Today, anyone may call themselves a professional photographer and practice photography. There is no degree that validates the use of the term "pro." So, why do we feel the need to specify that? What does it show about the way we see our work and our competition? Let’s put things in perspective.
I have been working in the photography field for the last 12 years (gosh, I’m getting old!), and I remember the first times I presented myself by saying, “I am a photographer,” it did not require an adjective. Today, I need to start practicing in front of my mirror to say: “I am a professional photographer”. If I don’t, people might not take me seriously. The concept of a professional photographer is a funny one. Let's clear some things up:
The definition of the noun form of "profession," according to the Cambridge Dictionary, is: ”any type of work that needs special training or a particular skill, often one that is respected because it involves a high level of education”
If you look at the history of the word, you might be interested to find out that for a long time, that term applied only to three categories of activity: theology, medicine, and law. Each requires long study and an oath to commemorate official entry into the particular profession. Moreover, these professionals would earn their living by “professing”: sharing their knowledge in exchange for compensation.
Let's see how that applies to photography today:
- Do you really need to train intensively and for a long period of time to be considered as a professional photographer? With the entrance of user-friendly cameras, photography is not that hard (compared to the chemical knowledge needed when making a daguerreotype or the aviation knowledge to fly a MiG-25). If you don’t want to learn about strobes, you can make a living shooting in natural light. I have worked in the Parisian fashion industry for the past ten years and I know more than one photographer who by training is a hair and makeup artist, a stylist, or an art director that just knows the right people (amazing assistants and retouchers) to make their work look technically top-notch. The fact that they most probably do not know how a light meter works does not stop them from getting those high-end clients.
- Do you really need a university degree to earn a living as a photographer? Nope. When was the last time you went to a meeting and your potential client asked you for your certification? They look at you work, what you produce, who you have shot, and who you have shot for and they asses if working with you is going to be fun and reassuring. A piece of paper from Oxford or Cambridge is not going to make that big of an impact on whether you are going to land that gig, unless your client is a snob.
- Does a photographer get paid for his or her guidance and information or for actual files — something tangible? You know the answer to that. Their experience is valued, but they are still paid for the files they deliver.
The definition of the adjective form of "professional" is: "relating to a job that needs special training or education."
We are back to square one. In a nutshell, by definition, there is no such thing as a professional photographer. And that hurts. I know. I’m still cringing.
If we push aside the dictionaries, it is common practice today to differentiate the pros from the amateurs by assigning a differentiation between them: a certain percentage of income from photography makes you one or the other. It’s still sticky for me; yes, the extremes are easy to recognize. You have the photographer that is so successful that his name means something to the general public (Ansel Adams or Terry Richardson, depending on your taste), and you have the photographer that shoots his kids. Although, I would not consider Elena Shumilova to be an amateur. Then, there is the sea of grey in-between them what is the percentage of income that one should be earning from photography to be able to earn the respected title of a professional photographer? 50%? More? Are we talking about a consistent percentage through a year, two years or more?
Should exposure, expositions, and publication in national or international magazines make a difference? Here again, I know a wonderful photographer that can shoot on Sinars as well as Hasselblads, that can take apart any light source and put it back together, and that time and time again produces consistent artistic work that should be printed as a coffee table book, and yet, very few people know about his existence. The marketing and selling is a process he does not want to deal with. He just wants to create. I think of him as a Van Gogh type; he is probably going to become famous when he is dead! Will he earn the title of a pro photographer then? By virtue of his skills and his portfolio, isn’t he one now?
I don’t have an alternate term for “professional photographer." (Yeah, I know — all that banter and no grand finale!) I use the term, I admit, but I don’t think it matters to me that much. It might be an easy sticker to slap on your shoulder when you are trying to make your way through the crowd of fellow photographers out there, but I try to avoid labels. This is a freelance occupation; some days, you are on top of the world, while others, you are not. Learn from your mistakes and move on. Nobody is going to give you a medal because you or others consider yourself a professional. So, what is the fuss about?
Photography not being a profession might not be the end of the world. There are no rules. At least not any that are written in stone. If you see it as a business, integrate the fact that business models change all the time (not that long ago, the idea of getting a job through Facebook would have been hilarious at best). People are buying a product and you need to make the value of what you are selling as high as your financial needs. Differentiate yourself from the crowd and educate your client on your worth. Don’t focus on the “amateur photographers” that are creeping up on your market space; focus on making your stuff unique. If you see it as an art, I’m guessing you don’t give a crap anyways. If you see it as a hobby, shoot away, and make some glorious memories for your friends and family. As long as your adrenaline gets a rush when you are cramming your eyeball into the viewfinder, you are a photographer. That’s the important part.
But then, hey, what do I really know? This is my third article for Fstoppers; so, I am far from being a professional writer.