Updated: Mar 11, 2021
Happy International Women’s Day to all dreamers, doers, and trailblazing women in the creative space! You are needed and appreciated. Your work matters, and you make a difference. You are worthy of being seen, and your voice deserves to be heard. Your creative voice is a fundamental addition to the mix to be reflective of the plurality of groups that exist within our audiences. Keep striving and persevere! Today, we celebrate you, all that you do, and all that you are.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day, I dedicate this piece to all female creatives that challenge the status quo and keep pushing their creative vision forward. International Women’s Day is a global day for reflection that serves as a call to action to press on and shift paradigms of thought. It is our day to be front and centre, take time for ourselves, and celebrate our accomplishments.
There is no better place than being a woman than here in Kigali. The female parliamentary representation being at 64% — the highest in the world — is a true reflection of the gender norms being broken.
There is no better place than being a woman than here in Kigali. The female parliamentary representation being at 64% — the highest in the world — is a true reflection of the gender norms being broken. Government positions must be occupied at least 30 per cent by women. Beyond the numbers, women’s female presence in leadership roles and decision-making positions is genuinely palpable and has always been the norm since I moved here. The first 9-to-5 I held here was at Illume Creative Studio, founded by five creatives, of which three are women. In the three years that I have been self-employed, I was always recommended, referred and hired mainly by women. Back to employment, RDB’s communication division where I currently work is managed by a female, who herself reports to a female who reports to the CEO, who is, as you know, female also.
Nonetheless, photography (and camera work overall) is one of the areas that remain stubbornly male-dominated.
Women’s representation in the workforce has risen, flourished and became a standard that no one questions anymore. Nonetheless, photography (and camera work overall) is one of the areas that remain stubbornly male-dominated. Cameras used to be much heavier and larger, and hence that’s how the myth of men’s physical strength required for the role of camera operator was born. Though new technologies have continued to advance, creating smaller and lighter cameras, the perception persists that camerawork is simply not for us, women.
That’s why representation is everything.
It shapes how people think about the craft and who should embrace the role, which in turn shapes how they act with female creatives. It brings different perspectives to the table. It removes barriers, fosters a sense of belonging, and creates equal access and opportunity for all.
When I started, I’ve never realised how few female camera operators were out there. I bought my camera when making my first documentary KICKIN’ IT WITH THE KINKS, in the UK. And because the topic was about the relationship that Black women have with their hair, I was exclusively interviewing Black women and was attending events attended by Black women. From there, I started getting gigs that were cosmetic-related from Black women that I had met during those events. I also met photographers and, likewise, graphic designers and web developers. All Black. And all female. All were looking like me. I never felt out of place. I blindly never realised how much of a male environment this space was also in the UK.
When I moved to Rwanda, I didn’t have a clear idea of how I would make a living from the get-go. I knew the market was not as big as London’s to assist cosmetic businesses with their content and digital marketing. But leveraging my hard skills in photography and videography as a start seemed rational. The first event I covered was a performance by Cecile Kayirebwa at Serena Hotel. Out of 30 photographers and videographers, I was the only woman. It was the first time being the only female part of the press. Whether you are confident or not, it is intimidating at first because you see all the looks, and you are not sure if it is your head or not.
For the months that have followed, I have long asked myself, does it matter in the end? Should I care? Should I care even if I get jobs? Should I be bothered when I get questions like, “Is this your hobby?” while covering a conference with 30 other camera operators who obviously don’t get the same questions? Should I comment when clients walk up to the second photographer and shake their hands, thinking that they must be the one in charge as they are men? Should I respond when I get asked, “Do you know how to use it?” when I am seen with my camera, and I specifically said that I am Illume Creative Studio in-house videographer? Should I say anything when a guy I have barely started seeing says while carrying my tripod, “I wouldn’t be carrying all of this if you had chosen a normal job”?
You take it upon yourself because it seems too small at first to make a big fuss over it. You always question whether this is happening to you because of gender bias or if this would have happened to your male counterparts. You would be surprised how many times I replied, “Yes, it is because YOU ARE a girl,” when I confront some behaviours. At times, they get apologetic. At times I get tons of fauxpologies like ‘You have to understand us, though. It is hard for us to cooperate with a girl when we’ve never seen one in this field. It’s not our fault.’
The creative industry is way hard enough, without us continually fumbling with our egos though we walk around apologising, interjecting “I’m sorry” into all that we do and say, in an attempt to justify why or how we are doing things.
As women, we instinctively want to be liked, we want to please others, and we want to be agreeable. We don’t want to confront too much. We don’t want to ruffle feathers even when we get discounted. We want to be flexible and patient. We self-censor. We repress. We compromise. We alter ourselves to please others in hopes to make the relationship work. The creative industry is way hard enough, without us continually fumbling with our egos though we walk around apologising, interjecting “I’m sorry” into all that we do and say, in an attempt to justify why or how we are doing things. The more we do that, the more we face all the mansplaining and manterrupting. And it adds up quickly.
One day, I covered a wedding at the Marriott with four other videographers that I sub-contracted. I ended up with a bill of about RWF 100’000 from the restaurant area as they waited for me to get busy with the bride and the bridesmaids getting dressed, where they couldn’t access, to have brunch and leave it under my name.
