On Real Photographers

In Rants and Sermons by David53 Comments

Photograph: My friend, and inspiration, Chris Orwig

My first experiences of being part of a group of my peers did not go well. My memories of being in school are mostly filled with my efforts to fit in, and the efforts of others to keep me out. The new kid. The smaller kid. The kid with the funny name. So I come honestly by my desire to see others included.

So when I hear people complain that “now everyone has a camera and suddenly everyone’s a photographer” I hear the same old, fear-driven, mean-spirited, zeitgeist of the schoolyard.

The same craft, beautiful for it’s democratic nature, that admitted you, and admitted me, will admit others. And with the same tools we picked up with such wonder, those others will make photographs. That’s what cameras do. And it’s what people who own them do. And they will, in that moment, become photographers: makers of photographs.

They are not faux-tographers. They are not necessarily “just camera-owners”. Neither are they DSLR-monkeys, or whatever other pejorative seems clever at the time. Shame on you. Shame on us as an industry.

We’re so fond of definitions and categories. We need them. Without them how would we exclude those who threaten us, threaten our living, or our artistic sensibilities? Have you ever noticed how conveniently those definitions always include us, how the borders defined by the exclusion they map out seem to change in relation to the way we change? We are always in. They are always out. Isn’t it suspiciously convenient that we get to draw the line?

It used to be that being a Photographer-with-a-capital-P meant something. Let’s not kid ourselves, though, it did not mean we created quality work. Mediocrity has plagued us as much as it’s plagued every other craft out there. No, it meant – at a minimum – that we had expensive gear, some experience, and the knowledge to combine those. I’m talking about the professionals here. And we had scarcity on our side. That, my friends, is what has changed. And now we have to compete – those of us that are gluttons enough for punishment that we want to do this for a living – on the same ground that the rest of the world has to compete: value. (Not price. Value.)

Still talking to the pros here: digital did not kill our business. Our failure to respond to shifting market conditions did. Stock did not kill our business, our failure to adapt did. Free did not put us out of work. Our failure to provide value did. And while the photographers I hear complaining about others undercutting them are busy shopping on Amazon (meanwhile, nearby, one bookseller says to another: Amazon is killing my business, it’s not fair!) and between rants about micro-stock killing their business, they’re downloading free digital content and royalty-free stock music for their slideshows in a separate browser window.

Look, I feel your pain. I do. But can we all, please, drop the entitlement? It’s not getting us anywhere. It’s not putting food on the table. It’s taking up air that could be used to engage that creative brain of yours to be as creative with your business and the finding value for your audience, your market, that has nothing to do with the fact that you own a camera and know how to use it. A rising tide floats all the boats. If it doesn’t it’s because your boat has a hole in it. Stop pissing into the water and yelling at the winds and fix your boat. Careen that ship immediately, scrape the barnacles, plug the holes, and get back to sailing as best you can.

The arguments are wearing thin. They’re made from very human places, I know that. Made from the fear that others will surpass us. Made from the fear we’ll be overlooked, or the fear that, if we’re honest with ourselves, we were never as noticed as we’d hoped in the first place. I get that it’s wildly frustrating when someone looks at your work (at my work! The photographs I poured my heart, and 30 years of trial and many errors!) and says, What a good camera you must have.

And we respond. We say no one’s a chef just because they own pots. We say no one’s an author just because they use a typewriter. And we pat ourselves on the back for our cleverness. I’ve done it too. But while it makes us feel better, it’s precious and specist and doesn’t recognize its own glaring lack of humility. Just owning a camera and using it to make photographs doesn’t make you a photographer? Really? What do these new photographers have to do to cross our magic line? Make photographs we like, that match our changing standards? Make photographs for as long, or longer, than we have? Where’s the line? Who gets to decide? My God I hope it’s not us, because too many of us are proving ourselves to be self-protective, petty, exclusionary, and elitist. Lump me in with the faux-tographers, because they just seem to want to make photographs. I bet they’re enjoying the journey.

Being a photographer doesn’t mean you create good art. True. But then neither does having a business card with the word professional.

Our categories are useless. Harmful, even. They separate us. They keep us siloed and cut off from generosity and openness and collaboration. They keep us focused on our own “qualifications” and not on the audiences and markets we should be finding new ways to serve, to inspire, to connect with. Our scarcity mentality is hurting us. It’s stopping us from being creative about making a living. The world owes us nothing, which is hard to accept when we’ve paid for a degree, invested in gear, or bought business cards, only to find out the universe doesn’t give a damn, and cares only about what value we bring.

