Labels, Finger Pointing, Fear, and the Real Value of Photography

I read an interesting blog post “On Real Photographers” by David duChemin recently. He talks about growing weary of the photographers’ complaints that “now everyone has a camera and suddenly everyone’s a photographer”.

My first experiences of being part of a group of my peers did not go well. My memories of being in school are mostly filled with my efforts to fit in, and the efforts of others to keep me out. The new kid. The smaller kid. The kid with the funny name. So I come honestly by my desire to see others included.

 So when I hear people complain that “now everyone has a camera and suddenly everyone’s a photographer” I hear the same old, fear-driven, mean-spirited, zeitgeist of the schoolyard.

 The same craft, beautiful for it’s democratic nature, that admitted you, and admitted me, will admit others. And with the same tools we picked up with such wonder, those others will make photographs. That’s what cameras do. And it’s what people who own them do. And they will, in that moment, become photographers: makers of photographs.

They are not faux-tographers. They are not necessarily “just camera-owners”. Neither are they DSLR-monkeys, or whatever other pejorative seems clever at the time. Shame on you. Shame on us as an industry.”

Gail shooting feature doc "Opening Our Eyes" at the Kopila Valley Primary School, Surkhet, Nepal
Gail shooting her feature documentary “Opening Our Eyes” at the Kopila Valley Primary School, Surkhet, Nepal

It hit home. As the perennial “new kid” (moving 11 times before I graduated from high school), being one of only six women when I attended Brooks Institute and now being dismissed or frequently feeling invisible because of my age, I’ve personally faced a lifetime of the “same old, fear-driven, mean-spirited, zeitgeist of the schoolyard.”

I despise our seemingly human need for “definitions and categories” and placing people into boxes defined by gender, age, race or religion. So I question why do we determine the creative value of photographers based on whether they are “professionals” or “amateurs” or if photography is their sole means of making a living? It’s exclusionary and judgmental based on fear and the notion that someone has to be excluded for the rest of us to win. This attitude has no business in a creative business because creativity has no boundaries dictated by “who’s in” or “who’s not”.

I have always been more interested in the power of what a good photograph or film can do – not who created it and what box that creator fits into. I’m interested in the story one has to tell. We are visual communicators and we are all unique but only if we listen to our own voice and create from that voice. Whenever I have trusted and listened to my internal voice and created from my own unique perspective and my life’s experiences, I have been “on purpose” and my work has resonated across genders, race and age. I suppose I could copy or mimic the “style du jour” whether it is HDR or photographing hipsters with tattoos and attempt to be someone I’m not. I don’t have the desire to do that because that is not why I became a photographer or filmmaker. That’s not to say that I don’t like and appreciate photographers who are following these styles but it’s not me and creativity doesn’t come from mimicking others. I’ve seen a lot of styles and techniques over the decades I’ve been in the photo business. They come and they go – just like the photographers who chase after the latest trend.

David states so eloquently:

‘Our categories are useless. Harmful, even. They separate us. They keep us siloed and cut off from generosity and openness and collaboration. They keep us focused on our own “qualifications” and not on the audiences and markets we should be finding new ways to serve, to inspire, to connect with. Our scarcity mentality is hurting us. It’s stopping us from being creative about making a living. The world owes us nothing, which is hard to accept when we’ve paid for a degree, invested in gear, or bought business cards, only to find out the universe doesn’t give a damn, and cares only about what value we bring.’

I too am weary of the blame, the finger pointing and all the stupid human tricks based on fear, and the notion that someone has to lose in order for me to win, because ultimately that comes from a place of insecurity and ego and rarely does that produce something of value. I don’t need a license that proclaims I’m a professional or feel the need to hide my age in order to compete. My value comes from a lifetime of experiences that made me who I am. If I choose to allow someone to define who I am or what I am capable of, or allow myself to be stopped by the naysayers, then I only have myself to blame.

It would have been so much easier to quit or stop myself every time someone threw roadblocks in my way based on their own notions of “what’s in” or “what’s not” and that would have led to an empty life. I chose instead to follow my heart and my convictions and accept the rejections that ultimately come when one faces their fears and stays true to who they are. It has never been easy but I’ve never sought easy. I’ve too busy living a full and rich life, using my craft to create awareness, impact social change or just to bring a smile to someone’s face and create a memory.


