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.

What they don’t teach you in college

This post was originally written in 2003. Things, sadly, haven’t really changed and so I thought that it deserved yet another airing.

For better or for worse, the vast majority of people entering the photographic profession are coming from college courses. I have no problem with that, I came from one myself and so did a lot of my favourite photographers. But…

I’ve been a working photographer since 1986 and based on a few things I have picked up since then I have come up with a list of things that they should have taught us that were not on the syllabus. A whole range of vital skills that go a long way to marking out the complete professional from the aspiring “not there yet”.

Obviously when it comes to choosing which lens to use, or selecting backgrounds and props – only experience and familiarity with your kit and brief will do, and colleges are good at telling their students that. There are, however, some skills that are never even mentioned that are vital.

  • People skills: The ability to handle anyone that you are either photographing, who have influence over those being photographed or who are just getting in the way.
  • More people skills: You need to be able to charm the ‘jobsworth’ security man and persuade the reluctant PR and to do it all without breaking into a fit of temper until such times as all else has failed and you have no other option
  • Even more people skills: As a news photographer you need to be able to communicate with anyone from a starving refugee to a pampered celebrity in a meaningful and constructive way – often on the same day! You have to get them to trust you, to do what you want them to do and achieve all of this with dignity and respect.
  • Advanced people skills: As a portraitist you have to have the ability to talk to absolutely anyone and to keep the conversation going at a light but interesting level whilst setting up equipment, making vital technical decisions and shooting the job.
  • Extended people skills: You need to have a sense of your own place in the scheme of things. It’s no use throwing a prima donna tantrum if you are not getting what you want and are never going to get it. It gets even worse when the person you are arguing with is a close personal friend of the editor. Know when to give in, to make another plan and get your shot anyway.

You are probably getting my drift by now. Once you have acquired all of the technical skills and bought all of the kit that you need all that’s required is to learn how to conduct yourself. I often refer to the photographer as the “Social Chameleon”, changing colours and attitude to suit their surroundings. This should be both physical – dressing appropriately so as not antagonize the people that you are dealing with, and mental – adopting the right attitude – be it meek or aggressive, as friendly or confrontational as the situation requires.

Maybe photographers should all adopt some of the techniques used by the best sales people and mix them with skills more common in the diplomatic service. I have watched charity workers running soup kitchens and marvelled at their ability to be both understanding and firm, and I have watched police officers and been stunned by the way that they get the information that they want whilst conducting an otherwise friendly conversation.

My biggest tip on this subject is to find some common ground with whoever you are talking to and work it. It might be sport, it might be the weather or the journey that you both had to get where you have met. If I’m in someone’s home I will often talk about a piece of art or furniture on display or their pet cat or dog. It doesn’t matter what you chat about, you are chatting and barriers are coming down. Avoid contentious subjects unless you are really sure of yourself.

So there you are, what they don’t teach you in college is how to handle people. It’s not just a skill needed by photographers – it’s a life skill. I think that’s why a lot of the greatest photographers have come from other careers where they have learned about people and use those skills in their new profession.