What makes you a REAL photographer?

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Let's face it. No one knows your work. Your best image has barely 10 likes. You didn't go to photography school, the closest you have to a phd is the “HD” on your TV. You never made a dime out of your images and the only gallery space you've ever had is your mom's living room. You're a nobody, so how can you call yourself a REAL photographer?


“I don't call myself a photographer”

I heard this phrase too many times as one of the two head honchos behind Inspired Eye photography magazine, so in this article I will try to tackle what actually makes you a photographer. I think in terms of presuppositions (meaning: I automatically analyze the underlying suppositions people make while talking) here's what I understand from this phrase:


1) There are prerequisites for being called a photographer

2) I do not meet to prerequisites

3) Therefore I am not a photographer


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Them Photography prerequisites

Let's think about that first presupposition for a second: “There are prerequisites for being called a photographer”. What is that presupposing? An authority. Because someone has to put the prerequisites down in the first place.


But here's what we see, the prerequisites are plastic, no two people have the same ones, so it's fair to say that most prerequisites are actually self imposed. In simpler words, many tell themselves they are not photographers based on criteria that they set up themselves. Crazy, no? Let's observe those I believe that people hold and see that they do not hold water.

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You need to be famous
Fame has no bearing on whether or not you are a photographer. There's this mistaken notion that if you have good work, you're going to be recognized. It follows then that if your work is not known, your work is not good. So does that mean that Vivian Maiers (A nanny-photographer discovered years after her death) work was not good until it got well known? Nonsense.


The act of photography is one of creation. Once you've made the image, it stands on its own. Fame added or not is irrelevant. There's many unknown excellent photographers, and I mean EXCELLENT. And there's many famous but average photographers. Between me and you, most of the famous photographers of our day are simply put, overrated. So it's foolish to say that you are not a photographer because you are not famous when many famous ones are average. Inversely I can also tell you that some of the folks that go trough our magazine interviews are killer photographers yet are unknown.


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You need to be in a gallery

Likewise as for fame, being in a gallery has no bearing on if you are a photographer or not. Don't get me wrong there's some real good photographers in galleries, but to think the gallery is this magical place where all the real photographers go is mistaken. I've seen great work in and outside galleries both, so participating in a show cannot be used as a criteria. Plus galleries and collecting is a business, the understanding is that the work will go up in value with time and if you don't market yourself to be hot, forget it.


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You need to go to school

Photography is all about the images. How you learn to create these images is up to you. Many well-known photographers didn't study photography academically. Henri Cartier Bresson went to study Literature & Painting. Vivian Maiers was too busy being making a living as a nanny for this stuff, Ansel Adams was home-schooled and was mainly interested in Piano & music before he took the camera. I myself am a graphic designer. Make the best choice for your images, if school is better for you, go for it, but your formal education has no bearing on whether you are a photographer or not.


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You need to make money with your images

Just because no one wants to pay for your images doesn't mean anything about you as a photographer. Some great amateur photographers can put some pros to shame and vice versa. The highest point you can reach in photography is to fully realize your vision, not to end up making money. Many seek money as a sort of validation of their photography and therefore of themselves but I think it's putting it in the wrong place.

I'm a pro, I sell my stuff. But I would be as happy if I wasn't because images stand on their own. A great image is a great image whether someone wants to buy it or not. I'm just happy making images, the money aspect brings the bread home.


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So….what makes you a photographer?

Sooooo if these common prerequisites do not fit the bill as requirements to call yourself as a photographer…what makes you one? drumroll please!…………..


What makes you a photographer is if you set out to be one and work at it. It's weird but hear me out. It comes from the fact that we act in accordance to who we believe we are. Belief in itself is nothing, saying we are a kind person for example will not make us kind out of the blue because we said so. But that belief in being a kind person will eventually produce actions that are consistent with that belief if it is strong enough.


So, having a belief alone is wishful thinking, but having your belief drive your actions isn't. My grandfather, my mom and dad always told me that “I do not finish what I start”, and whether or not that was true as the time, I internalized that as true belief and I did indeed continue that pattern for years until I removed that belief. This is the same thing that I believe determines who a real photographer is: the person who say they want to become one an act it out.



We all have an idea of what kind of photographer we want to be, and eventually with enough work and will we will become what we set out to be. And with hindsight, we will realize that we became a photographer the day we set out to be one. One day while I was toying around with my first DSLR, and out of the blue, I had a vision of what could be possible with my life, from then on I said I was a photographer and I worked on it.


Was I a REAL photographer then? I was…..as much as a seed is a tree. Get it? Think bout it…. A seed is only a seed until it grows. When it finally grows it's a tree, but where did the tree come from? A seed. And this is the same thing for photography. You are a photographer if you become accomplished the way you want to be, but everything started when you set your foot down and called yourself a photographer. because you called yourself a photographer you worked at it, essentially creating your own self fulfilling prophecy.


“I am a photographer” as a self-fulfilling prophecy
There is WAY too much information out there in the world for your brain to process. So your brain uses a handy dandy filter to filter out the stuff you want from what you don't want. For example it filters people who are important to you (family, kids) to other people at large, that's why you can pick up someone or something you know in a crowded city.



