim.

Q: Your career has been extremely illustrious from shooting for Sports Illustrated, to covering the Supreme Court, shooting at the Olympics, and documenting climate change. Do you have a favorite type of photography, or is it the variety of it all that stimulates you as an artist?

My passion is in photographing stories to help understand the world we live in. I’ve covered major stories in my career: news stories like the Loma Prieta Earthquake, major sporting events, including Super Bowls and the World Series. I’ve photographed world leaders and cultural icons along with a wide range of subjects from climate change to pivotal Supreme Court rulings and the ever-evolving face of America.

Some of the stories I photograph are long-term projects and emotional like my Pulitzer Prize-winning story about Saleh, a boy severely injured in the Iraq war. I aim to bring attention to and humanize issues, in this case, the war. I aim to create poignancy, empathy, compassion, to provoke emotion, evoke a feeling, to show how it feels.

I have to feel something enough so I can photograph it, but not feel it so deeply that it paralyzes me.

I photograph with the hope that the viewer will feel joy, sadness, anger to acting, in a way that they are moved to act or informed in a new way.

By nature, I am positive and see the best in people, I see the light in people. In my work, I try to Illuminate something, to bring something into the light, actually and metaphorically. I look for universal themes to bring attention to something, hoping to reveal universal themes and show humanity so people will care and engage with my photography. I often take an issue or data and put a human face to it to make it relatable. Through humanity, I try to tap into the universal things that make us all human, love and family, to provoke the viewer to engage. Even though we have differences, we all share these basic human characteristics and dreams.

Q: When photographing such a wide range of subjects, do you feel a sense of importance to tie your images together with a distinct style? If so, what do you focus on when shooting to make the shots recognizable as a “Deanne Fitzmaurice shot?”

I look for layers as I build compositions – actual and metaphorical layers with meaning. I look for nuanced storytelling elements in my compositions. I strive to teach the viewer something — bring them new information or present old information in a new way. I’m looking for the magic and the energy in the frame created by light, color, and moment. There is a crescendo when the perfect storm aligns the elements in a peak moment.

I’m always looking for interesting juxtapositions: what is incongruous or an outlier here? I want to surprise the viewer as I look for the unpredictable, an image with an edge. Every image needs something special: light, color, moment. There should be nothing extraneous that doesn’t help build the story you are trying to tell within this frame. What are the moments in this story that I need to interpret into an image? Can I create a mystery so the viewer asks questions? Can I create an interesting place for the eye to wander with layers upon layers of storytelling elements? I aim to take the viewer to a place they’ve never been on one level or another, visually or emotionally. There should be nothing in the image that isn’t helping to tell the story.

Q: For International Woman’s Day, I wanted to feature women who are excelling in their field, and you are one of them. How do you feel as a woman in the industry? 

When I first started my career as a photojournalist, the industry was male-dominated. Today, I’m encouraged to see almost half the students in classes I teach are women.

I know that my gender has helped me on certain stories and hurt me on others.

Overall, I try to be a human first and a photographer second. I’ve learned to sometimes put the camera down and simply be present. When I speak my truth with honesty in a vulnerable state, I connect on a deeper level with the people I photograph. I aim to make a personal connection, to find common ground so they will reveal their truth. As I observe, I am reading people. What is their body language telling me? I’ve learned to honor and respect the people I photograph, as they trust me with their stories. To gain access into someone’s life, I allow them to say yes. No is a word you hear on the way to yes. I’ve learned to give people multiple opportunities to say yes.

You can follow Fitzmaurice’s latest work at @DeanneFitzmaurice and @ThinkTankPhoto.

Chelsea Kyle

The next woman being featured is food photographer Chelsea Kyle.

If you somehow missed her work with The New York Times, Starbucks, St. Germain, Grey Goose, Johnnie Walker, Apple, Budweiser, Kraft, Olipop, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Vanity Fair, Sephora, Oprah Magazine, Refinery 29, and more (have you been living under a rock?), I can assure you that after having seen it, you will recognize it everywhere. Her style is so unique, creative, and fun. It’s no wonder she’s the go-to photographer for modern, fun, creative brands.  

Q: Chelsea, your work is extremely creative and unique. Tell us a little bit of your creative process when you have an assignment.

Thank you! It’s an honor to be speaking with you and the Fstoppers team. I’ve been a long-time follower and fan since Lee Morris and Patrick Hall started in 2010. 

