What Makes a Photographer a Photographer?

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?

smoky forest from wildfire

The Spreading Creek Fire this July. ©Darwin Wiggett

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.

dappled light on lodgepole forest

Mid-morning light turns golden from the forest fire haze. ©Samantha Chrysanthou

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.

fiery reflection

The world is a study in light. ©Darwin Wiggett

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.

smouldering forest fire

Before rejuvenation, there is destruction. ©Samantha Chrysanthou

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?

smouldering forest fire

Diffused expression. ©Darwin Wiggett

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.

mountain lodge and smoke in the distance

Aurum Lodge with the Spreading Creek wildfire in the distance. ©Darwin Wiggett

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.

yellow green grass

Fiery green light. ©Samantha Chrysanthou

 

 

About the Author

Photographing the incredible beauty of natural things, filming quirky videos, trying new foods with unpronounceable names, curling up with a good book, sharing ideas on how to live lighter on the Earth...these are a few of my favourite things!

30 Comments

  1. David Lilly
    July 18, 2014

    Hi Sam and Darwin,

    You are both great photographers. I have always believed just because you own a camera or some other device it does not make you a photographer.

    Give these (so called photographers) a camera and a roll of film and see what they do. With film you cannot instantly see what you are photographing. You have to pre visualize and set camera settings to capture that pre visualization. Basically you have to know what you are doing.

    I get frustrated when I hear some say I am a photographer, just because they have expensive equipment and such.

    My thoughts.

    David

    Reply
  2. Ellen Kinsel
    July 18, 2014

    I totally agree with this perspective, and for a long, long time I could not refer to myself as a photographer. After encouragement from others, I now feel comfortable with that descriptor for just the reasons you state without ever having the need to add “professional” to the title.
    And thanks for the photos and comments about the fire. I have been concerned and thinking about you in that location.Here in the W Kootenays, we have lots of smokey haze in the air from far away fires and a few small local fires, but nothing like what you are experiencing. Stay safe!

    Reply
    • Samantha Chrysanthou
      July 20, 2014

      Thanks, Ellen! We’ve had some rain and it’s cleared things out nicely. It seems many places are burning/smoking…what a summer so far.

  3. Royce Howland
    July 18, 2014

    Straight up, Sam! I like the idea of the SWAC. Or as somebody else called it, the CBP — Camera-Button-Pusher. Nothing against being that; it’s not a judgmental thing, since I’m a SWAC/CBP on many occasions. It can be fun just pushing the button, since then I’m not really responsible for anything that happens — no pressure. :) But it’s also not the most fulfilling, satisfying position to be in.

    I agree that being a photographer is something more, and for me the intentionality you point out is a huge part of the core difference. Here is my vantage point, this is the right focal length for how I will show it, and this is the framing. I choose to respond to the light by exposing it like this, now is the moment. This is the development and presentation I need to express what I feel is important about what I saw, experienced and felt.

    As photographers, we can’t sluff off the weight for successfully making photographs to the gear, or even onto the subject. That places insufficient responsibility when things go right :) and certainly shifts too much blame to the external when something goes wrong. “These images are our interpretations of the light and how we felt about it.”

    Reply
  4. Jerry
    July 18, 2014

    Keep going with your explanation / definition of a photographer but also discuss the difference between one who considers and calls himself/herself a pro compare to one who is not a pro

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      July 20, 2014

      A professional photographer is just someone who charges for his or her work. Simple.

      If you are wondering if there is a quality difference between amateur and pro, there might be. Of course there are pros who have amazing work but there are plenty who have work fundamentally flawed. And I have seen work from many, many amateurs that put professional photographers to shame. So as a general rule I think the quality of work from pros and amateurs is on average the same. The one thing that might distinguish the pro is that they have more consistency in their work.

      Think of a session musician, these pro musicians are hired because they can do what is asked of them and do it consistently. Same should be true for pro photographers, we hire them to get the job done. But it is the singer-song writer who creates the music, the story, the feeling that become works of art. In photography, it is when we are ‘shooting for ourselves’ and with intent that we create meaningful work. Pro photographers don;t have this luxury very often when shooting for a client. Why do you think so many pros still do personal not paid projects?

  5. Janice
    July 19, 2014

    As usual your photos are wonderful. Intent, is such a big word. More important than other people’s definition of a photographer or what we call ourselves is how we feel, how we create and how we grow as photographers and as people. As usual your blog has given me pause for thought about my photography and how it might grow. Mindful intent will run through my mind as I head out to photograph today, at least for a while, I am easily distracted by shiny objects!

    Reply
  6. Candace
    July 19, 2014

    “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.”

