What it’s like to be a female photographer in a male-dominated industry

Wedding photographer Jaja Samaniego shares how she has managed to survive and thrive in an industry dominated by men

By Jaja Samaniego

I grew up in the province and it has always been my goal to move to Manila to reach my dreams. My friends know how much of a highly competitive person I am: I live for challenges, always pushing myself to the limits. I love photography and I knew this the moment I laid my hands on a 35mm film camera. It wasn’t easy nor too difficult to do. It was the perfect industry to be in—highly competitive and dominated by men.

In action, Jaja and her team doing what they love (Courtesy of Jaja Samaniego)

I never saw my gender as a hindrance to be good at something. My story started out 12 years ago, when it was an arms race of who had the best gear, the golden era of digital photography when everyone was just flaunting their latest camera and telephoto lenses. The chunkier, the better. Obviously, I didn’t have the means for fancy equipment because I was a broke-ass kid, straight-out-of-college photographer. I felt like a newbie standing behind the lines, lurking in camera groups and watching from the sidelines. I am still like that up to now.

Since the beginning, I knew that the camera/gear is just a tool. I focused more on developing my skills and improving my style as a photographer. I started at the ripe age of 19 and I was the youngest in the team at that time. I knew I had to pretend to be more mature and strong so people would believe in me. When you’re a photographer, you’re the leader of the shoot so it’s essential that you have a commanding presence or the client won’t listen to you.

Thankfully, I was blessed to have found a mentor who didn’t just teach me the foundations of photography but also empowered me to reach my dreams. I felt safe under his wing. He was really protective of me, making sure no man would take advantage of me. It was not the same case for most other female photographers, as we know now. We’ve read so many stories about female creatives speaking out about harassment by their seniors and colleagues.

I encountered double standards along the way. I am competitive in nature, so these double standards set by those at the top fueled me to be better in this field. I had to prove them all wrong. Easily judged at first, I have been labeled up to this day by some as masungit, suplada, and mataray. There have been a lot of instances before where I got “mansplained” because of my unconventional photography techniques. This is what happens when a woman is trying to assert herself so she can do her job. I have been shooting for a long time and I have learned to brush these inconveniences off. Doesn’t mean that I dismiss these challenges and see them as irrelevant because this is evident in all industries where women are on the top of their game. For as long as there’s imbalance and indifference, this needs to be addressed.

A sample of Jaja’s work as a wedding photographer (Courtesy of Jaja Samaniego)

I’m grateful for the wedding industry and to my first clients who believed in my work and saw the “eye” that was missing for so long. “Iba ang mata ng babae,” “may nakikita kang hindi ko makita,” “ang lambot at ang bango ng gawa mo,” “ramdam na ramdam ko mga kuha mo, tumatagos”—compliments that I think I would never have gotten if I were a man. The sensibilities of being a woman was what led me to achieve a body of work that is unique and heartfelt. That is why from the very start, I never felt myself at a disadvantage.

Despite the fact that I was so out of touch with the camera clubs, lo and behold, I got invited to speak and inspire young photographers in prestigious conventions such as the Photoworld Asia 2019, WPPP (Wedding and Portrait Photographers of the Philippines (WPPP) 2018 and 2019, and I got to work with two reputable camera brands—Nikon Asia to launch its latest high-end professional mirrorless camera and, most recently, Fujifilm to use its newest pro lens and lifestyle camera.

I know my story is like a fairytale. The circumstances are not the same as my other fellow female photographers. Up to this day, our industry is largely dominated by male photographers. I’ve been seeing, however, more women finding their footing in the competitive space of photography. Exciting times are ahead.

Ironically, my team is mostly made up of men and is managed by myself together with two other female seniors.

Check out Jaja’s works: IG - @jajasamaniego