photographic education

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.