Let’s start at the beginning. If you don’t have subject matter you don’t have anything to photograph. You may have a bag full of cameras and a mind full of technique, but they are of no use without knowing why you want to use them.
Despite this the traditional emphasis on knowing everything about photography over the importance of subject matter seems to reign supreme. However, a photographer needs to be engaged with the world to document it, therefore life experiences, an inquisitive nature, and a desire to listen, and learn are far more important attributes, in my mind, to the photographer than a knowledge of the analogue/digital darkroom, lens aberrations or the studio. And yet the mastering of these skills are seen by many as the first steps into photography. You only have to look at the amount of workshops, tutorials, evening classes and teaching that begin with this focus to see how biased photography is towards technical knowledge.
This makes no sense to me, and feels as if it is based on an understanding of photography that is fast becoming irrelevant.
Accept it or not photography has been evolving at a rapid pace over the last twenty years. How it is shown, how it is engaged with, how it is distributed, its availability and the way in which it is created and by whom. Apart from a few light-weight books and work shops on ‘How to Use Your Smartphone’ I see very little acknowledgement of these facts within the teaching of the medium.
In my eyes the simplicity of taking and sharing a photograph today should be embraced and exalted. Not derided and bemoaned.
Through focusing on what the person can bring to photography rather than on what they need to remember the medium can become far more rewarding, far quicker. The photographer also takes responsibility for their own learning by being given ownership of the work that they create. The type of camera involved in this process is irrelevant as is the amount of generalist photographic knowledge they have managed to understand or master. Many will see this approach as being one of ‘dumbing down’, but I would agree that it is the complete opposite. To analyse the reasons what you want to photograph and why, can be a far more challenging and rewarding process than buying kit, and understanding manuals.
In learning I am not only referring to traditional structured education, but also informal learning that comes at any age and at any stage.
I see little point in attempting to be a generalist, or teaching generalism. The idea of knowing everything is unrealistic at best and arrogant at worst. The ‘odd-job’ person can be useful for simple tasks but I will always turn to an expert for a professional job. The concept of specialisation is far more appealing and I believe achievable. To focus on one thing, and to hone your skills and ability on that one thing seems to me to be a far more logical approach to photography. As time passes the area of specialisation may grow and the associated skills developed on a ‘need to know’ basis.
That area of specialisation should not, however, be based upon a technical skill that others could and will have mastered, or a camera that anyone can buy, but a desire to bring your own passions and interests, your own personal life experience to your photography. That is the starting point for progression and a progression that will mean something to you that will go deep.
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 www.donotbendfilm.com
© Grant Scott 2022
Image: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA