Sunday, July 20, 2008

What is ‘Professional’?

For the purposes of this Blog I will, with a liberal dose of satire mixed in, look at the meaning of ‘professional’.

This has come about after a few things that happened during the last week. The behavior, or lack thereof, of some of the field guides I saw in the Pilansberg raised the question – “What is a professional Field Guide?” Other questions that I get asked every now and then include “Are you a professional photographer?” “Do you use a professional camera?”

So to start let me answer those three questions:

  • I am a qualified and experienced Field Guide. Am I professional?I would like to think so.
  • No. I am not a professional photographer. I don’t take pictures. I try to make images that reflect the world and wildlife as I see it.
  • I use a camera. End of story. It’s not the size of your censor but how you use it! Like I said in a previous Blog – buying a new camera to take better photographs is like a fish getting a bicycle to swim better… It just does not make sense! Learn to use your equipment properly and play with light. Don’t worry about how many buttons your camera body has - just take the picture!!

So what does being a ‘professional’ mean? I think the concept has been trivialized and is now being abused by anybody trying to sound more important than they actually are. Just calling yourself professional does not necessarily make it so!

When was the last time you heard of a ‘professional dentist’ or a ‘professional lawyer’? The word, in this case, would refer more to their behavior and demeanor rather than their job description and qualifications. Here we could delve into what actually defines a profession? Education? Experience? Subscribing to some unified Code of Conduct?

Just as calling oneself a professional does not make one a professional, working in a profession does not make one a professional. It is more than working in a profession. It implies that you conform to professional and/or industry standards in doing your job. You are expected to do it with skill and to your best ability. Put your own personal agendas aside and focus on your employers needs. Work hard and play fair. Carry yourself with dignity and treat people with respect. I can carry on here but let’s get back to the three questions mentioned above.

So what is a ‘professional' field guide?

I originally did not think it would be so difficult to actually define this. You would think that any person who gets employed to host and guide paying guests, from all walks of life, for up to ten hours a day would be expected to have at least the understanding of what it means to be professional. Looking around at how some guides in the the industry conduct themselves - apparently not...

What gets to me is that someone who gets the opportunity to share the spectacular African heritage with people who are, majority of the time, extremely excited to see anything ‘wild’ sometimes look like they are in the process of getting an acid enema when they are guiding or hosting their guests. Is this professional?

The lack of passion from some of the guides, using the word lightly, out in the field reflects very badly on the guys and girls out there who are doing a great job in sharing African experiences with people. And there ARE amazing people in the industry! It is difficult to put a finger directly on what it means to be a professional field guide but, in my opinion, here are some things I think might not be:

  • You stop at a sighting and rumble through gestation period, longevity and amount of young of whatever animal your guests are snapping images of. Anybody can get this from a book!
  • You stop for sundowners, which is supposed to be one of the special moments on a game drive, and you disappear to go and feed the nicotine craving that can’t wait for another two hours until you get back to the lodge. At least you have the slight ‘professional’ inclination not to light up right in front of your guests but those people are there for you and your info!
  • You listen to the radio and chase from sighting to sighting without sharing all the smaller wonders that nature has to offer. One word – lazy!
  • Arriving for morning drive looking like something from a horror movie and smelling like a brewery.
  • You look like a ‘bushman from Borneo’ in the morning when you meet your guests. Living in the bush surely does not mean that you have to look like you have been dragged backwards through an acacia thicket. Come on man... have a bit of pride in your appearance!
  • You are so playing the hero for the young girl from overseas who has ‘khaki-fever’ (a complete obsession with the rugged ranger (shave damn it!!) and his big gun) and think you are the best thing since sliced bread.
  • Discussing the mating habits of primates in the privacy of a guest’s room is normally frowned upon. A result of khaki-fever if you don’t conduct yourself professionally.
  • You are so into being one of the senior guides in whatever area you are working that you feel you have to turn into a bush policeman trying to reprimand all the other people so you feel better about yourself. Focus on your guests and their experience!!
  • The only thing that you worry about is how much your guests, who you left alone during all their drink breaks, is going to tip you when they leave. Where is your passion?
  • Someone asks you a question and you have no idea of the answer. Don't make up an answer!! It's true that you can baffle people with bullsh*t but trust me, they will go and check a lot of, if not all, the things you tell them! Say you don't know and make an effort to find out and get back to the people before they leave. That is professional!
Again, I could keep going with this for another few pages but still want to get to at least mention something with regards to photography part as well so let’s summarize.