I am a photographer. I make photographs. I have since I was 14. You may not like them. You may have very particular feelings about whether they are or are not art. But, friends, we can do better than defining for others what they are not. What I wouldn’t give to stop with the further qualifications – professional means nothing. Amateur means nothing (it should). The only thing that means something in this context is your work. That you do your work. That it excites you, that it moves you, that it does what you hope for it, and that – for most of us – it touches a wider audience. Looking at others and putting them into the boxes that make us feel better about our art, or boxes that cast them as the scapegoats for the fact that we’re not succeeding the way we wished we were, won’t get us a hair’s-width closer to better art or better business.

This is an opinion piece. You might not agree with it. The comments might fill with the inevitable “Yeah, but…!” Fine. These subjects can be deeply emotional, and sometimes that comes out in less than graceful ways. My regulars are respectful and kind people. But the nature of the internet is that the rooms are open to all. Comments are open. But this is my blog – my living room – and I set the rules: no respect, no kindness, no comments. I’ll delete your ass if you’re not compassionate and constructive. This post is an argument for inclusion, renewed creativity, and an abundance mentality – if you want to argue against that, check out WordPress.com where you can get your own blog. I’m in the middle of moving house and start travelling soon, so please don’t come to pick a fight – my lack of response will only give you an aneurism. Go make photographs while you wait.


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  2. Ha! Love it! Maybe it’s because I sit on the side of the fence of a person that transitioned from being an amature, to a pro. Whatever the both mean but I’d like to stick to one of the comment’s above reference i.e. pro being one that makes money out of it/ do it for a living because hats off, there are amateurs out there that are far “better” than I am. As you said in on of your your books/ blogs, I shoot for the love of it. And if being an amateur means that you’re on a journey, then I will always call myself an amateur because I don’t want to arrive somwehere because that just means it’s the end of the line. Another quote, “I want to do this, for the rest of my life, as an amateur: for the love of the photograph”. Also loved this blog – https://davidduchemin.com/2009/11/just/

  3. Well said Dave! Thanks for highlighting the real pain of amateur photographers. Actually, I was stumbling for food photography and landed here.

  4. Man, I love it. That “what a good camera you must have” line has happened to me more than once–by my girlfriend (at the time) no less! I thought I’d be witty and the next time her mom made dinner, I said casually, “wow, this dinner is exquisite! what a good set of pots and pans you must have!” but no one really got it then… and then later she broke up with me, but that’s beside the point. I want the “well, take it or leave it, I know it’s good, and I poured everything into it” attitude to solidify in me… but maybe a part of my fear is I know deep down I can do better, and I haven’t even come close to pouring everything into it. Great post again David. Thanks always for your raw perspective and challenge from afar.

  5. I love this post. It calls us out of the sometimes snobbish attitudes photographers are known for. The ones who show up with a super fancy heavy lens and big body and immediately think the guys and gals holding what they call “point and shoots” should step aside. I imagine these such attitudes were prevalent during those early transition days of film into digital. I’ve read rants by film “purists” who downcried the whole digital advent and staked their claim as fact that anyone who shoots digital is not a “real photographer”. We are a strange breed indeed. what difference does it make whether we make great images with a D4s vs a smartphone on a selfie stick? At the end of the day a great image is a great image no matter how it was produced or by whom.

  6. David,

    Well said. Wow, I agree on every point. I even thought it was so interesting that you had to go as far as to address those that might ridicule the post (or others) at the end of your article. I can’t even imagine that possible…that someone could disagree with these statements.

    One of the first things I learned as a photographer was to never compare my photographic journey to another’s…and in that so much has been learned. Who is to decide what the criteria becomes for “real” photographers? Yes, success is success and running an amazing business is one thing. Yet, artistry is clearly a different story. Artistry, is any form is deemed beautiful in the eye of the artist. And that is all that really matters.
    Best…love reading your stuff…

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  10. Everyone sould read this in conjunction with Theodore Levitt’s ‘Marketing Myopia’.

