If someone asks you if you’re a photographer, what do you say? ‘Yes, I’m a photographer.’ Or ‘No, I take pictures, but I’m not a photographer.’ It’s something that’s been playing on my mind recently, and something that I’ve been debating back-and-forth with a friend of mine who is, as far as I am concerned, a bona fide, hand-on-heart photographer, a veteran of the analogue campaigns, with a portfolio to prove it.
The dictionary definition of photographer is pretty straightforward, it’s a person who takes photographs.
And then there are numerous variations on the phrase ‘Owning a camera does not make you a photographer; it makes you a camera-owner.’
By the dictionary definition, just about every single person in the UK is now a photographer, what with the ubiquitous camera-phone and the millions of images uploaded to FaceBook every month. By the slightly more philosophical statement, there are plenty of people out there taking photos, but they can’t all be called photographers.
So we’re at something of an impasse. It seems as if we have a society of potential photographers, but not one of actual photographers.
I’m pretty convinced that every single camera-owner isn’t a photographer. Would you say that someone who owns a dSLR but never takes it off of automode and owns only the kit lens is a photographer? And is someone who is trying her or his hardest to get the most out of a point-and-shoot not a photographer? Nope, the camera that you use, or don’t use, doesn’t make you a photographer (or not).
Still, I’m not too keen on the idea that there is some mythical ability quotient that you have to fulfil before you’re granted the title Photographer, either. Who exactly is it who decides what constitutes ‘good enough’ in this situation? It’s not as if there’s a medieval-style Guild of Photographers who grants us apprentice, journeyman, or Master Photographer status. Ability is a bit too subjective a term to decide if someone is a photographer or not, thinksme. And honestly, don’t we all take bad photos?
Is the divide professional, then? Do you have to make your living by taking photographs to be a photographer? Well, no, I don’t think so. Think of it this way: would any of the players who competed in the 1995 Rugby World Cup be too pleased if you said that they weren’t really rugby players because they happened to be accountants, doctors, and members of the armed forces in their other lives? Why else do we have the most useful terms ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ in our vocabularies? Photography, and by extension being a photographer, is not something that is determined by money-making status.
There is a common theme running through these slightly manic arguments about who is or isn’t a photographer, though. It might not be about the kit that you own, but it is about doing the best with what you have. It isn’t about whether or not your photos are good enough to be exhibited at the Royal Academy, but whether you strive to make your next shot better than your last shot. And it definitely isn’t about whether or not you earn your living from photography, but it is about wanting every photo that you take to be as good as you can make it.
Being a photographer is about practising a craft. It’s about wanting to create something; it’s about wanting to improve; it’s about wanting to learn.
So next time someone asks you ‘Are you a photographer?’ think about this before you answer: are those pictures that you take an expression of something, and part of a learning curve? If they are, then you’re a photographer.