“Old Enough to Know Better but Still Too Young to Care”

I was talking to a friend recently about getting “older” and how it really sucks on the one hand but on the flip side, I’ve never felt more liberated in my life. He laughed and  said that I reminded him of a line in an old country/western song – depicted in the title of this post.

On the Amazon River, Peru

It’s pretty accurate, at least in terms of who I am.

I have never been one for “labels” of any kind.  I’m much more interested in what’s going on in the “inside” opposed to what someone is displaying on the outside.  So much so that when my daughter was younger, if she didn’t come home from school right away,  I would worry and think that I wouldn’t be able to describe what she was wearing if the police should come asking.

Our American culture seems to be obsessed with labels, more interested in the packaging and fizz than the substance.  “Older” people are invisible, dismissed and ignored as being too set in their ways, dated, and useless, when in fact some of the most interesting people I have ever taken the time to talk to, were ones that most folks seemed to overlook, simply because of their “packaging”.  I was lucky that I came to that realization at a very young age, when an art director, who was a great mentor to me in my early years, introduced me to the legends of photography.  They were all “old”, at least to my young eyes, but I quickly realized that age had nothing to do with how they saw the world.

It amazes me when seemingly intelligent people use catch phrases to describe others and don’t even realize that in the process that they are the ones with “narrow” sights and they would do better to open their eyes and see beyond.  My eyesight has gotten worse as I have aged, but at the same time, my vision has gotten so much better.

When I was younger, there was a popular saying “don’t trust anyone over 30”.  I’m glad I never really bought into that notion, because I would have been the one who was shortchanged. Don’t judge people because of gender, color or age or the type of car they drive.  Take the time and the energy to look past the packaging and really see.  You’ll probably be surprised that ignorance, narrow mindedness, fear, and pessimism comes in all sexes, shapes, sizes and ages.

“How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you was?”

Satchel Paige (1906-1982) Baseball legend who continued his successful career well into his 60’s.

Women and Photography

I have to get something “off my chest”, so forgive this mild rant.

Yesterday, I attended a conference in NYC.  It was a trade show geared to video production with an educational track.  I was sitting in on one session and there were only a handful of people in the room – I’d say less than 10.  I was the only woman in the room. The instructor went to each person in the classroom and asked them what they wanted to learn from his workshop.  He went to everyone in the room – but me!

I was sitting next to my partner, who is also my husband.  I suppose the instructor decided that he didn’t need to ask ME that question. I didn’t count.  Maybe because we were together and he felt that he only needed to ask one of us.  But if so, why not ask me? I felt invisible. It was an all too familiar feeling that I have had in my 35-year career as a photographer and now a filmmaker. But I couldn’t believe that I was still feeling invisible after all that I’ve accomplished in those 35 years.

When I started my career in photography, it was definitely a man’s world.  I was one of six women at Brooks Institute and the only woman in my graduating class.  I fell in love with a “Brookie” and we headed back East to make our fame and fortune in photography.
We’ve done a lot of jobs together over our 35-year partnership and we’ve done a lot on our own.  I needed to do my solo gigs because I felt I had to prove to myself that I could deliver the “story” or the task on my own.  When I worked with my partner, it was always assumed by the client or our peers that I was the rep for my partner – never the photographer.  People have always asked us why we refer to each other as partners rather than husband and wife – that’s why.

Perhaps that’s why I try so hard – but then again maybe that’s just my nature.  And maybe because I always give it my all, I can’t help but be surprised when I’m treated like I’m invisible.  At this point in my life, I can either let it bother me or I can think about who I am and what I’ve done and contributed to my profession.  I focus on that and I take every opportunity to share and talk to young people – women and men.

The irony is, in photo schools these days the women far outnumber the men, yet there are still instructors out there like the one that I encountered yesterday.  I have to ask myself why? I do know that in giving seminars over the last two years for ASMP, I would consistently get comments from women telling me how refreshing it was to have a woman teaching tech.  But they also told me that I wasn’t intimidating like some male teachers they’ve had.

So what’s the point?

I only have one point and that is don’t hire me because you need to fill the slot with a “female” – hire me based on what I’ve accomplished.  Hire me for who I am.  Think past the gender and teach your children well.

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