Should Photography Be Taught in Schools? If So, How and Why?

I think that we can all agree that to make, take, and find photographs, the photographer needs subject matter. Something, someone or somewhere to make images of and with. I think that we can also agree that a photographer can survive without Photoshop, a darkroom, and studio lighting techniques.

These are not essentials they are add-ons, areas to explore once you have decided upon your subject matter, the stories you want to tell based on your interests, and passions outside of photography. I understand that these are easy to structure as lessons that can be graded based on information, given, remembered and regurgitated within an exam process, but they miss the point of introducing students to the true nature of photography. Photography should be fun, engaging and rewarding, and should be understood at the very beginning as a tool with which you can document your life and the life of others. As such the first introduction to photography should in my opinion be subject based.

A sixteen or seventeen year-old student should not in my opinion be encouraged to replicate images by those thirty years or more older than they are. They should be introduced to previous makers and current practitioners, but they also need to be encouraged to use photography to show the world how they see it. They should be encouraged to take risks, make mistakes, and fail, and rewarded with high grades for doing so. Playing safe should be discouraged and marked as a failure to explore the medium.

For photography and other similar creative practices to be successfully taught within schools requires those who teach the subject to understand that it must exist outside of the frameworks used to teach maths, science or any other traditional subject.

Photography also requires the teachers to understand the medium they are teaching outside of that framework. Too often art teachers are given the responsibility of teaching photography with no true understanding, experience or training in the medium. The teaching equivalent of learning French from someone that does not speak French, but that speaks German, as all languages are the same! Well of course they are not, and yet that does not stop this practice continuing in many schools and colleges.

This lack of understanding amongst the teaching staff is obviously going to be passed on to their students. The result is that those students see photography no differently than other subjects they are studying. Not part of their life but part of the exam system.

This leaves these students with a misunderstanding of what photography is, what it can be, and how it fits into the context of the creative industries. Not a problem you may think, as long as they pass their exam, and I would agree, however, it is a major issue for anyone looking to continue their study of the photographic medium at university. Prior to dedicating three years to studying any subject, and the financial commitment that incurs, it is essential that any student should understand what they are about to study, the level of engagement required and the essential nature of that subject. Without this expensive mistakes can be made.

Therefore, my suggestion to any teacher engaged with teaching students photography at school is to reach out to the photographic community, and invite photographers into your school. To show their work and to speak about the realities of working as a photographer, client expectations, the creativity required and the level of intellectual enquiry involved in making photographs.

Teachers need to focus on encouraging students to document their lives with photography, using whatever camera they have to hand. To make images of their friends and families, passions and interests, at their part time jobs and of the people they interact with.

They need to promote the use of the smartphone as a camera to make stills and moving image, and give students the freedom to explore photography in their everyday lives, from posters to magazines, from Instagram to physical exhibitions and photo books. In short, to encourage them to have fun, whilst exploring context. Get them to read books, listen to podcasts, watch films, explore politics and become engaged with the world around them. All of these will improve their photography.

Without all of this you are not teaching photography as it is today, but photography as it is described to pass an exam. An exam that has very little relevance to the subject being studied. Photography is a visual global language that shapes everyones lives to some effect, and therefore of course it should be taught in schools. However, to be taught effectively it needs to be taught like a language, with nuance and understanding not as a series of techniques.

Dr. Grant Scott is the the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018

© Grant Scott 2022

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