I once interviewed Amanda Rankin, the female member of an Adventure Racing team and United States Army Captain. I asked her “what’s it like to be the only female in an all male team?”
She replied “I have never understood this question. I’ve been a woman my whole life. I’m not sure how it is to be any other way, don’t know any different.”
Editors Note: We asked Viv about what it’s like to be a woman on an all male crew traveling the world to make outdoor adventure films. She put together a fabulous response with the help of her coworker, Erik.
The latin engraving on Viv’s machete reads, “She flies with her own wings”. This should tell you all you need to know about this unassuming woman, Vivienne Smith. However, I am compelled to tell you more. At 21, while on location, she walked deep into the New Zealand bush, alone, to find me at my camera position, where I met her for the first time. But it was in India where she took hold of a crew of ten men and co-produced the filming of the Highest Altitude Marathon with me. Viv hurled herself into the production. The challenges of a foreign language, an environment that is unforgiving and a male dominated society did not give her pause. Likely because at the young age of 25, she is more accomplished than most will be able to say about their lives.
A trained musician, academic, and graduate of the University of New South Wales College of Fine Arts, Vivienne found herself stepping away from creating award winning fashion films, and into the most remote regions of the planet for a global television show, placing her in the middle of the male dominated outdoor film industry. Among an improbable cast of characters, she quickly ascended to Senior Editor and Field Producer, working across Costa Rica, hand fighting a baboon in Africa, filming from a helicopter in Switzerland and hanging from the horn of a yak near Everest Base Camp.
Confident and inspired at age 24, she packed up her bags, left her home of Sydney, Australia and placed herself on a glacier as an Executive Producer for the Expedition Alaska Feature Documentary. She began spearheading her own production company, 1iOpen Productions, while flying back and forth from New York mentoring film students of the University of Cincinnati Media Masters class. Fearless in her ambition, she launched her company into the disputed Jammu & Kashmir region of Northern India to accomplish the first ever non-military drone camera flight in the region. An award winning filmmaker, for her film “The Traveler”, she coincidentally was not able to accept the award because she was filming at 18,000 ft in the Himalayas. Vivienne is a talented editor, exceptional camera operator and an Executive Producer leading her way into the film industry and mentoring other young women along the way.
Viv has earned the credentials to share with you, truly, what it’s like to hold your ground in environments that don’t care what your gender is, in a crew that doesn’t either. This is what she will tell you…
Sure it’s difficult being among an all male crew, however being a woman seems to be the concern of others. Ideally, I shouldn’t have to write about being a woman, and interacting with men should be no issue, however it unfortunately presents its challenges.
It’s certainly hard to look like a stereotypical woman – at least one that our society has defined. The natural environment I work in demands clothes that will keep me alive. This means no high heels or mini skirts, instead down jackets that insulate against the -20 degree air at Everest Base Camp, or long sleeve lightweight shirts that block the sun and mosquitos of the Serengeti. Despite clearly being in these environments and evidently working, I am often one step outside of the film crew as a woman.
Then there’s biology. I act and look like a woman, even though I am covered in mud with a machete in hand. You can’t hide the ponytail very well, your breasts, or that you would like privacy for a few things that only women have to endure. The assumption that you’re a woman in a “man’s job” is that you can’t just be a woman – there must be something different about you. Many people assume I am gay. Do not misconstrue this as a lack of respect for my gay and lesbian friends, but the assumption that you must be gay because you are taking on masculine work rolls or dress for the job, is frustrating and disrespectful to both straight and gay people. If I can’t politely explain this, I tend not to acknowledge the question. I don’t ask if they are straight. Don’t let your sexual preferences become a topic. Make them keep it professional. You’re a strong woman with a hunger for adventure and this means you still like wearing high heels…when it’s appropriate of course.
learned very quickly how to negotiate my way in crews where it’s impossible for there to be any empathy. However not all men are your enemies. One male colleague has since become one of my closest friends and now partners in our production company. I enjoy the friendship of men and having one close helps you better understand them. Plenty of men will try to befriend you, but seek out those who expect you to to keep up physically and mentally. If you work with these types of men the others will respect you, because it forces them to see you as a person. Erik, my production partner, expects everything I expect from myself. In Belize we had treked 51km through the dense jungle to a recently discovered natural stone arch, deep in a militarily regulated zone along the Guatemalan border. Apparently the BDF (Belize Defense Force) had lost track of our timing to get out of the region and had sent a “rescue mission”. We didn’t need rescuing, however we let them escort us out of the region. Upon returning to the FOB (Forward Operating Base), the commander addressed Erik, “My men said the woman is a fast walker. She is a strong woman.” The BDF couldn’t keep up with the pace Erik and I expected of ourselves, he expected of me.
You must be good at what you do, physically and mentally. When I was working in Northern India, I was fighting an uphill battle, not only was my crew all male but I was in a society that quite simply didn’t respect women as capable of leadership… or even ordering my own drinks at a bar. (Waiters frequently referred to Erik for my order). However, I am good at what I do. I take pride in my work, I am professional and I am confident in my delivery. All of this translates and without any issues I was able to command my Indian cameramen with great success.
Part of demonstrating your abilities, like every person, is knowing your limitations. You are likely not as strong or as big. My size can be a drawback when you have to carry a 40 lb pack and your camera at 18,000ft in the Himalayas. If you are struggling, let someone know. There are plenty of small men who have the same problem. I once asked Erik, after he had carried my camera to lighten my load, “What use would I be in a survival situation as I can’t carry your pack let alone you?” He explained that there are many other necessary qualities than just lifting heavy things, for example: a good sense of humor and an ability to stay calm and think rationally when things go wrong. They’re paramount to a successful exit of a dangerous situation. So you might not be physically strong but look for the other ways you can lend a hand and make yourself valuable.
Sadly, I can’t write to this topic without mentioning sexual harassment, something most women at some stage in their life will likely experience to some degree. From my personal experience, my advice for this starts with being aware of the possibility so you don’t go into shock or denial when it first happens. Have someone you can talk about this to and listen to their advice – chances are if it’s work related, you’ll be too scared to do anything for fear of losing your job, an outsider will offer you the wisdom you need to hear to avoid falling down this rabbit hole and remember that in most companies it’s unacceptable so report it. On a side note, men often interact with women awkwardly and sometimes their words or actions may come across as inappropriate yet harmless, so be careful of jumping the gun – again having someone outside the situation to talk to will help with this.
When I pick up my camera and film in some of the most beautiful parts of our planet, I am not thinking about my sex. I am focusing on nothing but making this the best shot. My job, and yours, has a greater purpose, and that I can do it alongside strong, creative and caring men, is proof that your gender is not a hinderance.
– Viv Smith, 1iOpen Productions