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.”
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.
I heard a remark made recently, by a colleague of mine. I was with a group of photographers and we were discussing what makes a photographer, professional. At a time when it seems like just about everybody is a photographer, and we are bombarded with thousands of images on a daily basis, what separates a “pro” from an amateur? My colleague stated, “A pro “makes” photographs – an amateur “takes” them”. While that sounded like a reasonable distinction, it implied that photographers who shot “found moments” were not “professionals”. What about photojournalists then, who are bound by ethics not to contrive an image? So, I started thinking, “What set of criteria is used to determine what makes a photographer, a professional?”
Inspired by Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art, I will paraphrase, some of the qualities that Pressfield points out that define us as professionals:
“We show up every day” – no matter what.
We are committed for the long haul and the stakes are high. We need to feed our families and survive.
“We accept remuneration for our labor.” (I’ll add, we expect remuneration) We love what we do but we work for the money.
We master our craft. This doesn’t stop. A professional is always trying to master their technique.
We act in the face of fear. This is certainly applicable to a “war photographer”, but I would go further and say that it takes courage to follow a career path of photography. Courage and commitment.
“A professional self-validates.” We don’t need others to commission us, in order for us to work. We are passionate about what we do and we will create regardless if we are commissioned or not.
“A professional reinvents himself. “ If you aren’t reinventing yourself, then you probably aren’t taking enough risks. A professional knows not to play it safe – not in a creative profession.
A professional doesn’t take rejection or failure personally. I have learned first hand, that whenever I have taken a leap and challenged myself, it has always come with rejection or some may say, failure. Personally, I don’t equate rejection with failure. Failure implies it’s the end of the story. Rejection needs to take place, in order to get to the next chapter of the story.
I would highly recommend reading, The War of Art. It’s a must for anyone contemplating a creative career. As far as my thoughts about using the criteria, “making” or “taking” a photo to determine who is a professional photographer – let’s just say that a professional photographer is always “making” a photograph, regardless if it is contrived or not. It is a conscious decision of a professional photographer, when and which “moments” to capture. We show up every day, to do our job, whether it’s in a studio or a war zone. We are consistent, responsible and accountable. We are in it for the long haul. It’s our passion. It’s our life. It’s our craft and our gift to the world, a legacy of images that define the time we live in.
I’ve been a professional photographer for over 35 years. While some may look at that sentence and think I must surely be “over the hill” – others may look at that and say “wow, she must have been doing something right, to stay in business that long”. I suppose, it all depends on the outlook of the person.
Personally, I truly believe that the secret to longevity in any career field is to be open-minded as to how they define themselves. One thing I have never done is define myself by the tools I use. Just because one has expensive camera gear, it doesn’t make them a “professional photographer”. If that was the case, then who are you if you have a camera that happens to shoot both still images and video?
I’m really amazed when photographers define themselves by the tools of their trade. I think with the way things are going in terms of how technology continues to affect our industry, if a photographer defines him/herself in such narrow terms – it’s the kiss of death.
When technology enabled me to explore video production without having to make a prohibitively investment in expensive “tools”, the creative part of me wanted to take full advantage of those new opportunities that were coming my way. After all, I’m a storyteller and I shouldn’t have to limit myself to one medium, but rather choose the
right tool (camera) to use that best tells the story that I need to tell. Sometimes that means delivering the message in video and sometimes the story is better told with still images.
Because I was an early adaptor of video (at least from a still photographer’s point of view), many of my peers equate me with just shooting video. Many assume I’ve abandoned still photography, which couldn’t be further from the truth. The real truth is, my clients see me as an imaging professional, who is able to deliver their message with the medium(s) that is best suited for the job. These days with print publication giving way to electronic delivery, clients are delighted that I am able to fulfill their needs because I am proficient in both video and stills and most times they need both.
My curiosity for exploring a variety of mediums and tools has not only kept me in business – it’s kept me from getting jaded and stale. I am a photographer. I am a director of photography. I am an imaging professional and am thrilled to still be in business at a time when we have so many tools and options in how we are able to deliver a visual message.
I’m beginning to hate the “just” word. “Why does it take so long-it’s “just” a picture?” “We “just” need a 3 minute video for You Tube – my kid does them all the time”.
Technology has changed our lives and certainly my profession in many many ways – both good and not so good. It has enabled me to produce and shoot documentaries and get them seen globally, when 5 years ago that wasn’t possible.
Technology has also made the greater public think that creating content is “just” so easy – a kid can do it. Of course that is true because kids do it all the time – look at You Tube and dozens of other video hosts. While every now and then quality and skill doesn’t matter if the message or story is so strong that inferior quality hasn’t compromised them, most times the message doesn’t come out because of the poor quality.
But when a client doesn’t even think about the skill set a professional brings to a project because it is “just” so easy, even a kid can do it – it not only demeans the process – it can actually do a great disservice to their brand. Most times, they realize this but it’s too late.
I have started giving workshops to still photographers who are interested in adding video to their skill set. The ones who will benefit are the ones who realize that it’s not “just” buying another tool. But like anything else – they must cultivate and learn their craft because everything isn’t always “just” that easy.
I wish it was “just” that easy. I wish that I could take back the angst that “video issues” have presented to me over the last 10 years. I wish there was a switch that I could flip that could make me something I want to be without putting in the effort – but there isn’t. But when I hear that “just” word – I take a deep breath and tell myself – they “just” don’t get it.