My jaw dropped as I listened to sports photographer Eileen Langsley tell me what it was like working in the male-dominated industry in the 1980s. Eileen is now in her seventies, has covered 13 Olympics and specialises in gymnastics. Things have improved in the industry, she tells me but, to be fair, it was a very low bar.
“One photographer that I respected previously, a lot, who worked for an agency who shall be nameless, came up to me at the end of one session (at an international competition),” Eileen tells me.
“He said, ‘We see you’ve got the pool pass, that’s great, would you like to do some work for us?’
And I said, ‘Well yeah, I’m free to do that as long as I supply the FIG (the gymnastics world governing body) with what they need I can work for other clients.'”
So he said, ‘That’s great, we’ll talk about money.’ I was thinking, ‘Great, I might actually cover my expenses.’
He went down this list and said, ‘Well, we need this and we need that and obviously we’ll need the gold medalists and la la la la la’, and then at the end he said, ‘Oh yes and we need bums, tits and crotches.’
And I said, ‘Pardon?’
And he said, ‘We’ve got an assignment for Japanese Playboy magazine and we’re doing the Olympics and we’re photographing women from the perspective of soft porn.’
I said, ‘Honestly, I think you’d better ask somebody else.’
They got really defensive with me and it was a case of you are less of a professional, a professional doesn’t make ethical judgments as to what a client wants.
I said, ‘Look, if that was your 14-year-old daughter on beam doing a straddle planche and somebody’s shooting it from the back, are you telling me that’s acceptable?’
And that did me absolutely no favours at all because from then on I was seen as an ultra feminist. Not a real sports photographer, somebody who’s got her own agenda.”
After a pause, I ask Eileen: ‘Please tell me it’s changed?’
“It has. It has, because people are frightened to death now of being labeled sexist or whatever.
“In the early days I went up to the national cross country in Newcastle and I wasn’t driving at the time and Gerry (Eileen’s husband) said, ‘I’ll drive you and carry your bags’.
“So in we go and there’s the finish pen and this jobsworth on the gate said to me, ‘You can’t come in here, this is for photographers,’ and then opened the gate and let Gerry through.
“That was actually the first time that Gerry understood what I was coming home saying.”