Does it make you uncomfortable to call yourself a photographer? Today I’m diving into when it is and isn’t okay.
Recently I was speaking to someone who suggested that people who are into photography but don’t do it professionally often feel uncomfortable calling themselves a ‘photographer’ and I found this quite hard to believe. So I put it to the test and surveyed our Creative Photo Folk Facebook group to see if this was true. And what do you know, 45% of the people surveyed don’t call themselves a photographer, despite enjoying photography.
I don’t ever remember a time where I felt embarrassed to call myself a photographer, even in the early days. The one and only time this put me in an awkward position is when a professional pet photographer asked me what type of photography I did and because I tended to shoot a bit of everything back then, I mumbled ‘landscape’. This lead him into a spiel about how he could never do landscape photography because he didn’t have the patience to travel to remote locations and wait around for hours for the right light. And I thought, is that what landscape photographers actually do? I just meant that I liked to go on weekend excursions and capture whatever landscape happened to be available. And so, sure that made me feel a bit inadequate at the time but I can’t think of any other instance where calling myself a photographer caused any kind of problem. There was certainly never a time when anyone pointed their finger at me and yelled ‘you’re not a REAL photographer!’
The way I saw it, I’d chosen to invest in an expensive camera that I enjoyed taking photos with, so by the very nature of being someone who took photos, that meant I was a photographer. But it seems there are a lot of people who like taking photos, yet won’t consider themselves a photographer if they don’t do it professionally. So this prompted me to look up the word photographer and it’s official meaning.
According to the Collins and Cambridge dictionaries: A photographer is someone who takes photographs as a job or hobby. Merriam Webster says: One who practices photography especially one who makes a business of taking photographs. Dictionary.com: A person who takes photographs, especially one who practices photography professionally. The Oxford Dictionary: A person who takes photographs, especially as a job.
So what we can infer is that a photographer is a blanket term for anyone who takes photographs but there is special allowance made for those who do it professionally.
I started thinking about other hobbies and professions as a comparison. I asked my friend who paints and sculpts if she considered herself a painter and sculptor and she said no, that she likes to work with clay and sometimes tries to paint. To me, that seems unnecessarily wordy and difficult to explain in conversation, but I can understand that calling yourself a painter might cause someone to overestimate your level of skill.
My mum likes to sew and definitely calls herself a sewer but would never say she’s a seamstress. But her friends would call themselves quilters despite not making money from it. My dad likes to run and does call himself a runner, even though he’s never done so professionally. People who enjoy gardening probably say they like to garden rather than refer to themselves as gardeners. A writer tends to call themselves a writer, but not always an author. And I’m pretty sure most artists call themselves artists. Someone who plays guitar for fun might tell people they play music but not consider themselves a musician. You might say you play football but not call yourself a footballer, yet a pole dancer considers themselves a pole dancer, even though that might raise eyebrows in certain company. But I guess it’s easier than saying you dance the pole. Gamers call themselves gamers. But is that because there’s not many paid opportunities in gaming? Podcasters call themselves podcasters. YouTubers call themselves YouTubers. And isn’t it interesting that these more modern hobbies aren’t fussy about who can use the term, quite possibly because the millennial generation have been raised to believe they can do anything. It seems there’s no hard rule to be found, but it certainly appears that people are more comfortable saying they do a thing, rather than saying they ARE a thing.
Do hobbies, even if we spend a significant amount of time doing them, really not count? And why? Are we so conditioned to downplay our abilities that we don’t want to pretend to be something we feel insecure about? Or is it an unspoken social contract that we can only define ourselves by something if we have have proven our skills professionally?
If we don’t call ourselves photographers how can we distinguish ourselves from someone who takes photos with a phone? There’s certainly a lot more expense and skill required to use a professional camera and it allows us to take photographs of a certain quality that can’t yet be matched by a phone. But we both take photos so are we equal?
And when ARE we permitted to start using the label? If I sell a stock photo and thus make money am I now allowed to call myself a photographer? Or do I have to have an ABN and a website? Is there some unspoken level of skill we must reach before it’s suddenly okay to call ourselves a photographer? And when is that? Who decides? Is it something you’ll just feel?
What about someone like me who primarily makes money from selling prints but doesn’t do commercial work. Does that mean I’m allowed to call myself an artist but not a photographer? And because I teach photography but don’t use my camera every day am I more a coach than a photographer? What in the world am I supposed to put on my business cards!
If you feel uncomfortable calling yourself a photographer perhaps take a look at the people you do consider to be photographers. What qualifies them to use the title? I know a photographer who gets published in magazines all the time but has never been paid, yet he’s practically a household name in the local industry.
As I said, I had no problem calling myself a photographer even in my early years and I can’t help but wonder if that’s why I ended up becoming a professional photographer, because I had already allowed myself to claim that identity. If you don’t permit yourself to use a certain label are you drawing a line in the sand to say you’re just not that serious about your chosen hobby? I think as long as you are mentally separating yourself from a particular identity you are always going to struggle to take yourself seriously.
Because consider this: is it possible you might actually make more progress with your photography simply by calling yourself a photographer? If someone enjoys taking photos but doesn’t feel compelled to pick up their camera all that often then it’s easy to say, ‘well I’m not really a photographer. I just like to take photos for fun’. But when you identify as a photographer you’re much more likely to prioritise making time for photography to reinforce this belief.
Our subconscious mind is so powerful and it believes everything you tell it. This is why affirmations are used in the self-help and therapy industries because they implant positive beliefs. If you have low self-esteem it’s probably because you’re continually judging yourself and thinking negative things. But try being nicer to yourself for awhile and see what a difference that makes. And this is true of any changes you wish to make to your identity. If you want to feel more positively about your photography skills try focusing on the positive, not negative, things about your photos.
Everything we are in life is just a story we tell ourselves, so if your goal is to be a better photographer perhaps it’s time to start calling yourself one and see what a difference this makes to your progress. By adopting a label the only person you need to prove it to is yourself.