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Please Stop Calling Me A ‘Professional’ Photographer

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I recently went to a new doctor and noticed he was located in something called the Professional Building. I felt better right away.” ~ George Carlin

When I was twelve years old, my grandparents took me on a three-week tour of the western US. We went from Vancouver all the way down to San Diego, then over to Vegas and up to Yellowstone, finally cruising back under the big sky of Montana. It was one of the most memorable trips of my childhood and I took a crazy number of pictures. Some of them might even be considered pretty good. What I didn’t get returning from that trip was the title “professional photographer”, not even “a photographer”. Now, why is that?

Because camera ownership doesn’t make you a photographer.

McMichaels Gallery Wedding Photography

At this point, you’re probably thinking “here we go, someone rode in on the bitter bus”. If that’s your stand right now, I can’t do much to change it. Your perception is your reality. My reality is that I’m going to keep going anyway. This piece is about why we – that’s the collective “we” in this profession – feel the need to qualify ourselves with the word ‘professional’.

Strictly speaking, a professional is someone who is “engaged in a profession or engaging in as a profession or means of livelihood”, with profession meaning “the body of people in a learned occupation” or “an occupation requiring special education”. So, if your career is one in which you needed to be a learned person requiring special education to do your job, then you’re a professional. No need to spell it out on your business cards, it doesn’t need to be a part of the answer to “what do you do for a living?” – it just is. Hmn … I suppose I could end this right here then and go back to bed, right?

Sure … but I’m not going to. Not by a long shot …

Chefs don’t say “professional chef” because they know that simply owning pots and pans doesn’t make you a chef. Mechanics might use the word ‘certified’ but you don’t hear them say “I’m a professional mechanic” because they’d know that they’d sound like a … well … like a tool. Do you think your doctor calls herself a ‘professional doctor’? I’d bust out laughing if I heard that. In fact, most professionals don’t identify themselves as a professional-whatever-it-is-they-do. They don’t (or at least shouldn’t) need to. Think of it this way, I can fix my toilet with the help of a YouTube video and do a decent job (I know this because I’ve done it). Am I a plumber? No. Do plumbers need to call themselves “professional plumbers” because we can fix our own toilets? If you answer ‘yes’, stop reading now. Nothing I’m going to say from this point forward is going to make sense to you …

Why, then, do we keep referring to people who make their living with a camera as ‘professionals’? The very fact that we make our living with a camera means that our profession is  photography. There’s no need to qualify it, no distinctions required. Yeah, ok, the word photographer has been appropriated to mean ‘someone who makes pictures’ but since when has appropriation ever been appropriate? Again, camera ownership does not make you a photographer. But what does?

How you make your living:
I am a full time photographer. I pay my mortgage with photography, put food on the table with photography and pay for vacations with photography. Engineers do the same with their skills and knowledge, as do pilots. If your full time job is what pays for your life, that’s your profession. If I happen to pick up an Uber gig on Saturdays, it does not make me a professional driver or a transportation specialist or whatever ridiculous title I feel like attributing to myself to bolster my self esteem. I would be a photographer who drives the occasional person around on weekends. That’s it, nothing more. It’s not how I make my living. Taxi drivers shouldn’t feel the need to call themselves ‘professional Cabbies’ just because I make a few bucks with a hobby job.

Certification and Industry Recognition:
This is the other core element defining the word professional. Did you go to school for the job you do? Receive any training for it? That’s one way to fit this mould. The other is having done it for so many years – real world working experience – that you could teach it in your sleep (and, no, I’m not talking about little bank account boosting workshops regurgitating video tutorials). There are teachers and there are preachers – one imparts knowledge, the other opinion. Guess which one has job-related value? Then there’s industry recognition – the other way to meet this requirement. If you are acknowledged by established, working photographers as a photographer, you’re a photographer. I mean, really, when you think about it who’s issuing those certifications? Established working photographers. Same difference. If the industry as a whole accepts you for your knowledge, experience, skills and/ or what you produce, then you’re obviously in like Flynn. That’s a no-brainer.

