In a new project highlighting women working in traditionally male-dominated industries, Image Source photographer Leonora Saunders has created a series of thought-provoking portraits challenging perceived ideas of gender roles
Based in the UK, Leonora has been shortlisted for both the AOP Photographic Awards and the AA Landscape Photographer of the Year, and has had multiple projects exhibited. With her sights set on eventually publishing the project in a book, ‘When I grow up I want to be a train driver…’ aims to celebrate women in traditionally male roles, and explore the reasons behind their choice of career and their experiences of being in the minority in their work place.
The project was first displayed in the Guardian Weekend Magazine to accompany interviews undertaken by her friend and Guardian journalist Dee Claffey. We spoke to Leonora to find out more.
What motivated the project and how did it start?
The project started as a collaboration with friend and journalist Dee Claffey. After seeing a female bike courier she was motivated to write a feature on women in typically ‘male’ jobs and approached me to start working on the idea with her. We then came up with a more detailed brief and proposal of how to go about starting and defining the project. We wanted to find unusual and extremely stereotypical male professions and so decided to focus on women in roles where they made up less than 10% of the workforce. It was important to us to focus on the younger generation of women working across a range of jobs, academic and manual, in order to portray realistic and accessible portraits of working women. The aim was to to explore the motivation behind their career choices and hear their experiences of working in male dominated industries as well as celebrating their achievements and finding new and exciting role models.
Where did you find the women, and what was your criteria for selecting them?
The initial brainstorming list was fairly predictable (electricians, plumbers, builders etc) and easy to narrow down as the number of women in the industry needed to be 10% or less. Thinking back to childhood ideas and that often used phrase ‘when I grow up I want to be…’ started us thinking about gender roles and perceptions, what we are naturally drawn to as well as what we are steered towards. Every little boy wants to be a train driver at some point, or a racer or a pilot whereas girls typically lean toward (or are pushed) towards wanting to be a hairdresser, teacher or nurse.
In order to find women working in the professions on the list I did a lot of web research initially, looking for private businesses that employed women, going to the unions and regularly asking people if they have friends or family they could recommend. Once the ball started rolling it was pretty easy to find women to be involved and what started as a fairly limited list has grown into a varied and often surprising record of male dominated professions- butcher, coastguard, surgeon, rope access worker, grip (in film & tv), mechanic, space lawyer, satellite controller, tube driver, brewer, hedge layer, design engineer and HGV driver to name a few.
From the project, what did you learn about women in traditionally male-dominated roles?
So far all of the women I have met have been extremely determined and dedicated – which is inspirational in any job! It has generally been agreed that it is the perception of women working in these occupations that is the problem rather than the reality. Most of the women had experienced some sexism in the workplace but generally only had positive things to say about their colleagues. I think it has got to be tough to get ahead in a career where the odds are stacked against you before you have set foot in the door but what was so inspiring to me was they way in which these women were just getting on with it, with passion and positivity. I think every interview contained the phrase ‘I love what I do!’.
Did the women have any influence in the way they were portrayed?
Yes, I wanted the women to portray themselves in whatever way they liked, wearing whatever they wanted and felt comfortable in. Often this was a uniform as all the portraits were shot in their place of work and we were sometimes restricted due to health and safety. Photographing in full PPI- including hard hat and plastic safety glasses can be quite tricky! Ali the train driver however bought loads of her own clothes and so I photographed her in the drivers seat of a train with her party gear on.
How did you decide on location and settings?
Locations were all chosen as relevant to each person and their job. It was also important to me to get the most visually arresting picture possible and so where I can I have avoided offices and desks etc as they are not the most exciting of locations. I wanted the portraits to pay tribute to these women and also portray the interesting and varied nature of their different vocations.
Do you think it was important symbolically, or aesthetically, to have a woman shoot these images? Do you think there’s a woman’s eye?
Photography, although not under 10%, is still considered to be a pretty male dominated industry and so I think it is appropriate given the project brief that I am shooting this from a female perspective. However, I think that the issue of equality is one that is relevant to and affects everybody- it should not be limited in its exploration and indeed I think it would be interesting and valid to see it from a male perspective. I feel strongly that this work is not meant to polarise opinion or emphasise division, more to encourage progress and celebrate what has already been achieved.
What’s next for the project?
Lots more publicity hopefully! I am in talks with a few people about funding and exhibiting the work as well as using it for an educational resource. The ultimate goal is to publish the complete project as a book. That is still a long way off though as there are a lot more portraits to go…
What did you want to be when you grew up, and has this played into your work today?
I wanted to be a judge. Not quite sure how this plays into my work now!