In Praise of Amateurs

Amateur_Photographer,_Vol_1,_No_1,_rear_cover_copy

A couple of months ago the popular image sharing site Flickr underwent a fuglifying make over. This swapped the (admittedly rather aged) interface with an eye wateringly messy replacement, and more controversially did away with the Flickr Pro membership option in favour of an advert funded site where all users have access to more or less the same features. Defending the ditching of Flickr Pro, Yahoo boss Marissa Mayer was quoted as saying ‘There’s no such thing as Flickr Pro today because there’s really no such thing as professional photographers anymore.’

Although as Mayer later tweeted she only meant this in the context of Flickr, this comment riled lots of people, including Jim Colton who wrote that the ‘whole idea that “anyone with a camera,” can be a professional photographer is both absurd and unsettling’. I must admit I find the distinctions between amateur and professional rather interesting, not least in terms of what photographer’s themselves believe the distinctions to be.

To describe another photographer as an amateur is invariably regarded as a grave insult. It implies that they are basically not good enough to make a living from photography, the assumption I suppose being that all people engage in photography in the hope of profit, and that for every amateur the ultimate aspiration is of migrating to the status of professional. By contrast the label professional brings with it implications of a certain level of skill which can garner paying clients.

However the tendency to see these categories as distinctions of skill isn’t quite right, indeed the two terms are not even really analogous to one another. Being a professional is a monetary distinction, it is someone who makes a living from what they do, their skill is irrelevant to this. Anyone even moderately engaged with the world of photography will know there are some utterly unskilled professional photographers who still manage to survive and indeed thrive.

Amateur is again not really a distinction of skill. Many amateurs are unskilled, but some are not. Arguably it’s not really a financial distinction either, one can feasibly be both an amateur and a professional at the same time. In my own work I feel pretty comfortable distinguishing between the professional (i.e. money making) work I do for clients, and the ‘amateur’ projects I do for the love of the subject but which rarely even cover their own costs, let alone make a a profit.

I found another interesting definition of amateur and professional while recently reading Vilhelm Fusser’s Towards a Philosophy of Photography. In one passage Fusser argues that the practice of photography is similar to playing a game of chess. Some players play the game according to what has already been done by others, they study old games, learn old tactics, repeat old moves, and so on. They get ‘better’ but without innovating, i.e. they only measure themselves against the achievements of others. These, according to Fusser, are amateurs.

Some players however look for new moves, ways to play the game in unique ways, innovating, playing around what has been done before and surprising their opponents as a result. These are professionals. It’s a great concept, although Fusser’s analogy falls short in that it again runs into the trap of equating professional and amateur as two sides of the same coin. Amateurs are just as capable of occupying the position of professionals in this description, and vice versa, indeed I’ve often noticed how hobbled the creativity of professionals can be by the need to make a living.

I came across one final take on the apparent ambivalence between amateurs and professionals while talking to my father recently. He works in film, a field which suffers from a similar (albeit somewhat different) level of saturation to photography. While I complained about the difficulty of finding work – I must admit partially blaming the number of photographers out there – he countered that we were lucky, yes actually lucky, to work in such congested fields.

His rationale was that the people we might decry for undercutting our jobs or filling the internet with Instagrams of their lunch and videos of their cats are ironically often also the engaged, visually literate people who are likely to be attending our exhibitions and film screenings, buying our books and DVD’s and generally consuming what we produce. They cement the mass appeal of our media and make it attractive for funders, whether charities, companies, or individuals to invest in what we do.

The point I’m making in all of this is that the distinctions between amateurs and professionals aren’t always that great. In a medium which often feels so saturated there is a temptation to use any foothold to lift your head above the masses and decry those swarming below you, but claiming as professionals often seem do that they have some sort of superiority or privileged right  to make work and get it seen, over and above that of amateurs is a lame way to do it. As ever photographers need to worry less about categories and distinctions, and more about what their photographs actually say.

4 thoughts on “In Praise of Amateurs

  1. Good observations Lewis. It’s certainly no black and white distinction with our ‘status’ as amateur or pro shifting depending on circumstance and attitude.

    My answer to aspirant pros has always been – “…the market doesn’t care what your status is, its whether your picture fills the need they have that matters…”

    Anyone reading this should also read this: http://willclarkson.co.uk/blog/2013/8/13/wildlife-photography-part-2-of-2

    • Thanks again John – Lewis the way I see the difference of amateur and professional is by the art they produce, and how. Often the amateur is only able to give short sharp bursts of time, due to the constraints of their jobs (lottery winners aside of course). The professional has considerably more time for reflection and slow development of their photography. That’s not to say amateurs don’t reflect, they just don’t/can’t give all their time to it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just a different one.

      There’s also the distinction of influences. Money is a heavy influence on the pro for obvious reasons. It reminds me of English captains of sport, who until relatively recently were always amateurs (captaining teams of pros), for fear money will corrupt the purity of the sport. Leadership always came from the amateur due to the fact that profit was not the reason for playing. Admittedly there are serious class implications here as well, but it is an interesting point to consider in a modern context. These influences are very much multi-dimensional.

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