“Give someone a flute and they own a flute. Give someone a camera and they’re a photographer”. This quote kicked off a discussion last week among a group of technology people and photographers about what it means to be a photographer. The conversation happened at Beyond Pixels – an un-festival of photography that I co-hosted with Mikkel Aaland in Kristiansund Norway. Beyond Pixels was planned and organized in collaboration with the Nordic Light International Festival of Photography.
Steve McCurry's famous image of the Afghan girl on the cover of National Geographic. McCurrey, a guest photographer at Nordic Light this year, has spent a career consistently making iconic, powerful photographs.
You’ve heard the number; billions of pictures are taken, shared and liked online every week. In a world where more and more people carry a smartphone with a camera, we’re all becoming picture takers. Yet does that make us photographers?
Surely taking a picture is easy: point and push a button and with smartphone photo apps that sport and seemingly unlimited filters and effects, it's easier than ever to give a picture an "artistic" look. With enough people pointing and pushing beautiful “signals” will rise from the flood of pictures. Indeed many interesting, fun, informative and exciting pictures will and do surface from the overflowing digital streams. Still, what makes some people take the occasional good picture while others are proficient at consistently making interesting pictures.
As with all art and expression the definition of “interesting” can be subjective and certainly contextual. A picture of a small child may be interesting when seen by a family member, but uninteresting to the rest of us. Yet there are some pictures of small children that transcend the subject and capture something more, something universal. Why does one person with a camera take a picture that is “just” a picture, while another makes a picture with universal appeal?
Alex Webb, my favorite street photographer, makes photographs that capture the world in a way that pulls you in, asking questions, laughing, wondering?
While anyone can take a picture, to make a picture involves a few basic ingredients:
1) skill. Making a picture is a skill. Some people have it. Some don’t. Like any skill it is something that can be learned and honed over time And some people have innate abilities and a drive that makes them masters.
2) storytelling. Making pictures is about expression, communication and telling stories. Photographer make pictures that tell stories. Some pictures stand on their own while others belong together. Pictures can be poetry and abstract, they can be funny, they can be literal and descriptive. And with photographs just like with the written word, there are forms and “genres”.
3) mastery of the tools. Making a picture requires tools. Whether it’s the camera, editing software or screen calibration for printing, mastery of the tools is a part of what separates the makers from the takers. Selecting, “producing" and editing a picture is often as important to the picture making process as capturing it in the first place.
To be sure, lots of photographers make bad pictures. Knut Koivisto a Swedish photographer perhaps best known for his portraits, pointed out last week in Norway that many professional photographers do not make very good pictures, while many amateurs make wonderful pictures. The camera is a tool, just like a pen or a paintbrush. Becoming a good writer or a good painter requires a lot more than owning the tool of the craft and there are many people who are not professional writers who write beautiful poetry or prose. Surely photography is no different.
In the end the difference between taking and making pictures may simply boil down to commitment, intent and vision. To take a picture requires a camera, while to make a picture requires a commitment to the craft. A photographer sees the world through a lens and tries to make pictures that capture something they see that perhaps others don't. A photographer frames the picture, sees the light, waits for the defining moment to make a picture.