f/Egor: Term Limits

Term Limits
(A Diatribe in 3 Harumphs)

PROLOGUE

I see him hovering in the fringes of my peripheral vision — analyzing me; analyzing my camera; analyzing my subject. He begins strolling toward me. I take a deep breath, grit my teeth and wait for the inevitable…

“You a photographer?” he asks, nodding at my camera.

“Aren’t we all?” I grumble, hoping to quickly diffuse the exchange.

He nods in agreement, oblivious to my response. “So you a pro?”

“Only when someone pays me,” I reply.

“Me too!” he laughs, failing for a second time to decode my cunningly crafted verbal hints. “Well, I don’t actually do it full time, but all my friends tell me I should go for it. I was the second shooter at my sister’s wedding last year. They hired a wedding photographer, but I actually shot more frames than he did. Everyone thought the pics were great, and I didn’t even own a Nikon then.”

He thrusts the camera toward my face as if to prove his point.

“You shooting street?” he asks, without waiting for an answer. “How long you been pro? What kind of camera is that? You on Flickr?”

“Sorry, man… gotta go. Late for a client meeting,” I lie.

“OK. Nice meeting you. Maybe we can work together sometime…” his voice trails off in the distance.

HARUMPH 1

What are we? How do we define ourselves? Convention says we’re photographers. I call myself a photographer. You likely call yourself a photographer. When someone takes a series of photographs we admire, we all say “now that’s a photographer!”

The last time I looked, Leica had 173,000 fans on Facebook. Discounting the 7 brainiacs who are actually optical physicists and another 4 who thought it was a site about Laika, the first dog to orbit the earth, that leaves… well… 173,000 people unaccounted for. Flickr states over 6 million people visit their site each month, and DPReview claims that more than 80 million of us land on their pages in a year. Heck, I’ve even got a pocketful of people subscribing to the RSS feeds on my ULTRAsomething site.

Who are all these people?

They are photographers — one and all — each suggestive of the fact that the word “photographer” has become an utterly meaningless label.

The most frequently repeated conversation in my life occurs in coffee shops, where the barista asks, “The usual?” and I reply, “Yep.” The second most frequently repeated conversation in my life occurs when people tell me that they, or their friend, sibling, co-worker or spouse are “good enough to be a professional photographer.”

What does this mean?

Besides further confirming the obvious — that nearly everyone in the world is now a photographer — it also illustrates that most people don’t have a clue what it means to be a professional photographer.

The word “professional” is not an adjective. Well… OK… actually it is. But it’s not a synonym for “great,” “talented,” “brilliant” or “awesome.” It doesn’t mean your photos are in focus and properly exposed — if it did, there would be billions of professionals. It doesn’t mean you have an expensive camera and more lenses than a politician has enemies — if it did, there would be millions of professionals. It doesn’t mean you take interesting, compelling and appealing photos — if it did, there would be tens of thousands of professionals.

Being professional simply means that you are paid to take photos, and that you are paid enough to call it a “profession.” And this is precisely the reason why there aren’t many professional photographers any more. How could there be? Now that everyone identifies themselves as a photographer, why would they actually pay someone else to take a photo? In fact, I’ll go so far as to proclaim that becoming a professional photographer has less to do with one’s ability as a photographer than with one’s ability as a salesman. It’s been said that a good salesman can sell sand in a desert — certainly a desirable skill for anyone wishing to sell photographic services to a world full of photographers.

HARUMPH 2

“Photographer” is a vestigial term — presently misinterpreted by historical connotations that we all still apply in spite of the fact they’re no longer applicable. A photographer is and always has been, by definition, “a camera operator.” Period. 100 years ago, when not a lot of people could operate cameras and the whole photographic process required considerable training, knowledge and expense, being a photographer implied something more substantial — it meant you paid your dues, learned a set of skills, and offered a service few others could perform.

Calling yourself a “photographer” today is as trivial as calling yourself a “looker.” After all, the vast majority of mankind is perfectly capable of looking at something, just as they are perfectly capable of photographing something. And no one would ever hire a professional looker would they?

Actually they would.

People hire private investigators whose anonymity allows them to look more discreetly at something of interest. We hire nannies to look after our kids so we can go look at something else. We hire lawyers to look at legal documents that are too confusing for us to decipher. We pay police to look for clues we’re not trained to see, doctors to look at ourselves (even though we all have perfectly good mirrors), and security personnel to look at our luggage before we board a plane. We hire real estate agents to look for our houses, chemists to look for alternative fuel supplies, and pest control companies to look for bedbugs. Every one of these people is a professional looker — but none of them are dumb enough to actually call themselves “lookers.”

No lawyer refers to himself as a “loophole looker.” Nannies are not “offspring lookers.” Everyone is capable of performing the simple act of looking, so the term “looker” is of absolutely no value in defining one’s profession. Instead, the various “looking” professions are distinguished by what one looks for and the services that they provide.

