A Question of Definition

In Freelance and Business, Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons, Vision Is Better by David110 Comments


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.


  1. Very well put. I agree with the point you are making. Making money at it has nothing to do with be a real anything. I remember someone actually apologizing to me after my first book was published, because he’d secretly scoffed at my calling myself a writer before the publication.

    Definitions are always touchy. The word ‘real’ has different meanings to different people. To some it relates to having a passion and/or eye for taking beautiful photos (or whatever you’re creating). For others, ‘real’ really means ‘successful’. And even that word can be interpreted in any number of ways (artistically successful? commercially?).

  2. First let me apologize if any of my comments contributed to your angst over this matter. I think the 140 limit is in large part at blame for many of the misunderstandings.

    I believe our difference isn’t our difference at all. The problem is the “word” and it’s dilution or lack of specific interpretation.

    Wikipedia defines photographer as a guy with a camera.
    Is a murderer a guy with a gun. Fairly vague, I’d say.

    Of course, xerox and Johnson & Johnson both suffered a similar fate when their “brand” names (Band-Aid & Xerox) were pushed aside and allowed to become generic terms.

    Obviously, what we’re looking for is defining the passion, artistry and level of commitment…. not necessarily the level of professional / commercial involvement.

    Anyway.. I don’t think there’s an answer. The problem of the definition is older than all of us. I do find it interesting though, when you stated what we “do” does not define us. I’d suggest to you, history would prove you wrong. After all, how many of us have last names who’s roots were founded in the profession or trade of our ancestors?

    Thanks again, for the lively discussion.

    John Thawley

  3. Thank you! I have always felt that I am a photographer, no matter that I have never sold a photo. To me, this argument (you must have a business to be a photographer) is just as ridiculous as the argument that you must have an awesome camera (read: have a digital SLR, spend more than a couple hundred on a camera) to be a decent photographer. Beauty and passion are in the eye of the photographer, no matter what camera you use.

  4. Very well spoken. A photographer is one who takes photographs. That’s it. Whether the photographs have any sort of merit, monetary- or artistic value, well…i say that is in the eye of the beholder.

  5. Can you imagine if we defined all artists in terms of the money they made when they were alive?

  6. If it’s money changing hands that makes you a “real” photographer, then the high-school drop out taking pictures at Sears is a “real” photographer.

    I am not a vocational photographer because I lack the talent, energy and drive to try and make a living at it, but little by little I try to be the best photographer I can and better than I was the last time I went out with a camera. I study and I learn because I enjoy it and want to better myself, with no intention of trying to make a living at it.

  7. > If you’ve made it this far and you’re an
    > amateur, keep at it.

    And I certainly will, with your help and the help of many other passionate photographers out there.

    Thanks for this. I both agree with it and am inspired by it. Looking forward to your next book! 🙂

  8. I take photos (or make images, depending on the terminology you choose); I could care less if that makes me “a photographer.” Money has nothing to do with being “a photographer”. Indoctrinated terminology dies hard 🙂

  9. I think you found the right words to express it. Maybe other people feel so strongly about this subject because in arts there are no fixed professionals. I mean, if you are painting you could be called a painter, if you do it for a living or as a hobby. But with other jobs there is nothing like this. A lawyer is a lawyer because he studied law at university. Maybe they think it makes them smaller, when they “allow” people to be called photographers who aren’t professionals either. I agree with you though. It was a good read. Thanks.

  10. I’m shocked and mystified that every word you’ve written here isn’t already an absolute given. With every fiber of my being I completely agree. Those who feel the need to be condescending towards amateurs are likely just frightened by what they perceive to be non-professional competition.

  11. “Yes, to be a professional photographer you need to be a business person and you need to do it well.”

    Actually – you don’t…

    One just needs to be mediocre both in his business and his photography – to survive on the market and proudly call himself a “pro” or “real photographer”.
    If that bragging helps them feel better – let them brag. Talk is cheap.

  12. Lynch’s Lessons of Life

    Photography – The art, practice, or occupation of taking and printing photographs.

    Photographer – One who practices, or is skilled in, photography.

    Professional – a person who earns a living in a sport or other occupation frequently engaged in by amateurs.

    Amateur – a person who engages in a study, sport, or other activity for pleasure rather than for financial benefit or professional reasons.

    Ridiculus – The act of arguing over whether a photographer is an amateur or professional.

    LTS – Life is Too Short! Go out and have fun doing what you love. With camera in hand, of course.

    Here Endeth the Lesson!

  13. David,

    I’ve said this before but this essay confirms for me that you are a truly genuine person.

    I’d imagine you’ve been a photographer for years and (as your recent writings here seem to indicate) you’ve only recently reached a new level with your photographic work.

