Non-Photographers and Professionals

mickyates Falmouth, MA, Photography 5 Comments

Just posted to an online discussion in my MA Photography program – and thought I’d repost it here. The question was:

‘Describe what you think non-photographers make of professional photographers: what are the conceptions and misconceptions?

Whilst I would agree that in principle all photographers as just that – photographers, there are clearly subsets of photographers. Some earn a living by photography (and then of course via many different kinds of practice); some are learning to earn a living – and some just enjoy taking photographs to varying degrees of seriousness.

This week’s reading suggests that we are now in fact ALL photographers, pointing our mobile phones at everything and everyone – including ourselves, in the ubiquitous selfie. Sometimes those images become national and international news, as photographers and journalists cannot be in as many places places as all of the rest of us can be. The 7/7 London Tube bombings are a case in point. It’s of course not just still but videos.

So, let’s unpack the question – what do non-photographers (if we could find one) think of professionals?

When I was a teenager, a photographer wannabe, I used to look at images taken by those cavaliers of the 60s (David Bailey et al) and think, wow, he’s good!

© David Bailey Mick Jagger, 1964

If I look back a bit more critically, I note that he had training in a studio as an assistant, better equipment, a nose for what was going on in Swinging London, and an indefatigable will to be where the famous people were. He wanted to do (and be) something different – and consequently he knew how to make it make money. No surprise they used him as the model for 1966’s ‘Blow Up’.

He is a great photographer, a real character (aka a good looking rogue), and a shrewd businessman. He is indeed always with the ‘beautiful people’. So it was (and still is) very easy to call David a ‘Professional’. When I first came across his work, both he and the profession were well respected by ‘non-photographers’. The 60s was also part of a blossoming inter- and multi-disciplinary explosion in the arts, which added to his fame and fortune.

Jump forward 50 years. Everyone can take a picture, my iPhone can sometimes challenge my Leica when it comes to quality. And we are so surrounded by imagery that it is hard not to become at least partly informed as to what makes a good photograph.

So I suspect many of those non-Professionals think ‘Yup, I can do that’. The conception is that it’s easy. And some of them do great work. I am constantly in awe about the high quality of so many Instagram feeds.

However the misconception is about the dedication it takes to be a Professional. Not just true in Photography by the way, but in all professions. Recall Malcolm Gladwell‘s 10,000 hours theory. His principle holds that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” are needed to become world-class in any field – and he quotes people like the Beatles to demonstrate that. His theories are always being challenged (see Business Insider article) though I think his ideas hold a lot of truth.

So, in my view, Professional success is not just about one’s practice specialisation, technique, equipment or training – but it’s about the business model, the connections and the sheer doggedness to be relevant and timely EVERY DAY in your chosen field. Of course one can debate artistic excellence .. but I think that is a different question. Being Professional doesn’t necessarily mean you are excellent at what you do, although we all strive to do that.

Oh, I could get into the ‘there’s no money in it’ debate, but that’s for another time 🙂