What Makes a Professional (Photographer)?

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. stock-80 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.


How to Deal with Criticism

As I get ready to show a sneak preview of my film Opening Our Eyes this week in Traverse City, Michigan, I do so with excitement – but also trepidation.  I have to be prepared for whatever the response and feedback might be.  Most likely, it will be a mixture of praise and criticism – and everything in between.  I also know when taking a chance and entering into new territory – like making a feature film – I open myself up to both positive and not so positive thoughts and comments.

It’s not easy to accept criticism, yet I have found that if I stay true to what it is that I am trying to accomplish and put the criticisms and comments in perspective – I’m far better off.

I try to keep the following things in mind:

Not to take harsh comments personally.  This is tough, because let’s face it when you’ve put your heart and soul into something, it can be very hurtful to hear unkind comments and criticisms. Since, I have made my life’s work – my life’s passion – there’s a fine line between the personal and the work. So I remind myself to think of all criticisms as related to my work.

Consider the source.  I try to remember that this is just one person’s opinions and even if that person is an “expert” or think they are – their perspective can be coming from a whole different place than what I had envisioned.  I’ve also found that many times, the worst criticisms come from people who may have their own issues they are reflecting on.

Step back and think before reacting.  I have learned “to be still” and to take time to digest all comments before reacting positively or negatively to them. Many times harsh words need to be heard – and can be the push I need to make “it” better.  Then it’s up to me to decide if I should respond to those comments and incorporate those suggestions into whatever I am creating – or not. In the past, I have made the mistake of taking everyone’s helpful comments and suggestions to heart, only to end up with a big mess that’s neither “here nor there”.

Trust my instincts. I try to keep in mind that I need to stay true to my own vision. If comments and suggestions are helpful in guiding me there – then I take them to heart. There are times when even though I know the message or story that I want to tell – I need guidance on how to do that.  So, I try to consider all feedback, but to keep it in context with my own vision.

Remind myself that I have done something. This is the most important thing of all – to remind myself that even though what I have created is not perfect – I have done what a lot of others never do and that is bring my idea to reality.  Many times the harshest critics are people frustrated that they have not overcome their own inertia.

Steven Pressfield writes about resistance and criticism in the The War of Art:

“ If you find yourself criticizing other people, you’re probably doing it out of resistance. When we see others beginning to live their authentic selves, it drives us crazy if we have not lived out our own.

Individuals who are realized in their own lives almost never criticize others. If they speak at all, it is to offer encouragement.  Watch yourself.  Of all the manifestations of “resistance” most only harm ourselves. Criticism and cruelty harm others as well.”

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