A simple question but one as difficult to answer as any question asking you to identify a favourite when likes, influence and admiration have to be taken into consideration. Favourite artist, singer, band, album, novel, or writer! All are difficult enough to reduce to a top ten let alone a singular favourite.
Despite this I regularly ask this question of students looking to begin an education in photography, to gauge their knowledge of and engagement with the medium. This is the answer I most often receive “I don’t know many so I don’t have a favourite!”
Variations on this response include “I don’t have one!”, “I don’t know any!” or “I forget names, I don’t have a very good memory!” My response is always the same. If you were about to start studying music do you think it would be reasonable not to have heard of The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Beyonce, David Bowie, The Sex Pistols, The Rolling Stones, Ed Sheeran, Stevie Wonder, Mozart, Bach, Taylor Swift, Kanye West, Lady GaGa? They always reply that no, that would not make sense. They see the point I am making.
Everything I am about to write is based on my personal experience of interviewing students within the UK and I am sure that there are teachers, colleges and schools that are providing an alternative approach to the teaching of photography to the one I am about to outline. However, I fear that these may be the exceptions that prove the rule.
Recently I have started to think more about this situation. Why do these young photographers who have often spent at least two years studying photography at college or school have no knowledge of the history of the medium and the photographers who helped make that history let alone those working today? The answer is simple but dispiriting.
These young photographers are mostly given the names of photographers by their teachers whose work is based on techniques that fit into a syllabus created by non-photographers. These techniques and photographers seem to exist primarily on Instagram and Pintrest. Platforms that show work out of any context other than the platforms themselves.
These students are not being introduced to light, form and composition as explored by Penn, Eugene Smith, Cartier-Bresson, Eggleston, Arbus or Frank. They are not being introduced to narrative through the work of Shore, Soth or Evans. They are not discussing ethics through the work of McCullin, Weegee, Gilden or Parr. They are not being taught photography as a pure medium.
Instead they are being taught a photography of manipulation and concept. A photography reliant on idea over vision, of construction over observation. An approach to photography more suited to the members of a camera club than an expression of their young age and lives. Work that can be easily compared and graded.
It is therefore not the fault of the students that they are unaware of how photography is seen, engaged with and practiced by photographers working within the professional photographic community, by those working within commissioned and self-initiated practice. However, they are at fault in not independently looking at photo books, photographer monographs or exhibitions. They are not looking at photographers websites, YouTube films about photographers or listening to photography podcasts. I know this because I ask them if they are and they say they are not!
So where does that leave us? Well, as a teacher of photography at a Higher Education institution it indicates the importance of introducing these students to the history of photography and contemporary practice as soon as possible.
It also presents an uncomfortable reality that students who believe that they have a qualification that has built the foundations for further study may have a shock coming their way. Their understanding of what photography is and what it will demand of them may have been set up upon a false premise. If we return to a music metaphor it would be impossible to write a song if you have never heard one, or play a guitar to a set standard if you have never picked one up and yet that is exactly what we are doing with students entering higher education with photography. We are assuming and expecting a certain level of engagement and proficiency, the alternative is to dismiss what has been learnt and to start again at the beginning.
The solution? Well, why are those colleges and schools teaching photography not connecting with those teaching at Higher Education and working together to ensure that they begin teaching the medium in a way that connects with how it will be reached at the academic institutions their students will be moving on to?
The answer of course is that those teachers are overworked and shackled to a grade based system upon which their employment relies. They are doing what they are expected to do to ensure that their students pass the exams they are set. The problem therefore is not with the teachers or the students but with those setting the exam tasks.
This article is therefore a call out to those exam boards to get in touch with the photographic community. Those actually doing the stuff that they are supposedly judging people on. Just as they would do in any other subject. This is a call for dialogue, to ensure that the history of our medium is not lost, that our young photographers are being given a robust, rigorous and appropriate education in the subject they have chosen to study and so that teachers within Higher Education can progress those students from a foundation of understanding.
© Grant Scott 2020
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, 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). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.