Ever walked into a meeting and realised you’re the only woman there? For Agatha A Nitecka, a photographer who co-founded RAN studio, it’s something she’s encountered all too often in her career. She works as a stills photographer on lm sets yet she finds that people still ask for ‘the stills guy’.
Agatha was given a big break in her career by Wuthering Heights director Andrea Arnold, who saw her potential, and she strongly believes in supporting other upcoming female photographers: “Share your contacts, encourage other women, support businesses that are female-led, and then if you see potential in someone give them a chance.”
Photographer and filmmaker Holly-Marie Cato, who has worked with the likes of Nike, says that women need to know their worth and have confidence in their skills. “When I first started, I didn’t even call myself a photographer and my friends had to knock it into me and say: ‘No, you’re a photographer!’” she recalls.
This year, The Photography Show (Birmingham NEC, 16-19 March) aims to support women through their brilliant Women Who Photo campaign – which includes an exhibition and inspiring talks by female photographers including Agatha and Holly-Marie.
What inspired you to take up photography?
I was studying architecture in Leicester and we had to go and buy a camera so we could photograph sites where we intended to design buildings. Back home in London that summer, my mum asked me to go and take some behind-the-scenes photos of a theatre production that was going on. I really didn’t want to do it, but I did.
The theatre was in Tottenham and while I was there, there was a protest going on outside. I was the only one with a camera and people were like, come and take pictures, this is important. I really didn’t know what was happening but I watched as the protest grew and grew.
It shut down the whole of Tottenham High Road and I thought ‘This is a really big situation’. It wasn’t until night time that I learnt it had evolved into the Tottenham riots. That was my first experience doing anything involving documentary photography.
I was the only person in the area with a camera before the riots happened, so the BBC, The Guardian and news groups across Europe ended up using my images and film footage just because no one else had it, they had pictures of the riots but they didn’t know how the situation had progressed from a peaceful protest.
That was the turning point for me. I always said I liked photography, I didn’t know if I was any good at it, but a lightbulb came on and I thought this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.
What were your next steps into the industry?
I was always taking pictures for myself then, after I finished my degree, I ended up in New York for a month visiting friends. I was introduced to an amazing group of other amateur and hobbyist photographers who were all really passionate about it and being with them was a big confidence boost.
Social media was a massive catalyst, I started sharing pictures online and people got interested in my work and pretty early on I was being booked for jobs and campaigns.
Nike was one of the first companies to want to work with me. The work was amazing and even before Nike, I always loved street photography, the rush of just going out and taking pictures of London or wherever I was, and that still is my biggest driving force.
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Do you enjoy people-watching?
Yes, and just going to places like local markets, where people are in their element, selling stuff. You get a lot of human interaction and it’s often the same people that have been there for thirty-odd years and all the history that goes with that.
I really love observing, asking questions and taking pictures. I think the human interaction is the best thing.
Is photography quite a male-dominated industry?
Yes, and a lot of my friends in the industry are also guys. It’s incredibly male-dominated. I go to creative meetings and I’m often the only woman in the group. And it’s not just male-dominated, my heritage is Caribbean and the industry is still mainly white.
There’s times when I’m on a campaign, and I’m the face of diversity but actually I’m the front cover because if you look at the whole set, the production team and everything, it doesn’t represent diversity. On the flip side social media is changing that because it empowers people to have their own voices. I’ve definitely seen a massive change with who is making the noise, you don’t need a publication to get your work out there. Female photographers can drive traffic to their own pages. So there’s a shift in power and relevancy.
Of all the work you’ve done, what are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of projects where I get to involve young people. When you get to bring them into the industry and make sure that they get paid for their work, that inspires me. I like sticking cameras in the hands of people, especially when I travel.
I travel in a lot of developing countries and, from those countries, you see countless images of nameless people who’ve have their portraits taken by photographers, but by putting cameras in their hands, they have their own agency to tell their own story – the power dynamic is shifted. These are the jobs I’m most proud of.
What challenges have you faced in your career?
I face challenges every day in this industry but I’m just so used to that, it comes with the territory. It is an old boy’s network. You’re forever dealing with micro-aggressions and always having to prove your worth.
If I feel I’m not being respected in the same way as my male counterpart, I’ve turned jobs down. I’ve been to jobs and I’m holding the camera and they’re saying, ‘When is the photographer coming?’. It’s the little things but every day you have to stand your ground and say, ‘this is my worth’.
What advice would you give to other women who are hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Pick up a camera and take pictures every day. I was always told don’t chase money because you’ll be chasing it for the rest of your life. Just invest in your craft and your skill, and your skill will make room for you. And when money is on the table, know your worth.
You don’t have to seek approval or ask for permission, it’s already given, you have all the permission you need. You just have to have self-belief and that will take you far.
