Should Photography Only Be Taught By Photographers?

The title of this article may be perceived as being contentious by some, even offensive, perhaps sacrilegious, but let me explain. I often talk about teaching photography because it is something I do. It is not the only thing I do, but it is a major part of my life, it is something I know about based upon my daily experiences. I teach photography because I am a photographer and I have worked as a commissioned photographer for approximately twenty years. I know a little about what I talk about. Despite my teaching I remain a working photographer and therefore I can reflect to my students the day to day reality of that practice in 2022. I am not working from outdated or outmoded experiences.

So far, my story is a straight forward one, but it is at this point that I would like to add a twist. I never see myself as a photographer because that description has only been appropriate for approximately half of my career. For the remaining fifteen years I was an art director, a commissioner, curator, magazine editor and designer with photography, and it is this part that I feel is most important in my teaching of the medium.

Before I was a photographer I had to embrace all areas of practice including portraiture, documentary, food, beauty, still-life, interiors, sport and music photography. I had to appreciate and respect the process’s and outcomes from all these areas and understand the photographers who made the work. Therefore my experience was broad and varied.

I am not alone in this, many art directors and photo editors will have needed to attain the same level of experience that I had to, but I question if this knowledge is fully appreciated by all photographic educators.

The most common criticism I hear from students about their lecturers is that the lecturer wants them to make photographs like them and that the feedback on their work is based on the lecturers work and interests and not theirs. I have certainly seen work as an External Examiner that is clearly influenced by those teaching on a course. This is not a criticism but an observation. It is not surprising of course. If a photographer is working within an area of practice based on their own interests, aesthetics and subject matter they may only be able to pass on the experience and understanding based on this work. If they believe that what they are doing is good, then they will pass on this belief to those they are teaching.

However, I suggest that the broader the experience the more likely it is that as a teacher the photographer will be able to demonstrate an open-minded attitude to work that does not conform to one approach. In this respect those who have commissioned photography are perfectly positioned to not only teach across a more varied cohort, but also from an informed employment focused perspective. I am not suggesting that photography should not be taught by photographers, but I do believe that there should be a balanced teaching team.

The replication of a lecturer’s work cannot be an expectation of any creative looking to make work that means something to them. This is even more relevant on courses with 60 to 120 students in just one cohort studying photography, where the need for a variety of approaches is essential to fulfil student expectation. Yet, it is on such large courses where I have seen and been informed that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach is all that is achievable and realistic. You may or may not agree with me on this and you may respond by saying that your cohorts, or one that you know of, are varied in output. In this you may or may not be correct, but I would challenge you by asking how many teachers you have who are not photographers, researchers or theorists. I don’t mean visiting speakers, I mean employed lecturers leading modules.

I was an art director and yes, I teach photography and yes, I am a photographer. I have worn and do wear many hats, but I also have a working art director teaching and leading a twelve week module on the course I lead alongside photographers, theorists and historians. I also have magazine editors, make-up artists, writers, art directors, curators and photo editors feeding into the course as mentors and workshop leaders. I am not saying this to brag about our course or advertise the course, I am stating these facts to illustrate that it can be done and that it works as has been evidenced by our first graduates this year.

I will end with this example. The winning racing driver learns from other drivers how to drive, but if they do not listen to their mechanics they will not understand how the car they are driving works and how they can improve its performance. Lewis Hamilton put this more succinctly, “I don’t drive by the seat of my pants and happen to win races. I work very hard to interpret the data and drive a certain way. My engineers have confidence in me.”

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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