Discover how Mia Cioffi Henry, an American cinematographer overcame adversity to succeed in one of the world’s most competitive industries.
When The Golden Globes announced the 2021 nominees for Best Director, there are more women than men in the directing category for the first time in its history. In all its time (over 76 years’ worth), The Globes have only nominated female directors a total of seven times. While that’s a significant improvement from last year, the number of appointed female directors and screenwriters numbered zero in almost every other nomination—including best drama and comedy categories which still centered on men.
While there is some steady progress in the film and television production industry, women are still facing hurdles to career advancement regardless. Add to that the COVID-19 crisis and the barriers women face have only magnified. Working mothers have always worked a “double shift”: a full day of work followed by caring for their children and doing the bulk of household labour. Now, the support infrastructure that made this possible—including school and daycare—has been dismantled. One of the reasons why there are so few females in top positions in the film industry is because it’s too hard to do it with family. There are very few jobs that take you away travelling as much.
Mia Cioffi Henry understands this juggling act better than anyone. An American cinematographer who travels globally to shoot feature films, TV, commercials, and music videos, with premieres in major festivals like Sundance, SXSW and Berlinale, Cioffi Henry has learned that in order to adapt to the pace of her industry of choice, it begins with setting the intention first. “I am very considerate with the projects I choose because I’m a mother,” says Mia Cioffi Henry, an American cinematographer who travels globally to shoot feature films, TV, commercials, and music videos that have premiered in major film festivals like Sundance, SXSW, and Berlinale. “I have a young child, so I can’t just shoot anything I want and be away for as long as I want. I have to shoot things that speak to me because I’ll be away from my family. In all of history, I don’t know that cinematographers that are fathers always have the same consideration. It’s a uniquely working mother thing,” she says. Cioffi Henry speaks about the emotional labour of being a mother: Even two working adults working from home show that the mother is still bearing the majority of child-rearing. “I’m constantly laying it out: If I take this job, I’m going to be gone this long. Can I take my daughter with me? Can I afford a babysitter when I’m on set for twelve-plus hours a day?”
While it’s a steep mountain to climb, Cioffi Henry would have it no other way. Splitting her time between NYC and Italy, she has a unique body of work that includes critically acclaimed films and nominations; she is a recipient of the Nestor Almendros Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography, and her work has won Jury Awards at SXSW and Locarno film festivals. Cioffi is doing the work she loves, putting her creative energy out into the world, and she’s prepared for all of the demands that come with it. This includes being a mother and being a woman. “When I first started, it didn’t occur to me necessarily that women weren’t doing what I was doing, or that people of colour weren’t equally represented behind the camera,” she says. “It did start to sink in, however, when I started not getting jobs because I was a woman. People wouldn’t even meet with me, or I’d walk on set, and there was this automatic assumption that I was the talent, the makeup artist, or the caterer.” While Cioffi Henry admits that she didn’t set out to change anything or be a new version of anything—she was more interested in focusing on doing the work she is drawn to do—she discovered that how she was being treated was out of the norm for the business, and she didn’t like it. “At first, I was really comparing myself to lots of people—men, mostly—and thinking: Oh, nobody asked me to shoot that, so how do I position myself to be more like the men who were landing the jobs,” she says, “and then I realized ultimately that I’m not interested in telling the stories they were interested in telling. I allowed myself to grow into space where I actively sought out work that represented fresh voices and new perspectives.” Today, a decade into the film business, Cioffi Henry finds that she’s working primarily with women directors now. That’s because she’s most interested in finding people with whom she can collaborate and share the same enthusiasm for collaborating with her. “Not to be too general about it or suggest that male whiteness is a complete monolith, but we’ve watched films and told stories through the lens of white men for too long: through this one pair of eyes,” she says. “I love that when I look at my work, no matter what the subject is, I see myself so fully in it. I see my perspective in a way that speaks to me as a woman and as a creator, and that’s amazing.”
That’s not always been the case in the origin of her career, though. Despite women shooting films since, well, the beginning of filmmaking, they don’t get as much funding or nearly as many chances. Referencing a particularly scarring experience, Cioffi Henry recalls a time when still relatively new to the business; she worked as a camera assistant on her first feature film with a male colleague who treated her less than stellar on set. Given it was her first job, she felt she had no agency in alerting her superiors about the experience, fearful she would lose the job. While ultimately she found allies who supported her and her position, she still remembers finishing the gig and walking offset, when a male grip screamed at her as she was leaving: “Good luck ever working in this business again!” All because she had a voice, and she used it. “At the time, I remember thinking: My god, I just got the “I’ll never work in this town again” speech?! It was so cliché. It’s funny because I could easily walk on set now and be his boss,” she laughs.
While men can “fake it until they make it” she’s learned time and again that she can’t. She uses the example of a man and a woman hired to shoot the same $10-million-dollar movie. If that film doesn’t make the budget, the woman will likely get fired before the man would. “I doubt I’d get another chance the way another male colleague of mine might, or as easily,” she says. “There is less room for me to make those big leaps or risks in the same way.” Cioffi Henry asserts that the time is now—for studios and streaming platforms alike—to branch out further and say that they trust women with bigger budgets and that they will continue to grow in support of those decisions.
The great news is that this sea change is afoot. People are putting money into films written and directed by women; women can shoot films with female leads, and the economic incentive is gaining traction. More women have voices, and the economic impulses to support these voices are finally coming through. The revolution is happening. “That’s the most exciting thing to me because that means my job as a female filmmaker isn’t some flash-in-the-pan trend that will rise and fall, then disappear,” she says. “This is here to stay.” For Cioffi Henry, being a part of this new world means she’s going to lean into helping women land as many jobs in the world of film as she possibly can—right now and forever. The more work she gets, the more of a position she’ll be in to hire and bring other women along with her. “I will be putting women on my crews, and I will pass along any opportunities as I see them,” she says. “As this movement grows towards more female representation, and this becomes larger than just me and my work, I know I will be contributing to the overall success of all women. I will never forget this duty I have.”
We end the conversation on advice: For the hopeful women who are keen to break into the film industry or any creative industry for that matter. How can they crumble the walls and drive down the barriers to make a new road for themselves too? “My mother always used to tell me: “You’re the expert at you.” Be that. Be the expert at what you know and what you can do, and collaborate with the people and the work that will make you feel the most empowered when you can.” Cioffi Henry suggests leaving yourself open to let the right opportunity cross at the right time, which has been paramount to her satisfaction as a cinematographer. That starts with finding clarity on what you want and what you seek to accomplish. Pick up the jobs, and consider the situations and opportunities that align with who you are and your creative spirit. And if those aren’t showing up for you? Find the people who will bring those types of experiences closer to you. “Form communities and start to put things together in a way that you’re collaborating and pushing forward with your ideas. Leaning into the people who know better than you and let them give you the information to make your own informed decisions. You honestly never know what’s right around the corner–be open to that.”