I have a camera. I am a photographer.
Anybody can call themselves a photographer these days. After all, the only prerequisite is to have a camera and take a photograph. Almost every adult I know has a camera with them every day, in the form of a smart phone.
Wait. Do smart phones count as real cameras? I used to say no. But there are so many strong images made with the modern phone camera and in a lot of cases the tool itself is not what matters. Would Hemingway's novels be different to read if they were written on a computer instead of a typewriter? It is not the tool, but the person behind it. Is my writing any different if I use a No.2 pencil or the touch screen keyboard of my phone instead of a word processing program on my PC? The process of creating will be different, but does it change the meaning?
So it is all about the person. The writer, the artist, the photographer. With that person comes the experiences, the attitudes and opinions. With that person comes the successes and failures. With that person comes the ego. The ego can be small and unnoticed, or it can be enormous and overbearing.
When you push the shutter button, what is your intent? Are you there to make your own image, to make the art you force the subject to fit into? Or are you there to watch and let the subject reveal itself to you? You can be a photographer, or a photojournalist.
I recently reread an article in The New York Times about the death of Henri Cartier-Bresson and how he was an anthropologist that was not really interested in people. What do we do with that information? Is it okay to be interested only in the image that you can get rather than the subject? HCB was certainly successful in his approach.
There were assignment that I would go to and have no connection with the subject. I would go in blind, no background information about the story, and no time to make any connections as I had three more places to be. Looking through some of my archived newspaper work last week I realized that those were the images that I did not remember anything about. I had to read the caption IPTC data to even figure out what the purpose of the image was. Those are the images that I am finding myself hitting the delete button on more and more.
I think that all photographers fall on a spectrum from being narcissists on the one end to anthropologists on the other extreme. Most photographers fall somewhere in the middle. I would suggest that the more narcissistic you are in your work the more likely you are to engage in heavy manipulation of lighting, of subject, and working the image a lot in post. On the other end are the photographers who are anthropologists. These are often the photojournalists with the strict discipline of not manipulating anything in the frame or after the shutter clicks. They are recording the world as a reality.
There is a problem with that model though. How do we end up with famous photojournalists? Wasn't Eddie Adams being wrapped up in himself when he held his Barnstorm seminars and made his grand entrance under spotlights like a rock star? Aren't photojournalists being self absorbed when they publish books and promote their work? Cerainly there has to be some ego in the process, or else they would not consider the work worth viewing and publishing. But how do you know when you are crossing the line of doing good and helping others and instead taking the photos for your own selfish reasons?
When you post a photo on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or Oggl or any other of countless social media sharing sites, why do you put the post out there? Even if your intentions were to be an anthropologist when you pressed the shutter, you can change that work to be very self serving when you put it out there in front of the world. We all want our images to be seen. We all want our images to have impact. It is why we have like buttons on our social sharing sites. We need that feedback to know that our work matters. Is that being a narcissist? Or is it just being human?
I am not saying that it is not good to put yourself into your work and be proud of the accomplishment. Rather, I am saying that you should simply be honest with yourself about why you are sharing your images.