    It’s an exciting time for you and you’ve been nothing but gracious and humble in talking about your successes.

    I do wonder if your passion on this topic comes from you recently making that leap from “starving artist” to “paid professional”? Certainly having a hugely successful first book is a leap that anyone should be excited about.

    I have no doubt that any number of people (myself included) would feel it a huge honor to have a dinner of Cuban skirt steak with YOU. “You’ve made it,” as they say, and in doing so inspired a great number of other people.

    Keep that passion and your genuine nature and I’ll keep reading.

  14. Love the post. I take photos because it relaxes me and provides a creative outlet. Maybe someday I’ll break-even financially….but even if I don’t…. I have no plans on giving up what I love!

    p.s. you need to take it easy. You just came back from a stressful weekend!

  15. John Thawley: correction: Wikipedia defines photographer as a guy “that uses” a camera “to take a photo”. So to compare it to a gun, then yes, a person would be a murderer if they used the gun to kill. Owning and using are not the same.

  16. clap, clap, clap…

    20 years ago I finished my college degree in photography, went out to make my living doing the thing I loved since 9th grade. 12 months later I put my cameras in a box and didn’t take a picture again until 3-4 years ago. Shooting for money took all of the magic out of the work I loved.

    Now, I’m trying to get back into it for the reasons I loved it at first.

  17. Well said David, unfortunately in all the art disciplines some need to ‘elevate’ themselves in means other than their work.

  18. If what I do as a profession defines me then I’m in trouble and I should just call it quits right now! But thank goodness for your wise sermon David. I’m one of those “accountant, teacher, taxi driver” types but I love to create photographs. I don’t want to stop on this journey because I may never make a penny from this passion and I won’t.

    Life is too short to be dictated to by the views of others. I hope history proves you right David, for as you can see my last name was given to my family by others but we have never let that define us.

  19. Well said. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your analysis. This is probably more about insecurity, and external validation, than anything having to do with photography.

  20. I like it when you’re all ‘riled up’! A great sermon, David.

    I do my photography for the love of it and am not sure that I want to deal with all of the other stuff that comes with running a business. Been there. Done that. Not really sure that I want to again. Now, I use my daytime job to finance my photography and that suits me just fine.

    Further, I’m not concerned about the label. Any time that you place a label on to something, you diminish its possibilities. I wear many hats during a day, yet, none of those hats define me … they are merely rolls that I play during that time, not a definition of Paul: Husband, father, developer, photographer, walker, movie watcher, or whatever I happen to be doing at the time. Simply rolls.

  21. Well now you have REALLY crossed the line, Mr. D.

    Just kidding – great post, very well said, I agree.

    The people most inclined to balk at a broader inclusion or to defend a narrow definition might, just might, be operating more out of fear than passion. Photography is a fast changing field, and there’s understandable fear for some who make a living by it. But love overcomes fear.

  22. Thank you for using your voice to encourage and inspire -every- person who shares a passion for photography.

    I am constantly given visual “gifts” as a result of having decided that our lab would embrace both the “professional” and the “hobbyist” (unlike so many that harden these contrived lines between who is and who is not “entitled” to be taken seriously). While it is always a thrill to work with the images of individuals who have risen to the top of the photographic -profession-, I can say with sincerity that we take just as much joy from the privilege of seeing the often-times compelling imagery of our many passionate and gifted “amateur” photographers. You could say that we are “wow”-ed and moved indiscriminately.

    When it comes to art, co-opting labels for ones own aggrandizement seems really out of place. Thank you for expressing this concept so elegantly and thoughtfully.

  23. Amen brother! I sing, so I am a singer. I bike, so I am a biker. I photograph, so I am a photographer. I do none of these things as my profession. That doesn’t mean I am none of those things.

  24. As everyone else has said, well put.

    I think the distinction comes from those on the amatuer/professional boundary, who feel the need to distingiuish (or label) themselves as “professional” or “real” or whatever. It would seem to me that adding that label and excluding the people who don’t make money from their craft would make those people feel more important or successful, or whatever.

    When all is said and done, what should really matter is making great images, regardless of the labels attached or how much money changes hands.

  25. 100% agree! Inferring hobby photographers aren’t real photographers is like inferring Olympic athletes aren’t real athletes.

  26. Well said, David and the same to many of the commenters. Over the years my photography has gone from casual, to semi-serious, back to casual and finally to really serious (read also, expensive). All on an amateur basis. Recently I thought I might try and make a business of it, but that side of it ended up failing to interest me at this time.

    But, I’m currently working on some pictures I took of my daughter, son-in-law and their new baby. Maybe I need to slip her a twenty to “pay” me with. Would that make me a “pro”? Really, I’m just kidding but it underscores the ridiculous nature of those who would try to define something on the basis of whether or not you are making money at it. Jeff Lynch’s Lessons of Life above says it all.

