My mother told me that "sticks and stones may break your bones, but names can never hurt you" and I spent the first 39 years of my life without questioning that piece of maternal wisdom. At the ripe old age of forty I started to realise that certain derogatory terms, when applied to groups of people, can have a bad effect.
I'm not going to equate my profession with religious or ethnic groups who have suffered real physical and emotional harm from the constant repetition of terms deliberately designed to insult them and from name calling intended to isolate them or to incite others to be prejudiced against them. What I am going to do is try to make a case for the quiet burial of collective nouns and occupation based slang terms for photographers that only serve to devalue what we do for a living.
Before I get into the arguments I want to say that photographers often use many of these names for each other in what is meant to be a light hearted and affectionate way. Words get borrowed, used and then abused so we are doing ourselves no favours by perpetuating them. There are a whole raft of pseudo-tabloid terms for photographers that I object to;
Snapper - implies that we take snaps, which we don't. We take photographs, we make photographs and we create photographs.
Lensman - what does this mean? It's just a pointless term that gets trotted out by people who cannot be bothered to use a thesaurus.
Camera monkey - particularly offensive, and usually used by ill informed and self important writers.
Pap' - shortened form of 'paparazzi', which is liberally used by the ignorant to refer to a wide range of news photographers. I have nothing against the paparazzi (literally translated means buzzing flies) but I object to the pejorative connotations of the word when applied to other photographers.
Reptiles - used once to my face by an 'old school' journalist who was politely informed that I objected to the term on the grounds that it may well have been used affectionately by him, but that it may not be used so kindly by others.
The list could go on but the point that I'm trying to make here is that words used in jest by friends of our profession get picked up by others and used to denigrate us all. All of this is happening at a time when we are struggling to present a unified, dignified and professional image to a world which at best doesn't understand what we do and at worst regards us with contempt. The terms that we use to refer to one another are important. Not as important as avoiding undercutting other professionals, not as important as selling out on copyright and not as important as belonging to professional bodies, but in a world where everyone who owns a digital compact camera thinks that they can take 'professional quality pictures' every small action has an effect. It's like the old, and probably untrue, story about a butterfly beating it's wings in China causing a hurricane in Florida - some very small actions have very large consequences.
As photographers we owe it to ourselves and to our colleagues to avoid using terms for each other that can have negative connotations. When was the last time you heard a Doctor call a colleague a "sawbones" in public? When did you ever hear a lawyer, an accountant, a teacher or a systems analyst use a potentially damaging slang term for a fellow professional? I believe that the use of slang terms is a sign of professional insecurity and we can all help ourselves and our peers by refraining form making those signs.
Names may not hurt you or me individually, but they can eat away at our profession.
© Neil Turner July 2004 (updated July 2009)