My Plumber Is a Photographer!

My plumber is a photographer, and so is my doctor, electrician, gasman and builder. Photography is intrinsic to their everyday practice. They do not consider themselves to be photographers. They take photographs of what they do and what they see as evidence of a fact, a reality, as proof, as evidence. Susan Sontag said in On Photography that “Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re shown a photograph of it.” I am not a fan of Sontag and I’m not sure if my plumber has read Sontag, I don’t think so, but when he fitted my new cooker he photographed every aspect of the job he completed. He then uploaded these images directly from his phone to a website that allowed him to email me a safety certificate for the installation.

My builder also documents the work he has done, as does my electrician. The images they create are proof of a job well done and evidence of competency. My friend, a doctor in general practice uses photographs to identify issues that he needs a specialist to take a look at. He is looking for evidence of illness or concern.

Now, these photographers are not basing their photography on any intellectual or aesthetic foundation, they are not hoping to be commissioned and they are not trained in the medium. They do not have websites, photo books or instagram pages documenting their practice. But they are photographers in my eyes.

I am not sure however how many professional photographers would agree with me. But why wouldn’t they?

Perhaps I am missing the point, perhaps I should be considering my plumber as a house painter in relation to the fine artist. They are using the same tools, but with different intentions and outcomes. However, there is a problem with this argument. I am constantly hearing from photographers and academics about the importance of reality in photography. That a photograph is not reality, it is one person’s reality, an interpretation of what is seen, based upon perspective, political and social intent. The house painter is not interested in showing a reality, or attempting to create a masterpiece within a life dedicated to self-expression. They are trying to do a good job, keep busy and get paid, whilst the artist explores their own reality through interpretation.

However, the plumber is using photography to show a reality, a reality that cannot be argued with. The photographer working within a practice based upon the presumption of honesty within the photographic image is looking for the same thing. I am not talking about the post-produced illustrative approach to the photograph, but the ‘get-it-right-in-camera’, non-manipulative approach adopted by so many photographers interested in the potential purity of the medium.

There is therefore little difference in intention between the plumber and the ‘pure’ photographer. They are both creating photography that shows what they see and attempting to record what they have seen. Of course there is little if any aesthetic consideration in the plumber’s images but in a photographic world where the mundane and the non-considered is regularly exalted and supported by theoretical doctrine, perhaps we are just one plumber away from a book of images showing us a long form narrative of cooker couplings!

Photography and the photographic image as a communicative tool is no longer owned and controlled by the photographic community. It has escaped from the genie bottle and is now embedded within professions that have no obvious connection with the medium. I respect that fact.

My plumber probably takes more photographs every day than many photographers, and maybe in doing so he will start to become interested in making images outside of his day job. He could start to think about light, composition and the possibilities that photography could give him outside of how he is currently using it. Photographing his work may become a gateway to further investigation.

These plumbers, builders, electricians and doctors are not seeing photography as a hobby, it is intrinsic to their professions. It may not be the central aspect of their professions but it is important in their everyday activities. To me they are photographers, you may not agree, but if you don’t, why not? Can a photographer only be someone who does one thing? Can a photographer only be someone who only makes photographs? If you make photographs, whatever the context you make them within, doesn’t that make you a photographer?

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 (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). 

His book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99 https://bluecoatpress.co.uk/product/what-does-photography-mean-to-you/

© Grant Scott 2020

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