Creative processes can be so hard to articulate, but in an attempt to explain mine, I’d say that my influences are shaped a lot by my love for the early days of color photography and the genuine aesthetics that were born from a mix of film styles, technical obstacles, and the need for a controlled studio-based approach to commercial photography. There’s a sense of nostalgia we all share for a time that demanded a lot of creative obstacles in a wildly new and exciting commercial landscape.

Additionally, I use colors and aesthetics that have been inspired by my favorite locations, movies, and photos from my childhood. Bringing sets and lighting to life in a blank studio based on findings from that perfect moment I discovered in reality is where I thrive. Transporting my audience into a world that is mine but also strikes a nostalgic, familiar, “classic photography” chord is a really rewarding experience.  

Q: Many Photographers often seem in search of their style. Your images, when seen out in usage, are immediately recognizable as yours. Can you share with us a little about how you came into your look and how long that process took? 

Truly, the best compliment you can receive, in my opinion, is when someone recognizes my work without seeing my name association or credit. I still feel that “pinch me” moment every time it happens. I believe that the most thrilling part about being a Photographer and Director is the challenge of creating a perspective that is new and exciting to the viewer; nothing exciting ever comes from exactly recreating something someone has seen before.

A lot of that comes from trusting yourself and going with your gut and not just doing what is safe.

I’ll admit, that isn’t always easy, especially when you’re creating work for clients and not just your creative pursuits. Over the years, I’ve found that doing test shoots in response to the jobs I want to be doing has helped me manifest the work I want to be doing. I’m always flattered and encouraged when clients reference my work when bidding me for jobs. 

Q:s For International Women’s Day I wanted to feature women who are excelling in their field, and you are one of them.  How do you feel as a woman in the industry? 

Photography, film, and executive creative fields have been predominantly led by men for many years.

I feel very fortunate to have been raised in a time when just the option of being a photographer was and is available to me as a woman.

I was raised by my grandmother, who often reminded me as a young girl that she and many other women, just a short time ago, had little to no options or opportunities to pursue any specific employment interests, let alone an independent career as a freelance artist and Photographer. My grandmother, who had to be married to open a bank account or to purchase land, is blown away that I now cultivate opportunities to lead my own photography business and employ many fellow women under me. She and my mother have cultivated a great deal of motivation and confidence in me to get to where I am now.

I’ve been very fortunate to meet a lot of incredible people in this industry of all identities who have helped lift me and shape my career.  However, this isn’t always the case still for myself or for other peers. There were times when I would be hired for long 12+ hour days in extreme conditions and told I should wear dresses and heels while men could be comfortable and dress how they pleased. When assisting, I’ve been hired to entertain clients and been mistreated and not allowed to handle technical responsibilities regardless of my experience and known skill sets. I’ve had employers pay me substantially different salaries and fees when proof was easily provided that my equal male counterparts were being paid more for less responsibility. Some memories I still feel shame for letting happen, even though I was the one who was victimized, because the fear that you sit with is that you are the one accepting these conditions, so you’re part of the problem.

At times, there are situations that are blatantly unjust regardless of sex, age, race, etc. It is important to me as someone who has experienced these situations, to cultivate a space that promotes a safe environment for everyone as I am now in a position to hire teams and create opportunities for other artists.

I realize that I am fortunate to be able to fight back, to say no, and speak out without fear of retaliation or lost wages and the like that come with that. Furthermore, it is critical to me that I make decisions based on what is good for the industry, not just myself. I did not join this career to become rich. I did it for the passion, and I feel an obligation to keep it alive for those who feel the same. For example, when rates or creative dynamics are not fair, I remember that my decision to underbid or accept that work would hurt the industry and the next Photographer regardless of gender who may not be able to say no due to circumstances that may be out of their control. I work hard to create a space that drops the tired old rules of different roles creating a hierarchy of importance, inviting everyone into the conversation, and collectively pooling skills and shared respect. I speak up for and advocate for women that I work with and I openly engage other females in the industry about fairness and their experiences so that I know what to look out for when leading a team through projects and highly demanding gigs.

It is my passion just as equally as photography itself, that I help advocate for women to be as fortunate as I have been to experience the incredible power of being judged for who they are as an artist, not who they are physically.

To see Chelsea Kyle’s latest work, you can follow her on Instagram at @ChelseaLouiseKyle.

Polly Irungu

Our last featured photographer today is Polly Irungu.

