Megan Forbes - Ethnography

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words But a Roll of Film Costs More


Who is a photographer? That is the question I tried to answer when experimenting with this ethnography, and honestly, I’m still not sure I have an answer. These days, almost anyone can be a “photographer.” I use the quotations because photographer is such a relative term. Is the drunken girl sticking her arm out to take a self-photo with friends a photographer? Is the stay at home mom that finds abandoned fields to pose her kids in and take pictures a photographer? Is the college student who tries to make a little side cash by taking graduation pictures of his friends a photographer? What does it mean to be a photographer?

I decided to explore the land of film for six weeks this semester. My first inclination when I think of a photographer is to view them as someone with a big camera with lots of settings. I sadly gave up my point and click Nikon for my dad’s trusty ole Rebel, that only uses film. However, it is big with a ton of settings, and I knew it would do the trick. I had a date party and a few sorority events that I knew I would like to take pictures at during that six-week period, so I went out and bought some film. When I finally found the film, covered in dust and in the back corner of WalMart, I choked on my spit when I saw the price, ten dollars per roll! TEN DOLLARS!?! For someone aiming to by at least five rolls of film, that was the majority of my grocery money for the week. I finally sucked it up and bought it, excited to use it, but not excited for the sad decline in my bank account.

I spent the first few days with the Rebel playing with the settings and taking a few pictures. What I didn’t realize, stupidly, at the time, is that I wouldn’t have the instant result of viewing the picture the moment it was taken. Instead, I had to wait until I finished a roll of film to see what I had captured in that moment. As I climbed up on top of a friend’s car to try and get a picture of the sunset, it got me thinking. If I had a digital camera, I could just take fifty pictures and pick the best ones to print or post on Facebook, while deleting the others instantly. Instead, I had to be patient and wait for just the right moment, when the clouds parted, in order to take the picture I desired. As someone with very little patience, this whole pseudo-photography thing started to get on my nerves.

It was in that moment that I decided my definition of a real photographer would start out as, “someone with the patience to wait for the right shot, instead of relying on the delete button.” “Old school” photographers didn’t have the option of the delete button or retaking a shot in order to get the best light. They just had to rely on skill, skill that took them years and hundreds of dollars to acquire. Sure, at first, I’m sure they wasted money taking pointless photos that were off center or chopped someone’s head or face or arm out of the picture. But, they kept working at it, and eventually were able to take photos that pleased both themselves and their clients, without wasting money or time.

As I prepared to take pictures of our “big sis rev” which is just a tradition of surprising new members with their sponsors in the sorority, I began to wonder if I could capture the candid shots I love without being able to take, delete and retake pictures. Usually when I take pictures, I try to find those moments when no one is looking and snap one really quick that turns out to be special. With the Canon, I knew it would be difficult, and I knew I would want to capture the look on my grandlittle’s face when she found out she was a member of our family. Photographers without the ability of retake and delete that still managed to take candid photos are top-notch in my book. This goes back to the skill acquired with practice and perseverance. At this point, I was really missing my Nikon and the ease associated with it.

I have never fancied myself a photographer, but just someone that liked to take pictures. Still, from friends, I have heard the phrase “these are great, why aren’t you a photographer,” several times. After having the Canon for a few weeks, I knew the reason I never considered myself a photographer, because I never had work for a good shot. When I finally got some of the pictures developed, at another ten dollars a roll (holy cow being a photographer before the year 2000 was EXPENSIVE), I realized how inexperienced I was. There were off-center pictures, washed out pictures, pictures that didn’t have anything in them. Sure there were a few good ones that I lucked out in capturing, and I love them, but those few good ones don’t make me a photographer.

David Hobby, a former staff photographer for the Baltimore Sun is trying to make regular people into photographers one step at a time. He believes that people can learn cheap lighting and other photography tricks online instead of going to a class. It has made him much more famous than his photographs in the Baltimore Sun. It is because of him and other photographers, or even amateur “photographers” that have learned a few tricks, that now everyone can learn techniques that were once only available to people that paid to take classes. Technology has made photography techniques available to people for free, which in this economy brings people like moths to a flame.

That, I think is the difference that technology has brought to the world of photography. We label anyone as a photographer that manages to take a few good pictures, because the evidence of the poor pictures is deleted before anyone sees. And now, even if a picture is not great straight of the camera, the editing capabilities are endless! With Photoshop, Lightshop and even free photo editing software like Picnik, anyone can be a photographer that ends up with great pictures! Need a blemish removed or a stray hair deleted? No problem.

And with the ability to edit comes an entirely new question. If you can edit a picture you took yourself and make it look great, does that make you a photographer? Personally, I don’t think that editors of books make them writers, but the line between a photographer and a photo editor is a little more blurred. If I had taken digital copies of some of the photos I took with the Canon and edited the lighting to make them a little more appealing, would that have made me a great photographer? I don’t think so. There is one picture I took of the sunset over the mountains in Blacksburg that I had to wait to take that I am incredibly proud of because the colors shine through so beautifully. If that picture hadn’t turned out as well and I had adjusted the lighting so the colors shone, would I have been so proud? Probably not. We would never call an editor a writer in the literary world, even if that editor changed a few words, or even added a sentence or two into the work. That person would still be listed as editor in the bibliography.

With photography, a person is taking their own photos, allowing them to be the creator, but they are also their own editor, and no one knows the difference between an actual great photo and a half-decent photo with great editing. All of the editing makes you wonder what people and places really look like. Does that girl with the perfectly smooth and clear skin actually have acne that has been covered over with editing software? Who knows. As someone who doesn’t look perfect all the time (who does) and has bad hair days and breakouts, I am thankful for editing software. I can look back on photos and think, “wow I looked good.” Is that semi-delusional? Probably so, but I would still rather look back and think about how good I looked than look back and want to hide pictures of an experience because I looked so rough.

Editing clearly has an influence on body image. There is a video that Dove posted in their Body Beautiful campaign that is a model changing in under a minute called Dove Evolution. They show her as she looks normally, without makeup, and go through the process of the application of makeup, doing her hair, and then the photo shoot. Then the video jumps to the photo editing software they use to make her skin completely smooth, shave some off of her waste, lengthen her neck, make her chest bigger, whiten her smile and other things. Then that image is the one placed in magazines for girls to look at and compare themselves to. Fair? Absolutely not. But that is the digital world we live in.

Are memories different because of digital photography? That is a question that I am not sure I can answer fully. Digital photography allows us to delete the bad pictures, but does it also allow us to delete the bad memories as well? Sure, a catastrophic event is not going to be forgotten just because you deleted a picture, but maybe that fall you took that made you flash everyone that your lovely friend decided to snap a picture of got deleted off your camera. Will you remember that fall? Probably not. Did it happen? Yes. If that picture had been taken fifteen years ago, it would still be lying around somewhere because someone developed the rest of that film. Maybe you would have come across it and remembered that moment happening. Does that really matter within the big picture? Probably not, but it does influence our memory.

So, who is a photographer? Is it someone who waits for a shot, is able to determine the difference between a great shot and actual art, and who recognizes the value of a real photograph, where the flaws are made beautiful without editing software? I think that is a big part of it. Am I a photographer? Absolutely not. I think photography needs to embrace the progress technology has made, but I also think the real essence of photography needs to be realized and admired. There is a difference between someone who points and shoots and manages to get a good picture because of deletion and editing, and someone who waits for a shot, gets that feeling and takes a timeless photograph.