Photo-Philosophy

“Are You a Photographer?” – By Frank Wu

“Are you a photographer?” the woman seated next to me on the airplane asked. She had spied my camera bag with two bodies and three extra lenses.

“Are you a model?” I replied, attempting to be funny and complimentary but coming across as both snarky and creepy. Needless to say, that was the end of that conversation.

The truth is that I would not claim to be a photographer. I would say I’m a guy who takes photos. I am reluctant to exaggerate, in part for fear of inadvertently insulting professionals who would scoff at the pretense of those who have acquired gear and believe they possess skill. Nowadays everyone fancies himself a photographer, meaning perhaps none of us is — at least very few of us should be bestowing the title upon ourselves.

I have known people I consider “real” photographers. My wife and I lived down the street from a French photographer, assigned to cover American NASA operations when we were sending men to the moon, and on the one occasion he invited us over, to sample the kir royale aperitif (of which he mixed several types), he complained about his son, graduate of an American Ivy League college, who despite his fancy education decided to follow his father, earning a living with a camera. He showed us black and white images of men who had “the right stuff,” ready to blast off when America had the confidence it would win the competition for space circa 1969, and one shot of the woman who would become his wife and then ex-wife, in a go-go outfit that likewise exemplified the era.

My nephew by marriage won a Pulitzer Prize a couple of years back as the director of photography for the St. Louis Post Dispatch newspaper, for coverage of events in Ferguson, Missouri, and he worked in the White House prior to that, overseeing the official website and publishing books. He now runs the leading international photography contest, housed at University of Missouri, his alma mater, where he started his career producing highly technical pictures for an archeological textbook.

Assessed by such standards, I am an amateur, a hobbyist, a dilettante. I could hardly be offended by that status, because photography has been an important avocation since the Kodak Brownie made the art accessible to ordinary consumers. It has been integral to family life. The “Kodak moment” is one of those advertising slogans that became a cultural touchstone.

Yet I do carry two cameras (three counting my smartphone). That is a sign of earnest obsession more than it is of any expertise.

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I suppose in a sense I am a photographer though. I qualify by the measure of sustained interest despite intermittent breaks. When I met my wife, I was enrolled in a college-level course at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., an institution since defunct. I was pursuing self-improvement, and I had signed up to re-learn darkroom techniques. It was the last moment for analog formats before digital technology overwhelmed the world. We were required to bring our own single-lens reflex. I was frugal. I bought a new Sigma with a 24-70mm zoom lens for about $225.

Before I started dating my wife, my primary subject was my dog, Ding Ding, a stray I had adopted as a puppy. Once I started seeing my wife, she became a secondary subject. Sometimes, I had them pose together. Ding Ding was, and my wife remains, long-suffering, as are many of those around any “photographer.”

This past Christmas, relatives made me a pair of coffee mugs. They depicted me photographing my wife, twenty years ago. Added as a caption was the statement the family has heard me utter more than once was they waited, “Hold on, it’s manual focus. . .” These mugs are another marvel. Various vendors will produce them, at rates reasonable enough for middle-class families to order as keepsakes, with your choice of photo reproduced in dishwasher-safe high-resolution. We take for granted an ease to photography and an ability to disseminate even a simple snapshot that could not have been imagined when I developed, enlarged, and printed the original frame of film.

Maybe we cannot be so sure about defining ourselves. A person also can be deemed a “photographer” without great exertion. A single viral selfie seems enough to turn a person into a celebrity, even an icon. Andy Warhol is remembered for declaring that each of us would have our fifteen minutes of fame. He is not recalled for his subsequent quip that all of us would be famous in fifteen minutes. Warhol was always in on the joke. He would be amused by our narcissism.

There is a difference between what we do and who we are. If we do it enough, however, it becomes who we are. For me, it is enough to try my hand at an art and science that continues to fascinate me. Although I have enough jobs and honors, I am aware of how much more I need to learn to be worthy of “photographer.”

