There are a lot of folks out there complaining that today everybody seems to think they are a photographer. I am not one of them. I think it is brilliant that the digital era, and the now relative affordability of photography tools, means that more people than ever can capture the world around them photographically. I live in Sierra Leone at the moment and ten years ago it would have been unimaginable for some people to have up to date images of their families or friends and yet now due to the cameras installed on phones even some of the country’s poorest people are able to lovingly pull out their mobile and show you a snap of their child. Photography is no longer a hobby for the elite and that is a great thing.

As a humanitarian photographer I also celebrate the fact that more people than ever before are able to tell their own story through images they have captured themselves. Participatory photography projects such as those promoted by organisations such as Photo Voice are an excellent way to provide people who may be on the losing side of the power battle in society with an outlet for their ideas and a platform for their views. A couple of years ago, using Photo Voice methodology (and one of their excellent tool kits), I did some work with UK NGO Tearfund in Malawi. Working with people living with HIV I helped train up ten budding photographers. The work they produced blew me away, not only was it more insightful than anything I could have come up with but some of the images were really creative and bold. Of course people who have not grown up with a camera in their hand have not yet learnt ‘the rules’ of photography, sometimes that is a good thing.

'Girl taking her ARV medicine' Image taken by Bydon as part of the Tearfund participatory photography project in Thoza, Malawi in 2011.

‘Johanna – a young girl taking her ARV medicine’: Image taken by Bydon Mughugho as part of the Tearfund participatory photography project in Thoza, Malawi in 2011. Title of image also Bydon’s own. Copyright of this image belongs with Bydon but he released his work to be used for the purpose of showing Tearfund’s impact in his community. This image was also used as part of a Tearfund photo exhibition in Essex, UK

I loved being able to pass on some of my skills and being given the opportunity to share in the growth of some fantastic new photojournalists! So to me having a global landscape where everyone can access photography is a good thing. It is a good thing in the same way I think every child should be taught to write so they can tell stories and exercise their imagination. It is a good thing in the same way I believe every person should have access to the utensils to be able to whip up an amazing meal for their family. It is a good thing in the same way I believe that all people have a right to play sport and kick a football around a pitch.

This is where I get to the crux of my blog post today: I am so glad that everyone has the freedom to take photos now, it is great for individuals and the profession of photography more widely. It adds diversity, competition and a lot of inspiration to the mix. Do I think this makes everyone a skilled photographer though? No I do not. I used Bydon’s image (above) as I think that after only two weeks of photographic training he showed a lot of natural talent. He also worked really hard and I truly hope he has gone on to develop those skills. He was, and could continue to be, a wonderful visual storyteller. Not everyone that picks up a camera has that talent though. In the same way not everyone that picks up a pen can write a beautiful novel, not everyone who can use a whisk is going to take on Gordon Ramsey in the kitchen and not everyone who kicks a football is going to score a World Cup worthy goal! I can hold a pen, use a whisk and kick a football (just!) but would never claim to be a novelist, chef or footballer. Notice I do not refer to professional photography here – I know some amazing amateur photographers and have seen dreadful work produced by professionals. All the word professional means is that you make a living from what you do.

So at this point I get on my photographer’s high horse! It seems to have become acceptable for organisations to approach photographers and to ask them to work for free or for the ‘privilege’ of promoting their work. This seems especially prevalent in the field of travel photography. I refer back to my other examples – would you ever ask an author to pen a novel for free? Would you ever ask a chef to work in your restaurant for the joy of seeing their food reach a table? I can also easily imagine most Premier League footballer’s reaction to any suggestion that they should play unpaid! Having a good camera helps a lot in this business but it does not make you a good photographer, it simply makes you a person with a fancy camera. Being a photographer (of the paid variety) should mean that you bring your client a range of skills that result in the images you produce for them being ones they can be proud of.

As a travel and humanitarian photographer here are some of the skills I think you need to be able to work with pride as a professional:

  • Great knowledge of your camera so you can think quickly on your feet and great knowledge of your editing software so you can bring those photos to the client in the best possible format.
  • Ability to get on well with people…..All kinds of people! Travel and humanitarian photography often demands the ability to be able to confidently relationship build in a short time and across cultural, linguistic and environmental boundaries.
  • Flexibility and patience in droves.
  • Your own creative take on the world. An ability to see things from a unique perspective is essential as it is this perspective that will help you find your own style in visually busy world.
  • Budget management skills.
  • Marketing skills (or enough money to find someone who can do this for you).
  • Good understanding of the internet and social media.
  • Increasingly in the crowded market you need something else that you can offer too. For me I have a lot of experience working with NGOs so know the kind of communications they need and have a lot of experience conducting interviews and case studies in sensitive situations. I also stay up to date with international development issues through continuous study. I am developing my writing and videography too. Many professionals in this field run workshops, mentor others, work second jobs etc…..

I hope that the next ten years see many, many new photographers emerging from countries that previously did not produce them before. I hope that as a photographer I am really challenged by all the new, exciting work getting out there through modern streams of communication such as Instagram and Flickr. I hope that more and more people can add a camera to the list of tools they can use to express themselves. I also hope that good professional photographers working with the talent and skills needed to produce decent, consistent, beautiful images for clients start getting treated with the credit they deserve. Good visual storytelling is so important in 2014 (and I think will continue to be important because as human beings we are natural storytellers) and a value should be placed on the work that brings powerful stories to life.

One of my favourite photographers Mickey Smith once said “I may only be scraping a living, but at least it is a life worth scraping”. In his deliciously crafted surf photography video ‘Dark Side of the Lens‘ he sums up much more eloquently than I ever could what photography means to him. Like Mickey Smith I do what I do because I love it, it is my passion. For me the passion is trying to change people’s perceptions of the world and of people living in poverty through my imagery. Also, like Mickey, sometimes it is not easy for me to make ends meet financially. Photography does not pay well! None of us in this profession do it for the money. So this post today is not a plea for cash, rather it is a plea for the profession to be taken seriously again. To encourage new, exciting and talented photographers into the profession they need to know that their work will be valued.

So I shall continue to strive to make delicious meals, to write and to kick a football but no chef, novelist or footballer am I. I am a photographer.


PS: If you have never watched Dark Side of the Lens you really should!