What made you get involved in the Women Who Photo campaign?
They came to me and expressed what they were doing with the campaign and it mirrored so much of what I look for in my life and my career. And now we’re talking about women’s rights more and on a larger scale, it’s highlighting a raw and present issue. I thought it was a great project to be involved in.
Holly will be speaking at The Photography Show and co-located The Video Show (16-19 March, NEC) on 19 March about ‘Falling into Filmmaking’ at the In Motion theatre
She is also involved with the show’s Women Who Photo campaign.
Agatha A. Nitecka
When did you first become interested in photography?
When I was 17 my uncle gave me his old camera to me. It was an analogue camera, a Praktica, and that is when I started taking pictures.
What made you decide to make photography your career?
I went on to study Sculpture, that was my BA. Then I did a Master of Science in Psychoanalysis. Afterwards, I went to Central Saint Martins to study Photography.
On the sculpture course I was interested in how the light would sculpture the place and I think that’s when I chose photography over sculpture. The reason I did a Masters is because, from an academic perspective, I wanted to do something a bit more challenging intellectually.
What were your first steps into the industry?
I was one of the founding editors of Oh Comely magazine – I was a fashion editor. The idea was to take fashion pictures that didn’t shame the body, they were all about natural beauty. I was also taking pictures of people we featured in the magazine and that’s how I met film director Andrea Arnold – and she changed my career entirely.
Andrea was looking for a stills photographer to work on her film Wuthering Heights and she liked my work. I actually didn’t know that a role of a stills photographer even existed.
I was taking moody black and white landscapes which she really liked; she was very clear that she didn’t want the usual stills photographer just clicking away, she wanted something quite artistic.
She liked that I work on 35mm film, which gives a moody arty texture. It’s quite extraordinary how one person can have an impact of your life and can open up something in front of you that you didn’t even know existed.
So, it’s important for women to give opportunities to other women?
100%. Sharing your contacts, encouraging other women, supporting other businesses that are female-led and then if you see potential in someone, definitely give them a chance.
I’m not talking about excluding men from this conversation, not giving them any chances, but I am saying that if you have an opportunity to give someone a hand, especially if it’s a woman, let’s try and help each other because there’s still a long way to go in the photography industry.
Have you supported or mentored anyone yourself?
Two years ago, I did a course at the AllBright Academy and now I’m a volunteer ambassador of the AllBright Club. I believe in women being together and helping one another so, as ambassador, I organise meet-ups for women who have graduated from the Academy.
Before the Academy, I had never been in a room full of women talking about money, business and their careers, usually the rooms were full of men.
There’s a lot of power in being together and there’s a lot that can happen quietly within someone when they find themselves in an environment like this. Being part of the Academy gave me the confidence to start my own business.
What made you get involved with the Women Who Photo campaign?
Women should be able to talk about our careers openly and inspire other women. Any campaign that is promoting and supporting women – but not excluding men – that’s always a cause I will support.
We know there are a lot of men in photography and I think it would be fantastic for them to open up a little bit and listen to us and see that we are extremely successful as well, and that we are fun to work with.
What has been your experience of working in a male-dominated industry?
I think the language we use is important. Very often I hear someone say, ‘Oh, let’s get the stills guy.’ There’s this assumption that I would be a man. And this is where it begins – when people keep saying the same thing over and over again and make an assumption that this role is predominantly for guys or that a guy should be doing it.
Saying that, I’ve personally never had any comments that I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. Film sets are very male-dominated. But I see being on set as an opportunity to show that I can do this, as a woman.
There’s quite a lot of respect for me on set; one reason is because I shoot on 35mm film, which means I have to really know what I’m doing, and the crew appreciates this. Being a specialist in what you do is always helpful.
Any advice to women hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Firstly, I would say it’s important to have a network of people that supports you. If you want to grow your network, help others. Don’t just ask for help, offer help wherever you can. Secondly, be clear about what it is that you do, manage expectations.
Make sure that you know in yourself how you want to specialise or what it is that you have to offer. Thirdly, negotiate your own deals because it will empower you. Always ask for more money. Don’t hide behind agents, if you think that to be successful you need an agent, well I would argue otherwise.
You are the person who can negotiate a better deal for yourself, whereas an agent has to keep everyone happy.
Which work projects are most proud of?
I’m proud that I’ve managed to negotiate my own way of working, I’ve always been able to do the stills in the way I’ve wanted to. There were times when it was very difficult to negotiate, there were times when I didn’t get the job because of the way I wanted to work but I’m really happy that I stuck with it, and managed to work in the way I believe is best.
Agatha will be speaking at The Photography Show and co-located The Video Show (16-19 March, NEC) on 18 March on ‘Social’s not secondary’ at the Social Stage.
She is also involved with the show’s Women Who Photo campaign.