  11. Hi David,

    I enjoyed reading this blog post about photographers. I’m a photographer in Vancouver and on Friday I saw a film titled ‘The Salt of the Earth’. It is about the Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado who is seen through the eyes of two men: his son, film director Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, who tries to get to know a father who was often away from home, and Wim Wenders, a photographer himself and an admirer of Salgado’s work. For forty years , Salgado has traveled across continents in the footsteps of a changing humanity. If you get a chance it’s playing at the Fifth Avenue Cinemas. A film about a master photographer.

  12. Well said.
    Our opinions (or in this case, attempts at classifications and judgements) of others say much more about ourselves, than they do of those we opine about.

  13. Great post. Really appreciate you sharing your vision and insights, they are a source of inspiration! and your humor brings a good laugh 🙂 So easy to get lost in the hype, criticism, negativity, fear, and insecurity – and so helpful to be brought back out of it.

  14. Great words to ponder and incorporate as we each live our lives and art. Those who complain have lost sight of the fact that we continually have to create value in everything we approach in life.

    As I read this I was reminded of a passage from Max Ehrman’s Desiderata:

    “Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
    they are vexations to the spirit.
    If you compare yourself with others,
    you may become vain and bitter;
    for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
    Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.”

    Thank you for the inspiration of your art and words.

    1. Thank you Bob for sharing this passage from Max Ehrman’s Desiderata. Great to read. I also do agree with you ”that we continually have to create value in everything we approach in life… ”
      Take care…

  15. Amen.
    This one goes on the “fridge” per se. Thanks for the reminder to do my work and stop worrying about where I fit in.
    I’ve been reluctantly thinking about starting a photography club in my area for anyone who’s interested. No limits, no divisions. A cooperative of sorts.
    I’m not sure where it will go, but thanks for the nudge!
    (I think I’ll share your post to get things rolling.)

  16. I remember having this conversation in Italy with you and a couple others in 2012. Some things will never change, and human fear and insecurity is one of them. I agree with your sentiments in this post-and I’m so glad someone takes the time to post about it. It cuts both ways too. You have a person, newly minted with a camera, with a great eye, too shy or uncertain to call themselves a photographer yet. Even though this is what they want to do, and it’s better than some of the so called professionals in the area. Yet it’s those said professionals that will be he first that will knock that person down for being an “amateur” or not professional. And not just to their dace, but to potential clients. People, let their portfolios speak for themselves! If someone wants to hire a photographer with less experience they will see it in their portfolio and previous work for customers. But let the customer decide, don’t bash the next up and coming photographer because you are feeling insecure.
    David, his is a great post. Well said. I hope the move goes well for you and Cynthia! Best of luck!

  17. David,
    You are a wise and kind man. I respect the hell out of you. Thank you for your kick in the butt and your inspiration. I shoot to feed my soul.

  18. Coundn’t agree with you more David, much better to do what you do, find your market and live your life that worry about the fact that others are doing well.

    Moose Peterson once said if you see a mediocre photographer making a good living, you have a lot to learn from them about marketing, don’t whine but learn from everyone!

  19. Brilliant. You have such a way to bring it all back into focus, with such meaning and clarity. Really made my day and it is what I try to believe each day no matter what is said and done.

  20. Thank you David for sharing your thoughts and opinion…

    I do ignore if I am a professional photographer, or an amateur or a mediocre photographer, but what I know is that photography is a way for me to evolve, to serve and to express… For some, I am a professional photographer and for others I am an amateur and for the other others I am a mediocre photographer… at the end it doesn’t really matter as no one is right and no one is wrong as this is between the Muse and me on that specific day of our journey… The market, the buyer, the consumer is the judge, the one who decides whether or not what I do is professional enough and good enough for him or her…
    Take good care and thanks again…

    1. “photography is a way for me to evolve, to serve and to express…”
      Well said!

      Thank you David for another blog post with heart. If you ‘write with light’, you’re a photographer.

  21. I am so glad that someone had finally the guts to say it all loud and bare. So incisive and beautifully written article. If I could only write half as good I would be happy.
    Thanks a lot for your clever insights!

  22. Your blog is a reflection on life and the human condition. Thank you for having the humility to share it with us – we all relate to your words. Sharing your inner thoughts can help others who are feeling the same, or are at a similar point on their own journey.
    You don’t need to justify your art to anyone – it is yours and it is what it is. We all strive to create as you do and hopefully we enjoy the experience.
    Continue the journey and have fun doing it. When art loses its joy it becomes only a job. Might as well be an accountant if that is the case.
    Keep clicking, keep feeling the light

  23. I am a hobbyist and family photographer. I’m not a pro, but I get inspiration from the pros and am grateful for the ways their work has guided me in my hobby. The longer I do this, the more I appreciate the pros. Thank you, all!

