Are You a Photographer, or Just a Camera Operator?

When I go to a photography exhibit or show, I find myself looking at similar work: photographs made from an inkjet printer that are just stylized archives. Be it a photo of a bird, a dress, a subject or event. Whatever it is, it’s just a photograph. A photograph that can be easily duplicated with the simple press of a button. A print on a piece of paper, nothing more, nothing less.

Where is the artist’s brush stroke? Where is the photographer’s unique thumbprint, aside from on top of their shutter button?

What makes a painting beautiful and unique is that the artist made it by hand, the brush strokes were all individually placed onto the canvas, the artist used their emotions or surroundings for inspiration. A painting is hardly ever a true representation—rather, a physical expression of the artist’s mind through their hands onto the subject matter.

What I believe photography is sadly missing is this raw, artistic expression.

When people think about photography they think of cameras. They look at a photo and say I could have done that. If they were in that exact moment, they wouldn’t be wrong. That is if they had the technique and knowledge, with a few dedicated days to learn it, which amazingly anyone can get in just a few clicks on the Internet.

But what makes a photo historic is its ability to capture a moment.

Photography is mainly used as an archive medium. That’s all well and good if that’s all you use photography for. Many people love photography for this aspect alone. But for me, that just makes you a camera operator, not an artist.

I’m not trying to rag on National Geographic or publications like TIME. There is a time and a place for everything, photography is a great medium to showcase stories and events. I’m just wondering what makes a photograph special… what makes a photo so deserving it belongs up on a gallery wall or museum.

Would it still be special if it didn’t have historic merit? Take away the camera, can you still have a photograph? There are very few photographers that think and work outside the box, and I wish more of us did, me included.

I’m struggling to put my own thumbprint into my own work. I have a style, a vision, my own unique view of the world. I have my own post-processing style and methods. But if someone came along and watched me, I’m sure they could emulate it, or even replicate it, within a few hours.

Pablo Picasso spent his lifetime perfecting and experimenting with his art. The same can be said for Vincent Van Gogh, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock—the list could go on forever. Aside from their technical skills in their craft, what made them different was their ideas, the concepts that pushed outside the standards at the time.

It’s dangerous when everyone starts thinking in the same way—there is no controversy, no friction between peers. Without friction, we all become static and boring. I feel that the collective group of photographers out there aren’t putting their own brush strokes into their work. We aren’t capturing an idea, rather just a moment.

The majority of us are camera operators, obsessed with settings and techniques instead of focusing on concepts and our own unique vision. So what’s the meaning behind your work? Where does your camera end, and your idea begin?

A.B Watson is a New Zealand photographer based in Auckland.