Earlier today I reacted to a quote someone posted on Twitter, and though perhaps I should have known better was shocked at the responses. So, because 140 characters is a perilously constraining means by which to either have a conversation or preach a sermon, I eventually turned off my Tweetdeck and will make my case more clearly here. I’ll leave comments open but for the record I will delete harsh or beligerent comments without hesitation. No one comes here to see a fight.
The exact quote isn’t even relevant, though it went something like this: ” To be a real photographer you also need to be a business.” Like all quotes there’s the fact that this quote is completely without context, so forget for a minute what the original author meant, because that’s not really what I’m reacting to. What I’m reacting to is the notion that to be a “real” photographer you need to be a so-called professional. The comments that came back to me, most of them in some form of accord with my plea for a more inclusive definition, also contained some pretty strongly worded objections to this.
So let me be clear, because this is going to be a sermon from which I do not back off or repent. The idea that the only people who should be called “photographers” are those making money at it, is total horse shit. Yes, to be a professional photographer you need to be a business person and you need to do it well. How many articles have I written about this very thing? I am a full-time vocational photographer, I make my living from this craft. I love and admire and encourage photographers who do this for a living. But so as not to be ambiguous, it needs to be understood that your art is not legitimized by how much money you make at it, if any. There are plenty of photographers of mediocre ability who make a living at this. There are many photographers who pay to do it, and subsidize their art by working as dentists, doctors, janitors, teachers, who are exceptional. To deny that they too are photographers merely because they choose not to sell their work, is not only ridiculous it’s offensive.
I suspect the reason people defend this particular rampart is that they do, in fact, legitimize their work by what it earns and when a talented so-called amateur (one who does something for the love of it) creates something beautiful without price or fee, it calls into question their whole evaluation mechanism.
To reduce our art or craft to legitimacy only when it’s kissed on the brow by the mighty dollar is perverse, bordering on creative prostitution. By all means, make a living at it. I do. I love it so much I finally – after years and years as an amateur – took the leap and began doing this full time. But that in no way made me a “photographer.” It made me a professional, vocational, photographer, but not a better one. I am on no higher plane and neither are those who presume to be.
No working photographer I know and respect would have the audacity to suggest that only the professionals can be “photographers”, but it’s not them I’m concerned about. It’s the amateurs I am concerned about. I worry that any of them would buy into this garbage and be discouraged from creating, expressing, pursuing this craft with passion and creating art for the love of it. A photographic world in which the first question people ask is “what does the market want?” is not a world I want to be a part of. Do we eventually ask the question? Maybe. Maybe not. But it sure as hell isn’t the primal question. Furthermore, art created from passion and not from greed is art that will more powerfully resonate with people, and is therefore more commercially viable, so even on a pragmatic level passion pays. I don’t want to look at the work created by a photographer who creates only what I want to see or pay for. I want to look at the work of an artist who cares enough to create something that comes from deep within.
Can you create great work and charge for it? Of course. But it’s not the right question. My next book is about the fusion of craft and commerce. I believe you can make a living – even a good living – at doing this. It’s not easy, but you can do it. I believe a working photographer is worth his wage and is probably charging too little. But not every photographer wants to complicate their art with the demands and liabilities of professionalism and there’s no reason they should. There are photographers who by profession are accountants and teachers and taxi drivers and they may enjoy their work and find inspiration there. What matters is that you create, you express, you share, and you find a way to sustain that. How you sustain it is up to you.
This has nothing to do with romanticizing the starving artist thing, nor a denial that this is an expensive craft. It’s merely this; a denial of the elitist, exclusionist assertion that you can not be a photographer, let alone a brilliant one, unless money changes hands. I’m not looking to define the word “photographer”, I’m looking to allow people to define, or not define, themselves as they like. At the end of the day I am not just a photographer. I am a photographer, a writer, a husband, a son, a humanitarian, and a dozen other things. None of them negate the other, they contribute, make me who I am. But money or no money I am a photographer because I am passionate about it, it’s the medium I love and through which I express myself.
If you’ve made it this far and you’re an amateur, keep at it. Live your creative life on your terms. Doing this professionally is a thrill, and I love it. But there are as many liabilities as there are benefits and the same applies to remaining a hobbyist – there are advantages and disadvantages. What matters is that you love and practice your craft without ever feeling the condescension of a so-called professional who doesn’t want you in the club. That kind of exclusivism is a harm to the craft and a denial of the prime mover in art: passion.
Comments are open, but again, this is not a fight. If you feel strongly enough about this that you want to write an impassioned response and/or start a bar fight over it, then I welcome you to do so. On your own blog. The photography community is one I love deeply, it’s filled with people – amateurs, professionals, and those that defy categorization – that I’d go to the mat for, but in the end this is not a topic over which we’ll achieve accord if you feel that your business card alone makes you a “photographer.” If this topic raises your blood pressure, that’s probably a good thing – it’s good that we are passionate about these things and ask the questions, even if we don’t agree. I’m not for a moment denying that the pros are photographers, just asking that as a professional community we open the doors, be more inclusive and maybe check under the hood to see where our art comes from. I suspect it’ll be better if it comes from passion.