I offer the same query to others, because we have diverse conceptions of the matter: “Are you a photographer?”

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9 Comments

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Ashley Carr
    February 23, 2018 at 4:17 pm

    I’ve often struggled with this but it’s been the other way around. I’ve made a living with a camera for the last 15 years I suppose you could say it’s my ‘day job’, well, it’s my only job.

    The strange thing is that for 12 of those 15 years I didn’t feel like a photographer at least not in how I imagined a ‘photographer‘ to be. Of course people called me a photographer and hired me as a photographer and I even had to put ‘photographer’ in the occupation section of various forms. Still, I never felt like a ‘photographer’

    It’s only in the last three years and since I’ve started shooting projects or series of work for myself, and scaled back the paid work, interiors/products etc that I’ve actually felt like what I thought a ‘photographer’ is or should be.

    Weird.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      February 23, 2018 at 4:57 pm

      I get this

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Teapoweredrobot
    February 23, 2018 at 5:47 pm

    Exactly this! And what Ashley said!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    George Appletree
    February 23, 2018 at 10:14 pm

    A certain renowned photographer explains that if asked by someone why do you want to photograph me he replies because I am a photographer. At first I was very satisfied with that response, but, what does it have to do with the portrayed? I thought later.
    What I don’t get is why your question are you a model finished the conversation. But it’s quite close to my previous thought.
    At the end, does photographing the moon for NASA (in the case those Hasselblads and their rolls inside didn’t melt in the task) makes someone to be called a photographer?

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Adam Laws
    February 23, 2018 at 10:50 pm

    When I think of a ‘photographer’ I have a very much romanticised visualisation of Robert Frank, Ansel Adams, and William Eggleston to name but a few. Photographers traveling the world with their camera exploring exotic lands, obscure subcultures, and war zones. They show the world at its best and sometimes sadly at its worst.

    When comparing our work to these greats it’s hard not to think that our work is trivial in comparison. Yes we may be paid for our work/services but it’s clearly not going be used to define a specific photographic genre or the profession as a whole.

    I’m sure many creative professionals have the same internal discussion. For instance a singer working in a small club probably may internally deliberate that they’re not a true ‘singer’ until they have a sold out multinational tour or write a critically acclaimed song.

    It’s a very interesting topic and I really enjoyed your article.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Nigel Haycock
    February 24, 2018 at 12:07 am

    I have posted about this kind of thing myself as the term’s meaning has in my opinion changed. It used to be that someone using a camera could be validly described as a photographer because taking photographs was a pastime of a minority group of individuals. So photographer described that person as part of that group of people. Now everyone has a camera and use it on a daily basis but I don’t believe that makes them photographers. So the term needs updating or clarifying to mean something more specific as you describe. So just as I am writing this comment or a post for my blog I don’t think makes me a writer I am just someone who writes occasionally. I take photographs but whether that defines who I am I cannot say, I am also a cyclist, a father a worker. To me for someone to be a Photographer that person has to take photographs as a major part of their life and income.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Neal
    February 26, 2018 at 6:24 am

    I’m no “photographer” but I am an Amateur of which the word is derived from “lover of” – What more could I ask for.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Eugene Erdozain
    May 1, 2018 at 11:05 am

    Oxford Dictionary definition: “A person who takes photographs, especially as a job.”

    They also give an example with adjectives

    ‘a freelance press photographer’

    So it does depends on context 🙂 so I am a photographer and I suppose most people who are reading this article probably are too. I suppose if you don’t think of yourself as a photographer you probably won’t value your own photographs. Just a thought!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Moke
    September 9, 2018 at 7:49 pm

    I think that if you wish to call yourself a photographer then that is what you are. Regardless of perceived skill or profession. I don’t generally get paid to take pictures, but I would like to. I wouldn’t even call it a side hustle at this point. But when people ask what I do, I tell them my day job title but I also tell them I am a photographer.
    If you take the weight from the word and the artificial perception of what it means to be a photographer (someone who takes pictures) then you should be able to call yourself a photographer.

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