The same wedding still, one of them told me just five minutes before the church ceremony was about to start that he didn’t have a camera (as a camera operator, mind you) though they each had received their deposit for the rental. When I tried to confront him, I quickly stopped because the groomsmen were about to walk the aisle, and I didn’t want them to see me losing control. So I held out my camera to him and stayed sideways the entire ceremony, lifting my head up for my tears to not spill over and ruin my mascara. By the end of the wedding, I realised that all of my batteries and memory cards got exchanged with cheaper brands (and less functional) when I got home. For all of that, I didn’t say anything because I was too scared to find myself in an argument with them and not having a crew for future projects.
The worst has definitely been an equipment rental owner with whom I thought I was going to collaborate. I offered to help manage his social media and build his website in exchange for using his equipment. He insisted on having meetings to discuss the terms of the collaboration. He would pick me up but would drag me to his errands.
He would say, “I have to buy tiles for my bathroom in Kimironko quickly”. But I wouldn’t say anything because he was my mother’s age, and hence I would silently be waiting in the car. Our meeting time would then pass, so he would prioritise a meeting that he has at first planned just after mine to keep on time. Then ours would take place after. So I would be at the same table listening to a conversation with which I had no business—or sitting at a table next to his catching up with some of my readings on Kindly in the meantime. To apologise, he would offer dinner, and I would get back home at 11, though our meeting had been planned at 5. He would ask, “Are your parents not worried that you get back home this late?”
I would candidly answer, “My parents don’t live in Rwanda. I’ve been living on my own for years now”. And he would smile sneakily.
The last meeting we had was during the daytime at Shokola Café. He complained that there was no alcohol. As always, he offered to drop me home. As I had been clear on the terms of the collaboration on that day, and it was still daytime, I was confident enough to go back home with him because I wouldn’t get questions about my parents allowing me being out at night.
As I tried to get into his big, tall car, my skirt slightly fluttered up to my knees. My skin was swollen as it sometimes does. He pretended to be worried about my allergies and skin condition, touched my knee all the way up. That latest few seconds. I didn’t say anything until I got home. As a matter of fact, I didn’t say anything to anybody for two weeks. I went back to his office because I still wanted to use his equipment, mostly since I had done my part of the deal.
He simply said no to my request. “How can I be sure that I can trust you with such equipment? They are quite expensive, you know?” I started citing all of the tasks I had done and what we had agreed upon at the last meeting. He raised his voice and firmly said, “No, you are not getting my equipment. These are only meant for professionals.”
A wave of deep-felt anger started to build up in me. Then it just came out of my mouth without me even realising it. “YOU’RE CRAZY!”
“Me? Njyewe? Ndi umusazi Njyewe?” He called upon his staff, saying, “Do you know what this girl has just called me? Elle m’a dit que j’étais un fou. Moi, dans mon bureau”.
It was too late to turn back the clock. So I just had to keep up with it in front of his staff. “Yes. I said it. You’re crazy. You’re crazy to think that it is okay to do what you did in the car”.
He tapped on the desk and said, ‘Toi vraiment! You are not afraid to break up marriages. I was just worried about your allergies”. I took my bag and left and jump to the first taxi-moto I saw. My tears were flowing this time around. I looked crazy with all this mascara all over my face.
I was unsure of sharing these stories, especially the last one, because I wondered if it would be misinterpreted. And that it would come across as if I am implying I am saying that all men have such behaviour. I’ve wondered whether I get comments like, “So basically, he just touched her leg? Is that all this is? Some women face way worse”, which is true. But the multilayeredness of this story still makes me undecided whether I was feeling embarrassed because I didn’t see it coming through the many red flags. Or whether I was infuriated because if I had not said anything, it could have gone further. Or whether I was outraged because I was still struggling to find clients that would trust me enough with their business to hire me. Or whether I was feeling humiliated because I had spent all of these weeks investing my time thinking that by being patient, this is how I will get gigs.
These experiences culminated in realising that there is no need for me to join the boy’s club after all. This realisation was such a turning point for me that I decided to create my own club, my own business and market my services as a solopreneur. Depending on the size of the project, I could subcontract crews. And being the one with contracts meant that I would be making decisions, getting the money and paying the crew myself. Today I know that I should instead go for creatives that share the same vision rather than nurturing an unhealthy relationship based on money. But that’s all I could find as a start. Gradually, I also started opting to work with younger creatives because I knew the age factor would help me to feel considered and respected. This way is also not how it should happen. I should be able to have a seat at the table because my work adds value. But that has definitely helped me learn how to voice my opinions and take the reins, whether I am the one with the contract or not, whether I am the oldest in the room or not, whether I am the only female or not.
As we recognise each other, empower each other and see the light in each other’s eyes, that sense of camaraderie is what will propel us people forward and ultimately make it normal, accepted and natural to get recommended, referred and hired.
Now that female creatives are today continually ushering into the creative space and shattering the glass ceiling more than ever before, I just hope the momentum continues so that we can lift each other up. As we recognise each other, empower each other and see the light in each other’s eyes, that sense of camaraderie is what will propel us people forward and ultimately make it normal, accepted and natural to get recommended, referred and hired. Because it is not just female creatives’ responsibility to be part of the change, but everyone’s to finally collectively create this inclusive culture and diversify the people who are telling stories.
Hence, we should all choose to challenge gender bias in the creative industry because we can.