The 21st Century Photographer Needs to Be a Visual Storyteller, Visual Problem Solver and a Visual Linguist

Gone are the days when it was enough to take a photograph to describe yourself as a photographer. The definition today is far more nuanced and demanding. There are of course many reasons for the evolution of the role of the photographer as a creative practitioner but principle amongst these is the need to differentiate the person who can create a photograph from those who see the same process as a definition of their career.

I once questioned an arts based photography curator, writer and theorist at an academic photography conference concerning the idea of photography as a career. Their response was illuminative and concerning. Having listened to her for some time opine that photography that was art based and focused on the deconstruction of the medium was the only interesting work being created. I suggested that her assertion was narrow focused and incorrect.

In reality, I believe that the true state of photography should be addressed from the perspective of career or hobby. I see both approaches as being valid, serious and important. However, the difference between them is intention and expectation.

The hobbyist is excited by a successful image that allows them to demonstrate their technical commitment and ability alongside their passion for a specific subject or area of photography such as macro, landscape, birds or horticulture. They may also enjoy spending many hours working on post production techniques. I have no issue with this approach to photography and respect all those whose hobby is photography. I have no issue with the word hobby.

The person I questioned did. They were outraged that I should even use the word when relating to photography, assuming that I was suggesting that those engaged with photographic art practice were also hobbyists as they were not working as commissioned photographers. Career to her meant commissioned. This of course is to completely misunderstand the nature of contemporary photographic practice and to enforce an outdated snobbism upon commissioned work. 

Every commissioned photographer I am aware of creates personal work and I know of few commissioners of photography that are not interested in personal work. What I mean by personal work is self-initiated bodies of images that connect intellectually, aesthetically and/or emotionally with the person creating the work. This work is often part of a broader practice that evolves through time. The difference between this work and what is described as art based practice is in my opinion limited at best and arguably non existent.

The true difference between a hobbyist and a professional photographer is not defined by who pays them or if they even get paid at all for their photographs, it is based upon intention. The definition of professionalism is not a definition of technical ability, that is an expectancy of anyone who has devoted their life to a creative medium. It is a definition of the understanding of the photographer as a visual storyteller, visual problem solver and a visual linguist.

The professional photographer understands that they and their work exists within the history of photography. They understand the creation of visual narratives, the relationship between one image and another. They understand context, and how to tell stories that are ethically responsible. They can construct visual solutions that are nuanced and engaging. They can in short understand the role of the photographer as a visual communicator implementing aesthetic judgement but rejecting aesthetic choice as the only parameter by which the successful image is judged.

The hobbyist does not need to address any of these considerations. 

It could also be argued that neither does the regular Instagram poster, and yet many professional photographers bring their understanding of visual language to the work they post on that platform. Just as the boundaries between commissioned and art based practice have been removed so have the stigmas attached with where work is shared. Work shared on Instagram is no less important than work hung on a gallery wall, traditional approaches to photography are no less important than conceptual deconstruction of the image. They sit beside each other and coexist in a photographic landscape that embraces all approaches. That is certainly the case from my perspective and I suggest that there is no reason for others not to share that viewpoint.

Today, there is strong work being created by a vast array of photographers from all areas of practice, but it is the work being created by those that understand the qualities required of the 21st Century photographer that will have lasting importance whatever area of practice that photographer works within.

© 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.




  1. Photography is a vital tool in the arsenal of artistic expression; it goes way beyond the confines of any narrow definition. It can crop up anywhere at any time in conjuction or not with any medium used by a creative person.

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