    -These lines really resented with me and pulled it all together. Thank you for the excellent, thought provoking article. Love your work!

    Reply
  7. What Makes a Photographer a Photographer?
    July 19, 2014

    […] 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? MORE… […]

    Reply
  8. Michael
    July 19, 2014

    The debate over what makes a photographer has been raging, and will continue to rage. More and more people find themselves buying a dSLR on Friday, and by Monday have started advertising for their “professional” photography business. The definition of photographer in today’s world is a muddled mess.

    I think of different levels of photographer: Beginner/Amateur, Advanced Amateur, Semi-Professional and Professional. I think what makes a photographer a photographer is what he/she plans on doing with their photos and their gear. If you just need a camera for shooting your kids at sports events, you may in fact be SWAC. But if you plan on selling your work or getting hired to make photography into something prosperous and potentially permanent (quitting the day job to make photography full time), then I would consider you a photographer.

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      July 20, 2014

      I disagree Michael, whether you make a living or not at photography has nothing to do with being a photographer. You are treating photography like a technical craft. I know plenty of people who make money pressing a shutter button but I would not call them a photographer. When you go get your formula portrait done at Sears and all they do is put you in a studio with preset lighting, preset background, preset camera settings, is that photography? It might be if you think only of technique, but for me I want images with heart and soul and emotion, in short, I want photos that are art not just craft. I want images just like Sam describes with intent. And many of the best images I see with intent come from people who were not paid to make the images, they come from amateurs doing their work for love, not commerce. I call them photographers!

  9. Moe
    July 19, 2014

    A photographer to me is how well they show what is in their heart. That is why I love both of your work. From landscape to portrait to wedding to street however it all exists in continuums of talent, experience, practice, processing, marketing and certainly equipment.

    Reply
  10. Charle
    July 19, 2014

    Hey Sam,

    This article is an interesting read. I don’t agree with it. I think anyone who takes a photo is a photographer. Most of the people taking a “snapshot” will never think of themselves as a photographer. But I think they are one. They hold a camera and take a picture. If they are a good photographer or if their pictures have meaning or if it’s art or whatever is another thing.

    I like your idyllic view on how a photographer creates a picture. I’m not sure if it’s realistic. This is a narrow view of what a photographer is and I believe it excludes many photographers. I imagine this topic can be thought over and debated about for many years and many more.

    Great article. It makes my mind think.

    Much thanks,

    Charlie

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      July 20, 2014

      Charlie you said:

      “I think anyone who takes a photo is a photographer”

      Therefore if I hit a nail with a hammer I am a carpenter. If I pick up a guitar and strum the strings, I am a musician. If I put paint on the canvas, I am a painter. If I put words to paper, I am a writer. It seems to me that you are defining the person by the tool they use not the results they make.

    • Charlie
      July 20, 2014

      Yes that’s what I’m saying. There are many selling an inferior product. There are many bad carpenters using great tools. Good thing, in Canada you have to go to school before calling yourself a doctor. Good photography is subjective. Perhaps the client at Walmart loves the photos. Perhaps the “intent” is not always coming from the photographer but the client or a collaboration. Why set boundaries and judge who’s a photographer. What’s the point? Just enjoy the results if they move you so and if not look at something else.

    • Darwin Wiggett
      July 20, 2014

      I agree Charlie, all art is subjective… and labels often do more harm than not, but it always make sense to ask “why” in any endeavour. Often when we ask why our results ring at a more universal level.

    • Darwin Wiggett
      July 20, 2014

      By the way Charlie I just checked out your website and if I may… you are not SWAC, you are a photography by Sam’s definition, not that it matters… all I am saying is I like your results ;-)

    • Samantha Chrysanthou
      July 20, 2014

      Hi Charlie,

      Thanks for your comments. I can see your point, which seems to be more about semantics than content. Lawyers love technical arguments like that! But I don’t know if it furthers the debate or not here. I would also encourage you to read the book I mention, “The Practice of Contemplative Photography” for perhaps a better explanation of how photographers conceive an image.

  11. Jane Chesebrough
    July 19, 2014

    very thoughtful. I admit I do a double take when I see people in the wilderness shooting with a tablet. “Seeing something as it exactly is” is debatable because everyone will see it differently and interpret it differently.Great photos especially the painterly one of the red water. I am not sure what is smoke and what is cloud in the last photo- do wonder how your lungs are holding out.

    Reply
    • Samantha Chrysanthou
      July 20, 2014

      Hi Jane,
      Yes, it’s in the interpretation of our seeing that we are unique! By ‘actually is’ I mean actually is to you, seen in that moment. Check out “The Practice of Contemplative Photography”. It’s a very good book for photographers to ponder.

