wordplay

Photography word of the day

For the past couple of months I have been posting a ‘word of the day’ using the hashtag #PWOTD on Twitter. Some of the words are merely triggers to allow myself to say something about photography and others pretty much sum up what I want to say in a single word. A few have links to other websites and quite a few link to old blog posts on here in the hope that some of the 250+ postings on here reach a few extra people.

After two months it is getting harder and harder to come up with a word every day (OK so I schedule the tweets up to three or four days in advance using Tweetdeck) and I was wondering whether anyone else had any suggestions?

Up until Tuesday 16th December 2014 the words so far:

advice   ambient   backup   bad habits   balance   bounce flash   byline   chimping   clients   colour management   compromise   confidence   consistency   contrast   criticism   default   destination   dusk   editing   empathy   experimentation   family   focus   genre   gutter   inspiration   interaction   juxtaposition   limits   manipulation   metadata   middle ground   mindset   monochrome   obsession   patience   people skills   personal   perspiration   photocalls   portfolio   preparedness   prime lenses   prioritise   professionalism  reaction   research   rules   self criticism   sensitivity   shadows   silhouette   simplicity   social media   teamwork   tripod   uniform   viewpoint   vision   workflow
If you’d like to see them then search the hashtag #PWOTD or have a look through my Twitter feed @dg28com . I’m probably going to take a break from doing the word of the day over Christmas – partly because I hope that everyone is going to be having a break from social media but mainly because I really hope that I am!

Empathy

empathy

As photographers we have a vision. We know how we want our photographs to look and we know what kind of response we are trying to encourage from our viewers and from our clients. When we don’t get the reaction that we were looking for or we don’t get any reaction at all then we have either got it wrong or we have a vision so unique that nobody else gets it.

One of the qualities shared by pretty much all of my favourite photographers is the ability to empathise. The best of the best can do it on just about every level too. They understand the feelings and motivations of those that they are photographing every bit as well as they understand those of the target audience. It doesn’t matter if that’s the doting parents of a newborn baby in a studio in the northern hemisphere or the parents of a critically ill child in the southern hemisphere – having the ability to imagine yourself into the position of those whose lives will be effected by your photography is a key skill. I find it hard to think of a genre of photography where empathy wouldn’t be right up there with an understanding of composition or light as a piece of the jigsaw that comes together to make us ‘photographers’.

Somebody reading this is gesticulating at their screen and shouting about being single-minded and determined and not letting emotion get in the way of doing a good job and they have a valid point. Having empathy doesn’t always mean that you have to act on it. There will always be situations where you have to put your ability to understand everyone else’s needs and desires to one side and shoot the pictures that you need to shoot in the way that you need to shoot them but the great photographers – even the single-minded great photographers – have empathy.

If your are finding it hard to agree with this idea then I’d ask you to look at some pictures and try to work out whose feelings, needs and desires the photographer concerned might have been taking into account and/or ignoring when they shot them. I would hazard a guess that the pictures that have the most impact will be those where empathy is a factor and those that are just eye-candy are those where empathy isn’t a big part of the formula.

The term photographer is no longer enough

Just under two years ago I wrote about the definition of the word ‘photographer’ and about how everyone is one these days. I have become more and more interested in the definition and I have come up with the following question:

Can you use the word ‘photographer’ in isolation any more?

What I’m asking there is whether there is anyone out there whose work, hobby or pastime is sufficiently vague that you can just say photographer? I’m probably not the best example but I have my permission to talk about me so here goes; I use a combination of editorial, corporate, press, documentary, portrait, features, PR and commercial in front of the word photographer depending on what I’m shooting, who I’m talking to and where I am. I also use photojournalist from time to time but never ‘just’ photographer without qualifying it.

This got me thinking a bit further. When I teach photography I often compare it to driving. I talk about when you first got behind the wheel of a car and had to think hard about which pedal was which and where the gears were and how some of this was already there because we had been passengers for the preceding 17 years of our lives and we had probably driven go-karts and played computer driving games. The same goes for becoming a photographer. Handling the camera takes a lot of thought at first but it becomes second nature after a while and 99% of us had already been in pictures, used a simple point and shoot as well as doing drawings and getting the basics of composition.

This lead to the thought about the similarities between the word photographer and the word driver. Rarely do you hear ‘driver’ without something more specific in front of it – bus driver, lorry driver, train driver or racing driver amongst many others. I have to wonder whether this is just a natural human need for more information or a desire to stick people and what they do into convenient boxes. I am certain that there are a lot of photographers out there who would rail against being pegged as one kind of photographer and I’m equally certain that there are probably an equal number who would delight in being thought of as completely specialised. Of course there is a group in the middle like me whose descriptor changes on a daily or even hourly basis.

I find it quite amusing when I come across photographers who latch on to genres of photography that either make no sense or that are deliberately elitist or confusing to anyone other than the ‘in-crowd’. I have mentioned my dislike of ‘wedding photojournalism’ before. It is perfectly descriptive but it makes no sense. Wedding photographers are hired by the family or the couple getting married and, no matter what style they shoot in, they are not in any real way acting as journalists using photographs. What they are is wedding photographers using a photojournalistic style. It’s too late to reign it back though. Language is a dynamic and moveable thing and the word photojournalism has already become something different in this context.

