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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography


By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Doctors, lawyers and certified public accountants are welcome to apply. Hairdressers, plumbers and real estate agents are maybes. Don't even bother if you're an athlete, photographer or musician. (Emphasis added.)

– Shannon Henry, Washington Post, May, 2002

I love the smell of envy in the morning!

There, accompanying my ground French roast and fresh-squeezed OJ, was the news that, once again, I had chosen the wrong profession.

Wait – I shouldn't even be using the word. I meant to say I had chosen the wrong career. The wrong occupation. The wrong job. I'd hate for anyone to think for a minute that I was a professional.

What prompted this agita was the news that a shiny new domain name: "___.Pro" has been approved for use on the Internet. That's "pro" as in professional. Professional as in doctor or lawyer, but not apparently as in plumber, farmer, artist, athlete, musician, journalist (my first wrong career choice) or photographer (my second blunder.)

According to Sloan Gaon, chief executive of the domain name's overseer, RegistryPro in New York City (why did I know this was in New York?) the .Pro domain name will be offered only to "certified" members of the medical, legal and accounting (!) professions. Other lesser mortals will have their applications reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

Gaon, who clearly thinks of himself as a phrasemaker, called this a kind of electronic "gated community" that confers on its lucky inhabitants an "online diploma."

"We certainly need to draw the line," Gaon told the Post's Shannon Henry. He warned that if he and his outfit were to do otherwise – to open up the .Pro domain "to non-certifiable professions, we'd lose the trust."

Leaving aside the idea that I'd ever want to be classified by anyone as "certifiable," this whole Vanity Fair raises the question of who actually can call him or herself a professional. Only the designation "artist" is more fraught with peril.

In photography the best thing about the business is that anyone can do it. There are no boards of elders or overseers handing out certificates saying you are a genuine professional photographer. For better or worse, if you want to be a photographer, you are one.

In fact, the only thing that makes a photographer a pro in my mind is whether he or she makes a living by making pictures. Note: I haven't said a thing about liking the photographer's work. Being a pro is as much about treating a client fairly and honorably as it is about making pretty pictures, or pictures I personally may like. This dovetails nicely with one definition of "professional" contained in my hernia-inducing 1967 Random House Dictionary of the English Language. A professional, the RHDEL says, is anyone "following an occupation as a means of livelihood or for gain."

In fact, looking down the dictionary's other definitions, I found one that makes an even stronger case that photographers are professionals: anyone "following as a business an occupation ordinarily engaged in as a pastime."

You know anyone, aside from the alleged crooks at Enron, who ever did accounting for fun?

Of course, this is not to say that photography is without any benchmarks of achievement. In academia and the arts, for example, a Master of Fine Arts degree in photography is a pretty good indication that the degree holder knows which end of a camera is up (and probably knows a fair amount of comparative art history as well.)

In journalism a photographer who has won a big-name prize like a Pulitzer, or a White House News Photographers Association award is a good bet to be good at the job. Likewise one who has jumped over the walls into Harvard to become a Nieman Fellow.

But interestingly, in most all of the above, the term "professional" never occurs. And that includes such "professional" photography groups as the American Society of Media Photographers, the National Press Photographers Association, the above-mentioned WHNPA, the World Press Association, etc.

There are exceptions, to be sure: the American Society of Picture Professionals or Professional Photographers of America (though frankly I always thought that PP of A, a group with a large cohort of wedding shooters, was trying a little too hard to add luster to its membership with a high-sounding moniker.)

In fact, there's just so much mileage one can get out of fancy titles and domain names. In any business – especially a result-oriented business like commercial and editorial photography – it's performance that counts. Which is why I'd much rather go by different criteria than a .Pro domain name to choose my next wedding, or magazine or annual report photographer.

Happily, photography is a visual medium and, while a ritzy domain name may not cut much ice, a drop-dead website full of beautiful electronic tear sheets might. The web has gone a long way to grant access to younger photographers who might otherwise not have been able to get in the door at magazines and agencies. By the same token, more, shall we say, mature shooters like Judy and me have been able to compete in a much bigger pond now that our website finally is up and running and able to tout our 20 years of shooting, from annual reports to weddings.

But if websites have become a leveler, allowing photographers of all incomes and abilities to have their work seen, so too have they let clients pick and choose their photographers much more quickly and painlessly.

"What's your website?" has become as common a business query in photography as "what's your e-mail address?" used to be. And that, in turn, has enabled clients to engage in a virtual photo talent meat market almost immediately and with only a few clicks of a mouse. [Which is why it pays to make your website the best that it can be.]

When Judy and I finally got around to creating our own website we could have done it ourselves, buying cut-and-paste software for inserting our images and copy into a pre-designed template. But this never really was an option for us after we viewed so many frankly lackluster sites designed by colleagues who figured they could do this critical job on the cheap. After the enthusiastic recommendation of a fellow photographer, we contacted a web designer who collaborated with us on a site we love. The experience proved two old sayings: anything worth doing is worth doing well, and you get what you pay for.

So, in the real world of business, especially in the business of photography, I doubt very much whether our appeal to a client ever would be enhanced by a .Pro domain name.

In the real world of any field, what matters is not that you are called a professional, but that you act and produce like one.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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