    But, it is great to hear this further encouragement from you, David, a pro and a writer both. Thanks again.

  27. Thanks for this post David. We all need to hear it and think about it! It makes me reflect about what is the difference between a snap shot and a photograph? And how to get deeper into my own creativity? At the end of the day, what counts is how satisfied are you ]with what you’ve accomplished?
    Best regards. Saving for your book!!!

  28. What is the definition of “photographer”?

    Well… if you meat a stranger on the bus, and they ask what you DO, what would be your response?

    (You meet someone, and they say, “Hi I’m Johnny and I sell cars. So what do you do?”)

    If you said, “photographer”, then you’re probably a photographer.

    If you said, “teacher”, or “engineer”, or “janitor”, or “painter of light”, then does that mean you’re not a photographer?

    If so, then by the same logic (defining yourself by a hobby you enjoy), you’re also a “thinker”, a “drinker”, a “lover”, a “typist” (assuming you’re typing your reply to this blog, which you enjoy), etc..

    To answer the question of “so what do you DO”, typically is a self-defining moment for many people. It shows what the person themselves consider themselves as being. What do I *do*?

    I doubt there are too many amateur photo takers that would answer the “What do you do” question by saying they are a photographer. I suspect, most would reply they are a janitor, teacher, painter of light, engineer, unemployed, or whatever.

    Are they still photographers? In the truest sense of the word, yes. But apparently, they don’t view themselves as being a photographer in the “what do I do” life-defining sense… so how does that effect the argument?


  29. I agree. Money does not equal “real” when it comes to anything. My thought is that being an artist with your photography is what makes you a “real” photographer. That is something that is meaningful, in my opinion.

    Do you pick up a camera now and then to take a picture of little Johnny and Aunt Betty that came over to visit? Do you bring your camera along on trips so you can show folks at home that you were there?

    Or do you look for the light, capture a moment, and compose a shot that sends a message, takes the eye on a journey, or brings up an emotion? There’s a line people cross when they become what I consider to be a photographer and it is more than just picking up a camera, pointing it, and pushing a button.


  30. Sigh. “meat” a stranger?

    ** cough cough**

    ** Henri looks down at his shoes, wishing there was an edit button somewhere **

  31. Thank you. Couldn’t agree more. I’m an “amateur” – never published or paid for. I’m happiest with my camera in hand, an empty memory card and full battery and nice light. And that makes me a photographer.

  32. I guess by that other person’s definition, Van Gogh wasn’t an artist becuase he didn’t selll all his paintings.

    Right on, David, as usual!

  33. What used to define a photographer, was those who were rich enough to purchase all the equipment and pay for all that expensive film. What now makes a photographer, is anyone who can afford the digital camera and has an eye for beauty and can recognize the potential for a great image. Perusing flickr I find some amazing shots by people who might only have had a camera for a short period of time but suddenly they have an outlet for their creativity and vision. Not eveyone wants to be a professional, some just enjoy the pleasure of creating and sharing.

  34. I knew I liked you for a reason.

    I’ve had a number of experiences in the last week that speak to this topic. Like many I’m shocked that all too often people, and fellow photographers at that, want to put a monetary value on what for so many is a passion.

    I met a photographer this weekend that declared he’d shoot anything they paid him for – he didn’t care. That made me a little sad frankly because something that had, probably, once been a passion was now – less.

    Another photographer saw an image of mine as asked what the point was. I honestly don’t know how to respond to that comment. It wasn’t a commercial image, just some pretty light, reflections and a silhouette.

    I guess the real point was – life is beautiful for the majority of us if only we’d stop to enjoy it instead of trying so desperately to get somewhere else. I think this is happening with too many photographers. What was once a passionate pursuit has become a potential commodity if only we sold a little bit of our soul – just a pinch. The problem is that somewhere along the way too many of us forget why we started taking images in the first place.


  35. AMEN! I can’t tell you how many “pro” photogs in Vegas act so unprofessionally. Me? I have a day job to pay my bills and I shoot for the love of it…and sometimes I get paid for that too! It’s a wonderful life. BTW: I also jog, so I’m a jogger; I play percussion in a band so I’m a percussionist; I have a child so I’m a mother…none of these pay the rent. 🙂

  36. Profoundly stated David, but at the end of the day, we all know who and what we are. Everything else is just an opinion.

  37. I’m glad I came across your Twitter and subsequently, your blog. I’m sad I missed your event in NYC this past weekend!

