What Makes A Professional A Professional?

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A few months ago Neil Burgess caused a stir with a posting on the EPUK site when he declared that photojournalism was dead. His comments created quite a debate in the world wide journalism community.

This included the NPAC site where debate ranged back and forth between agreement with Burgess and others who felt the opposite was true, that photojournalism had never been healthier.

I joined in that discussion with one post. I started that post with two recent quotes from photographers Louie Palu and Stanley Greene.

This is what I wrote then:

‘Louie Palu -NPAC site – “I rent a room in a house, own no real estate or vehicle, I have an old bike and take transit. I own no furniture except a cheap IKEA desk. Right now I am living out of a bag in Kandahar.”

Stanley Greene -NY Times Lens blog – “let’s be real here. I don’t own an apartment. I don’t own a house. I don’t own a car. I don’t have any stocks and bonds. All I own are my cameras. That’s it. And some cowboy boots.”

There are almost two directions to this discussion. Yes there are lots of places and spaces to display photoj, probably more places than ever, but it does seem to be harder to make a living at it. A good living meaning the basics like being able to buy a house, a car etc. The two guys above are success stories, well respected, great shooters and they’re not 19 year old rookies, they should be able to afford more than a bus pass from their work.

If guys at the top of the profession struggle to make a living what kind of a profession is it?’

I’ve had some time to think about my comments and I’ve changed my opinion somewhat.

I do think this is a wonderful time for the creation of photojournalism. There are incredible photographers creating amazing work. The internet, through news sites, photography sites and photographer’s sites, is a cornucopia of photography, displaying more photojournalism than magazines ever did.

Photographers can create their own books at a reasonable cost. There are lots of  venues available  where images can be displayed, from high end galleries to local cafes and community centres.

At the same time there are less staff jobs and many of those still around now pay less. Many online sites pay nothing for the photos they display.

I do believe that a professional at the top of their game should be able to make a good living.

What I believe though and the reality of life may be two different things.

Sometimes the chance to work at what we want is what counts. That work, though it may not bring us what would be considered even a mid range salary, may be enough to pay our bills and allow us to work at what we think to be important.

The real downside to that though is that it means that many young photographers will tire of funding their own projects, tire of trying to attract an online audience that looks but doesn’t pay and move on to other careers.

I‘ve always joked that I’ve never had to work for a living and it’s true. I’ve never felt that what I do is work in the sense that I’ve never felt like a wage slave. Not like the days when I worked in sawmills when time crawled so slowly that I didn’t look ahead to the end of the shift, that was too far away. I just waited for the next coffee break. While I’ve had bad days in my photography career I’ve never felt like that.

It may be enough for photojournalism that there will always be committed photographers for whom only the imagery matters not the pay cheque.

In the end though there’s still one thing that bothers me. It seems to be the elephant in the room that nobody wants to acknowledge.

It’s generally understood to be a professional at anything, you have to get paid for what you do.

In any career, certainly at the beginning,  you may work at improving your skills  by practicing or volunteering, work that you’re not paid for.

However, eventually if you do something you enjoy a lot for no pay then you are simply a hobbyist. If you pay your bills by taking photos of weddings and in your off time travel to international hotspots to take photographs on your own nickel you’re not a photojournalist  you’re  a wedding photographer who takes cool holiday photos.

Not that there is anything wrong with any of that. It just seems people are avoiding the obvious, that there are a lot of people (talented people) calling themselves professional career photojournalists who are in reality nothing of the sort.

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