We all know that it is not easy to earn a living as a photographer. It has not been easy for many years and the events of 2020 are inevitably going to make it even harder with magazines sure to close, brands inevitably reducing their marketing budgets and economic hardship a reality for many of us across the globe. Photographers are going to find the ‘new, new’ tough but they will not be the only profession affected by the economic impact of Covid 19.
Many people will be looking to, and need to, retrain and universities are in the perfect position to offer an opportunity to both young and mature students to explore new subjects and potentially new careers.
To suggest photography as one of the subjects that should be considered by those looking to retrain may seem like an inappropriate and irresponsible suggestion by any struggling photographers reading this. But stay with me on this. I teach photography at university and I take a moral stance about what I teach, the how and the why. I do not teach photography only to create more photographers, and I believe that studying photography with this understanding can provide a far more nuanced experience than one dictated by technique and process.
I mentioned this to a fellow photography teacher recently; an experienced and long standing academic who looked at me with a sense of confusion when I said that I did not see photographic practice as being the inevitable goal of studying photography for three years. The most important word in that sentence is ‘inevitable’ as I do believe in those studying the medium working on creating successful photographs, whatever their eventual career path.
I went on to explain that I believe in photography being taught as a visual language alongside the medium being taught as practice. That I see photography as a global language that if studied and understood presents the student with a multitude of transferable soft skills appropriate for future employment connected with visual communication. It is this belief that allows me to sleep at night and maintain my moral barometer.
The empirical evidence of this belief is clear thanks to the high level of employment gained by my graduates over the last few years. Employment within the creative industries in their broadest sense. From social media to publishing, from post-production to design groups, from filmmaking to marketing and of course, a few also make it as photographers.
However, these destinations within the creative industries may also be under pressure in the new global economy. This has made me think further about teaching photography and I am still comfortable with encouraging people to study the medium. This is why.
The importance of understanding of photography is not limited to the creative industries. Want to be a political analyst and understand the importance of the ‘photo opportunity’? Then an understanding of photography is essential. Want to get involved with visual research? Then understanding visual communication is going to help. The examples of careers in which photography and visual language are intrinsic are endless. Visual communication through the photographic image is now central to many occupations not directly related to the perception of the medium many of those associated with it as a pure form have of its possibilities.
The idea of studying a subject such as photography with an intension of using it as a lever into seemingly unconnected outcomes may seem strange to those trained within a narrowly career focused education but I have an example of how this concept works in another field.
My eldest daughter is a criminal barrister. She studied Law at university and throughout her time studying was consistently informed that when she applied for her post degree law training, a law degree would not be seen as a benefit. A degree in any other humanity based subject would have been better for her career prospects but the fact that she had studied Law was seen as a negative. Fortunately it is one that she overcame. Transferable skills of empathy, research, reading and writing were seen as preferable to the successful lawyer, before they undertake formal trading within a Law practice.
I believe that the study of photography should not be solely focused on the practice of being a photographer or working within the creative arts. Instead it should be seen as a gateway subject to career paths outside of the expected and established. Just as the humanities are to Law.
In a time when flexibility, problem solving, creativity and visual communication are becoming increasingly valuable employment requirements I suggest that photography may well be one of the most important subjects to study in the 21th Century.
© 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.