What does it mean to be a photographer rather than taking snapshots?

Photography is a hobby of mine that is surrounded in some mixed up feelings.  I remember being in a club at high school and developing my own photos – it was really enjoyable, but I didn’t pursue it much because I have so many interests.  Later on, my cousin went to college and grad school for photography, and now teaches it out in California.  I have always had huge respect for her creativity and quirkiness – but especially during the college years, family frowned upon her going to art school, switching schools, pursuing further degrees.  I was the “good” one, going to one college, one major, graduating and getting a job in a good field.  (Forget the fact that by that point I didn’t want do that, but once started, I finished it.)  Photography was “her” thing, and I wanted her to have that spotlight.

Me and Jack, C-Print, 20x24" 2005 by Diane Meyer. (Totally posting without asking permission first, which I normally would do, but that's what family is for right?? :D)

Me and Jack, C-Print, 20x24" 2005 by Diane Meyer. (Totally posting without asking permission first, which I normally would do, but that's what family is for right?? :D) http://www.dianemeyer.net

Since then, growing older and wiser, and having one great drunk night with her where we were honest about those family dynamics and what we each secretly thought while growing up, I’ve accepted that I can pursue it as a hobby with no threat to her art.  After all, I am not trained in it or teaching it, and we’ll always have our individual view on the world.  Plenty of room for everyone and all that jazz.

I think the next thing that affected how I saw photography was actually Burning Man.  At this point I didn’t have a fancy camera, although I’d upgraded often (35 mm to the Kodak Advantix APS with panoramic prints to digital) and always tried to have a creative eye in snapshots, I never set out to improve my picture taking.  At my first Burning Man in 2005, I decided to go with disposable cameras rather than risk mine, and shot about 10 rolls.  Most of the photos were disappointing in quality, and they did serve as reminders but I preferred looking at the semi-professional shots by others.

It was also there that I truly felt the difference between experiencing an event through the lens or without it.  My second year (2007) I took a few disposables but only filled two and one was mostly a specific project.

Debates on Burning Man forums would often call photographers spectators.  Granted this was usually in relation to those who gawked and took photos of topless women during the Critical Tits bike ride.  I still stand by the fact that photography is an art, and IS a way to contribute to the community – though I doubt the gawkers contribute anything desirable.  While I’ve never considered myself a pro of any sort, I do feel that my photography is an artistic expression and not just spectating.

But at what point does someone cross this line?  In 2007, I went with a friend to participate in the Coney Island Mermaid Parade.  And for the first time, I felt how photographers can truly be invasive, regardless of how pure their motives.  My friend and I are burners, so we felt no hesitation in being IN the parade, not watching it.

As we arrived early in the staging area, with an acquaintance of hers who was topless under a lace cloak (pictured above before taking off her bikini top), we were surrounded by paparazzi (that’s the only way I can describe it) who snapped away – some asking us to pose, some not.  (The majority of photographers at burn events are respectful of asking permission first.)  We did our best to escape and returned to the staging area once most of the participants had arrived. The photographers were still there but at that point, soley focused on those showing the most skin.

I’m not denying that there are beautiful photos/art out there of this event.  I have seen them before and after.  But it was the first time I was ever overwhelmed with being photographed and had a hint of what celebrities must go through on a larger scale.  It got to the point that I rarely brought out my camera, didn’t want to ask anyone to pose for my photo, because they obviously had been through enough of that.

I’ve always strived to be unobtrusive with photos – turning all sound on the camera off during quiet concerts, shielding or turning off the LCD screen so I’m not blinding or distracting those behind me.  But since that parade, I associate large groups of photographers as predators of a kind, regardless of their intentions.

Now, I have a digital SLR and I’ve actually been trying to use it more and improve my skills.  I enjoy taking photos, but I still fear being a nuisance – I was dismayed when after a recent concert I realized how loud this camera shutter can be, and it can’t be silenced.  I don’t want to be “that” person who ruins a show for everyone around them.

Last weekend I took photos of the fashion show at Wicked Faire.  I went up and took them from the front corner of the stage, while other photographers sat/kneeled directly in front of the stage.  After the intermission I joined them on the floor but deferred to them as they held the position before I arrived, and in my mind they had better equipment therefore were more “serious” than I.  And something about it just felt wrong.  I don’t know what.

I know that there are a few shots I’m really proud of and that I love.  I know I did my best to not block anyone’s view, and I had as much right to be there as anyone.  But whether it’s because I don’t feel I’d be taken seriously, or that I would be viewed as a spectator, there’s a nagging feeling there.

I’ve been craving feedback/praise on my flickr, but it’s hard to ask to be taken seriously for some shots when others were taken with my boyfriend’s point-and-shoot on a drunken night.  I could separate accounts, but people know me under one name and I wish to keep it that way.  I do think I’ll separate the collection of my favorites into favorite snapshots and favorite artsy pics at the very least.

There’s no real point to this entry – just rambling and trying to work out my thoughts for myself.  I suppose I see photographers falling into two categories, and I’m afraid of being thought of as the “wrong” one.  I don’t like being one of many, maybe it’s just the rebel in me, but I’d rather find something else to shoot than what everyone else is shooting.

While I got some decent shots of that fashion show, photos by others look almost the same, only slightly more consistent due to experience/equipment/luck/editing.  (I was in a rush and uploaded them all, I usually weed out the “rejects”.)  With digital cameras improving in quality and coming down in price, seems like everyone on the planet is now an amateur photographer and it’s hard to find my place among them.  And there’s a difference now between being happy with my photos, and being satisfied with the result but disliking the process in some way.

I think that’s what this is coming down to – figuring out what subject matters I like to shoot for myself – regardless of what I like to view as artwork by others.  Trying to find my place in this little world, where I don’t want to be taken as a serious professional as it’s just a hobby, but I don’t want to be considered a spectator taking snapshots, or another wanna-be amateur.  Is there room in this gray area?  Is the answer as simple as just being me and my camera, and taking walks in nature or everyday life rather than special events?  Considering my mixed feelings, do I want to pursue this hobby to the next level?

Food for thought, but for now my thoughts are turning to food and dinner.  Til next time…