    I’m really happy to read your thoughts here. Without reading the other comments right now (I’ll be back for those later), I think what you said in your first reactionary Tweet really summed up my feelings (whatever little I have) on the subject: a photographer ‘makes’ a photograph. So you could just be a person with a camera snapping some shots, but you’re not necessarily ‘making’ anything. But when it becomes art, or something more important to you, I think that’s when you become a photographer. (And that could even be with just snapshots.) Not sure if that makes any sense, but those are my thoughts for now!

    Thanks again for posting this!

  38. Thank you very much. As an amateur photographer, I am deeply touched by your article and your words, and feel even more motivated to keep up with my passion for pictures.

  39. David,

    I couldn’t agree with you more.

    I am fortunate to be paid to be a photographer (I’m on staff at a large newspaper) but the pictures I care most about, and the ones that mean the most to me, are the ones I make for myself.

    Whether it’s a neighborhood food bank, a rural family in northern Arizona or something exotic in Thailand or Laos, these are pictures and stories I work on because they’re important (or at least I think they are) and because they need to be out there.

    Increasingly, the photos I make for the paper are pretty silly little space fillers. The photos I care about are the ones I make for myself without being paid to.


  40. Thanks for this post…There are times when people see my with my camera or see my pictures they say “So you’re a photographer…” I instinctively say “No! It is just that photography is a hobby of mine, but no a photographer yet!” – Now your post puts things in perspective – Next time somebody comments “So you’re a photographer” – I’ll proudly say “Yes I am:)”

  41. Great post. I am with you a hundred fold. In my opinion, you become a professional as soon as someone pays you. It doesn’t make you successful, talented, or artistic. It just means someone hired you. I also believe that as soon as you click the shutter, you are a photographer. And in turn, it doesn’t make you successful, talented, or artistic.

    Again, great post!

  42. First of all David, allow me to tell you that I wish you a speedy recovery. & Secondly if you may, please allow me to say just how much you have inspired me by your post.

    While this you may have heard many times before, for me it runs much deeper because of the one thing that fueled your response to that statement in the first place, ‘Passion’, and while upon conclusion many may think Im insane to them I can only say c’est la vie.

    Being unemployed for almost 2 years is never a thing that anyone should ever have to experience, especially one who is trained and from a professional standpoint has everything together, yet this was my experience right after the sudden passing of my mother from a vicious bout of cancer just 2 yrs. ago.

    I fell apart, found myself spiraling, searching, feeling cheated and robbed of whom was the one most valuable person in my life, i looked desperately not only for answers but for a way to release much of the pain that I felt inside, I grew numb and for almost 18 months i shut myself off from everything and everyone that mattered, that, coupled with the fact that i was unable to attend the funeral due to my own illness which had me bed bound 6 weeks prior left me emotionally dead to everyone and everything around me.

    I was on the internet one day after bingeing in the fairy tale world of World of Warcraft for hours and just being tired of it all, just doing some casual browsing, nothing specific, when I came across a few photographs of Italy’s Tuscany region and its beautiful peaceful countryside.

    To this day, I don’t know who the photographer was but as I looked at those photos, an anticipation filled me and my heart raced and tears began to stream down my face, for in those photos being communicated to me from a vast digital expanse, hosted somewhere on a lonely server unknowing to the photographer, was a peace that I have never experienced ever before in my 32yr lifetime. For 3 hours, I stared looking at those pictures crying, for three hours every feeling of loss, every feeling of pain, anger, confusion, frustration poured out of me in tears that by the time i was done left me feeling like i had escaped from some perilous journey and was now, for lack of a better word ‘Free’.

    And then I realized something, i could FEEL again. The numbness was gone and I actually felt emotion, I was sitting in my chair smiling. My point with this is that these photos weren’t anything special, just beautiful, naturally lit and well composed (as I now know from all the study that i’ve done) Tuscany Countryside. But the message to me was ‘Peace’ something that at that time I wanted and needed so badly.

    That experience changed me that day and for the past six months, between trying to get a new job and doing odd-jobs (My background being IT) to keep a steady stream of cash coming in for the ‘bare necessities’ I’ve made it a rule to buy 1 or 2 books as I can afford, to learn as much about photography as I can.

    I’ve spent hours at a time researching equipment, learning the technical ins and outs of Aperture and DoF, Shutter Speed and ISO, Composition, Lighting, the list grows bigger and bigger, I’ve read books from Ansel Adams, Kelby, Peterson, McNally (yours is next on my hit list David :P) and (while i know many will scuff at this) used torrent sites to get video classes & tutorials to teach me more because i just cant afford subscriptions and the like right now.

    Am I proud of it of course not, these men have worked hard and deserve to be paid for their work, but Im fighting to get my life back on track, its that or death and I don’t plan on dying any time soon, because I’ve become consumed by one thing “The Passion” of being able to communicate to others what was communicated to me on that day in my home through something as simple as a Countryside Photograph.