If you say you are not a photographer your brain will act out your wishes and filter photography relevant stuff out …..and if inversely you say that you are one, your brain will also act out your wishes and filter photography related things in. Photography is a state of mind, it's a constant readiness for images. So why wouldn't you want your brain to alert you if there's an image coming up in front of you?


Saying something like I am or I am not is a very strong, core statement because you are dealing with your identity (I am). Whatever you put after the I am/I am not will be like a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is a sad example of this woman letting guys do what they want with them, when asked why she said “I am a dirty girl, therefore I do dirty things”. That idea was introduced by her grandfather (bastard!), but you see how belief drives action and every action in turn drives belief. Watch what you tell yourself in general but for the scope of this article, what you say to yourself about you being a photographer or not





I believe that Photographers are those who set out to be one and work on it. It's about setting out an intent and working at it. It's only with hindsight that we will realize that we became a photographer when we said we were one. At the end of the day, we act out what we believe about ourselves because the brain filters the world depending on certain basic things we tell it. If we tell it we are a photographer, then it will help us achieve this goal. What are you telling yourself? Be yourself, stay focused and keep on shooting


Images edited with these presets


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20 thoughts on “What makes you a REAL photographer?”

  1. i just loved this piece of writing…it put to rest the dilemma in my own mind…filled me with confidence…so glad about the way you have analyzed the whole thing…i went up and down with each paragraph…thought about it …read again…very well said that photography is a state of mind,that self fulfilling prophecy is at work with each photographer…

    my take away… I am what I think I am and eventually I would achieve what I set out to in the field of photography and otherwise…

  2. Nicely written article, and well argued, but my feeling is that at least for some proportion of people you may be slightly missing the point. It isn’t so much many feel that a lack of public recognition invalidates them as a photographer, but more that much of the drive behind being a photographer is seeking recognition. In a society where everyday working life becomes more and more locked down by rules, conformity, and fear of being fired if you don’t exactly follow the company line, photography is one escape route for creative individuals to define an identity on their own terms. Sometimes explicit, sometimes less so, but the drive to be seen as a person of worth exists in all of us. Striving for years to be recognised as a photographer, at whatever level, with no outcome, can be a very negative experience, and ending up saying “I’m not a photographer” is as much a cognitive defence mechanism as anything else.

    Inspired Eye is helping a lot of people fall into this state – long may it carry on.

      1. Hehe I guessed 🙂 You touched on something really important, Photography as a creative outlet for the common -locked in- person. Hopefully people will recognize the inherent value in their photography for what it is and not for the possible perks 🙂

  3. I couldn’t agree more.
    Photography has so many facets to it and it really has little to do with recognition or worrying about what other people think of your work.
    I am traveling the learning curve and playing both with film and digital, colour and black and white. I am developing my own film, as well.
    I do throw the term “amateur photographer” out there when referring to myself, but perhaps I am falling into that trap similar to whether one sees oneself as “being or not being a photographer”.
    I think by using the “Amateur” designation, I was looking for a distinction between a professional (who makes a living from photography IMHO) and what I do which is photograph things for pure enjoyment.
    I wouldn’t want to ever be saddled with other people’s expectations or demands because they’re paying me.
    I want to keep photography a hobby and have fun with it.
    The designation “photographer” (without professional or amateur in front) definitely works better and is the common thread no matter whether you make your living from photography or not.
    This is real food for thought and I appreciate you presenting the concept, Olivier.

  4. Pingback: Raakakuva – Verkossa 2015.01-I: Robert Frank, digikuvien ”kuluminen” ja Sony A7 II arvioitavana

  5. Loved this piece Olivier. Instantly I thought about http://www.rescuedfilm.com/ and the photos that he has been saving. Many of them were ‘shots’ yet, in themselves are a testament to the past documenting history in a ‘matter of fact’ way. The WWII undeveloped films, photographs worthy of journalist photography- the soldier who shot all those roles never saw himself as a ‘photographer’ and yet we are appreciating his compositions as if they were on gallery display.
    The Inspired Eye creates an opportunity for all of us to validate our craft/interest/hobby. Having a photo published is a great experience.
    I also print my preferred photos and display on my walls (10×8) and have had many positive comments from family and friends (even some who have asked for a copy to display on their walls at home).
    It is about moments that YOU capture and how you compose them.
    No one else can do it the way you do it.

  6. great article, “having a belief alone is wishful thinking, but having your belief drive your actions isn’t.” love this quote!

  7. Do what you love within your means and without the imagined boundaries of what you can do. Do it for love (“amateur”), without gear pressure, without ego pressure, without social pressure. Even “auto suggestion” is a kind of pressure.

    I’ve become a completely different person, mentally and physically, through the long process of taekwondo training. The transformative power of taekwondo art is now an integral part of my being — I don’t need anyone to call or recognize me by any name, with or without the silly “pro” or “real” prefix. Ditto with photography — well, photography as I do it and live it.

    “What makes you a REAL photographer?” What the heck are you yapping about? You might have a few passable ideas in this lengthy article, but the title is REAL FAIL.

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