What does being a photographer mean to you? Do the people around you see you in the same way?
Photography has constantly been evolving throughout its long history. Along with that, the perception of society about photography and photographers also constantly changes. However, due to various historical and cultural factors, the ways that people see photography have become diversified.
Does Owning a Camera Make You a Photographer?
Photography has gotten more and more casual. This is an obvious fact that stems from the widespread availability and accessibility of cameras in general. Most people have at least two cameras in their pockets in the form of their smartphones. Cameras are widely used for surveillance in security systems of homes and businesses, and nowadays, even refrigerators have cameras for whatever crazy use you have for them. It has been such a debate everywhere whether owning a camera automatically makes one a photographer. It may be a shallow thought that’s driven by some form of unnecessary pride, but it does have some merit. Owning a pen doesn’t make one a writer, and buying paint doesn’t automatically make one a painter. The answer is always so obvious for the latter two, but the reason why the first has more validity as a question is that even society’s definitions and perceptions of a photographer differ greatly.
One way that this can be quantified is to look at the overall condition of a certain country or region’s photographic print market. Personally, in my country, sales of photographic prints aren’t as common and popular as in countries with generally stronger economies. From that, it can be inferred that a major determinant of people’s appreciation for photography as an art is whether they have more financial capability to purchase photography in whatever form for non-commercial purposes. In a simple sense, people who can afford to pay thousands of dollars for a printed photograph evidently appreciate it more as a form of art.
Another way that this notion differs is through representation. Generally, a society exposed to a certain kind of photographer shapes that image from what they commonly see. The abundance of photographs of a certain genre that a population is exposed to can generally shape the way people see photographers in that area as well. Where I’m from, the wedding and live events industry is one of the most profitable for photographers mainly because weddings in the Philippines tend to be grand either in quality or in the number of guests. Consequently, if one were to introduce him or herself to a stranger as a photographer, it is not uncommon for that stranger to assume that they shoot weddings and totally understandable if their entire perception of the concept of being a photographer describes that of a wedding photographer.
How Do People React When They See You in Public With a Camera?
We all know that this varies so much from one culture to another. Stories about people accusing photographers as stalkers or sexual predators for merely holding a camera near them or their children are very common in the news. In other places, just like where I’m from, many people see cameras as security threats. Being a photographer fond of taking cityscape photos, I’ve gotten so used to dealing with security personnel approaching me or even reprimanding me for just setting up a tripod to do long exposure cityscapes. On the other hand, I’ve been to places with more understanding or even just tolerance of photographers where no one ever minds if a person is taking photos near them unless the camera was obviously pointed to their face. I’ve been on leisure trips photographing cityscapes in Singapore, and despite the strict rules in the area, I’ve never experienced being called out for shooting or holding a camera.
How Does Society Support You as a Photographer?
The most important aspect of how people see photographers in a certain society is how they support them. Generally, the most concrete indicator that people in a certain population have more respect and support for photographers is basically how much they are willing to pay for a photographer’s work. Intriguingly enough, as a professional architectural photographer, I’ve experienced being offered projects by a local client at a mere 10% of what foreign clients pay me without any haggling. I’ve experienced getting negative reactions on quotations for projects simply because my price is five times of what they were expecting to pay. And worse, I’ve been threatened with a lawsuit by an online newspaper after I billed them a thousand dollars of unauthorized publishing of my photos on their site. Yes, imagine getting sued by people who blatantly committed copyright infringement.
How Do We Make a Change?
For people who live in places where photographers are well loved and respected, obviously, there’s really no reason to try and change that. But for people in societies where photographers are under-appreciated, disrespected, and underpaid, what can we do to re-shape our image? You might not care if some people look down on some photographers or if people see us as threats, but at the very least, I’m sure that you would care if it meant that you would generally be paid better as a photographer.
Personally, I don’t have the absolute answer to this, but I do have a few suggestions. First, we need to emphasize to people how much good photographs contribute to their lives. Either as consumers who read newspapers, online articles, or business owners who advertise with product photos or models, we can find some ways to show them how effective ads and stories are as an effect of a supporting visual aid.
Another way is to use photography to inspire social change. So many issues in the world have been solved by compelling photographs, and so many more issues are waiting to be solved by more photographs. With a single photo that conveys a powerful message or story to fuel a movement, people can be moved into a sort of pursuit for similar images.
Lastly, being a prudent business-person alongside being a good photographer can gravely affect how other photographers are being paid. Just one photographer shortchanging him or herself just to get a certain project can drastically affect the standard rate for the entire industry.
How different is it where you are? Have you experienced being discriminated against for being a photographer? Or does your society generally under-appreciate you as an artist? Feel free to share in the comments below.