If you gave someone a scalpel, does that qualify that person as a surgeon? If you handed the keys to a Maserati to your best friend, would she become a race car driver? Then why does the mere act of pressing the shutter button on a camera make one a photographer?
I think there IS a difference between Someone With A Camera (SWAC) and a photographer. Or in today’s world, a SWAP (Someone With A Phone) or even a SWAT (Someone With A Tablet). Ok, I have to admit I still find it a bit strange to see a SWAT taking a picture. That giant screen held aloft, a giant barrier between the person and the very thing he came to see… talk about stepping out of the moment! Gives a whole new twist on the phrase ‘reality tv’. But I digress.
It’s not that I believe photographers are superior even if I am being a bit cheeky with my descriptions here. Really, we’re all SWACs at some point. I think there are two things that make a photographer a photographer. No, it’s not at all about the gear (SWACs can have the most advanced and expensive systems), it’s not about the subject matter the person is shooting, or where she is, and it’s not about how much money she makes. A photographer is a photographer because she intends to make something expressive with her image and because of her ability to see the world around her as, in essence, light. Let’s take a closer look at the first distinction, intent.
A Photographer is a Photographer Because of Intent
What is your intent when you press the shutter? Are you recording a precious moment as your child celebrates a birthday? Is it a selfie of you and your spouse at a romantic dinner? Have you finally snapped a full-frame shot of that buck who steals from your backyard bird feeder? If your intent is to make a record, then you are not a photographer. You are engaging in the important role of preserving moments in time – you’re an historian and explorer and family preservationist. Always be proud to be a SWAC because these kinds of images produce a link between people and between generations.
A photographer is a SWAC with a different intent. A photographer is not interested in obtaining a record exactly, although documenting may be part of the intent. A photographer inserts more of himself into the expressive act of making an image. It’s not about records or objective truth; it’s about an idea, emotion or germ of a story that the photographer felt when he observed an object for what it truly looked like. This may sound confusing, so let’s move to the second factor that differentiates a photographer from a SWAC – seeing light.
A Photographer is a Photographer Because He Sees Light
Photographers work with real objects existing in real time. Even a photographer in a studio controlling the lights, directing the model and moving props, only has that one capture, that one moment plucked from the stream of time, to work with. Even a re-take on a shot taken seconds before is terra nova: in subtle ways, the model and photographer have moved on, been affected by the interaction with each other, and are different than they were a second ago. Outside of the movies, no moment in time ever repeats.
So how do photographers interpret this reality, then? By seeing an object for how it actually is rather than how she thinks or believes it is, a photographer becomes intensely present, stepping away from her conscious mind and existing at a level of pure, sensory interpretation. Andy Karr and Michael Wood in The Practice of Contemplative Photography call this moment the flash of perception. In that moment, the human tendency to name, categorize, and judge is suspended and the photographer sees not an apple, but a reddish-green mottled sphere with a waxy, reflective skin. Seeing this way is seeing light. We can only observe the world in light, and it is light that creates tones and colours and all the other secondary visual elements that make up an image such as pattern, texture, lines, shapes. A photographer is someone who sees these elements existing, shifting, morphing and evolving in real time, all times, and tries to express her subjective experience of such seeing.
The reason why I think it’s important to make this distinction is because we live in a world of unprecedented access to visual media. We are documenting every second of our day, from what we choose to wear to work, to our lunch with friends, to a selfie during a night out. We are making records of data at incredible rates which is a fascinating process to observe and ponder: where will our fascination with record-making take us?
For photographers, and for those who wish to become photographers, all you have to do is take your camera, phone or tablet, and think about why you are making an image. What is your intent? Can you see the world before you for how it actually is, and how does that make you feel? What can you and your camera say about this world of light?
A Note About the Images in this Post
As many of you know, shortly after Darwin and I arrived at Aurum Lodge for our Photographers in Residence creativity program, a wildfire erupted not far from the Banff National Park border where highways 93 and 11 meet. The Spreading Creek fire, as it’s being called, has tossed up billowing clouds of smoke, obscuring the mountains and turning the fresh mountain air into a smoky screen.
For a SWAC, this is a disaster. Recording the iconic peaks and lakes of the Canadian Rockies will be difficult in this grey soup! But for a photographer, there is no judgment. There is only this filtered light, turning the world into a murky nightmare-world of indistinct shapes and dying trees. We spent some time photographing the area, and these images are our interpretations of the light and how we felt about it.