Polly Irungu is a multimedia journalist and the founder of Black Women Photographers, a global community and directory of 1,000+ black women and non-binary photographers. As a photographer, writer, and founder, Polly’s work has been published in numerous publications, including Adobe’s Create Magazine, The New York Times, Reuters, Global Citizen, NPR, BBC News, Refinery29, The Washington Post, BuzzFeed News, CNN, and others. Currently, Polly is a 2022 IWMF Fellow, a creator for Twitter and LinkedIn’s first class of Creator initiatives, an instructor at the International Center of Photography, and one of 20 journalism innovators a part of CUNY’s entrepreneurship program.

Q: Polly, your career has been extremely illustrious, including work for publications, including Refinery29, NPR, The Washington Post, BuzzFeed, CNN, HuffPost, and many more. With a degree and broad experience in journalism (with and without your lens) is there a story you’ve told that you’re most passionate about the world here? 

A: Such a great question. I think the greatest story I’ve told, and the story that I’m still telling, is my own story and why I do the work I do. There is so much power in being able to tell your own story. I wouldn’t be able to tell the stories of others if I first did not tell my own story. As a multimedia journalist and founder, I have been able to bring light to many individuals and the stories they each have. Still, there is no way I could have asked them to share their story without being vulnerable enough to share my own. From working in the news and bringing countless stories to the NPR airwaves, to writing and sharing breaking news stories as an intern in Arkansas, to telling stories online through various mediums, to now being a founder of a global community and shining a light on the stories and contributions of Black women photographers, I’m proud of every role, and I believe they all deserve to be heard. 

Q: Your creation of the platform Black Women Photographers has given many women a chance to be seen on a broader scope. How has the photography community responded to this platform? Is it opening doors the way you had envisioned?  

A: In less than two years, the global response and BWP’s impact have been beyond my wildest imagination. How many people can say that they celebrated year one of launch with a $50K grant fund in partnership with Nikon?! The platform has opened doors that I didn’t even know existed or could exist for people who look like me. Black Women Photographers has been able to shine a light on 1,000+ black photographers that the industry was not aware of or supported. It has helped hundreds find community in a time when we all need it the most. It has helped hundreds receive free education and training on the business of photography, helped hundreds receive free portfolio reviews with top editors at mainstream publications (NYT, NPR, National Geographic, Washington Post, Reuters, Guardian, etc), helped even more get hired and receive opportunities that they were not being looked for beforehand. Almost every week, I hear from a member, and they share with me how BWP has changed their lives and helped them dream bigger dreams for themselves; that is beyond what I envisioned, and it is what keeps me going. Being a community builder is a tireless and often thankless job. Still, I’m grateful that this work has been impactful since the first day of launch, when I had a $14K COVID-19 relief fund to now, when I’m partnering with Adobe on BWP’s inaugural #BWPSummit. 

Q: For International Woman’s Day, I wanted to feature women who are excelling in their field, and you are one of them. How do you feel as a woman in the industry? 

I am being the change that I wish to see in this industry.

I wish I didn’t have to spend so much time advocating for change and equity. I wish I could use that time to pour into my craft. At 27, I am still very young in my career. I want to be able to focus on my craft one day. I want to not have to constantly deal with racism within and outside of the photo industry. Until then, the work continues. 

To follow her latest work, you can follow her on Instagram at @PollyIrungu and @BlackWomenPhotographers.


Choosing women to feature on International Women’s Day feels a bit like the thorny childhood scenario of choosing dodgeball teams. Of course, there are modern-day icons, such as portrait photographers Sue Bryce, Lindsay Adler, and probably the most well-known female photographer, Annie Leibovitz. If space permitted, I would have liked to share the work of wildlife photographer Tensi Ward and maternity photographer Tianna J Williams. Some of my favorite artists also include the outrageously creative duo of Colors Collective, the painterly skincare photographer Aude Angot, and the daring adventure photographer Krystle Wright (to name but a few). 

As far as the ethos of International Women’s Day, the women selected for this article summarized my sentiment well.  At times, most heavily with my sports contracts, being a woman in the industry has disadvantaged me. Other times, it’s a non-issue.

On the times where I do come across situations where I have to break stereotypers, I remind myself of the privilege I have to dispel them.

Simultaneously, many of my male peers or clients have been some of my biggest supporters, recommending me for contracts and rallying me as an artist. We have come a long way, and we have a way to go still, as we do in most social reform.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Jump in the conversation below and leave a comment. Do you have a favorite female photographer? If you are a woman in photography, how have you felt in the industry? 

Happy International Women’s Day!

Photos used with permission.

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