Photographic education… again…

Here I am again writing about photographic education. Every time I’ve started down this road it has been entirely due to one or more conversations that I’ve had with someone unhappy about the way the system is working out for them. This morning I spoke to three students who have ended up on the wrong course. I may come back and write about them another day but the main outcome of those conversations has been to make me think about a wider question.

When you speak to professional photographers about photographic education in the United Kingdom you are very likely to hear tales of second year undergraduates who don’t know what an f-stop is and third years who haven’t had any training in digital workflow. On the face of it, that sounds absolutely indefensible. It doesn’t, however, tell the whole story.

Thousands of eighteen and nineteen year olds go off to university every September to study English and thousands more go to study History. Does anyone bemoan the lack of jobs for writers and historians? Do working authors and working historians complain loudly about the lack of training that these young people are getting in the technicalities of doing their jobs? No. The truth about photographic education is that not all courses are there to train people to be photographers.

A sizeable number of courses are designed to teach photography as more of an academic subject – learning for learning’s sake and mind expansion rather than training for a career behind the camera.

This kind of learning is still a relatively new concept for photography. Our colleagues who are engaged in fine art, the history of art and even fashion are further down the road towards embedding the study of their subject into the world of academe and photography needs to catch up.

I have no doubt that lecturers engaged in teaching photography as an academic pursuit know what they are doing and know what, when and how they are teaching it. The thing that I am a lot less sure about is whether all of the students enrolled on those courses realise that they are pursuing an academic study. In fact, I am convinced that a surprisingly large number don’t realise that until they are well into the first year and that many don’t really wake up and smell the coffee until they are even further into their studies.So as far as I can see we have two separate but parallel problems here:

  • A lack of realisation from the profession that not all photographic courses are there to train photographers.
  • A problem for students who don’t understand that not all photographic courses are there to train photographers.

What should we do? Two parallel problems with a single solution: Better PR. Photographic education needs better PR. Looking towards schools, colleges, parents, students, the public and the profession all courses – especially the academic ones – need to make it clear who they are and what they are doing.

Photography should be studied as an academic subject; its cultural presence and power is worthy of research and study. Its history and even its technology are topics equally as valid as others that are understood and accepted as legitimate subjects in a way that photography is struggling to be.

Photography is also a vocation and courses that set out to train students for a career behind the lens need to make it clear that that is their goal and set about doing it to a standard that the industry requires and the students deserve.

We need two distinctly different approaches to photographic education and we need the courses following each route to be confident, open and clear about what they are doing. Courses that attempt to steer a course between the two and produce graduates who haven’t had a proper academic workout or whose technical knowledge and creative talents haven’t been optimised and refined are failing everyone. Let’s get behind photographic education and let’s help to get the courses to get their PR right.

4 comments

  1. Perhaps students should ask the right questions before enrolling on a course, as well as tutors asking the right questions of potential students.
    It sounds to me like there is a lack of thorough investigation before enrolling.

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    1. I agree that the right questions need to be asked by everyone concerned. The course descriptions in many cases could and should be a lot clearer and a simple system showing the relative academic an vocational content of the courses could be easily devised and used.

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  2. Funny you should say this today – I remembered just the other day when I signed up for my course in English and Drama (1997) – they said very clearly “if you want to learn to act, this is not the course for you…”
    Thankfully, I knew I didn’t want to act and actually wanted to study the history/academic side of it (and maybe prance about on a stage once in a while).
    In the end the vocational skills I gained were part of one single course unit on Lighting, sound & set design and I went on to work in the theatre industry at the ICA (and other places) for several years) – I wouldn’t have done that without the course, but it was more through the contacts I made on it than the university programme itself, as well as doing an awful lot of work outside of the course.
    I’m now working on becoming a full time professional photographer, but to be honest I wouldn’t dream of pursuing a course at university – not with current fees, and not with such a wealth of information available for free (or very cheap) on the internet.
    While it’s certainly important to understand why people like Avedon et. al. were so successful, it doesn’t need to be at a deep academic level. To my mind it’s not the ‘why’ behind Avedon’s images that’s going to improve my photography. It’s the ‘why’ behind my own.

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    1. I couldn’t agree more Toby. At the moment, the only courses that I teach on are either one or two day seminars on very specific topics or on the NCTJ six-month fast-track Photojournalism one at Up To Speed in Bournemouth. I can see the advantages for an 18 or 19 year old spending three years learning about life and growing up a bit more before looking for work but for career changers a three year course and £20K+ worth of debt seems a big ask.

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