I don’t know if I’m a writer because I like words, or if I like words because I’m a writer. But regardless of which is the chicken (or is it the egg?), I often obsess over using just the right one.
Sometimes — as revealed in last month’s article — a word has too many definitions to be useful. Other times, a word might have only one definition, but too many connotations.
Take the word, “photographer.” In theory, it should be a perfectly suitable term for that thing I do with cameras. And yet, I loathe it — not because it’s the wrong word, but because of the misconceptions it forms in the minds of others.
Whenever I’m defined as “a photographer,” I’m automatically cast as a person with traits, motives, likes, and cognitive thought patterns that are fundamentally and utterly unlike who I actually am. By definition, a photographer is simply “a person who takes photographs,” which accurately defines me. But in the common perlocutionary vernacular, a photographer is often “someone who is drawn to capture and enhance scenes of conspicuously orthodox beauty,” which is definitely not me.
So whenever someone asks if I’m a photographer, I always answer “no” — for the simple fact that a “yes” inevitably leads to one of three possible follow-up questions:
1) “Have I seen your photos anywhere?” Setting aside the ridiculous notion I have any idea what they might have seen, the ubiquitous presence of that B.C. license plate means I could probably respond in the affirmative — but it’s far too anomalous to count, and would only reinforce their mistaken assumptions.
2) “How much does it cost to photograph a wedding these days?” As if every photographer wants nothing more than to spend their days and nights Photoshopping some hideous family of misfits into a bunch of faux princes and princesses.
3) “You must absolutely be LOVING the a) autumn colours; b) cherry blossoms; c) spectacular sunset; d) beautiful blue skies.” Nope; Uh-uh; Nyet; Negative. Well, maybe I am, but they have absolutely no affect on what I photograph, because they have absolutely nothing to do with anything I wish to convey through photography.
So technically, I don’t have a problem with the word “photographer.” I have a problem with society’s insistence that it means something totally foreign to what I do.
On the very rare occasion when someone asks what I photograph (rather than simply assuming my life revolves around rainbows, waterfalls and headshots), I usually say “metaphors.” You’d be surprised how quickly that ends a conversation. So, no, I ain’t no photographer.
Language was invented to aid communication. But when society chooses to adorn it with unscripted implications, the words lose their intended meaning and communication breaks down.
Consider what is, perhaps, the most noxiously loaded word of all: “artist.” Like “photographer,” the word could theoretically be applied to what I do. One might argue it’s even more suitable than “photographer,” since it’s more inclusive of other aspects of my life, such as writing essays or composing music. Plus, it suggests a certain element of creativity might be involved — a trait seemingly lacking from the imaginations of those who interpret “photographer” as “archivist of insipidly beautiful things.”
However, the word “artist” has become so hijacked by illocutionary pretension that I’ve never once been able to apply it to myself. The very idea of calling myself “an artist” makes me throw up in my mouth. I challenge anyone to read any artist’s statement and not be inclined to pop a breath mint afterwords.
I’m now publishing what would objectively be called a fine art photography magazine, and I have every intention to eventually descend further into the abyss with books and prints. So it’s a little awkward that I won’t call myself either an artist or a photographer. The problem, I suppose, is that society eschews the objective and adopts the subjective. Even though I believe what I’m doing is photography; that the product is indeed art; and that it’s perfectly fine — the amalgamation of those words implies something entirely different in the subjective minds of others.
For decades now, I’ve succeeded only in defining what I’m not, but never what I am. Take a peek through ULTRAsomething’s archives, and you’ll see me donning different hats through the years — hoping one might finally suit me. To date, none have. So for the next little while (and thanks to the publication of ULTRAsomething magazine), whenever someone inquires about that camera in my hand, I’ll reply, “I’m a media mogul.” No doubt this response will inspire its own rash of misconceptions, but like a kid trying out a new dirty word, it’ll be fun to see the response.
© 2023 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS: Rather than attempting to absorb the existential significance of each individual photo, perhaps it would be more illuminating to understand the ‘artist’ behind them…
ARTIST STATEMENT: “The photos I choose to take likely differ from those you would choose to take. Whether or not you consider this a good thing is entirely up to you.”
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Crisply, precisely put. Your words reflect my thoughts on this topic better than I can express myself. Thank you!
The article had a topic? Whaddya know… 😉
I know some people one could call photosophists. You are not one. My friends who are photosophists tend to like teaching composition: “rule of thirds”, “leading lines”, stuff like that. They also talk a lot about how some lenses (mostly the expensive ones) have great bokeh. I have trouble telling one bokeh from another. Gotta study more.
I enjoy your pics, good bokeh or no.
Many of my photos are 100% bokeh.
Whenever I tell someone I’m into photography (I wouldn’t dare call me a photographer) they always ask me what I photograph. I never have a simple answer for that, always grasping with terms like ‘Cityscapes’. I think I’ll borrow your ‘Metaphores’. It’s not accurate either but at least covers some of it and may just satisfy them enough to go away.
Or as I see my photography a projection of myself towards the world, the answer should be ‘myself’.
Would that make me a narcisist?
Anyway, it’s always a good day when I can read something new from you.
Maybe it’s a regional thing? 15 years ago, when every single person on the streets of Vancouver was schlepping a dSLR with a 70-200 lens and identifying as a ‘professional photographer’ (another misapplied word, which meant “my photos are just as sharp and well exposed as the famous ones”), the “What do you photograph?” question was ubiquitous. I eventually realized this was because they, themselves, were searching for something to do with that big heavy camera. Now (as long as I avoid the cruise ship terminal in the summer) I can go months without seeing anyone carrying anything but an iPhone. Society seems to have collectively converged on the selfie genre and no longer identifies as a ‘professional photographer’ — so anyone carrying a ‘real’ camera stands out, and is assumed to be the source of all the ‘pretty’ pictures that show up in their instagram feed.
And yes, I consider every photograph to be a selfie, whether we point the camera at our face or not. What someone chooses to photograph is always a reflection of themselves. That doesn’t make you a narcissist. That makes you aware. 😉
Once again: The words must tell things as they really are! If you cannot choose a word, make a new one.
One hundred years ago there was a guy here (meaning here in the pre-war shape and boarders) who had a similar problem, but rather from the opposite point of view. His name was Jan Bu?hak and his photographs were rather as your BC plate picture than your selfies. He’s regared as one of founding fathers of polish photography and as one of the main polish pictorialists.
Mr Bu?hak didn’t like the word “photographer” (fotograf in polish) as according to him it was a rather good description of a guy who takes passport photos, families portraits, heck – even some architecture. Anyway, fotograf for him was, at best, a craftsman. He thought about himselft as an artist. So he created a word fotografik – no easy word to word translation. It’s amalgamated words fotograf and grafik, which means respectively a photographer and an artist in graphics. Ergo, fotografik means a photografic artist.
His proposal was not accepted so widely as he was expecting but the word is still in use. And still makes controversy as many argue, who should draw a line between the craft and the art.
Anyway, as such a creative selfieman (or self made man?) maybe you should invent a proper name.
Hah, such a limitation! Check Jan Bulhak then, as our one and only diacritic used with L doesn’t look as it should.
By the way, check what ogonek in the world of diacritics means.