  24. I am an amateur photographer, I used to care what others thought, now, meh, I leave them to their opinions. I love nothing more than trying new things with my camera, I have got to the point now where if I enjoy what I’m doing, that is all that matters. If others like my work, that is a bonus. I know some pros would consider me a ‘monkey with a camera,’ and honestly, I don’t care, people that judgmental never have figured in my group of friends anyway.
    Thank you David for these words of wisdom, you have renewed my conviction to keep on shooting, to keep on experimenting.

  25. How wonderfully connected, vulnerable, compassionate, and brilliantly written!! Thank you again and again as everything I read that you write strikes a deep cord, one that has been aching to be played.

    I hate the competition, the lack of inclusion, and feel we are all so much better together than trying to make it alone.

    It can be so frustrating when hundreds of people “like” a sunset snapshot and only a few like the art we have poured our heart into…

    I am still in inquiry

  26. Well said David. It’s interesting to me that some feel the need to tear another artist down, because at the end of the day, its our unique perspective on life that makes us valuable to potential clients anyway, not conformity. I think you’re right; its just the school yard bully mentality that has yet to go away, and is just a sign of insecurity with the bully’s own work. Value is in the eye of the beholder really, and the real creative effort is as you said, to stay fresh with our own work. I feel like if the effort that was put into talking about who’s a pro and who’s not was directed towards coming up with fresh ideas, it would be time better spent!

    That being said, I think there can be some things that separate a true professional from their peers. Someone who runs his/her business well and creates great value for his/her clients I think are marks of professionalism, and something that the average person with a camera may or may not be good at or concerned with doing. It takes effort to learn how the industry (in general and the specific side of it we want to be associated with) works, and effort to keep your work in front of clients and people who value it and have a pocketbook to support it so that you can make enough to eat and sleep. Not to say anyone can’t do it, and not a discredit to the person who isn’t or chooses not too. Simply that, in order to make a living from your camera, it does require a certain level of effort and professionalism in order to make it a business that the person who is not trying to make a living from it will not require.

    But school yard antics are….bad business. It’s not going to make you look any better or get any additional clients that’s for sure. Time and effort is better spent elsewhere.

  27. I am a fan, not of just your work, but of your heart for photography and how you express it.

  28. Truth brilliantly written.

    I just create images, with a passion.

    Am I a photographer?

    Yeah, will read more of this blog.


  29. I’m part of an amazing community of musicians hell bent on supporting one another. It’s frustrating being part of one community of artists and knowing how enriching it is for both the experienced and inexperienced and yet I see photographers with a sense of elitism pass on the opportunity to become part of a community of photographers time and again.
    This is the first time I’ve visited your page, but this post has me wanting to read more.
    Well said!

  30. Lol. I really loved your ending postscript paragraph. Refreshing when people speak truth and not be”safe”. For that matter the whole article was good. It is a good challenge to leave the negativity behind and focus on improving oneself. Thanks again David!

  31. So well said, David. Thank you so much.

    I love what I do, and I always will. The passion for me is important, not the “professional” or any boundaries of some other people.

  32. Awesome post, Mr. DuChemin. Thank you so much.
    I am a keen reader of your books and blog posts, and I have to thank you for always talking about these almost perplexing thoughts.
    My wife and I have both gained through the last years of reading your books and discussing your broad-minded ideas. We are both ballet dancers- what most people would call performing artists. We also struggle with the same insecurities.
    There are MANY dancers in this world. The competition is tough, and if you try to compare yourself to others, you can only get hurt. The only way is to be different… to be yourself, and work damn hard.
    We rehearse and practice hours and hours. We literally have to eat, sleep, breathe ballet. We get bombarded with corrections every day.
    It’s always hard to hear about your weaknesses. It doesn’t really get easier. But you have the choice: Either you listen, reflect, and improve, or you stay stubborn and stagnate or even go backwards. The worst thing that could ever happen to any artist is for them to think that they have made it. Like you say in one (or all) of your books, the journey is more important than the goal. Once we label ourselves as accomplished, the journey ends.
    I am planning to one day, once my body decides that it has been enough jumping around and lifting girls, make the transition to make photographs for a living. I am already testing the waters, like you suggested, and all of the thoughts and insecurities you always discuss are very present.
    The photographer that takes photos of our performances at the theatre is always complaining. Too many new kids on the block for him. And no money. I don’t know why he does it then. I see him as a machine that just goes there and shoots us with his 11fps hoping for the best.
    I can only hope that one day I will remember the lessons that I have learned. But luckily we have people like you, David, that help us stay open minded and remind us to be humble.
    With gratitude, Admill Kuyler