    I want to be able to give to people what I feel every-time i look at a scene that i think would make a beautiful photograph, i want them to feel my emotion through the photos that i would share with them. And you know what’s funny about all this, and about all the time i’ve spent learning, and researching and admiring everyone else’s work, is that I feel this way and I don’t even have a camera yet, I just cant afford it right now, so what do you think will happen when i accomplished that goal.

    I say all that to say this, if you try to take that passion away from me, or from anyone who may feel like I do about photography and tell them that to be anything of worth in this field you have to make money from it, not only do you condemn the very core of one’s creative soul but you remove from them the creative breath that keeps them looking forward to the next time they will make magic with their camera. When I’m finally blessed with the opportunity to get my equipment, and mark you I WILL, never will I let money be the focus or influence of my creativity. I wish only to be able to touch one heart, one soul, or one person in the way that i was that day so many months ago.

  43. I am not a photographer; my husband is. I’m a romance writer. Yep, that stuff. I stumbled upon this and laughed. (Not at you). But this exact, exact, exact discussion has been going on ad nauseum for years regarding the definition of a writer. One who is paid? That’s a paid author. One who is never published? Eh, get’s kinda hairy, right? But someone who knits is a knitter, someone who goes fishing is a fisherman. Sort of. Is everyone who cooks a cook? I’ve heard it all. Nice to know romance writers aren’t the only ones to get caught up in this.

  44. And there was I, thinking you had to shoot with an oiNnk and post process with a Mango to be a photographer 🙂

  45. Thanks for setting the record straight. I was about ready to start throwing things..maybe. But I logged off and hoped things would be put in perspective. Thanks for sharing for us amateurs.

  46. This is why I called you with that assignment. This is why I will continue calling you with assignment. Your words, like your photos, are gifts wrapped in passion. I remain forever grateful for the impact you have had upon my life and my work.

  47. David
    to think of it, i think it is something inherent with our society. we often tend to generalize things. e.g. someone is working with Google – oh he must brainy.
    People don’t realize that working with Google is different than designing something new for Google. Someone who is designing or coming up with new ideas for Google is the actual brainy person, the rest are just doing things what they are expected to do.
    And being humans, most of those ‘rest of the people’ start thinking that they are ‘something’ given the hype around them.
    I don’t think the world of photography is different. we belong to the same society afterall.
    Caveat: I just mentioned the name of Google as an example; it can be any company and the scenario won’t that much different.

  48. David, I’m simply thankful to you for bringing this to the table. How you share your views to the wider community is never too much to me, and I hope everybody who frequents your blog.

  49. “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.”

    I’m going to be quoting this post for WEEKS!

    With all my Photographer friends, who don’t make money at this. In fact when I think about it, I lose money on photography, but I gain AWESOME. Peace.

    I’m leading the Ottawa branch of the Worldwide photowalk and, after it filled up, I had someone E-mail me asking me to “let them in” (not my choice really, first come first serve); he started saying how he sold some prints and how seriously he took his photography. I really wanted to say to him that I didn’t care if he got his first Point and Shoot, was shooting a Hassleblad from the 50’s or constructed a pinhole from a cereal box – it’s all good man!

    Stop talking about taking pictures and take the frakking picture!

    Speaking of, I’ve spent too much time on this blog – I’m out (but I’ll be back).

  50. I agree with you….

    Most of the Pro photographers I know, and I know a lot, are just mediocre. They churn out what makes them money. Some are just down right terrible but they continue because it pay’s there wages.

    On the other hand, a lot of the amateurs I know, and I run a club with over 380 members, are better than the professional photographers.

    I do though know some Pro’s that are just absolutely brilliant, money is not there interest though. Photography is a passion to them as it often is to an amateur.

    I don’t berate the Pro who just churns out junk, he’s making a living doing what he’s doing and obviously he’s got clients that are happy with the quality of his work.

    I do though hate the snotty stuck up Pro’s who look down there noses at amateurs as if they were dirt. It doesn’t take me long though to fuck them off…..

    One Pro I dealt with (over 30 years experience) looked at my old film camera and asked “How do you know you have got the shot?” My reply was simply, “I’m a Photographer!”

  51. A problem is that most activities are either amateur or professional and when people ask “what you do” the answer is nearly always what you do to earn money. And of course we like to make assumptions.
    If I say I am a Lawyer, then I do it as a job. If Isay I’m a Collector then it’s assumed I’m an amateur. But a photographer, writer, poet, race car driver really needs to be more specific. The more fragile working photographer feels the need to lift himself above the uncleansed masses of amateurs. He feels threatened. He needs a way to say he’s better than them (not always true, of course), so now “Photographer” needs to be only for working shooters and spelled with a capital “P”. I propose the following:
    Professional (not the same as working)
    be placed before “photographer” so you accurately describe whether it’s what you do or what you are.
    When I used to say “I’m a photographer”, people would go “really?”. You can see them trying to process what you mean by “photographer” Now I say “I’m a wedding photographer” and it can be safely assumed that I do this for a living. As for what I am. Well that’s far more complex of course. But unfortunately the human race likes to have a complex view of themselves and yet a simple view of those around them. One day, we may not feel the need to be able to describe another human with a single word, a single definition. Until then silly arguments like this will continue.


