Separating the wheat (yes, grain) from the chaff

BY DOMINIQUE JAMES

I may be wrong about many, many things, and admittedly, a lot of times, I am, but I won’t be wrong when I say that “photography is a big thing nowadays.” In fact, let me say that it is “a very big” thing. Everyone seems to be doing it. Every other person I get to know or meet seems to be into photography. We can say that the advances in digital photographic imaging has encouraged a lot of people to go into it. The barrier to engaged in photography has been lowered. And, using either a no-brainer point-and-shoot or a full-control DSLR to delight even the geekiest of geeks, almost anyone can do photography. Nowadays, it’s no longer surprising if you hear practically anyone say that he is into photography. Many, many people have discovered, and continues to discover, the awesome wonders of photography as a means not only to capture the things they see and take pictures of what’s important to them, but also, possibly, as a means of creative expression.

Not everyone, of course, can make a profession out of photography. Many will go into photography simply because it makes for an interesting, exciting and fulfilling hobby. But that’s not to say it isn’t possible to earn a living out of it, whether as a part-time job or as a full-time profession. Nowadays, anyone can actually attempt to make money out of photography. And, the good thing is, the chances of succeeding at making a living out of it, is actually, well, good.

We have to clarify one thing though. There seems to be a generally false perception, and much confusion, when it comes to the real “stature” of a real professional photographer. To become a professional photographer, you don’t need to undergo and take a qualifying professional certification. Of course, the old yardstick of being tagged as a “profession,” which generally connotes as someone who’s doing it for the money, still certainly holds true. All you have to do to become a professional photographer, therefore, is to announce it to the world, and have some calling cards printed. And oh, a website is helpful too. And because the quality of photographic imaging is now within the reach of many, many people, it is easy to see how even the relative newcomers can be perceived, if not mistaken, as a “professional” photographer. If truth be told, even some of those who are into photography simply as a hobby can, and may be tempted, to eventually engage into the profession of photography only because, with growing confidence, they will soon discover, with the right tools, it is actually easy to churn out “professional quality” images. So, if they decide to pursue it, chances are, they won’t ever need some sort of credentials to pursue and carve a career out of digital photography.

This is one of the interesting “states” of digital photography today, which, for all intents and purposes, is a natural consequence of the extreme popularity of the current form of digital photographic imaging. The situation, actually, is rather “curious.” It has turned the industry, and consequently, the profession, upside down. Operating within the democratic arena of “free market,” anyone can now easily claim, and actually be, a professional photographer.

So, what separates a real professional photographer from someone who simply can afford owning a professional-looking photographic equipment and who possess a modicum of capability to churn “professional-looking” photographic images? What are the signs that will help us identify the real professional photographers from the charlatans? How can we discern and not be duped into thinking who can really deliver?

Well, professional photography, as many have found out, and as many continues to find out, involves not only knowing how to operate an expensive-looking camera, along with other “expensive” photographic equipment and accessories. I’m not sure if it shows, but professional photography involves four other essential ingredients: spefically specialized engagement, utter marketing savvy, unique and compelling visual perception, and the unconditional love for the art and craft. If you were to mix these ingredients, and if you were to add pure and unadulterated talent to the mix, a lot of those who are already comfortably engaged in the “profession” still won’t quality, or, more to the point, deserve, the engagement. This judgement may be harsh, but, for all intents and purposes, and because of the glaring absence of an acceptable and universal professional certification such as those taken by health-care professionals, from nurses to doctors, (not that photography is a matter of life-and-death), we have to be all the more discerning with whom we trust to take pictures.

Lets analyze what these four-plus-one ingredients actually mean.

First, a “specifically specialized engagement,” means a dedicated focus to selected areas of photography. To really succeed in the field of photography today, a photographer must be able to clearly decide and strategically position himself on exactly what kind of photography he would like to engage in, to be a master of, and therefore to be recognized for. Nowadays, a photographer, just like a doctor, must necessarily specialize. And the more specialized a photographer is, the higher the chance for success will be. Gone are the days when you can be a “jack-of-all-trades” in photography. An astute photographer must focus on carefully considered and chosen aspects of photography.