  33. Very well said, indeed, David! I was talking to someone in the industry recently who has a very successful career, and he was saying much of the same. With the work my wife and I do with our photography here on Vancouver Island, I know what it means to be at the blunt end of the stick sometimes because we don’t practice our craft the way others do. But, through all that experience I find our love for the craft and for this magical place we call home only grows, and through this love we brush it all aside and continue to do our best. After all, it’s really all we’ve got. I really loved reading your post here and to get a look into your personal insights on this very emotional topic. Please don’t stop doing what you do, there are many of us out there who rely on these words of encouragement and wisdom. Best wishes.

  34. Well thought out and well crafted article David. Having spent over thirty years in in a commission based business I have heard time and again from those that feel they need to charge less to compete. There is a price and value scale and if you cannot prove value people will not pay the price. Having said that if you have an abundance mentality there is always enough for everyone.
    Happy travels 🙂

  35. Very well stated and can be applied to many things – our world is full of definitions and boundaries, mostly applied by others for very much the wrong reasons. As long as we ignore those boundaries, we can define who we are on our own terms, or choose not to define ourselves at all. Either way, it’s up to us and not them. Great form David!

  36. David, you know that since my teens, I’ve constantly met folks who want to lay the definition & gatekeeping game, saying things like they are not a “photographer,” this is not “jazz,” that is not “art.” These folks act like they are speaking as historians, critics or philosophers, but their words almost always come from somewhere else.


    Maybe this is an acute, short term pain we can choose to be in communion with, for the sake of love, friendship or community. Or maybe it is a deeper, unacknowledged pain that can make someone unsafe to be around.

    Whatever it is, we owe it to ourselves, to the ones we love and to the work we hope to accomplish, to ask if the definition & gatekeeping game is really about ideas at all, or simply about injuries.

    1. Author

      Beautifully put. And much shorter. Pain. Fear. All of this is very human – or maybe counter-human, but very much part of our condition. I’m hoping the more inclusive we become, the more we can, in small ways, be part of relationships that comfort, if not heal, that pain.

  37. I recently left a comment on a “professional” photographers page who had posted an April Fool’s blog about the homogeneity of images on the internet along with ten other photographers poking fun at how everyone’s tripod leg seemed to find the same pothole. I found it snarky and questioned this person’s ability to lead photography workshops and consultations.

    It wasn’t so long ago that artists sat at the feet of masters, either in studio or in a museum, copying, copying, copying for years and sometimes lifetimes to find their own vision.

    We are all in our own place and time in becoming – thoughtful human beings, good at our chosen career’s, and photographers.

  38. As usual David…you’re honest and open opinion is right on the mark. That’s why I keep coming back. I loved your last bit….made me laugh out loud.
    I’m an amateur, always striving to improve…thanks for your inclusion and your lessons and most of all your inspiration!!

  39. I usually stick to the definition that a ‘professional’ photographer’ makes their living off photography and ‘amateur’ covers pretty much everyone else. The problem is that the word amateur carries a stigma for many, even myself sometimes.

    As I begin to find my photogrpahic voice and travel to places specifically for the pursuit of this I frequently get people coming up and asking “Are you a pro?” I’m not sure whether they would get down and pray to me if I were to say yes. But do they treat me different for saying no? Are they more likely to walk into my shot?

    In the end it is not worth worrying about the opinions of those all too eager to give them., whoever they are. Am I a good photographer? Who knows. Will I ever get better? Who knows. Does it make me happy? Hell yeah.

    And that, for me, is the point…

  40. Your essay reminds me of this quote:

    “Once the amateur’s naive approach and humble willingness to learn fades away, the creative spirit of good photography dies with it. Every professional should remain always in his heart an amateur.” –Alfred Eisenstaedt

  41. high time to “Stop pissing into the water”. The barrier to entry is low, the rest is up to you. do it because you love it or because you have to and encourage others who share your passion to do the same.

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