What Makes a Photographer? Peter Dench Deliberates
When do you become a photographer? When you receive your first camera? When
On a recent visit to the hairdressers, to have what hair I have left cut, I was asked by Kostas, my assigned barber, what I did for a living? I hesitated. Assignments had been a bit sparse, my photo-mojo a bit dulled. The words, “I’m a photographer” lodged in my throat. I felt a fraud. The weight of photographic history pounded in my mind. Images by James Nachtwey, Tom Stoddart, Don McCullin, Robert Capa, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, Walker Evans, Paul Strand and Edward Weston trampled across my retina. “This and that.” I finally squeaked. “Bits and bobs.” I added. Kostas finished the cut in silence.
I was a Judas to my my craft! The denial of photography felt biblical. Was I still a photographer if I hadn’t taken a photograph for a few weeks? Would I become one again if I went home and grabbed one of my three Olympus cameras and went out to photograph for the day – was it that simple?
I’d always believed I’d been a photographer since the age of 14, when I took myself away from the distractions of the amusement arcades and flirty girls to patrol the local nature reserve snapping herons, coots and butterflies with my second hand Pentax ME Super.
It’s not the first wobble I’ve had and won’t be the last. I’ve had my photography career interrupted by necessary stints working in a canteen, as a builders mate and jet-washing patios [a word of advice, don’t wear flip-flops when jet washing patios or try to clean your feet with the
In a time when everyone’s supposed to be a photographer, I don’t see a deluge of outstanding new photographers. Great photographs have to be grafted for and photography has its own unique attributes that have to be mastered: composition, content, colour [or lack of] lighting and perspective. It’s a ridiculous way to live, trying to make sense of the world and how you feel about it, through a rectangle or square.
Photography can be a deeply unsatisfying pursuit and profession but a compulsive and all consuming one. Renowned photographers, often without question, spend days away from their loved ones, spending money they may not have, in situations they may not like, hunting that moment when everything, for a fraction of a second, makes sense. When all problems and doubts are blown away and the only thing that matters, is they got the shot.
If you don’t understand that, then you’re probably not a photographer, no matter how many social networking followers you have or how many expensive cameras and gadgets are hanging around your neck. It’s a state of mind, you just know.