Alana Paterson knows how isolating it can be to compete in an intensely male-dominated arena. She’s not only a photographer—a job disproportionately occupied by men—but also a skateboarder. Growing up in the late 1990s in British Columbia, she’d enter competitions with dozens of male contestants but just two or three other girls. The only other female skateboarders she saw in those pre-Instagram days were in magazines, “and they published maybe a handful of photos a year,” she says.
Now that Paterson’s behind the camera, she’s turning it on female athletes like herself. For her series Title IX, she documented junior and college hockey players from 14 teams across the US and Canada. It’s part of a larger body of work that gives visibility to women in sport.
“One of the biggest things researchers are finding that keeps girls engaged in sports is access to their heroes and mentors—even if it’s just seeing them,” Paterson says. “To see a banner or a poster or an ad featuring someone like you is monumental.”
Since President Nixon signed Title IX into law in 1972, US girls’ participation in high school sports has increased by more than 1,000 percent—from 294,000 in 1971 to 3.4 million in the 2017–2018 school year. Though not all will make it to the Women’s World Cup or Wimbledon, they still reap the host of physical, psychological, and socio-economic benefits that sports offer—like, say, getting to be CEO. But only if they stay in the game. By age 14, girls drop out of sports at a rate nearly twice that of boys, due to lack of access, social stigma, and other inequities.
The overt lack of media representation fuels the divide. While four out of 10 athletes are female, just 4 percent of sports-related media coverage is devoted to them. They get only 5 percent of Sports Illustrated covers and a paltry 2 percent of airtime on ESPN’s SportsCenter. And they’re often sexualized. It doesn’t help that women are vastly underrepresented among sports photographers. “Would there be better visibility for female athletes if there were more female sports photographers? Absolutely,” Paterson says
So, three years ago, Paterson took up the charge. She photographed Native American basketball and Tibetan soccer before turning to North American hockey—a sport that epitomizes the progress and challenges of female athletics at large.
Women’s hockey has grown dramatically over the past 30 years, from roughly 6,000 registered US players in 1990 to 82,808 in 2018. Today, girls no longer have to play on guy’s teams, but the game still offers little in the way of a viable professional future. Sure, the top players in the US and Canada now get paid to play, thanks to the establishment of the National Women’s Hockey League in 2015. But salaries peak at $26,000 (compared to nearly $16 million for male players). For this reason and others—including unequal publicity and youth team development—the US women’s national team threatened to boycott the Women’s World Championships in 2017, and ultimately won some concessions from the sport’s governing body, USA Hockey. But those didn’t go far enough. This year, 200 women’s hockey players have vowed not to play in any North American leagues until they receive health insurance and better pay.
They’re fighting for the future of the sport—including the young women in Title IX. Paterson shot the series during practices, games, and tournaments, carefully treading onto the ice as players whizzed by, braids flying and pearl studs gleaming in their ears. She captured them with a Nikon F100, using Kodak Portra film and the on-camera flash to emulate bright, poppy sports imagery from the 1980s and ’90s, when prospects for female athletes were even more grim.
It’s a nod to how far her subjects have come, and also to how much further they still have to go in a sport where not just the odds, but the photos, are stacked against them.
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