If you want to provoke me, it’s easy: just make a broad sweeping generalization about photography and it’s fairly certain that within a short period of time my head will explode. In recent weeks two such have appeared in my facebook feed, and perhaps to my detriment, I have replied to both.
The first was, “Photographer. The word is overused, misunderstood & undervalued.” This is quite interesting because from this statement we learn that a word–you know, the lettered representation of an idea–has a function independent of its meaning wherein it can be leaning against the bar at a cocktail party, lonely and perhaps a little cold, lamenting that its date is freely conversing with other words and leaving it there alone, bereft, and feeling misunderstood and of little value. Ahem. Already I am distracted.
I suspect that the writer meant that the person who uses the word can have those abstract ideas, not the word itself, and on that basis I have some problems with this statement. Words represent ideas and it is up to the speaker to combine them in such a way as to represent those ideas accurately. If a word on its own does not play a sufficient part, you add others to bolster it and make the combination mean what you want. The definition of photographer is quite simple: a person who takes/makes photographs.
It does not mean a person who takes pictures of a certain quality, or pictures with a specified device. It does not distinguish between a photograph made with an iphone or one made on a 100 year old studio camera on 11×14 film. It does not mean transcendent, or thought-provoking, or exhibition-ready. A photographer is a person who makes photographs. Punto.
Naturally that is not what the writer, and his many sycophants, meant. He wanted the word to represent someone who made photographs of quality, provocativeness, transcendence; that when one declared that one was a photographer one was announcing one’s skill in the medium. The obvious underlying reason for this is an attempt to separate oneself from the crowd of plebeian practitioners of the craft, the wanna-bes, the chaff, the over-confident pseudo-photographers of which the world seems full. The “I have a good camera, now I am a photographer” crowd.
No one gets to redefine a word to suit themselves. This is elitist and ignorant. As a photographer myself, I have no desire to produce work to suit anyone’s definition but my own. And that is the beauty of a simple definition that covers everyone equally: we all get to decide individually what the word means to us. If you want to separate yourself from the crowd, do work that is different. Despite what the writer and his pals may think, there is room for all of us. The fact that the world is flooded with photographs in no way dilutes your work by some special osmotic process. This is fear talking, the fear that your work is not unique, that the plethora of others doing similar work makes yours less special. If so, work harder, look at other people’s stuff less–redefining the word to make your stuff more special is backwards and won’t make any difference.
The second statement was, “Film encourages you to work with your mind.” Another general, rubbish statement. My first response is, don’t tell me what film does for me. See the trend here? I don’t like being told how to think and feel, especially when it regards something I know intimately. Are you going to tell me the purpose of children too? And what to get out of my job? Or the benefits of exercise and a sugar-free diet?
The implication here is two-fold: that using film is an intellectual exercise (and therefore other forms of photography are not), and that using film is for the elite. Both ideas piss me off and of course I’m going to tell you why. (As a grammatical aside, film doesn’t encourage you to do a damn thing. In all the years I have used it, I have never heard a single encouraging word issue from a roll or sheet of the stuff.)
If the use of film were to simply encourage me to work my mind, I doubt I would continue to use it. In my experience, every moment of every day encourages me to work with my mind lest I forget to get dressed, lock the front door, show up at work, speak words rather than grunt, arrange my life, and so forth. Working with one’s mind is central to life, even when you have lost it.
The use of film is a small part of my artistic output and lays at the foundation of multiple processes, all of which can be achieved with a digital medium as well. It doesn’t matter what kind of camera you use to get where you are going, even if all you do are selfies. The most seemingly mindless camera-centric activities require mindfulness, and centering on film shows that the author of the statement thinks other forms of picture-making are inferior. Simply not liking them is shaky ground for their dismissal.
It is true that I am more interested in pictures made from film using techniques that originated many years ago. But that is just it–my interest does not negate other forms of expression. Like everyone, I have my preferences. However, when someone else’s preferences define for me the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ out there, I get shirty. Just as certain types of work are dismissed by the opinions of others, so too is mine somewhere along the line. This is a shallow and uninformed way of looking at work, it seems to me, and at best means a person is disregarding entire swathes of potentially inspiring stuff and at worst not only not looking, but also badmouthing things never even seen. How hypocritical! If you want to define what is and isn’t, don’t get offended when your work is also written off by someone who redefines what they see too and does not include what you do in their definition. Preferences are individual and should therefore be expressed by starting such statements with ‘I’.
Had the statements been, “Photographer. To me, the word is overused, misunderstood & undervalued” and, “Film encourages me to work with my mind” I would not have taken such issue with them. I would still have had some grammatical issues….but it is unlikely that I would have commented except perhaps with an acerbic “why?”
The bottom line is that general statements like this are posted to provoke conversation. In this case, the writer had an agenda and my disagreement with him led him to state elsewhere (I paraphrase) that people did not agree with him and he had to abandon the conversation. What is a conversation then? A bunch of folks lamenting about the state of the dictionary and its lack of agreement with their narrow and elitist definition of their chosen activity? Certainly it is not about discussion of varying viewpoints. I encourage these pouting artistes to look up chef, painter, printmaker, baker, and driver–to name a few–and see if those definitions include caveats about quality, output, competence, and qualifications.
I have ‘unfollwed’ this person. I don’t need this kind of distraction; I have work to do.