  52. Really good point, I love this post.
    I felt the same kind if discrimination sometimes.
    Art is art and money is money they can live together but they are not dependent on each other.

    I will talk about his in my blog also and link to this entry. Thank you for write about this.

  53. Thanks very much for taking the time to write this post. Yes, I read the whole thing and as an amateur I will keep at it. I read a quote somewhere “Buying a Nikon does not make you a photographer, it just makes you a Nikon owner” I think this can be expanded to include people who make money out of selling their pics.

    Sorry I did not read the entire comment chain so I may have repeated what has already been said.

    Thank you again,
    An encouraged amateur

  54. i would like to comment on how Mr. Thawley’s analogy between the guy with a gun. i think it’s kinda lame and stupid. there’s a big difference between owning and using. if you own a camera for collection or something which will be ultimately consigned in your display room, you can’t actually call him a photographer.same with the gun if you just own,it without using it falls under the same category.

    thank you

  55. I guess Vincent Van Gough would never be considered a “real” painter since he never made any money in his life from his work?

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  57. At a time where I struggle to find my identity as a “photographer” on a personal level, this is refreshing. When I am shooting around other photographers, one of two things happen. One, you find yourself around photographers of all different levels in their craft that act as a part of a large community and are such a positive influence. This interaction bring out the best in me and helps me reach new levels of what I am capable of. The second scenario is like you walked in on a CIA meeting and you are just a person off of the street with no business being there. This group I know are thinking “photographer” is an earned status that they must give to you to be allowed to use that label. Reason I know this is I have been told that before by being asked backhanded questions that implied I was not the same as them. I truly believe that each us has a maximum potential to this creative vision (while I believe technical capacity is not limited as long as someone is willing to learn). As David says Vision is something we have to develop as individuals but the capability within us is still going to bloom even without the acceptance of the second type of photographers. From reading the comments here it looks like we are all safe here in reaching our full bloom.

  58. I completely agree with the arguments presented in this post. The word Pro seems to be thrown around pretty easily these days. A lot of people have a tendency to associate quality with the word Pro, but as we all know it’s not always the case. I’ve seen portfolios from Pros that did absolutely nothing for me, and pictures on Flickr from “amateurs” that were absolutely breathtaking. Someone who has a good eye for photography would certainly choose quality work from an amateur over mediocre work from a Pro.

  59. So here’s a new spin on this. I think I (and the use of “I’ is important here) crossed the line to photographer when I moved from “taking” photos to “giving” images.
    Last year I got involved in a large, ongoing, project of portraits of the homeless and poor in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side. Up until that point I had taken photos that I liked, others liked, and I thought had some small “art” to them.
    But I didn’t invest anything in those photographs.
    This project took me into a whole new place where holding a camera and creating an image was just part of the power of what we do. The process and the product was a great gift for the community members I work with; but may be an even great gift for myself and the two other photographers on the project.
    And, in the end, I’m a better photographer (OK I’m now start to identify myself as that) and person for the experience.
    So how about a definition of a photographer that starts with “someone that gives and image…”?

  60. There are those who lend a hand to help others reach a higher level and those who seem intent on keeping others in their place or putting them down. Thanks, David, as always, for the inspiration and encouragement to live and work with passion, no matter what we get paid to do.

    Hope you are resting, …plz approach the TweetDeck with caution. 🙂

  61. David I really appreciate you thoughts! Very inspiring! You should check out this guy named Patrick Dodson. He speaks alot about this. LEt me know wht you think if you get a chance to listen to him. You can find him on iTunes.

  62. Nice sermon David…well said. My buddy Ken Rockwell posted a piece years ago called the 7 levels of photogarphers many of you here have probably already seen it…if not you’ll have a few laughs reading it: http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/7.htm
    Bottom line on your sermon, Ken’s piece, and those who have written in, seems to be that photography occurs on many levels and each has its’ place. For me, it all comes down to the image……digital, film, professional, amateur…who cares…show me a good shot; one that moves me, motivates me, makes me care, makes me laugh, makes me cry, or pisses me off…it’s all about the image….everything else is superfluous.

  63. Bravo! I have always believed that those who want to put such an exclusive box around anything do so out of a lack of confidence in their own abilities.

