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Professionalism

14 October 2001 - Neil Turner

The dictionary definition of a professional is that someone could be classified as such if they ”...Make all, or a substantial part of their income in the given activity…”. This doesn’t go to the heart of what makes a photographer a professional.

Anyone can print a few business cards and call themselves a professional. Many of them may well live up to that title in it’s widest sense, others certainly fit the dictionary definition but fall far short of the other standards that mark out the pro’ from the rest. I’m not going to imply that photographers should have the same status as doctors, teachers and advocates or go through the same statutory hoops to join the profession but there are certain basics that we should all aspire to and uphold.

The most important part of being a professional is COMPETENCY. A photographer should be able to deliver the images required by the client to a high standard, on time and to the contracted price. It’s not good enough to have a 75 or 85% success rate. A professional photographer must deliver 99.99% of the time and have a damned good excuse for the rest. No client can reasonably expect award winning images the whole time, but there is a standard for every category of every type of photography that fellow professionals recognize. It’s not an easily quantifiable commodity, but we all know it when we see it.

Next up in my list comes CONDUCT. The way that you behave when shooting, dealing with customers and clients or bystanders is extremely important. The ability to remain civil and courteous whilst performing your job, to give due respect to everyone concerned before, during and after the shoot is not only important for your own reputation but for the image of the entire profession. Bad apples destroy entire barrels and one badly behaved “professional” can bring the whole industry into disrepute. I would say that a pro’ has an absolute duty to behave in a professional manner.

Thirdly, I would place HONESTY on the list. There are so many ways that a photographer is duty bound to tell the truth – from giving realistic estimates of possible costs before the job, to making sure that images supplied are not manipulated to the extent of being misleading. You cannot promise to make silk purses from sow’s ears unless you have the proven ability to do so. The camera can be made to lie with consummate ease and it is part of the professional’s remit to make sure that harm isn’t done to lives and reputations by their actions.

The final keyword that I would like to use is RESPONSIBILITY. This cuts across the other attributes on my list, but I would like to stress that the power of photography brings many responsibilities with it. We owe a duty of care to our employers and clients, to our subjects and their kin, to those who see our work and, importantly, to our fellow professionals. It’s not good enough to look straight ahead and ignore everyone else with whom we have no direct contact. Photographers must also carry adequate and comprehensive insurance.

Professionalism isn’t just about how much money we make. It has as much to do with how we make it and with how our work is received. I believe strongly in photographer education, be it in college or at the coal face, and learning how to act professionally with and without a camera in our hands is a key element in the wider picture. Many of you will point to membership of professional bodies and possession of photographic qualifications as proof of professionalism and I wouldn’t disagree. I listened to a representative of one of the larger UK based professional organisations confidently assert to a meeting of potential clients that only members of his Institute were suitably trained, vetted and qualified to undertake professional commissions. I was saddened by this, because the vast majority of the best photographers in this country do not belong to his organisation – and neither do I. Membership of such organisations obviously indicates a photographer’s willingness to be bound by a code of professional conduct and an understanding of what being a professional means. This is to be applauded, but being a professional isn’t just about signing up to something – it’s about everything we say and everything we do in our working lives.

© Neil Turner 2001

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