Being a Field Guide is, I strongly believe, a privileged position in which you get to create memories and experiences for people who might only get one chance in their life to see Africa. It means working with people 90% of the time but still knowing the natural world in depth. If you ever feel the need to start focusing on and checking what other guides are doing rather then paying attention to your guests OR you start hating it every time a guest asks a question – leave.

There are people out there who are giving this profession, and yes it CAN be a profession, a very professional image. Learn from them. Have a bit of pride in what you do and what you represent.

Being a professional Field Guide is hard work but it is possible. Your demeanor will be the differentiator. Keep on studying; always be prepared; hold yourself to high standards and commit to excellence. You will then not have to say that you are a professional Field Guide. People will just know!

Right, moving swiftly along.

With regards to the questions “Are you a professional photographer?” I am not going to reinvent the wheel so for a very interesting essay on this visit Ken Rockwell’s site and read Why Photography is Not a Profession and Why You Need to Know”.

I am not a professional photographer and don’t describe myself as one. I would rather like to think of myself as an overly-enthusiastic amateur. None of the photographers who contribute to Photo-Africa are professional photographers and I think that makes the images that we have been able to produce even more special as, I strongly believe, there are numerous images that could be seen as ‘professional’ but again - what does that mean when speaking about an image?

I love the outdoors and especially being out in the field in the African wilderness. This is the common thread that binds the contributing photographers on Photo-Africa. They are all passionate about capturing candid and impromptu images of nature in action – regardless of what camera they are using! That is our challenge and that is our passion.

To end of with a quick look at "Do you use a professional camera?"

To answer that... Is it important?

I am sure more amateurs, or wannabe professionals, use professional cameras then actual professional photographer. Let's just for argument sake say these are people who generate all their income from photography.

Again... to answer this question I am going to quote Ken Rockwell, whose site is definitely worth a visit, when he said:

"I define a professional camera by its durability and utility. If it says "professional" it probably isn't. It's easy to separate the pro cameras from the glittery toys. If it has a slower sync than 1/250 or if you have to spin a knob or go through a menu to get to an ISO or WB setting, you have an amateur camera. Professionals often use amateur cameras. Don't worry about it." To read the full article, What Makes a Professional Camera, click here.

Right. Moving swiftly along... again!

That is about my two cents worth (even though I could keep going!) on two subjects that I feel very strongly about. Field Guiding and Wildlife Photography. I am sure there are a thousand different opinions on all of these topics so I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

If there are guides out there with any thoughts on this matter, or if you have ever been on safari, leave a comment and tell me what you think!

Also, if you are a photographer who sells images, do you see yourself as 'professional'? Do you use a 'professional' camera? Is it important to your image quality?

As always I look forward to hearing from you!


PS: Promise to not waffle on like this in the next post and will actually include some images! :)


Grant Marcus said...

great ,great blog I am so glad that you have put this issue on the map for every body including fieldguides to see. I agree with you on every little detail,well said. We as fielguides must just remember the guests come here for an african safari experience not a powertrip around the world ( I'm sure you know what I mean )


Michael Palmer said...

Every once in a while you just got to get it off your chest!! great post.

Sandpiper (Lin) said...

Love your attitude and always your pictures. I cringe when people even call me a photographer. I tend to describe myself as a nature-walker and picture-taker. :)

SAPhotographs said...

A MAN AFTER MY OWN HEART!! At last there is someone out there who I agree with on their point of view as to what constitutes being a "field or tour" guide!! Congrats Gerry, I will go on a trip with you anytime if these are the rules you go by!!

Photo-Africa said...

Thanks for all the comments and support!!

I feel strongly about this and hopefully creating an awareness is a start to actually making a change!