When I was first thinking about how I was going to write this post I had just shot a whole series of photographs at a large secondary school where there was a rule that the academic staff were “teachers first and subject specialists second” which meant that nobody working there was a Geography Teacher or a History Teacher or even an English Teacher but were instead a Teacher of Geography or a Teacher of History or a Teacher of English. I spent a while trying to see if I could make that idea work for photography – the idea that we were photographers first and specialists second. Who would prefer to be called a “Photographer of Fashion” or a “Photographer of Sports”? Those work but “Photographer of Portraits” and “Photographer of Corporate (stuff)” don’t really do it for me.

At a dinner party recently I was asked by someone that I’d never met before the obvious “so what do you do?” question. I answered “Editorial & Corporate Photographer” and got a blank look back. The gentleman was an intelligent chap and a local government official but he had to ask me to dissect what an editorial and corporate photographer was. By the end of the conversation I realised that it would have been easier to say “self-employed photographer” and give him the option of digging deeper – so that’s my new tactic at dinner parties.

That incident, the thoughts about teachers and drivers and my general confusion about explaining who I am and what I do have left me pretty much back at the start of this mildly philosophical blog: Each and every time you need to define yourself as a photographer you need to select the appropriate descriptors and adjectives for that particular context. There doesn’t appear to be a solution to this problem that I can see.

I need to go and prepare for tomorrow’s session where, if I were to use my driving analogy, I’m going to be the driving instructor. I suspect that the comparison between photography and driving has many miles to run…

Fun picture: stray apostrophes, London.

When the news broke that UK booksellers Waterstone’s were going to drop the apostrophe from their logo to “make things simpler” the story was greeted with a mix of horror, outrage and cynicism. I was part of the cynical camp: what better way to get your company on the news than to pull a stunt like that? Leak a story that you might be about to do something and then sit back and watch it go viral and, more importantly, go viral amongst the very people who would be your core market. It was either brilliant, fortunate or (the least likely in my view) a genuine story.

©Neil Turner/TSL | London | October 2003

I was reminded of the last time that I was involved in a “stray apostrophe” outrage story. Back in 2003, yet another report on the use of punctuation in grammar singled out signs and posters for special criticism and so I was asked to go and find some examples. For a city reputed to have “thousands” of examples I struggled and it wasn’t until I was in the second hour of driving around looking that I finally found this gem on a secondhand video, DVD and CD shop near King’s Cross. The shop was on a one way system with almost no chance of stopping and very little parking nearby but I was desperate and so I went around again, found a parking meter and shot some pictures of the sign. The cafe next door was also the perfect place to have a quick coffee and send my pictures. Job done.

Vocabulary of photography

Language is an ever-evolving thing and a quick search for a famous quote on the nature of language brought up two very interesting thoughts. The first is accredited to Karl Albrecht – a German latter day renaissance thinker (I wish it were the co-founder of Aldi who had the same name)

“Change your language and you change your thoughts.”

This is an important idea when, as press photographers, we are trying to get the world, the rest of the media and the Leveson Inquiry to think about photographers differently. Words like paparazzi have been liberally used during the inquiry and by commentators about the inquiry. Fellow journalists and even some of our peers regularly use the words snap, snapper and snapped to talk about our work. As long as this kind of unhelpful vocabulary carries on being used we are almost bound to carry on having a problem. We are photographers, we take photographs and what we do is photography. Get a thesaurus out and there are plenty of other words that can be used (with increasing degrees of pompousness). It seems likely that it is up to us to start the ball rolling. It is one thing to use slang terms within the tight confines of our profession but an entirely different thing to propagate them elsewhere.

As professionals we owe it to ourselves and our colleagues to change our own vocabulary and to correct everyone else who falls into the lazy trap of using short snappy terms that are just not accurate. Take last Saturday’s Times for example. On the front page of one of their sections they had a line about “What really happened when Beaton snapped the Queen”. Did Sir Cecil Beaton really “snap” anything? The Victoria and Albert Museum, a cultural institution that would claim to respect photography has on their shop website a line about the same photographer saying that after her 1953 Coronation

“(he) snapped the Queen in all her coronation finery.”

As long as what we do is trivialised in this way we are going to have an uphill struggle. A couple of other searches on the web brought up equally depressing quotes – this one comes from a careers website www.allaboutcareers.com and their description of the job “Press Photographer”:

“Press photographers are employed by newspapers, magazines and other print and web publications. These snap-happy professionals are tasked with recording images of current events to support news stories or taking interesting photos to emphasise the point of featured articles.”

We could go on but that would only serve to labour the point. It is hard to think of another profession whose work is so universally undervalued, whose work is widely misunderstood and about whom the vocabulary used is to pejorative.

One final note: whilst looking for quotes about language I found this one attributed to Federico Fellini – the man credited so widely with the origins of the term “paparazzi”;

“A different language is a different vision of life.”

Our language is a very visual one but occasionally even we need to resort to words to make our point. If we aren’t careful, the rapid evolution of the English language will leave us behind and the regular and repeated use of poor and inaccurate phrases will become “correct”.

Fun photo: Muscliff or Mogadishu

Out on a walk in semi-rural Dorset… Not the suburbs of Mogadishu.

20120114-114028.jpg

Muscliff, Bournemouth | ©Neil Turner | 14th January 2012

Fun photo: Free cash machine

If only…

Moordown, Bournemouth. ©Neil Turner, December 2011