In the past I would visit degree shows with the hope of unearthing a talented young photographer perfect for me to give a break to in the form of their first commission for an established magazine. Today I visit them for different reasons. Now I am part of the photographic teaching community attempting to perform a three year alchemist process turning base metal into gold and I visit degree shows to be informed about work being completed by students at institutions other than my own. Why? To understand the zeitgeist, to identify themes and approaches, to see how I can improve my own teaching or not as the case may be.
This year I have done exactly this across a number of institutions. Alongside my in-person visits (never on private view night) I have also been checking out whatever student degree work I can find online from across the UK and it is my observations from these adventures that have led me to write this article.
My expectations when looking at graduate work are simple to explain; I’m looking for work that demonstrates a unique visual language, personal passion, a connection with the subject matter, an ability to work with of light and an understanding of where the work sits within the professional contemporary photographic landscape. Simple to explain but not so simple to achieve I know but my expectations are not unrealistic or just mine, they are the expectations of the photographic industry cross all genres of practice.
I also do not expect every student to display all of these attributes in their work after all many of the students who leave university with a degree in photography have no intention of ever becoming a photographer. Some of these attributes is a good result in my eyes, a few acceptable and surely achievable, none a poor reflection of three years of study.
There is no doubt that I have seen good work. Well framed, well presented and well printed despite the generic uniformity that badly prepared digital files so often produce when digitally printed. However, too much of the work I have seen this year seems more strangled than ever before by the narrow belief that taught photography and photography itself only exists as a series of non-specific image documentations, overly reliant on non-sensical poorly written contexts.
Let me explain my issue with the dominance of such an approach.
My belief is that photography should be passion led. It should be a direct reflection of the life, loves and interests of the person behind the camera. As a result of this approach the work created will be varied in aesthetic, subject matter and outcome and in the case of a group of students mostly under twenty-two appropriate to their lives. This is how I and my colleagues teach and the resulting work covers everything from food to dogs, motor racing to surfing, fashion to extreme sports, skateboarding to travel, music to still life, rural life to makers portraits from interiors to documentary. As a result a high majority of the students find a place for themselves within the photographic industry shortly after graduating based on their passions outside of photography. To see what this looks like you can check out some of the work created by students at the University of Gloucestershire on the Editorial and Advertising Photography course which I teach on http://www.edad16.com/edad16/the-work.
But this article has not been written to promote that course or to say that all courses should be the same. I am writing this to pose questions that some within photographic education may find uncomfortable to hear and respond to.
Why a narrow approach and understanding of what constitutes ‘serious’ photography is taught at so many institutions I will leave for another time but when I go from degree show to degree show seeing this work again and again it does make me wonder what the purpose of these shows is.
Is it to introduce the students and their work to prospective clients, commissioners, publishers, gallerists or curators? Is it to provide an opportunity to show their friends and family what they have been up to for the past three years? Is it to provide a markable full stop to three years of module structured teaching or is it a marketing opportunity for the institution to encourage the next cohort of students to pledge their allegiance to that course?
Of course a successful show will meet all of these objectives. When I say ‘successful’ I mean a well hung, curated and widely marketed body of work created by professionally aware students of work appropriate to fulfil the expectations of people who connect with photography on a regular basis. Not room after room of generic, repetitive approaches to weakly explored subject matter that has little if any relevance to the demographic creating the work.
This is my personal observation and you can of course disagree with me, but if you’re experience is similar to mine or if you feel that a degree show you were involved in fits the picture I have painted (and please be honest with yourself here), then the question that has to be asked is why?
The answer may be partially based in the background and practice of those who are teaching these students and the basis upon which they are employed, an issue I raised in a previous article https://unitednationsofphotography.com/2016/04/20/im-a-photographer-let-me-in-opening-the-door-to-photo-education/.
But what do the students think about the work they are exhibiting and where do they think it is going to take them? What are they being told is the future for this work? Is it the work they want to create? Is it a true reflection of who they are as people as well as photographers? Just a few questions that I feel need answering to provide some explanation behind much of the work and shows I have been seeing.
Of course I have seen work and shows that buck this trend but I long to see more work that exhibits a sense of personality, a sense of passion and a sense of fun. I long to see a Degree Show that leaves me feeling inspired rather than cynical. A Degree Show that is not a directly informed reflection of who taught the students but a free expression of eclectic creativity fired by the students themselves. A show full of surprises. A show that demonstrates the diversity, power and possibilities that photography can offer young creative minds.
It is our responsibility as educators to ensure that students are given the freedom to create and exhibit the work that fulfils their personal creativity, career expectations and encourage work that exists within all areas of photographic practice. The Degree Show should be a students beginning not an end.
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of the United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer in Editorial and Advertising Photography at the University of Gloucestershire, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015).
© Grant Scott 2016