    I am a photographer. I have always been a photographer. I will always be a photographer. It is at the heart of who I am. Money does not enter the equation in that definition.

  64. Writers write
    Photographers photograph

    Some better than others but all are still writers and photographers.

  65. As said many times over.. Amen. I just found your site today. Great stuff. And I love your style of preachin my friend. 🙂 When I first wanted to be a photographer I got the run around by several people.. and now some of those guys hate me because I am the “amateur with a nice camera” that under cuts their costs. Heck, that program that gives disposable cameras to kids and publishes those photos proves this exact point. They are photographers, they capture what they experience and feel, to which we view it and reflect so.

    Anywho.. good stuff. Thanks man.


  66. I think I have been very fortunate to have met, through websites, blogs and forums a few “professional” photographers who very freely give their advice and help to emerging, ameteur, hobbyist photographers. I have learned so much from them and owe them a great deal of thanks. To me that is a huge sign of professionalism. It has nothing to do with money, equipment or status it is just one photographer helping another.

  67. well said david.
    my blind friend took a picture w my camera the other day. all he needed was a little direction as to where to point the camera, someone on the other end to smile, and for him to press the button. in the same way you can give a camera to a monkey and you might get the same results… my blind friend has passion…for life, family and women, but maybe not for photography. the monkey likes to fling poo at tourists and clean bugs off of their friends. i dont believe having the ability to press a button makes you a photographer, nor does getting paid for taking pictures the sole determiner for being called a professional photographer. photography and art go back to the idea of vision and passion. you have it or you dont. the question of can you learn it i will leave to greater minds…

  68. Well put, David. Bravo!

    You know what? Now that I DON’T work in photography, I’m doing the best work of my life. I don’t have a client to please. I only have my whims and my muse to worry about. It’s highly liberating and rewarding. 🙂

  69. wow mate well done… I’m trying to get a group around but sometimes is hard because they have good lens and stuff so they are not really worried to talk with you because you are learning and you bring a 18-75mm kit lens I hate that kind of people..sorry for my mistakes!

  70. Thank you for expressing this and giving credit to those who are not gauging “success” and credibility by how much they make from their photography.

    I am passionate about my photography but I have decided, at least for now, not to make it my career. I am doing this purely for my own enjoyment and learning as much as I can to grow.

    I take photos primarily for my own enjoyment and of course, anyone else that decides to join me on my visual journeys.

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  76. Words so inspiring that they made me tear up! This means that no only are you a photographer, but you are also a writer (another category of awe and reverence and want-to-be longing on my behalf:) ). Thanks for the encouragement.

  77. Still waiting for you to write something I don’t agree with… you have this annoying habit of telling me exactly what i need/want to hear. Keep it up. 🙂

    after 10 months in a room with 44 other wanna/soon to be pro photographers, im sure you can gather how many times this conversation has gone around the table.

    The one thing that seemed to always be underlying in the definition of the ‘real’ part was the threat that non paid photogs posed to those who were doing it for a living.

    Not that the amateur wasn’t capable, but rather that they were as capable and free, to their friends families and coworkers. It seemed the underlying influence was never who was better or more capable, but who was getting paid, or not paid as a result.

    The intimidation factor that comes with making you not feel good enough to be a “real” photog if your unpaid, keeps you from having the guts to do free bees for friends, and possibly have success. By squashing you before you even try, they get to book the wedding at full price, and you get a nice steak dinner. (Ive had that steak dinner before )

    Its unfortunate but the people who seem to need to define who is real or not real with dollar signs are looking for validation in the wrong place, anybody can get paid.

    Standing on the line coming from an amateur, and hopefully now heading towards doing it vocationally, your words remind me that no matter how many times ive been told that there is little market for travel photographers anymore, if i do it with the passion i have for it, my images will find their place in this world.

    i would rather be a broke travel/humanitarian photog, than a well paid mediocre wedding photog, because that is where my passion lies.

  78. Have been following your blog for a while now and I must say Thank you! for this post. Very inspiring and encouraging.

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  80. This is the best article I’ve read in a long time. There is no better way to put it. I am yearning to become a pro photographer but that doesn’t mean I don’t consider myself a photographer now. I know many people that take photos and never want to sell them, but they are just as much a photographer as I am.

    For me, I want the word “photographer” as a career title, so it’s very personal decision. Also one that will require training and ups and downs. That is okay, I don’t mind. What I don’t like is being judged before I even begin the journey. Like any hobby or career, how good you are at something depends a lot on how much you put into it. Still, a ‘real’ photographer in my opinion is anyone that considers themselves a real photographer. We don’t have to take tests like doctors do. But then again, we don’t have amateur doctors.

