Females of the Fringe
Amanda Aitken interviews photographer Jessica McDermott on her recent project, Females of the Fringe.
“You don’t have as much of a licence to fail as men. I got a gig pulled because they had a woman comedian the month before who no-one liked.” – Susan Calman
‘Females of the Fringe’ is the name of the book on female comedians you have been working on. What is the story behind this project?
It was a follow up to a group photograph of female comedians that I had taken in 2009. The event was organised by comedian Susan Calman, in response to lots of pieces in the media at the time, stating that there are only a handful of female comics and attributing this to their under-representation on television. The event had been very positive, my image was published in Time Out and it was covered by other journalists as well. However, as we know from the recent BBC announcement to scrap all-male panel shows and the following press coverage, the number of female comedians and their abilities has continued to be debated. So I decided that it would be good to go back to the Fringe, but this time to do a more extensive project talking to comedians individually. I wanted to depict the volume of talented female comedians but also highlight the vast differences between them.
Why did you feel it necessary to focus on female comedians and not everyone?
I wanted to cover this topic completely from the perspective of female comedians. Women in comedy is often a hot topic in the media, but questions about it are not always posed to female comics and when they are often they are generalised and ask the comedians to speak on behalf of their whole gender. For this project, I wanted to give female comedians a voice to talk about comedy and gender, but I particularly wanted to hear from their own specific viewpoint.
You mentioned in your indie go-go campaign that you interviewed everyone you photographed about various things including being a woman in comedy. Can you tell us any stories that particularly stood out for yourself?
I particularly enjoyed talking to Adrienne Truscott. She won the panel prize at the Fringe last year with her first ever stand up show, which attracted a lot of attention as she was performing naked from the waist down. I had never met Adrienne before, but she spoke very passionately and articulately about the motive behind her show and her performing background. Her show was a response to an influx of rape jokes made by male comedians that had arisen over the course of the year in the run up to the Fringe. And although this was her first attempt at stand up, she has been performing for many years in a double act with her sister, as the WauWau Sisters, who often play with nudity in their act and we discussed the impact this can have, especially in her Fringe show, of getting a message across.
I also asked the comedians about any particular gender-related incidents or heckles that they have experienced and I was genuinely shocked by some of them. Comedians have had threatening statements hurled at them like ‘I’m going to rape you’ and Gráinne Maguire had a man get his cock and balls out during her set and try to wrestle the microphone off her while she was onstage. However, there are upbeat stories as well and with some comics like Helen O’Brien the best bit is not necessarily the stories she tells, but the way she tells them. The book is a real mix.
Adrienne Truscott – Winner of Panel Prize at the Fringe Festival 2013.
You said this project is quite close to the heart for you. Why is this?
When I worked in a comedy club, which I did for over five years, I would find it really frustrating when I heard anyone claim that female comedians are not funny. Both men and women would make this blanket statement and if there was one female comic that they did find funny they wouldn’t change their opinion, they would just see them as the anomaly, the one exception to the rule. Often, the problem is that most audiences have not seen that many female comedians, so if they don’t like the few that they’ve seen they write them all off. With this project, I have purposefully selected a broad cross-section of comedians from the established to the up and coming, all with a variety of styles. I hope that by seeping into people’s consciousness about how they view comedy, this project might make a bit of a difference towards moving gender equality forward and if the book was to sway just one person who holds this view that women can’t be funny, then it will all be worth it.
You are currently raising money for the book to be printed. This method of crowd funding has become quite popular across the past few years especially amongst the creative industries. Why do you think this is this case?
Usual methods of funding involve long applications and a long wait. Plus often, you make yourself ineligible if you start the project before hearing the verdict and you have no way of knowing until you get your answer, whether your work can go ahead, by which point it may too late to go down other avenues. But with crowd funding not only can you set specific limits and keep a track of how you are doing, you can build an audience for your work too. I am paying for my initial print run by selling pre-sales and prints of the work, so everyone is getting something for their investment and they also get to be a part of helping the project to happen. I think that’s why it’s so popular, you feel much more in charge of your own destiny and if you’re not great at selling yourself on a form, you can use your creativity to try and gain interest and immediate funding for your work.
“I think there’s a lot of strong women come through at the moment, I think it’s a good time to be a female comic and women want to see other women onstage.” – Mary Bourke
Your project focuses on females in comedy, but what is it like to be a female photographer in the creative industry?
I would say the way I feel about being a female photographer is similar to the way a lot of the comedians I interviewed feel about being female comedians. On the whole, the experience seems exactly the same as being a male photographer, my gender doesn’t feel that relevant to my job, but at the same time I can recall experiences where I’ve experienced sexism when at work. And those experiences are not part of the everyday, but they stick out for you when they happen, the most common being the misconception that my work is some sort of hobby. But I like being a woman and I like being a photographer and I think that my approach and approachability is what makes a lot of my work possible.
I noticed you had another female orientated project called ‘Now That We’re Grown-Ups.’ Can you tell us a bit about this project?
Of course. My work is a mixture of documentary and constructed narrative. For ‘Now That We’re Grown-Ups’, each image in the series depicted a different issue affecting women in the 21st century and was set up using models. The work was constructed to give a cinematic aesthetic with the protagonist, at the centre, in a solitary spot clearly in thought. The issues ranged from alcoholism to teenage pregnancy. I wanted to hint at the conflict women can face when they feel judged by their flaws, a judgement that never seems to be as severe for men. However, I don’t really like to be didactic in my work, and so try to leave enough clues for the viewer, as with this project, to piece together and perhaps even expand on the story in the image for themselves.
What does the rest of the year look like for yourself?
I am currently working on a new project called ‘Show and Tell’, I have shown the first few images on my blog already. This project is just like the primary school activity, only I ask adults to be photographed with an object that is important to them and has an interesting story behind it. The story is then printed, in their words, alongside the image. I am also finishing a commission that I have been doing for Scottish Opera for the last year, the work for this will be on display at the new Theatre Royal building in Glasgow later this year. And I have another couple of projects in the pipeline, one which involves working with people with dementia. So I will be meeting lots of people with lots of different stories, my favourite thing of all.
To find out more about Jessica McDermott and her project. head to her website.