Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Rose by Any Other Name is Still a Rose, But Does it Smell as Sweet? Photography and Language

Feeling Safe with Daddy (Echuca Australia July 2011)

I first published this post in August 2011. I've been thinking recently that as time has gone by and as we are witnessing a kind of revival in photography of all kinds and especially in street photography, the need for a discussion on the language we use when talking about the medium has grown more urgent. So, I've decided to post it again, with only a couple of ever so small changes. I welcome discussion, sharing and any feedback. Thank you all!

Recently I've read a couple of posts on various blogs about the language of photography. I don't mean here the ability of a photograph to communicate an idea or story or whatever. No, I'm referring to the language we use when talking about things photographic. There is a school of thought that asserts that the language we use is aggressive and violent. I would add one more word to these two: acquisitive. Obviously by the adding of this third word, you, dear reader, are safe in assuming I agree with the first two. Let me try to explain.

What do we say to describe what we have done when we press the shutter of a camera? We will say something like, "I've taken a photo", or if you are a little more posh you might say, "I've captured a lovely scene". And, let's say  you've been out with your camera for the day and you come home and your partner or whoever asks about your day. You might answer, "Great, I got some terrific shots." And, my favourite: you post a photo in an online gallery or group and one or more of your fellow onliners will say something like, "Wow. What a shot. You really nailed him/her/it didn't you?"

I hope by now you are beginning to get where I'm going with this: taken, shot, captured, nailed. All rather harsh words aren't they? And really, are they truly accurate or appropriate for what we do as photographers? Look at the image above for example. It is, in my opinion, a fairly good photograph of a father and his young daughter. Looks like they are waiting for someone, or perhaps the father is watching something not in the frame. The child has seen the photographer (me, by the way) adding a nice layer to the photograph's story. So, what do I say about this? I could say something like, "I took this shot on the weekend, and I think I've really captured the souls of these people, and I've really nailed the dad's hair, don't you think? I reckon this shot justifies the effort I made to go shooting that day." Oh, sorry, I forgot to mention that on that day I was really hunting good street shots.

This all sounds rather unpleasant, don't you think? Of course, don't get me wrong: I'm as guilty as the next 'shooter' of using this kind of language (though I try hard to break the old language habits). In reality it is the language of photographers that has been used, I imagine, from the very beginning of the medium. However, I think, that the time has come for a thoughtful conversation on whether we should continue using this language or whether we should begin to look at the true nature of our craft or art, and adopt more appropriate words to describe what it is we do and how we do what we do.

Shoot is, I suppose, one of the main offenders. To shoot someone or something is quite a violent act; it's a term which is also associated with the use of a gun. A most violent instrument and certainly nothing like a camera surely? Do we really 'shoot' with a camera? Do we really "go shooting" with a camera? Is a person using a camera really a "shooter"? I think that on the whole there would be few photographers who would seek to harm their subjects with their cameras, so maybe shoot is not the right word for us to be using. At its very mildest a word like 'shoot'  just speaks of aggression. Perhaps we could simply say "I'm going to do some photography" or "I'm going to spend the day photographing"? To me it does seem a little awkward to speak in this way at first, and it will to  you as well, but it really does sound a whole lot better and more accurate than "I'm going shooting in the street today." This last sentence sounds kind of weird and wrong when I think about it now. 

I added acquisitive as a third way to describe the language we use in the photographic world. Words like take and capture (whether used as verbs or nouns) speak of acquiring or stealing or even kidnapping or "taking prisoners"! And we are doing none of those things with our cameras. There is even a group on a popular online photo sharing site called Soul Snatchers (for readers eager to explore said site, a disclaimer: a few years ago, before I saw the error  of my linguistic ways I was a member of that group, but once my eyes were opened I deleted myself and my photos from the group). We are photographers, are we not? Surely we are not thieves?

This language speaks of what we can either do to our subjects, or of what we can obtain from them. I am beginning to think it might be time for the thoughtful among us to start to explore new ways of talking about our art (or craft. More linguistically loaded words) that speak more to what our subjects give to us, and what we can offer to them. I think there is a lot for us to think about here.

Many of us seek to find that decisive moment (thank you Mr Cartier-Bresson), that fleeting gesture, glance, smile. Whatever it is that has inspired us to focus (not aim) our attention and camera towards a potential subject. But whose moment is it? Whose gesture do we watch for? Whose smile? The answer is obvious: all these things do not belong to us, they belong to our subjects.

We are allowed into the lives of others, through their spoken or unspoken permission. We are granted access to their moments, their smile, their gestures. We are granted the privilege of being able to photograph people in all their humanity. I don't really want to sound grandiose or pretentious here, but we as photographers (and it doesn't really matter whether we are working at a wedding, a rock concert, at the beach, or as in my case, on the street) are entrusted with a sacred duty.  We have a responsibility to produce a true document to show the world (or our friends and so on) who and/or what we saw and sought to record with our cameras. I will be the first to admit that there have been times when I may have betrayed that sacred trust. And, if I am to be totally frank here, I see images online every day that very clearly show a breach of trust sometimes amounting to gross exploitation.

I will also be the first to admit that the changing of a language, which really is an integral component of any culture and in this case the culture of image making with a camera (AKA photography!) will be no easy task. I do not judge others for using those bolded and italicised words; I use them myself. After all, we all have to use a common language if we are going to understand our peers or be understood by them. But I am trying to come up with new words. Like, 'I've been making photos today', rather than taking them; or 'I really think I've managed to connect with that that person I photographed.' rather than capturing him or her; or 'I would love to photograph wildlife', rather than wanting to shoot animals.

And that word nailed is for me truly problematic. I don't have to learn a new word to use in its stead: I've never used it to refer to photography or anything else other than carpentry or woodwork. It has other connotations which I have also never liked. Just goes to highlight even more clearly the importance of language and how we use it.

I don't have any answers really. I only bring this issue up because it seems that it is time for a new way of speaking about what to me is a true art form that has the power to change lives, end wars, enhance our environment, showcase the beauty in our world as well as to bring our attention to the ugliness that exists but shouldn't. In other words we are the practitioners of an honourable art or craft, and we really need to be speaking about what we do in language that does honour to, and speaks accurately about this art of photography.

But I'm just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh lord please don't let me be misunderstood

Thank you to Mr Burdon & The Animals for the snippet of lyrics from one of your great tunes.
Also a big thank you to Mr Shakespeare for the quote from Romeo and Juliet which I have taken great liberties with and paraphrased rather freely for my title. I am sure you don't mind and might even approve.


  1. II think you have a point about the use of language. But in the end I am less worried about the actually words than how we act as photographer. When someone "takes" a picture of someone else it's more important how they approach the person than what word they use. And I believe the act comes before the word. In other words taking doesn't have to be neither aggressive nor acquisitive, it all depends on the circumstances. And for me there is a big difference between taking and making photographs. The first one is Cartier-Bresson-like street photography while the latter is Avedon-like studio photography.

  2. Yes i see your point. Action always speak louder than words. My idea is to try to get people thinking. And language always evolves I think. But we shouldn't be be too worried


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