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…