With this in mind, those of us who rely on a camera — whether for personal expression or for next month’s rent — need to neologize the word “photographer” right out of existence. It’s an albatross with lead feet and two broken wings.

HARUMPH 3

I am a man who observes human behavior. I endeavor to anticipate the precise moment at which a human’s actions are the most poignant, ironic or meaningful, and then push a button on a mechanical device to record that moment for detailed examination by sociologists, humanists, historians or the just plain curious. Most would call me a photographer. On a more granular level, they would qualify me as a documentary or street photographer.

Some people travel to beautiful locales. They endeavor to find the precise coordinates at which the region’s beauty is at its most aesthetically appealing, and then push a button on a mechanical device to record that scene for the purpose of informing all those who could not make the journey themselves. Most would call these people “photographers.” On a more granular level, we would qualify them as landscape photographers.

Curiously — aside from the fact we both ultimately push a button to complete our tasks — the combination of skills, vision, temperament, equipment and mechanics required to perform these two missions have almost nothing in common with each other. Yet we’re both lumped together as “photographers” — the implication being “if you’re good at one, you’re good at the other.” You might as well toss in fashion photography, astro photography, lifestyle photography, forensic photography, spirit photography, and “here’s a picture of my cat” photography.

Do people believe that if a coworker writes a cohesive email, then that coworker is perfectly capable of becoming a novelist? Of course not. The skill required to write a novel is much different than the skill required to write an email, technical document, legal brief, poem, comedy sketch, or an editorial capable of challenging people’s minds and perceptions. Each of these disciplines is performed by a “writer,” but no one has delusions that writing a thank-you note to Granny qualifies them to bump elbows with Hemingway. People have been writing for a lot longer than they’ve been photographing. And therein lies the problem — photography is still new enough in the context of human history that we haven’t yet learned to disassociate the word “photographer” from the word “artist.”

Many working pros are angry that the Instagram crowd has stolen their photojournalism jobs; or that the CEO’s nephew absconded with the corporate website photo assignment; or that everyone’s Uncle Mike is taking jobs away from wedding photographers. These pros, struggling to define the difference between their work and the dilettantes, proclaim themselves “real” photographers, as if to imply all these other people are not photographers. But they are photographers. They are camera operators — the same as all of us.

The reality is that 95% of the time, the photojournalist will take more compelling and contextual pictures; the trained corporate photographer will deliver more powerful and persuasive content for a business website; and a dedicated lifestyle and event photographer will create a more memorable portfolio of someone’s wedding. But since society still applies the term “photographer” to each of these disciplines, they’re perceived as tasks that can easily be performed by anyone who’s labeled a photographer — which is just about everybody.

We need to fit the term “photographer” with a pair of concrete shoes, and drop it in the nearest lake. Those of us who believe we have a unique visual communication skill need to define ourselves by what, exactly, that skill is — and not by the equipment we use to realize it.

A novelist is not a “fictional typist.”

A hair stylist is not a “topical scissorist.”

A sommelier is not an “articulate drinker.”

Photography is no longer a unique ability — but the numerous tasks we can accomplish with photography are still unique. And this uniqueness is how each of us, moving forward, must define ourselves.

EPILOGUE

I see him hovering in the fringes of my peripheral vision — analyzing me; analyzing my camera; analyzing my subject. He begins strolling toward me. I take a deep breath, grit my teeth and wait for the inevitable…

“You a photographer?” he asks, nodding at my camera.

“No. I’m a momentist.” I reply.

“A what?” he asks.

“A documentary poet. A snarkicist. An encapsulator.” I reel off a string of alternate terms, watching for one to strike a chord.

“Wow, what is that?” queries the fellow.

“Technically,” I answer, “I’m a Human Proclivities Visual Artist, specializing in Wily Human Observational Recording — a W.H.O.R. for short.”

“Cool, replies the Nikon toter. “I’m hoping to specialize in Ego Inflationary Face and Body Re-pixelation myself, but that’s obviously going to take me years of practice and study.”

“Best of luck,” I reply, “Gotta go… I’m late for a client meeting.” And this time, I’m not lying.

-grEGORy simpson

grEGORy simpson is a professional “pounder.” You may find him pounding on his computer keyboard, churning out articles for both the Leica Blog and his own blog at photography.ULTRAsomething.com. Or you may hear him pounding on a musical keyboard, composing music and designing new sounds. Frequently, he’s out pounding city pavement and photographing humans simply being. And that sound you hear? That’s either the sound of him pounding on doors trying to get hired or, more likely, it’s the sound of him pounding his head against the wall when he doesn’t. Fellow pounders are welcome to follow along on the ULTRAsomething Facebook page or G+ account.