Photography – a Profession?

I read sometime ago about a professional photographer who took his own life.

There is no need to go into the specifics, but the generalities raise interesting questions.

In an age where anyone with a few hundred pounds can buy quality photographic and editing equipment, there are always going to be photographers who are willing to work for less money, or no money than the established pro.

The argument is that their work will of lower quality so the client ultimately suffers through paying less. And furthermore the amateur working for nothing will either give up (because who wants to work for nothing) or be recognised as having little talent and will not get further work.

These might be true, but will not help the pro, as there will always be others to take their place.

On the other hand, some of these ‘wannabes’ may actually be very good indeed, and the client may be getting a real bargain. On yet another hand, it might be the case that talented photographers don’t want to charge much (or at all), because for them it’s a passionate hobby, not a job.

When colleagues ask if I can photograph their children, should I then charge them? Actually the question is rhetorical. I don’t charge colleagues for photographing their families. Period.

Now you could argue that I’m doing some pro out of work, and I’m not going to argue about overheads, running costs, tax, etc, etc, etc.

If my colleagues want to go to a studio and pay studio rates, then they will. If they want me to bring around a few lights, a backdrop and a bag full of kit, well, we’ll do that.

It’s undoubtedly true that photography is going through great changes, but this has happened before, and no doubt will happen again in the future. The recent changes in technology have democratised photography in an incredible way. Digital photography has opened up the potential of image making in a way that was unimaginable when I started taking photos in the 1970’s.

This explosion of photography has led to a sense of entitlement in that many, many more people want to make a living out of what would previously been just a hobby.

Let’s imagine a conversation with a hypothetical pro, based upon conversations I’d had over the past few years, but not really about any one particular tog. In the tradition of Ali G, meet ‘me mate Dave’.

Me: Love the work Dave.

Dave: Oh, thanks, it’s going really well. Seems super popular.

Me: I’m sure it is.

Dave: Yeah, had 250 ‘likes’ in a couple of days.

Me: ‘Likes’?

Dave: Isn’t facebook great for photographers. I’ve got 1500 friends now.

Me: I’m sure they like your work.

Dave: They love my work. Well apart from a few, but I’ve unfriended  all them.

Me: OK, so what earns the money?

Dave: Weddings and fashion work. I shoot for lots of magazines.

Me: Do the magazines pay well?

Dave: Well not really, but it’s all good experience.

Me: How are the weddings?

Dave: Great, but it’s difficult with all these amateurs undercutting you.

Me: I’m sure it’s difficult for a lot of people.

Dave: Well, they’ll be sorry when their wedding photos are crap. You have pay for quality.

Me: So true. So tell me, how long have you been taking photos?

Dave: Nearly three years now.

Me: Oh, ok. Not that long then. Is all your experience in digital then?

Dave: Yeah. I mean? Who uses film anyway? Never even been in darkroom. Outdated, completely outdated.

Me: Right. So where did you study?

Dave: University of life me. You can’t learn experience.

Me: So true. I see from your website that you offer teaching as well. I didn’t realise you were a teacher?

Dave: Well we all do our bit, eh?

Me: And by teacher, you don’t actually mean ‘Qualified Teacher Status’, like in a school?

Dave: Hey you don’t need bits of paper to be a teacher.

Me: Just experience?’

Dave: Absolutely – you can’t beat it.

 

Now, Dave is a talented photographer in the area he works, but for me this begs the fundamental question, what does professional mean when applied to photography?

Going to our favourite source of insightful knowledge, Wikipedia, we get the following definition.

 

‘A professional is a person who is engaged in a certain activity, or occupation, for gain or compensation as means of livelihood; such as a permanent career, not as an amateur or pastime. The traditional professions were doctorsengineerslawyersarchitects and commissioned military officers. Today, the term is applied to nursesaccountantseducatorsscientiststechnology expertssocial workersartists, librarians (information professionals) and many more.’

Taking the first part of the definition – a professional works for cash, and does the task as a job of work.

The second part is more interesting. The examples given of traditional professions give a far narrower scope for being considered ‘professional’.

I consider my own field to be a profession, so what does that mean for me? Well, I work in education. After my degree, I took a postgraduate certificate in education; then I had to work a probationary year before getting qualified status. Three years for a degree, plus two qualifying to be a teacher.

So, one – expert knowledge, backed by qualifications at degree level.

Two – Specific training related to the occupational sector.

As a teacher I have to be a member of my professional association, which itself requires a commitment to certain ethical standards, which extend beyond my workplace or working hours.

Three – professional association.

Four – ethical and professional standards.

These four criteria make teaching a profession rather than a job. Other professions have similar characteristics. For an occupation to be considered a profession, it has far beyond providing work in return for money.

Let’s consider photography. Is there a requirement for qualifications? No. Is there a requirement for specific training or proof of competence? No. Is there a professional association that all practitioners have to join? No. Are there ethical standards that everyone have to subscribe to? No.

A photographer, or postman, or baker cannot come into a school, claim to be a teacher and undercut the salaries of teachers.  But the teacher, or the postman, or the baker can pick up a camera and claim to be a photographer, and charge as much as they can get away with, or as little as they please.

I’d initially thought of using binmen as an example, but then I remembered that the highly unionized, relatively well paid council employees of the past have been replaced, through privatization, with low paid workers with no job security, and few rights.

The reality is that photographers are not professional in the sense that I have used. Moreover, they are less regulated than plumbers without even the requirement for basic checks of competence. A  van driver has to have a driving license. What does a photographer need to have?

To many people;  many potential clients, ‘professional’ photographers are just people trying to make money out of their hobby.

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2 comments

  1. Wow, almost every single paragraph of this (fantastic) write-up sounds almost exactly like something I have said myself in the past. Bravo, well spoken!

    (Said the full-time wedding photographer)

    =Matt=

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