Second, we know that branding is key, and therefore, another ingredient must necessarily be: “utter marketing savvy.” Granting that you have the skill, the talent, the ability, the knowledge, and whatever else that a great photographer must possess, but, if you cannot convey that message to the market in a way that will attract the right market (read: money), then you won’t go far into your brave attempt to engage in professional photography. It is fair to say, that even today’s most successful and most recognized international photographers, are always constantly marketing their name, and their brand, and leveraging it with the most dazzling photographic products and services. Photographers are now marketing themselves in exactly the same way that celebrities are being marketed. It won’t be surprising, if soon, we will begin to see a slew of merchandise with the photographer’s name.

Third, what a photographer see is his vision and his vision alone. It cannot be a shared vision. Though he may work with many, many talented people to achieve the look and the image he is trying to create, the actual image that has been created is a product of a photographer’s “unique and compelling visual perception.” Many times we see how hair-and-makeup artists and how fashion stylists and how fashion designers, and even how the subject of the photograph, claim that theirs is the concept and idea behind a photographer’s image, and we cannot despute that. These working, creative professionals have a stake and a claim to the success, and also the failure, of any photographic image. But, the photograph, the singular viewpoint, the uni-dimensional mode of capture, what the photographer sees the moment he clicks the shutter, is something that is his alone. No one can else can lay claim to that. We should certainly credit the work of various creative professionals that went into the making of the image, but the ultimate responsibility for the final look, belongs to that of a photographer. And this is scary. This is scary because this is an “ego” factor. You, as the photographer, are asking for everyone, without exception, to look at something the way you saw it. Whenever you show your pictures, you are unequivocally telling everyone that this is what you saw and this is what you want everyone, again, with no single exception, to see. When they look at the picture, they are not seeing what might have been, or what could have been, or what it is that they thought is possible, but the actual reality of what is in the picture. And that, if you ask me, is really scary stuff.

Fourth, why are you into photography? What is your reason for doing it? Is it because you are a failure at all other things that you’ve done or you’re tired of whatever it is that you’re doing and that’s why your opting out of it by engaging into something more fun and more easy such as photography? Or, is it because you see the potential for making money, lots of money? Well, if these are your reasons for going into photography, you might as well stop now and go back to what you used to do or just do whatever it is that you’re doing right now because these are not the right reasons for going into photography. There is only one valid reason why you should go into photography: the love for the art and craft. And you cannot fake that. You become a photographer because you love photography. All successful photographer I’ve met, photographers who have made their mark and who are respected by the industry for what they’ve accomplished, have in their heart the abiding love for the art and the craft of photography. Photography for them is not a passing fancy or an escape. It is something that they truly, truly love. All successful and all famous photographers I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and knowing almost always never fail to declare their undying love and devotion to what they are doing. It’s as if they cannot imagine doing anything else. There is no other thing for them except photography. If you have this kind of love for photography, then only time will prove you worthy of it.

These are the four qualifying elements that makes up for a real professional photographer. And yet, one more essential ingredient is missing. And that is “talent.” “Talent” is a word we know, and yet, it is something that we cannot claim we really, thoroughly and certainly know. The origin of the word “talent” is quite interesting. The Greek and Roman word for talent is “talanton.” The Latin word is “talenta” or “talentum.” And in old English, it is “talente” or “talentan.” In all these old, actually ancient, usage, it conveys one thing and one thing only: a summation of weight. From this origin, the word as we know it today has come to mean a “natural aptitude or skill.” So, like singing and acting, where we can tell if one is better than the other, we can also discern a photographer by his “talent” — either he got it, or sadly, not. To successfully, and to rightfully, engage, therefore, in the profession of photography, one must have the necessary “talent” for it. And this means, it’s not enough to just know how to properly expose a photograph, how to use the tools, how to follow instructions, and how to copy whatever picture that may have come out before, but to be able to create and craft a “new” photograph.

If we use the exacting criteria above, and if we apply that criteria to everyone we know who has been into photography or just now getting into photography or is thinking of going into photography, how many do you think would qualify as a “professional” photographer? Will you make it to the very, very short list?

Well, now you know, what, for me, is being a “professional photographer” all about.

Still, the explosive phenomena that is “digital photographic imaging” certainly did expose many people to the art and craft of image-making, and, because of its obiquity, it would be interesting to see what this all will mean a few years down the road. Viewed from a long-term, historical perspective, and momentarily setting aside my criteria, I do wonder how this curious development will be viewed, and what its impact will be to our “visual” society.

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