After heading to Falmouth University library to pick up some papers and an interlibrary loan book, that it turns out I could not remove from the library building, I went over to the Institute of Photography’s graduate show. There I was lucky enough to bump into course leader Adrian Brown and we had a great conversation about photography, education and students. It’s always good to speak with Adrian with his infectious enthusiasm for photography, teaching and his students.
I joked with Adrian about ‘criticality,’ because I recognise that for some undergraduates who study a subject specific photography course (like MNHP), theory can appear to be entirely abstract, possibly even, a distraction from the activities directly connected to image making. As an educator this can certainly be a challenge. A challenge that is easy to blame entirely on the students. Thus we leave theory alone and do not questioning its suitability for purpose. I constantly return to this problem. Not because I have a problem with theory. I don’t. In fact, I consider myself to be someone is inclined toward a healthy balance of theory and practice. Perhaps, even to the extent that I believe I cannot deal with one without the other. But, I believe, theory has a problem within itself. Especially at undergraduate level, where I think it suffers from appearing, to students, as being remote, difficult, disconnected and irrelevant.
The difficulty students face with theory is, I believe, in how it may be presented to them as a separate entity. It is sometimes seen and delivered as a distinct discipline, involving a different set of skills including, writing, reading, and analysis. There can be little doubt that some students turn to photography and more general creative visual arts practice simply because they no longer wish to confront tasks such as reading and writing on a day-to-day basis. Therefore theory can appear to be the very thing they had hoped they had escaped from. But it does not have to be like this. Theory can, and should, inform practice in ways that the very teaching of theory sometimes obscures.
I don’t wish to be controversial here, but I’m uncertain the standard texts by Sontag and Barthes and Benjamin are the right tools for undergraduates to activate their own theoretical thinking. As much as I recognise these authors for their historical significance, I sometimes struggle to find their relevance to contemporary debates connected to images and representations. This is not to dismiss work simply because it is old. Nor am I suggesting there is no place for them on the undergraduate reading list. I simply believe they don’t do the job quite as well as they could do. It seems that connecting these written works to the learning objectives and outcomes of practical modules is at best a stretching of a tenuous and no particularly robust thread. I also think that suggesting a new set of texts, from the authors who are writing about Instagram or networks or digital culture will not fix the problem either. What is needed is a way for students to turn critical reading into critical thinking and critical practice.
I believe one method for achieving this is the carefully structured and facilitated discussion and debate – crit session – associated with practical work. The focus of discussion should be on both student work and the work of other practitioners. It should use texts to help explain work. It should also use work to explain the texts or at least to suggest how the texts might be read through such work. One other successful formula is to create a space for students to discuss and critique other student work, preferably in other year groups or working groups. In these situations work is examined without fear of offence or prejudice to their peers.
Undoubtedly, variants of the above formula are played out in most courses. There is nothing new in this method. However, I suggest some refinements can make it an even more successful model. The nature of facilitation should be supportive, but it should also not be afraid to state what others may be thinking. Facilitators of these sessions should be free to state what their students may be thinking but do not wish to articulate publicly themselves. In this sense, I’m advocating both bravery and freedom. I’m suggesting we begin with the obvious and the simple. I honestly think these perspectives on work are at times lost. I also feel these terms initiate a journey toward the complex and the intricate.
My next refinement is to situate the work within a specific context. What this requires is the question that asks: ‘how does the work do what it does?’ For me, this is to confront function over form, to interrogate purpose and to frame responses around the circumstances in which work exists. This kind of examination may be a reflection on the privileged status of what it is to be a student or an artist. It may also question whether the practice of someone who creates work may already be mapped out before the work even comes into being. It may ask what systems, what apparatus, create the structure for the work of work? It would challenge what would happen if these systems were organised differently or had alternate aims. Through critical reading we might also ask: ‘how does any work contribute to the way we then see any other work?’ What these, and many other similar questions do is open up discussions that take us away from the work itself. They point toward other writers and thinkers, toward other ideas, other disciplines and help us ask different questions.
The point here is that the most common questions about work: ‘Is it good?’ ‘How was it made?’ ‘What does it mean?’ aren’t always entirely useful. The answers to these kinds of questions are often not useful either. This is not because they may be answered with closed responses, but usually because they can have a limited frame of reference. Their travel is not extended beyond the work itself and the person answering the question. They tend to encourage a way of approaching the work that is centred on us. In this way, our perspective may reject the uniqueness of work as conceived by the other, because we strive to find ourselves within it. Thus we try to reduce what we see to becoming what we already know. Relating work, in this way, to our own selves, to our own experiences, will likely only reproduce sameness. What is needed is a wider acknowledgement of difference. And I propose difference is also applied to how undergraduates should think of themselves. How do photography students differentiate themselves from everyone else in the world who has a camera? They do this most easily by being able to articulate something of their difference. They do this because they can think about images as well as they can make them. They differentiate themselves because they know that photography happens as much when there is no camera as when there is one. They know that photography is a way of thinking about the world and they know this because their own thinking is informed by photography and theory, not one or the other, by both. They differentiate themselves by being in the library and the studio.
There is no work that is a work without theory. However, there are clearly those who approach work un-theoretically. They then, falsely, believe they have avoided theory or at least have held it at bay. In my view such people deny theory because they do not wish to work at theory. This is because theory can indeed be difficult and hard work. Working without a theoretical understanding is like asking a taxi driver to guess where you want to go. You may arrive at your destination, but you will not have understood the journey, the alternative routes or perhaps even the reason for going there.