What’s in a word; just what is a professional photographer

Brown bear, Ursus arctos, standing raised upright and rubbing her back against a birch tree in Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska .

Brown bear, Ursus arctos, standing raised upright and rubbing her back against a birch tree in Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska. Please click on the image above to view a larger version of this photo.

Hey Folks,

I can’t imagine my father ever calling himself a “professional University lecturer” or my brother referring himself to as a “professional math teacher”.

The word professional means many things; but when it’s followed with a vocation, such as “photographer”, it doesn’t mean that you enjoy photography a lot, or that you speak politely about it, or that someone bought a print from you. It doesn’t even mean that you have a website. It doesn’t mean you teach workshops and lead tours, either.

Show me a professional photographer, and I’ll wager a dollar I’ll show you someone who’s struggled to pay their rent, who’s sold gear to make their car payment (or sold their car to make their gear payment), someone who’s eaten peanut butter sandwiches because that’s what was available to eat.

A professional photographer has made real sacrifice to do what they do (there are always exceptional cases, with trust funds, a wealthy spouse, etc). It’s a risk. It’s giving up an awful lot to choose to pursue a particular vocation. It’s losing on that risk, picking up, and swinging the stick again. And again. And yet again. Repeat, infinitum.

It sounds much more glamorous than it might be. It means you take the bus sometimes, it means you sit in the rain and wish you were somewhere else. It means you sometimes take a lower price for a sale because you need shoes. Pardon my French, but it means you’ve been sh** on. It means you’ve wished, cursed and swore that you had chosen some other manner to live by. It means you say ‘yes’ when you think ‘oh sh**, that gig sounds like hell’. It means you say ‘yes’ and then that gig actually IS hell. And you then say ‘yes’ again. Still you pursue it.

Being a professional photographer (or musician, or actor, or writer) doesn’t just mean you’re good at what you do, or that you’re very passionate about photography. It doesn’t just mean you spend time promoting yourself. It doesn’t just mean you write invoices and receipts. It doesn’t simply mean you work hard to ‘get the shot’ (it doesn’t mean you use such ridiculously lame phrases as ‘get the shot’, either). It certainly doesn’t mean you have a facebook/twitter/google+ page.

It means you took a step. And another. And another. You consciously chose a path less traveled. You stepped into an unknown world and wondered ‘how should I live?’ It likely means you’ve also wondered ‘will I make it?” That’s an incredible dilemma to have; and for many people, continue to have. It’s a very different place to be in.

Being a professional photographer means you’re probably not striving to become something else (though some certainly do); you’re not doing it to make some bank while you try to get your law business off the ground.

The term “professional photographer” means so much more than how you see yourself, your own sense of identity, though that’s certainly a part of it. You ARE a photographer. It’s not a simple advertising slogan. It’s not just a banner for your website. It’s real, folks, and it does mean something. And to every professional photographer out there, hats off to you.



3 thoughts on “What’s in a word; just what is a professional photographer

  1. Guy Tal

    Too true, Carl.

    “When you’ve got it, you’ve got it. When you haven’t, you begin again. All the rest is humbug.” — Edouard Manet


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