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Using Nonviolent Language for Lens-Based Work

When a photographer I know began his career as a young photojournalist at his local newspaper, he was assigned to document a golf game involving a former President of the United States. He arrived at the course and checked in with the Secret Service, where he explained he was there “to shoot the President.”

“Oh no, son, let’s not say that!” replied the federal agent as he led the photographer to the press area. This real-life story occurred more than three decades ago. Yet the violent language established within lens-based arts remains because it’s simply how we learn to speak and write it.

Have you ever felt uncomfortable with the language of photography – the way we casually proclaim we will shoot, capture, get a headshot, and other “triggering” words?

One collaborative group working to remove the stigma of violence in photographic arts is Diversify Photo. They are a community of BIPOC (black, indigenous, and other people of color) and non-western photographers, editors, and visual producers representing major media outlets. Through language, they are working to break with the predominantly colonial and patriarchal eye through which much of history and the media have recorded the images of our time.

When a photographer heads to the local college to document campus life, are they going to “shoot or capture the school”? This is also a real-life example I saw on email. If taken out of context, “shooting the school” type language should make people feel uncomfortable. If shared online, the phrase could be flagged by social media moderators due to gun violence being a national health crisis.

Through collaboration, the folks at Diversify Photo have compiled a helpful glossary that I keep coming back to as a writer here at 365° Total Marketing.

For any of you who professionally and personally discuss aspects of photography and videography, this glossary is a good first step to re-learning photo-speak. Being mindful to avoid violence in otherwise common terminology not only will improve your connections to lens-based work, but also will show your colleagues and clients that you are above the noise. You care to make lens-based work more meaningful, nonviolent, and inclusive of the human experience across borders, gender, and stereotypes.

A few examples from the Visual Thesaurus show how the commonly used word is in bold, and alternatives to the words following. Try it out:

  • Cameraman[n.]

    Lens-based worker, photographer

  • Freelance[adj.] (freelance photographer)


  • Headshot[n.]

    Profile photo, portrait

  • Shoot[n.]

    A (photography) session, an assignment, a project, a photography job

  • Subject [n] (e.g. photo)

    Source, model, collaborator, sitter

Feel free to explore these words and share these ideas to help everyone brighten the language about a 200-year-old medium to bring more civility to our work in a progressive and thoughtful 21st Century.

- By LYDIA COBB, Associate Editor