Rachel Morrison

5 minute read

‘If we can break down this stronghold, then we can break down another.’

My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was four. And she was re-diagnosed when I was seven or eight, and again when I was 13, and my dad was very unhealthy, too. I was living on the edge of mortality my entire childhood. Photography was a way for me to freeze time and to capture the moments that were happy and healthy. I saw a photo as a way to go back to a memory, if I ever needed to. My mom died when I was 15. My father has passed away, too, now, and I’m an only child, so my photo albums are my prized possessions. And yet, they are really hard to open.

In my work as a cinematographer, I’m sort of trying to do what I did as a child: I want to bring an authenticity to every narrative project and channel the experience of loss and love and birth and death, and all of these amazingly potent things, in a way that will translate to an audience.

I’ve never understood why there are so few female directors of photography. The job speaks to everything we do well: multitasking, empathy, emotion. Cinematography is so much about instinct and intuition — you want the same range of experience going into behind the camera as what you see in front of it. Your life experience will come through the lens. I always wanted to be a mother, and it has added so much to my work. Of course men get to be artistic geniuses at 25 and women don’t get taken seriously until they’re 30 — right when you have to start thinking about children — so it was a choice I made carefully. But if you can multitask with a three-year-old, you can handle grips, electrics, producers, directors, everybody throwing things at you at the same time.

The first female DPs that I was aware of were Ellen Kuras, Mandy Walker, Nancy Schreiber, Amy Vincent, Sandi Sissel, Maryse Alberti and Tami Reiker. You look for a role model as somebody who looks like yourself and is doing what you want to do; they were the handful. I thought there’d be so many more on the way up, but there was this dearth.

Men tend to be given the benefit of the doubt. Women usually have to prove ourselves time and time again. We have to shoot five $1 million movies before we get one $2 million movie, and five $2 million movies before we get a $10 million movie. There’s this need to reassert that: Yes, I can do this. Yes, I have the technical skills. Yes, I’m confident enough. Yes, I can run a crew. Guys can stumble into the room and be handed the keys to the castle. Until that perception is changed — until we’re all perceived to be as inherently competent as one another — that will always slow the progress down.

But it’s improving. The change is palpable, starting in the last few years. I see women hiring other women in the camera department, and more men hiring women. People are starting to take more quote-unquote “chances” on women in bigger budget positions.

Ryan Coogler went to bat for me when he brought me on for Black Panther – the first Marvel film with a woman as DP. Being the first in anything comes with a responsibility and a little bit of added pressure, because you don’t want to screw it up. You want to set the bar high so that the floodgates open. For me it took 11 independent films before I got my first studio film, but now I see my mentees getting a studio call after two or three indies, which is what my male counterparts always experienced. If it now takes women three years to get where it took me 10 or 12 or 15, that’s a sign of a huge shift. Hopefully it’s just a matter of time before we can just be DPs and not “female DPs.”

When I learned I’d become the first woman nominated for a cinematography Oscar, on the one hand I felt like it was about frigging time, and it’s unfortunate that Kuras and Walker and Schreiber and the women who have been trailblazing for decades didn’t get this opportunity. But on the other hand, I think it’s better late than never. We’ve gained this realization that there are still these strongholds — and if we can break down this stronghold, then we can break down another. The visibility will hopefully burst the doors open, and as soon as we represent more than 5% of DPs, as soon as we’ve reached 50%, you’ll see women getting 50% of the nominations. For me, the nomination is the win, because it was determined by other cinematographers, and I truly believe it was based on the work, not on my gender.

I don’t think my son fully understands. I think he’s like, why is Mama getting dressed up all the time, and, why is Mama going to all of these things at night? Unless I told him I was getting an award in Skittles and Starbursts, the magnitude would be lost on him. But I know he’ll understand one day, and I hope that this teaches him — and all kids — that anything is possible.

Before Black Panther (2018) and Mudbound (2017), Morrison shot features including Dope (2015), Cake (2014) and Fruitvale Station (2013).

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.