What’s the Difference between a Photograph and a Photograph?


No, don’t worry the title of this article is not a mistake. Stay with me on this. I spend most of my time speaking with and hearing from photographers talking about photography. I think we understand what that means. The creation of images as part of a narrative, for a client, as part of a self-initiated project with intention, the documentation of a situation, a place, people and a time. A photograph created as part of a greater understanding of what it is to be a photographer.

But the majority of photographs are not created by photographers, they are created by non-photographers on their phones. Photographs of their children, of a fun night out, of best friends, family members, birthday’s, barbecues, sports days and Christmas. On holidays, of a great view, a new car, a historic monument, a garden, some flowers or a nice meal. You have all seen this photographs, and maybe taken them for yourself, but it is difficult for the photographer to detach themselves from the considerations a photographer brings to the process of creating a photograph. To just be in the moment and not care what the photograph looks like and says about the photographer who has created it.

I have recently been interviewing students hoping to study photography and as part of that process I ask to see a portfolio of their favourite images. The majority of these students are 17-18 years of age and the photographs they show me are images that the consider to be photographs of value. Too often these are stilted, formal images led by technical or conceptual process that has removed the sense of personal from the photographs. They could have been taken by anyone of any age who had studied a ‘how to’ photography manual from the 1980s. In this situation I often ask the student if they have an Instagram page, and most of them do but when I ask if it is okay for me to see it they respond by saying “but it is not my photography!”

What they mean by this is that it is not the photography they consider to be photography, they do not believe it to be ‘serious’ photography. Of course Instagram is only photography! It is there perception of what photography is that is being challenged by my request. Not always but invariably I find loose, fun images that document their lives, photographs that are believable and honest depictions of the life of a teenager in 2020. It is these photographs I am hoping to see and what I believe to be a true indication of potential within a young photographer.

The Holy Grail for the professional photographer is to find the bridge between personal and commissioned work. I know many who have achieved this and even more or have not, it takes perseverance, industry knowledge and personal honesty to identify a route to achieve this, but it is possible. 

So what’s the difference between a photograph and a photograph? Well, of course there is none, other than perception and intention of creation. The majority of people creating photographs are content with the images they make and see no future for these images past sharing them on social media, putting them in a frame or keeping them on their smartphones. For the photographer the image is the beginning of a process based on their understanding of their role and their profession.

The reality is that anyone that takes/makes/creates a photograph is a photographer, whatever their perception of that process is. What we do with that photograph is what changes the understanding of that photograph and its importance.

To para-phrase what my good friend photographer David Eustace often says “I’m just lucky that people like the way I see the world and pay me to show them that in photographs.”

© Grant Scott 2020

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.


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  2. To make a photograph or to take a photograph ? That’s the question …. indeed as you say too well it’s all about the perception and intention of creation . As well where and how it is shown which can influence and carry a complete different message to the viewer.
    Always love reading your analysis Grant !

  3. Most often when a photograph is taken at an outstretched arms length and presented firstly to another it is often little more than a hope looking for approval or with the desire to have some form of importance. It may become a memory one day and that’s of great value as family snaps highlight as years pass-by . When a photograph becomes your silent voice, one that may touch others secondly but more so recorded in the hope of learning then we move into another realm of consideration. Great article as always mate.

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