I was posed a question recently by a friend of mine that I'd like to try and answer here. I say a question like it was something direct, or that would have a simple answer, but of course these things hardly ever seem to be either. Luckily for them, and myself, I enjoy trying to answer these things. Understand, though, before I continue, this is merely my opinion.
So, what was the question? Well, I think it was more of a challenge and question at the same time. I was asked if I could explain that the camera doesn't make one a photographer.
This is definitely a challenge! I would immediately have to assume I knew the answer to the question I was asked while in school: What is photography? I still have yet to answer that one and would love to hear any answer, which most likely isn't completely true. However, I'll have to hold onto that one for another day.
To answer this, or at least attack the idea, I think one has to look at photography in a very simple sense at first. The camera is merely a tool. Just as the painter uses a paintbrush to put an image on a surface, so too does the photographer use the camera to capture an image. Yes, it can be that simple. I wouldn't say, however, that because one can just pick up a paintbrush and spread paint over a surface that they are actually a painter. Maybe in a simplistic way, saying that I'm "painting" due to the fact that I AM spreading paint, one could call me a painter, but one would never claim to be a painter without thorough knowledge of the craft. This is the same with photography. The photographer has a skill set and knowledge about their craft. He/She knows that there is more to the craft than just being able to pick up a camera and make an exposure. Just as the painter would not use just one brush (tool) to make a painting, the photographer is not going to use just the camera to make an image.
Photography, as I mentioned before, is a craft. From the most simple photograph in an advertisement, to the prints of Ansel Adams and Frederick Sommer, there is a vast knowledge of an art form that becomes manifest in an image from start to finish. Whether produced for an ad campaign or for exhibit in a gallery, each photograph comes from the photographer's vision and understanding of how to structure a good image. Just as the studio photographer knows the right angles to capture a model or product, so too does the photojournalist. The landscape photographer is just as aware of light, and the use of it, as the street photographer.
This is not to say that one has to have been professionally trained or gone to school to learn all there is to know about the art of photography. Just as someone can be self-taught in other art forms, so too can one learn photography. However, to say that one can just pick up a camera and be considered a photographer lessens the value of those who know exactly what they are doing.
As someone who shoots mainly on the street, many of my images are in a way familiar to people. I have been told countless times by people how one of my images looks like something they took a picture of. I've also been asked why anyone would pay for something that they could go do on their own? I can honestly say that I've never been offended by these statements, but I do wonder if any of these people intentionally tried to make any of their photographs look characteristically similar to mine? Most likely not. It is more likely that these people made a beautiful image of a banal subject through pure accident, it was serendipitous at best. That's not to say their photograph has no merit, but I would never pay them for a collection of work or an ad campaign.
There are more people with cameras taking more photographs than there has ever been in history. Many of these images will disappear into the ether of time and obsolete digital media over the years. Ironically, for all the cameras there are, there are fewer prints being made today than in the past. Whether printed or not, though, many people like to consider themselves photographers these days. It is not my place to say who is or is not a photographer, but I do think this is what the initial question boils down to: Does having a camera in hand make one a photographer?
In short, no.