I often hear photographers refer to themselves as artists. Others talking about photographers use the term. There are many heated discussions concerning the accuracy of such a description but one thing I think we can all agree with is that to make photographs you need a camera. A box with which to capture light. Unlike many artists the photographer does not have the option of choosing different implements to make their art.

Artists can literally use anything to express their thoughts, emotions and observations. The photographer cannot. In this sense the photographer is a forced specialist. They are tied to a piece of technological evolution that exists and develops for pure commercial profit. A piece of equipment the photographer must master, not purely from a photographic perspective but also from one of technological understanding. Firmware, software and hardware are all essential to the contemporary photographic practitioner.

The photographer has to be a specialist when it comes to using their camera of choice whether it is digital or analogue but they also have to be a specialist when it comes to their subject matter.

If you want to photograph food, you need to understand food, if you want to photograph sports you need to understand those sports, etc, etc, You need to have a passion, interest, knowledge and a sense of inquisitiveness about the subject you are photographing to raise the level of work above that of the ‘casual snapper’. Not a phrase I like, but one that seems appropriate here. In short you need to be a specialist in your subject matter not just how to use your camera.

None of these are a requirement of the artist. They may be considerations but they are not requirements. You don’t have to only use one medium, clay, water colour, oils etc, etc.

The photographer documenting the universal needs to gain knowledge before and during the documentation they are engaged with, but so does the photographer addressing the personal. This sense of creative introspection has long been the foundation of creative expression and is often the reason for photographers describing themselves as artists. The artist does what they want but the photographer does what they are told for money.

I make this statement because I hear it so often, however it is not one I agree with or believe. It is too basic, too didactic and too diversive. It is also not true.

The photographer that is perceived as a specialist is employed for their expertise across all the aspects I have outlined here. They are given freedom to collaboratively create work with and for clients. It is only the generalist that adopts the role of a finger for hire.

I am no fan of labels. I see no need in describing myself as a photographer, an artist or in fact anything at all. The closest I ever come to finding a description of what I do is ‘visual communicator’ but that sounds too pretentious to use. Instead I aim to be a specialist in whatever I choose to do because I know that is what I admire in other creatives. The ability to be good at what they do. However, I also recognise that specialisation is a broad concept. It includes multiple transferable skills, both soft and hard, and that is the basis of photography. So the next time someone asks you what you do for work or fun why not try to avoid the word artist and use the word photographer, after all that is your specialism.

Dr.Grant Scott
After fifteen years art directing photography books and magazines such as Elle and Tatler, Scott began to work as a photographer for a number of advertising and editorial clients in 2000. Alongside his photographic career Scott has art directed numerous advertising campaigns, worked as a creative director at Sotheby’s, art directed foto8magazine, founded his own photographic gallery, edited Professional Photographer magazine and launched his own title for photographers and filmmakers Hungry Eye. He founded the United Nations of Photography in 2012, and is now a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, and a BBC Radio contributor. Scott is the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019), and What Does Photography Mean To You? (Bluecoat Press 2020). His photography has been published in At Home With The Makers of Style (Thames & Hudson 2006) and Crash Happy: A Night at The Bangers (Cafe Royal Books 2012). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was premiered in 2018.

Scott’s book Inside Vogue HouseOne building, seven magazines, sixty years of stories, Orphans Publishing, is now on sale.

© Grant Scott 2024

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Last Update: 05/21/2024