New York City photographer Rachel Cabitt’s portraits highlight inequity in the music industry, and the potential for change.
In 2019, responding to a rise in public reports of misogyny and gender discrimination in the music industry, photographer Rachel Cabitt began Positions of Power, an ongoing series of portraits of people of marginalized genders in leadership roles in New York City’s music scene. From owners to managers, directors, and bookers, Cabitt’s portraits focus on their presence – and often vulnerability. Positions of Power is in an attempt to show their power despite their limited numbers.
Cabitt photographs with a large-format camera, often from a distance, with a spotlight and soft focus to highlight the tension between power and isolation. Her portraits illuminate those who are statistically at the highest risk to experience assault and toxic behavior within venues but have the power to stop it. Ultimately, she poses the question: “could strength in numbers do more to create change?”
We speak with Cabitt to learn more about the series and its evolution through the pandemic.
The Luupe: How did this project start?
Rachel Cabitt: I began shooting this project back in the Fall of 2019. The impetus came after Brooklyn venue Elsewhere came under fire when it was revealed that one of its former investors had a history of sexual assault in the Spring of 2019. Elsewhere was founded by three male-identifying figures and the community outcry made me wonder how the situation might have been handled differently if the owners were of genders that have experienced toxic behavior, misogyny, and assault within the music scene.
The Luupe: Having started this series just before quarantine, how did your experience and process making this work shift?
Cabitt: The music community was heavily impacted by COVID-19. I had photographed 8 portraits before quarantine began in March of 2020. One of my last outings was actually photographing Christiana at Our Wicked Lady. I remember taking a car to and from, knowing that was my last shoot for a long time.
I began photographing the series again in September of 2020 when the COVID rates in New York were still low. This time around, I was photographing in empty, ghost-like venues. Taking portraits in these environments only further emphasized the importance of the subjects standing before me.
With the number of employees of marginalized genders in leadership roles already so low, and COVID forcing venues to lay off and furlough the majority of their workers, I’m concerned that these employees will be few and far between.
The Luupe: What’s the story behind the title “Positions of Power.”
Cabitt: Throughout time, those in power have historically been male-identifying. With the rise of the #MeToo movement, our culture has shifted its focus on balances of power within our society. I wanted to take the phrase, “Positions of Power” and give it to those who statistically aren’t associated with authority and leadership.
The Luupe: How do you see the people in your photographs shifting the problematic power dynamics in music culture (and beyond)?
Cabitt: Just their presence alone is shifting the power dynamics in music culture. Whether it’s a musician walking in for soundcheck, a fan arriving at doors open, or a concert-goer trying to escape an unpleasant situation; having someone who can empathize is powerful in a special way.
Having a talent buyer seeking out diverse lineups so the show doesn’t attract the same demographic creates a more inclusive environment and also gives artists of all backgrounds a chance to have their music heard. Having a security guard that isn’t your stereotypical muscle male figure shifts gender discourse. Having a bar manager who can understand when a customer is receiving unwanted advances creates a safer space.
The Luupe: Who was the first person you photographed for this series? Did you know from the start you wanted this to be a project?
Cabitt: The first person I photographed was Meghan, the Production Coordinator at House of Yes in November of 2019. Going into the photo session, I already knew I wanted it to be a series. I’d been to House of Yes several times before, which helped in knowing where I wanted to photograph, but the next step was figuring out the style that would be threaded throughout.
The Luupe: Many of these photographs show the vastness of space. They feel isolating and amplify that sense of marginalization.
Cabitt: I’m really happy you mentioned this! I’m shooting this whole series on large format film with the intention to be able to print these portraits really big. The size accentuates the vastness of space and sense of marginalization you mention. It’s a bit of a Catch 22. At every venue I go to, my goal is to showcase each of these individual’s power within these grand spaces, but at the same time, the emptiness surrounding them also asks if strength in numbers could do more to create change.
The Luupe: Building on that, your use of the spotlight draws attention to them, feels amplifying, empowering…
Cabitt: Yes! For each shoot, I bring my LED Fresnel to literally turn the spotlight on those who are statistically most at risk to experience assault, toxic behavior, and misogyny within venues, but have the power to stop it. While the lighting is literal in its meaning and function, it’s also a motif of the stage setting and blends in seamlessly while still highlighting the subjects.
The Luupe: What’s the response to this work been so far? What do you hope to communicate to the larger music community and the world beyond it?
Cabitt: The response has been really positive and supportive, which I’m so grateful for. By the end of every session, I’m always referred to another employee at another venue in the city.
To both the NYC music scene and the music community as a whole, I hope that these images help those in power at venues, big and small, realize how important is to be hiring employees of marginalized genders into leadership roles.
Musicians and fans are of all backgrounds and gender identities, so why isn’t that also reflected in the venues they go to? In order to truly create an inclusive and safe community, everyone needs to have a seat at the table.
The Luupe: If you’re comfortable responding, where are you, personally in all of this?
Cabitt: I became involved in the NYC music scene my junior year in college in 2015, photographing shows and contributing to online culture publication, POND Magazine. As I became familiar with the music scene, enjoying the perks of being on the list and getting backstage, I also learned the lessons of being “a woman in music”, experiencing the subtle misogyny of being dubbed a “groupie” and witnessing the blatant toxic behavior at after-parties. But in the six years since, music has become my career, if not my life.
In 2019 when the controversy surrounding Elsewhere came to a pinnacle, I lived four blocks away from the venue, knew one of the venue owners, and had been a friend of the accused investor. I was too involved not to try and change something. I soon joined a coalition of allies whose mission was to hold the venue accountable. After a summer of boycotting, we sat down with the owners of Elsewhere and had a series of conversations. After much back and forth the process unfortunately stalled in disagreement between multiple parties and never came to a resolution.
I wish the outcome had been made public to the community. I felt it offered an antidote to cancel culture, another plague that is deafening the music scene. So, this series is my way of continuing the conversation and hopefully creating a better environment for my fellow women, non-binary and queer friends in music. How do we hold venues accountable? How do we truly make them safe spaces? How do we stop perpetuating a toxic environment?
The Luupe: Does NYC opening up from quarantine (and the widespread racial justice reckonings of 2020) give you hope to more open possibilities of power and representation for LGBTQ+ individuals in the music scene?
Cabitt: I hope these reckonings continue even as life goes on and gets busy again. The majority of the employees I’ve photographed so far have been female-identifying, which is great, but I also would love to see more employees of all gender identities in leadership positions.
The LGBTQ+ community is filled with some of the most talented musicians who have paved the way for cisgender artists. Their culture is too often profited off by venues with all cis-male leadership.
In order to be a fully inclusive community, it’s imperative that the LGBTQ+ community is seen not just on the stage and the dance floor, but in leadership positions making executive decisions on how to keep our audience safe.