  81. I have been making photographs for 41 years and aspired to be a professional photographer 38 years ago. In 1973, I discovered Fine Art Photography and it changed my life. I shot my own vision through the eyes I developed. I had exhibitions, sold prints and became semi-famous. Today, I shoot portraits of women, album covers and concert photos of musicians, but I am still not a professional photographer. Yes, I do get paid for my work, but I am still not a professional photographer. I make a rather handsome sum in another profession, but I’ll kick your ass if you think that I am not a photographer.
    In response to Jason Hill (above). Every time you trip the shutter, you are taking a test.
    Great post, David. Thanks Jimmy D.
    Peace, Love and Harmony

  82. David, You really nailed the elitist attitude of “professional photographers” with this quote:
    “……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.”
    I just completed a trip to Morocco with a travel photographer who is the epitome of the type that you are talking about. I hope that everyone reads your post and your book, WTF. It stresses the importance of having a personal relationship with the environment and its inhabitants both as an artist and a fellow human being.
    Thanks so much for expressing these thoughts.

  83. Incredible article. Thank you for affirming what I feel I’ve been saying to several people for a long time now. Confidence in what you do is so important to expression, and the people who say such negative all-inclusive things about photography are just trying to knock others down.

  84. Wow, this is should seriously find its way into a couple of photography magazines! Great article! I absolutely love photography and for the time and money that I put into it, I’d be quite offended if someone suggested I wasn’t a photographer because I make my living in another profession.
    To Don Rice (above) “Every time you trip the shutter, you are taking a test.” – epic. I think I’m going to put that quote on the back of my contact card. ^_^
    Thanks David, I’m looking forward to reading your book.

  85. I just came from a board That justifies any criticism with the claim that they have lots of clients who love their style of photography. I got so tired of that excuse that I ranted about it and “negative space” that I finally got knocked off the board. I don’t blame them. It had come to the point where entire threads were discussing me instead of photography. I’m sure you have heard about it.

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  87. Yea! I’m a photographer! I’ll leave it to the professionals to professionally hash out what makes a professional. Making $.03 on a print? Then I’m a pro (let’s see if the land lord will take an art print as this months payment).

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  89. I LOVE THIS!

    And you know it’s not just in photography….I love all art forms including photography, writing, pencil drawing, design….and so 20 years ago I chose Interior Design to take in college.

    I quit after 2 years, I was discouraged by the ELITISM of our professors and teachers who had this annoying attitude that their student minions would never understand or achieve the greatness and superiority of their craft…EVER. No I will never understand that attitude about anything or anyone and have tried to remember that throughout my career. I decided to make something of myself in another profession after travelling the world following my “failure” at design school. It pays me well enough and though mostly some could only get here with a minimum of a college or university degree, I strived to be a success in my chosen industry despite my lack of formal schooling.

    Flash forward to the present and the birth of my first child my passion for photography reignited. I was taking pictures like CRAZY! And not just of babies…everything. Eventually, got myself a nice entry level DSLR and took a course and only 6 months later people asking me to take their pictures and they will pay me!! Certainly I am elated to hear this at the same time I feel this anxiety of “do I deserve this??” and “but I am not a professional”. Here we go again…that old thing following me around again.

    I came across this blog today and I am SOOOOO happy to have read this. For one, it reminds me to stay grounded, and helps me to keep putting one foot in front of the next…keep taking pictures, don’t forget the passion for being creative and recognize my talent for what it is, and that if I have this talent I have a reponsibility to share it with people so that this art form doesn’t become dull and boring.

    Afterall, where would MUSIC be if we didn’t have these “so-called musicians” that entertain people and in dark jazzy joints in front of small crowds, inspiring FUTURE musicians with their cutting edge sounds.

    In every art form, someone has to be out there in the field, just for the passion of doing it…keepin’ it alive, and keepin’ it real.

  90. Just a tiny bit late but here is my comment…I think the use of the word “real” could mean experience. You can not be a photographer if you can not use your camera. It takes experience to work the controls quickly and cleanly. It takes experience to understand the rules of composition and it takes experience to understand when to break the rules. Some times intentions are not enough (amateur vs. professional, love vs. paycheck). When the photographer has experience, he can forget about the operation stuff with the camera controls and concentrate on the task at hand: making acceptable images. A “real photographer” is experienced and competent. A novice is not.
    Just my take on this great post. Thanks.
    PS-the real question: Should a photographer be called a craftsman if he has never been in a “real” darkroom? I believe you can’t call yourself a photographer if you don’t understand the art and CRAFT of photography. And no, digital imagery is not photography.

  91. Many people are obessed with labels that fit their own ideas. Being “a photographer” can mean different things to different people. Of course receiving pay makes you a professional, but it doesn’t mean that person is a better photographer than someone that does it for fun.

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