  12. Allison
    July 21, 2014

    Darwin,

    well said from your above post on July 20…

    cheers to you and sam

    Reply
  13. Lee Bailey
    July 21, 2014

    The study of light to me is a craft comparable to other arts…it is ongoing and never mastered. For me, I have learned that to truly understand light situations, you must get out there and work with it. Pre-planning helps if you know your locale, general direction of the light, forecast weather, etc. However, in the end just the experience of being there is the great reward. I almost never record what I see…I record what I want to see.

    Reply
  14. Jeff Cruz
    July 21, 2014

    Interesting post. I love posts that challenge definitions.

    Regarding Charlie’s statement:
    “Good photography is subjective. Perhaps the client at Walmart loves the photos.”

    In my opinion, that’s the problem with society these days. Belief that everyone is an artist, everyone is a photographer, everyone is a musician, while good for the young minds and kids growing up is not realistic in my mind. Telling a kid their photograph is amazing can help in their appreciation for the craft and art. Telling a full grown adult their picture is amazing when it is clearly not just breeds mediocrity. We need subject matter experts, we need the talented, we need those that can rise above the mediocrity. I’m not saying everyone lacking talent should throw away their hobby. I’m saying as a society we should recognize talent for what it’s worth. I believe we should place titles for only those that deserve it. Who decides? That’s another debate :) Again, this is all my opinion… but I do respect Charlie’s opinion as well even though I don’t agree.

    Another hot topic…. when is a photographer an artist? :) Would love to hear your opinions on that. I’ve been burned in the past defending it.

    http://jcruzfoto.com/2013/what-constitutes-original-art-artist-discrimination

    Reply
  15. Branimir Gjetvaj
    July 23, 2014

    I was a bit reluctant to contribute to this discussion because I would like to present a slightly different perspective. A recent blog post by Guy Tal also pushed me to say something (Guy’s idea is that photographers are artists and should not be swayed by events in the real world but rather stay focused on their artwork and not try to be more involved in events happening around them). Peter Cairns, a Scottish photographer whose work I admire, wrote eloquently why he resolved to be a better communicator rather than simply be a better photographer. On June 8, 2014, he declared not to be a ‘photographer’ any more. What brought about this drastic decision? In his words,it was for the better: he felt “cleansed, free of the constipation brought about by a perceived need to conform to the rituals of my chosen tribe.” You can read about it here: http://blog.northshots.com/2014/06/honey-i-just-shrunk-my-world/
    Do we really need to be put into bins that label us as being a ‘photographer’ or a ‘SWAC’?

    Reply
    • Samantha Chrysanthou
      July 24, 2014

      Thanks for contributing, Branimir. I think you raise a good point that we shouldn’t get hung up on labels or naming things. And I agree. Although calling yourself an artist as opposed to a photographer is still naming or labeling…in the end, I think language does matter. We use certain words because they have discrete meanings. But the trick, and the balance, is not to get too hung up on them. In the end, think about who you are and what you do, but make sure you get out and do it!

  16. Harry Holtz
    July 28, 2014

    I agree that we all can be recorders of events. But to be a photographer you have to have a vision, a purpose, or a challenge. When you have that your mind shifts into another place, when that happens your creative mind takes hold and magic happens.

    Reply
  17. jason
    July 29, 2014

    A person is a photographer when they pick up a camera and take an image… that is THEIR interaction with the world, no matter how clumsy. Just as person with the keys to a Maserati can enter a race and be a racing driver… it does not mean that they are good at it. Why are some people threatened by people with “lesser” skills adopting the same title they have? What on earth makes someone think that being a photographer (or a surgeon, or an astronaut) will or should make them a better person? If the worst person with a camera in the world wants to call themselves a photographer what does it hurt, and how does it diminish you? Instead of trying to elevate yourself above them, perhaps you should reach out and help them up to your level… or as close as they can get, as they interpret the world through THEIR lens…

    Reply
  18. hiro
    August 5, 2014

    Nice discussion, Sam. Funny thing is while I was reading this article I was thinking about studio musician and Dawin mentioned in his comment.

    I wanted to write a comment long before but I could not put my thoughts together. This weekend, I shot wedding reception. Here is my experience. I was using mostly Nikon D800 and was shooting like machine gun. I was thinking of technical part, like lighting and camera setup. I was just responding to whatever eventful happened in the reception. Then I chaned a camera to old-fashioned Leica. Somehow, I observed people more and I veiwd paticular image before pressing its shutter. It may be like a sniper.

    After shooting a paricular type of photography, getting used to how to handle situations. It is important ability I think. Sometimes just playing chord tones and scale to fit chord progression, but it does not always mean good melody.

    Reply

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