Are You A “Pro?”

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A few days ago my wife and I travelled to Indianapolis to watch the MotoGP races there. For those of you unfamiliar with MotoGP, its the motorcycling equivalent of Formula One racing. The fastest, most technologically advanced motorcycles in the world ridden by the most talented racers in the world. Its huge in Europe and Asia. Top riders, some of the highest paid athletes in the world, are rock stars in Europe. And yes, they’re athletes, as anyone who has hustled a 200 hp 350 lb cycle around a road course at speeds approaching 210 mph knows well.

I brought a Hexar RF with 28mm. I’m not interested in photographing motorcyclists on the track. I’d rather photograph the spectators doing what spectators do and watch the racers do what they do. During practice sessions I found a great spot in the infield close to turn 13 and watched the riders, knee and sometimes elbow down, railing through the corner. While there, I watched a clutch of pro photographers, all with the latest gear and bazooka sized lenses mounted on monopods, find their angle and burst fire their Canikons as the riders came through the turn.

There I was, a “photographer,” with my humble film camera enjoying a lived life, with photography as a personal pursuit that gave me pleasure, and there they were, “professional photographers” with the latest expensive kit, there presumably because they were being paid to be there doing what they do. And it got me thinking. Why do we fetishize this idea of being a “Pro”,  as in “the Pro’s use camera X or sneer at camera Y”, or your camera is used by “Pro’s” while my camera is an “amateur” model? For that matter, how much skill does it take to photograph a sporting event? More precisely, does one need an aesthetic, a vision, or are a professional sports photographer’s skills more in the nature of technical expertise and experience? Could you train anyone to do it competently? And why does this matter?

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At two different periods of my life, upon entering university and then again in pursuing graduate work, I’ve gravitated to photography curricula, only to quickly realize that the pursuit of photography as a remunerative activity held absolutely no interest for me, certainly not if it meant photographing vain people in fashionable clothes, or wide-eyed brides or worse yet, boxes of widgets for consumption. I’d rather dig graves, which I can see might have some lasting societal benefit.

This is not to denigrate people who go into the profession of photography, whether it be for journalistic purposes, or as commercial or wedding photographers. I know their jobs demand skills I probably don’t possess, and it’s certainly not for me to look down on anyone who does a honest day’s work. It’s just that I don’t think they have any enhanced claim to a prestige or position of authority denied the amateur who loves the practice as an avocation. In many cases, they have less.

Controlled psychological studies show that doing things for their own sake — as opposed to things that are merely a means to achieve something else — makes for mindfulness and joy. In one recent experiment, college students were given puzzles to solve. Some of the students were paid, and others were not. The unpaid participants continued to work on the puzzles after the experiment was finished, whereas the paid participants abandoned the task as soon as the session was over. And the unpaid subjects reported enjoying the experience more.

Which is confirmation that the most rewarding experiences are often “useless,” in that they have no practical application beyond the experience itself. Aristotle makes this point in his Nicomachean Ethics; he admires learned men because “they know things that are remarkable, admirable, difficult, and divine, but useless.” In my experience, the least practical things in life are the most important and enduring, primarily because their value derives from the doing itself. Photography is that way for me.

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This is why I find the assumption that being a “Professional Photographer” gives you a privileged viewpoint, and why I find internet forums dedicated to photography, which almost universally buy into this deference, so puerile and oft-putting. Discussions of photography there inevitably turn into discussions about accreditation.  The debate about the quality of your ideas devolves into a debate about whether or not you possess the right to speak about these issues, usually with an eye to your vocation.

As for internet photo forums, usually we’re among gearheads whose interest is in the technological aspects of photography. In this context, to some extent, the expert dynamic makes sense. Expertise is our common means of validation when it comes to technical matters. There’s a frustration in having to listen to someone spew nonsense about some technical issue you know a lot about.

However, beyond a certain rudimentary level, technical skill is largely irrelevant to photography as an aesthetic endeavor. You may use a big, expensive camera, and possess a vast array of technical knowledge, but that’s irrelevant to your creative ability. By and large, gearhead forums are full of strong opinions and really bad photography, and the really good stuff, the stuff produced by photographers with a vision, is found elsewhere. I see a lot of good work on  Tumblr, posted anonymously and without reference to gear or tech speak and all the other things people who have nothing to say find to talk about.

We constantly need to remind ourselves to practice a healthy disrespect for self-appointed experts, or “Pros,” when we speak of creative efforts. Art isn’t just for those who have been educated to speak its language. “Expertise”  can be an cudgel to make everyone talk about the same things in the same way.  But there’s no one true way to view a piece of art; no one privileged perspective that will give you the ‘correct’ experience of Eugene Atget, Alfred Steiglitz, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Stephen Shore or Antoine D’Agata.  A partial view may be as meaningful as a whole one, and being alienated by a work of art is as valid as obsessive interest. Sometimes “outsiders” are ignorant, but often they can have interesting things to say despite, or maybe even because of, their ignorance. The problem with demanding a certain kind of knowledge or a certain kind of expertise in criticism is that it can insist upon a certain kind of conversation, expertise used as an excuse to shut out of the conversation those who disagree with you.

There’s also a type of reverse snobbery at work here when we talk of Leica users. Today, few if any working professionals use digital Leicas, and for the few that do, it seems more an affectation than a considered choice based on need. Today Leica’s consumer demographic is the status conscious amateur, easily enough caricatured as the dentist who fancys himself HCB. But this is to do precisely what I’m arguing against in the foregoing polemic: making certain assumptions about someone because of the what they’re paid to do, or because of the tools they choose to use. The tools you use, or the expertise you put at their service, isn’t relevant. What you create with those tools and expertise is. If you want my respect, irrespective of how you earn your living, or whether you use a fancy camera or not, don’t assume I should know you have something to say; show me your work.