Doing the ‘do’:
Is your work in demand and hanging on client walls? Have you been paid to be published? Are your images part of wide-spread advertising campaigns? Do legitimate commercial enterprises use your work to promote their business? Have a showing this weekend in a prestigious art gallery? Congrats! You’re a photographer. Awards can kind of fit in here, too, and I suppose they do, but only ones issued within the industry and awarded by those people already identified as working photographers. The key word to think about here is “legitimate”, meaning in accordance with recognized or accepted standards or principles. Mom writing “my little photographer” in a Christmas card doesn’t count, warm fuzzies aside.

So, enough already with this “professional photographer” thing. If you can look yourself in the mirror and say that you meet those standards, then you’re a photographer. That’s your profession. End of story.

Oh, and the picture up top? That’s from a wedding I shot in November. There were a lot of people there with cameras but only one was a photographer … for that day, any way.



9 thoughts on “Please Stop Calling Me A ‘Professional’ Photographer”

  1. At best, and I say this as a photographer who gets paid to take photographs, being a photographer is a trade, and not one that is regulated. To my mind a professional is someone who not just gets paid to do a job but one who does their “profession” for the good of others above their own. For example, doctors, lawyers (some debate), soldiers all provide services that one cannot provide for themselves, often at the expense of their own personal lives and/or physical lives/freedoms. There are governing bodies who determine if you can or cannot practice the profession (law societies, the armed forces, etc), there are quantifiable standards, oaths of service, other laws to which one must submit, sometimes at the expense of personal freedoms (the National Defence Act for one), professional journals, peer reviews. There are evolving methods in how the profession is carried out due to changes in technology and evolution of knowledge gained (I daresay that the application of war has changed over the years, as has medicine). True professions have institutions of learning dedicated to their areas of service and they decide who will get in to partake of that knowledge and who will graduate to practice. There are many other aspects to true professions which would exclude photographers right away.

    Even the trades have more regulations in that electricians, plumbers, mechanics, etc., must be certified and belong to organizations that can prohibit their ability to ply their trade.

    Anyone can pick up a camera and call themselves a photographer without any knowledge of the craft and no-one can stop them. I know this to be fact as that is how I started. That doesn’t mean that someone who is self-taught is not capable of doing the job as well or better than those who are trained because that’s just not true. I couldn’t give better examples than Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, or Steve Jobs who changed the world with their vision and examples. All I’m saying is that the term professional, in my opinion, means more than getting paid to do a job.

    1. Agreed on all points.

      One thing to add to your final point about getting paid to do a job: that’s a key point. Alone, it’s the lowest common denominator. Like you, I believe that it takes more, much more, than simple coins changing hands for a product. Without knowledge, by training or job experience or both, the product is virtually meaningless. While it fits the technical definition of ‘professional’, it also sets the bar just as low as possible. Even beyond knowledge and getting paid, there has to be a mindset and code of behaviour that goes with the profession.

  2. 100% agree. I generally refer to myself as a “working photographer,” and not a professional photographer, that is if/when I feel the need to distinguish myself from the masses of other photographers in the world. When I say, “working,” I’m not talking about some other job other than photography. You know, like working a 9-to-5 during the week and suddenly being a ‘professional’ photographer on weekends because I might occasionally shoot weddings, kids, or whatever for pay. I’ve made my living, all of it, with cameras in my hands for well over two decades. That’s not intended as a brag. It’s just been my job, man. These days, I’m mostly retired so that means I’m mostly a hobbyist… again. Truthfully? I find being a hobbyist more rewarding, albeit it’s rewarding in different ways from the rewards I received while making my living from shooting cameras.

    1. And that’s the point, entirely. You paid the bills with photography, so it was your profession. No need to qualify that, it’s just what you did. Even having to say “working” or “full time”, in order to differentiate ourselves from all the rest, is backwards, but that’s how the industry numbers are these days.

  3. This is an interesting post and I agree with you 100% although I’d never thought of it in that depth before. As I read I realized that I often use the term “amateur photographer” to indicate one (like me) who considers it a hobby, passion, whatever, but does not do it for a living. I would never say “I’m a photographer” simply because that implies something more. For this reason, since we have a readily-used term for the non-living-making practice of making pictures, there is indeed no point in adding the word professional. Works in other areas too… I’m sure if you participate in amateur night at the Beef Baron you don’t call yourself a stripper 🙂

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