Day One, Act Three: Charmi Patel Peña
2018 Real Life Conference Speaker Summary
We all came to the Real Life Conference intentionally feminist. Preaching to a room of female and non-binary photographers about the importance of sisterhood may seem like an easy task. It’s not. Ending off Day One, Charmi Patel Peña gave us a kickass reminder that eliciting change within the male-dominated photography industry is as important as ever right now.
Unapologetically feminist, political, and Indian, Patel Peña is an award winning wedding photographer and a Nikon Ambassador. Her stunningly magical photography of a recent queer Indian wedding made the pages of Vogue India, People, Huffington Post, Daily Mail, Bored Panda, and Times of India. The accolades are well earned and deserved.
Most of us had first encountered Patel Peña on the Real Life Facebook groups. She’s equally eager to help members with technology-specific questions as she is to patiently answer difficult threads.
Patel Peña encourages debate, but she’s also loudly and fervently on the side of progress. Her talk was a rally call, a fist-pumping reminder that the battle for women’s rights still rages on and we are powerful when we link arms together.
“My sisterhood is women who were born women, identify as women, non-binary people. And anyone who has been held down by the system for a very long time,” started Patel Peña.
We are here, we’re breaking down patriarchal sexism paradigms in this industry. And we will not stop until we have gender equity, diversity, and inclusivity that represent true industry-wide proportions.
Everyone in the audience had most likely encountered these words: “Women are afraid of flash.” Patel Peña has persistently heard that message. Her response is priceless and reverent:
“Women are wildly technical,” she said about how we embrace using camera gear in general.
“New male photographers are probably scared of flash too, but men are totally encouraged to fail and then do it again. And it’s fine, they are just trying. Women feel like we got to be 100% when we tell anybody anything because it we do something wrong, we’re never gonna overcome it.”
“The next time someone says to you women are afraid of flash, just tell them we are good at flash.”
“I think fear of flash is more about new photographers and tons of new photographers are women. We shouldn’t let people conflate the two.”
Patel Peña’s response to this industry-wide equality issue: We got lists of female photographers. Websites like Women Photograph and Queen Photographers for Black women and people of color are great resources.
“Share your networks. If you have a great network, you have connections to companies, share them with other women and other women of color.”
As Patel Peña puts it, we have lists of lists of lists. And we’re not taking no as an answer.
“There is no reason we can’t intentionally give opportunities to people who won’t have them.”
Self-described, “Unapologetically Indian,” Patel Peña started her photography career shooting Indian weddings, she struggled with something so many of us struggle with: The comparison game.
It’s so easy to fall down the rabbit hole of other stellar work by incredible photographers. But when it starts affecting your output, Patel Peña recommends taking a break. Part of her shift away from the comparison game included unfollowing all of her peers. It allowed her to focus on her craft and building her own brand.
“I stopped making other people my measuring stick.”
“My work got better. Because all of that energy I was spending comparing, was getting the better of me. I could spend my time on becoming a better photographer.”
Patel Peña was Nikon’s first female person of color Ambassador. That doesn’t mean she should be the only one carrying that weight. Tokenism isn’t in Patel Peña’s vocabulary. In the Indian wedding world, Patel Peña was making waves because of her femaleness.
“I was doing different work because I was younger, I was more in touch with my bride, and I related to her in more ways than older Indian men did.”
What can we do every day as female and non-binary photographers? We can lift each other up. Not be afraid of being around other women. Stop believing there’s only one seat at the table for us. Hold each other up. Recommend female and non-binary photographers. Recommend people of color.
“If you are a feminist, you need to care about everybody’s problems. Every woman’s problem is your problem.” Statistically, if there is only one woman as part of a hiring pool, Status Quo Bias shows us that she will not be hired. We also fall into this kind of thinking ourselves.
Queer political cartoonist Alison Bechdel (author of the book that went on to become the brilliant Broadway hit, “Fun Home”) started a simple test to determine how present females are in movies. The Bechdel Test has three very basic requirements to pass:
1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man
The sad truth is that 50% of films don’t pass this very basic test. And when they do pass, it’s mostly marginally, with one token female.
“The world tells us we all have to race to the top. I think we should race to the top together.”
“I started to love being around women. If I talk about my eyebrows looking a mess with a crowd of women, they are like all over me, telling me how great I look!”
Want to do more? Start with your own inclusivity, Patel Peña encouraged the audience. Then start creating space for other female voices within your sphere. Hire marginalized or differently abled people as your assistants. Hire outliers. Wherever there is one woman present, find a way to bring another, and another, and another.
“We’re not going to ‘smash the patriarchy’ by mimicking the patriarchy. In our world, no means no, but we are going to use our bonds, and our talents and our hard work, to push through the patriarchy. We’re going to make our situations better by making each others’ situations better.”
Start now. Make friends. Find peers. Make friends with women — in and out of the industry.
“Be who you needed when you were younger.”
Charmi Patel Peña is an award-winning, New Jersey-based wedding and portrait photographer. Her and her husband are raising two strong feminist sons.
Charmi Patel Peña’s website
Never forget that we hella love flash! Want proof? Check out these incredible female photographers who are killing it with flash.