victoria and albert museum

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 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”.