Big question, big subject. I’m not the first to ask it and I won’t be the last, but neither of these realities are going to stop me asking.
In a 1973 issue of the British Journal of Photography eight pages were dedicated to answering this very question. I know because I have read them. Experts from different areas of photographic education put forward their perspectives eager to not offend but keen to have their beliefs clearly understood. What were those beliefs? Well, there were two clear themes, two standpoints and they were the same as they seem to be today despite the passing of nearly fifty years. That teaching photography can only fall into two categories, ‘professional’ or ‘liberal’.
I started teaching ten years ago and came from the ‘professional’ camp. I’d spent thirty five years working with professional photography as an art director and photographer. I had not studied photography, I had learnt on the job and by looking at books. Not ‘how to’ books, or manuals, but books of photographs.
Today I have a PHD, a teaching qualification and I am a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, a Senior Lecturer and leader of an undergraduate degree in photography at Oxford Brookes University. I’ve also written a Masters in photography that will launch in 2024. Despite this I remain a working commissioned photographer. But, this article is not about me, I just want you to know where I am coming from here.
In my eyes there is as big an issue with photographic education as there is with the photographic industry in 2023. The role and understanding of a photographer within the creative industries is not what it was ten, twenty or thirty years ago. Anyone engaged with professional photography today knows that. If you are not then you may be ignorant to this change safe in your belief that how it was is how it is. This is a problem if you are in a position to teach and prepare young photographers for today’s creative environment.
Being involved in photographic education I am aware of how it is sold to students and the main sales pitch is ’employability’. Study with us and you will be employed when you leave. This is understandable when an institution is attempting to get someone to hand over thousands of pounds, from people who expect a return on their investment. However, it can also appear deceitful to many photographers struggling to find work and sustain a financially viable photographic practice.
Why study photography? To be a photographer? Yes and no! In my opinion the idea that the studying of photography is the process of creating a photographer is both outdated and unrealistic. Yet, it is not perhaps surprising that this remains a dominant belief amongst many teaching today and applying to study the medium.
The opinions voiced in the 1973 issue of the BJP were informed by the teaching of photography in the 1960s and 70s. Those opinions remained entrenched through the 1980s and continued into the 90s. Those who were taught either the ‘professional’ or ‘liberal’ approaches continued to become teachers who taught what they were taught and believed. Those that went on to work as commissioned photographers rarely taught, until perhaps they gave up on being commissioned. The ‘professional’ approach remained process focused and in line with the Higher National Diploma requirements of the time, whilst the ‘liberal’ belief remained theory based, an approach more appropriate to some peoples thinking when studying for a Degree, MA or MFA at university.
Those that studied in the 80s, 90s and 00’s are the teachers of today.
With the increase of opportunities to study photography at degree level, the courses have had to give students a reason to study the medium. Initially this was not a problem with analogue photography requiring a high level of expertise in the darkroom, technical mastery of the camera and understanding of film. Combine this with study of the history of photography and you have a solid and rigorous set of reasons to spend three years dedicated to learning what it takes to become a photographer. It has never been easy to earn a living as a photographer, but the dedication that was required to master at least the basics saw the pool of students willing to make this commitment dwindle as the began to enter the work environment. In short, during the analogue days it was far less competitive a marketplace.
The rise of digital photography and the subsequent ease in making pictures saw the basics of photographic learning change. However, many courses remain true to what they have taught for the past two decades at least. A collection of varied skills and approaches to ensure that the student leaves them with a general base of skills to be a photographer, including darkroom practice. An argument is made for this, I have heard it many times but let me just give you an insight into why I believe this is no longer relevant or appropriate.
In the past a student could fine employment as an assistant and spend a few years learning their craft, finding their feet and identifying an area of specialisation. They would be paid whilst doing this and that would help them build a portfolio with which to seek commissions. After a few years they would strike out on their own. Very few photographers ever went straight into paid photographic work straight from education.
The reduction of budgets has meant that it is now less likely that clients will pay for assistants and the ease of working digitally has meant that photographers no longer see an assistant or two as a necessary requirement. The opportunity to assist is no longer available to most of the students leaving university today.
For years as an art director students would come and see me with their portfolios looking to get commissioned. They would have a selection of work with no set idea of an area of specialism within an area of practice. The images would be evidence of technical competency. They would say that their teachers liked the work they were presenting and that they had received good grades. That may have been true, but the problem is that they were non commissionable as photographers. As a client I needed to see their area of specialisation, to see what they were interested in, how they would represent the brand and their understanding of the commissioners requirements. I needed to see a specialist whose work demonstrated what I would get back if I risked making a financial decision of giving them a commission.
It is not good enough today to leave photographic education as a generalist, you need to be a specialist. To be really good at one thing, and so good at that thing that someone will pay you to do it. Your work can evolve over time, and you have the rest of your life for that to happen, but it is unrealistic to think that a portfolio on having education will evidence you being good at everything.
I see a lot of student work, and I speak to a lot of people commissioning photography today and their feedback on what they see aligns with mine. That too much of the work coming out of universities is self-regarding, insular and non-commissionable. That subject matter, approaches, influences and presentation of work has become generic. That the work has been created by the student with no understanding of how it sits with the world outside of academia and gaining grades. This could be described using the same parlance of 1973 as being ‘liberal’. However, it achieves the same outcome but from a different place to the ‘generalist’professional’ approach. Work that could be seen as art practice but which struggles to ever be accepted by an art market desperate for the new, challenging and saleable.
This exploration of photography and the self is not something that I am rejecting or deriding. Great work has been produced from this perspective. However, it does concern me that so much of the work that I see conforms to such limited interpretation of the exploration. It is also an issue if the students making the work are not made aware of the lack of commercial potential the work may have. This is a particular issue when students are leaving education with debts of £30,000 upwards.
Whenever I speak with students beginning a photographic education I always ask them if they intend to earn a living from the medium, in ten years, I have never had someone say that they do not want or need to earn money from their photography. I believe that it is therefore a morale requirement to be honest with the students about the work they are making and where that work will lead them both creatively and financially.
So, where does that lead us? Well, from my perspective the future of teaching photography is clear. Firstly, it should not be divided into warring factions. It is not ‘professional’ or ‘liberal’, ‘practice’ or ‘theory’, ‘commercial’ or ‘art’. It can be all of these things, without labels attached. A balance needs to be met where both sides respect the importance of all aspects of learning, the practical and the theoretical. Photographic education should not be about creating photographers, but people who can interact and work with photography across the creative industries. It should not produce generalists, but specialists and that specialism should be based on the passions and interests of the students outside of photography. Students should be given freedom to explore those passions and interests with their camera from the first moment they begin their journey with the medium, not forced to explore areas they have no interest in because that is how it has been done in the past.
Rather than spending time in the darkroom they should be in the lightroom (not the Adobe version) learning transferable and soft skills that will be useful to them as human beings, as creative members of society. The ability to talk, present and write, to engage, listen and instigate. To collaborate and lead. Empathy and inclusivity. Skills that lead to employability.
What is the future for photographic education? I believe that photographic education needs to respond to where photography is today not where it once was, it needs to teach photography as a visual language that has global reach and recognise its place within all forms of visual communication and that includes moving image and computational photography. It needs to redefine itself as being broader and more democratic in its intentions, to not only make photographers but also visual communicators and readers. The future for photographic education could and should be bright, but only if it has the confidence and ambition to embrace tomorrow rather than cling on to yesterday or 1973.
Dr. 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, 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. He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.
© Grant Scott 2023