“What do you do for a living?”

(I started writing this a few weeks back in New Zealand, but finally finished it and had time to post it today.)

This past year I have been traveling a lot. And in each new town, in each new place, the same series of questions happens. Where are you from? What brings you here? What do you do for a living?

It’s that last question that always gets me. Is it just me or does anyone else out there find it hard to answer, “I’m a photographer.” or “I take photos and tell stories.” I’ve been thinking about this for a little while now and I reckon there may be a few reasons it’s hard for me. Curious if any of these ring true with any of you.

1. Sometimes I think part of it is that I just can’t believe this is actually my job. I’m currently typing this from the back seat of a car I’ve been living out of for the past week as I’m taking a road trip around the South Island of New Zealand. Yesterday I was on top of some mountains, today I’m next to a beach looking at those mountains. The fact that I get to do what I love. Take photos, tell stories, travel, meet people. It’s all a little surreal. ┬áThis can’t actually be my job. So sometimes I’m hesitant to say that it is, as if, as soon as you utter those words, the dream will be over.

2. Perhaps some of the reason is because this particular assignment I’ve just completed was made possible by a group of people who supported me. People who believed in and were passionate about the NGO I was working for and people who believed in my calling to help tell their story. And so since my “income” or “living” for this lengthy project wasn’t coming directly from the NGO, it feels weird saying I’m a photographer or a storyteller. But who you are being paid by doesn’t define your career or job description.

3. Perhaps some of it is because I’m relatively a newcomer. I’ve only been at this whole camera thing for just over three years. But length of time in an industry doesn’t earn you a title. And maybe even more than that, I reckon, there is a level of uncertainty in my own work especially when in comparison to others, and so if I say I’m a photographer, then I’ll have to show it and then they’ll judge or critique my work and it is put on the same playing field as other photographers. But someone’s critique isn’t what makes us a photographer.

4. However, I think a large part of it has to do with the responsibility and weight that we, as humanitarian photographers and storytellers, carry. We have a huge responsibility to tell stories accurately and without bias. We have been given the responsibility to be that person’s voice and we must do it exceedingly well. Not some half-done effort. We must give it all we’ve got. That weight sometimes shakes me up. It unnerves me. And so sometimes I’m a little hesitant to say I’m a photographer, because admitting that means I’m forced to carry that burden full-on.

Yes I realize I’ve probably completely over analyzed this, but I wanted to put this out there, revealing my faults and insecurities and all as a photographer, because perhaps I’m not the only one. Maybe someone else out there has similar thoughts from time to time.

If so, let me leave you with a couple final thoughts for you and for me.

1. A title is a title. It’s nothing more. Don’t get too hung up on it.
2. A friend and fellow photographer Donald Page once told me that “I think you’re a photographer when you are ready to call yourself a photographer.” At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what others say, where your check comes from, it’s what you believe about your work.
3. Gary S. Chapman said last year at the SWPJC conference,”Comparing yourself to others is a sure route to depression and paralyzation” Don’t compare yourself to others work. Their work doesn’t define your work or what you do. It doesn’t define your vision, your talent, your creative eye, your heart for a story. Not someone else’s.
4. It is true. We do have a huge responsibility and weight on our shoulders. Embrace it. Accept it. Take it as a challenge. Make the best work you possibly can and don’t settle for less.