I recently had published in the latest RPS Journal an article entitled, “Why study for a photography degree?” This was partly to frame the APHE conference Meshworks, which I helped to organise. It was also to start to articulate thinking around the problem of degree level study of a subject that appears to have problems identifying exactly what it is. Here’s the basis of the article, I’ll post the rest up once the journal version has had a little bit more time to be read.
It could be convincingly argued that the technical skills required to make photographs are becoming easier to learn and master. For many people, the sophisticated automatic systems built into today’s modern cameras largely dispense with the need to use a camera’s manual controls. It appears that being able to produce a technically competent image may have never been easier. With extensive access to many free online resources and tutorials, covering almost every facet of image making, such as lighting, composition and post-production, it is difficult to imagine why there would be any demand for a formal academic qualification in photography. It may therefore be timely to ask what is wanted and expected from studying for a degree. Without doubt, a degree in photography needs to offer a significant alternative to what is already openly available.
In this beginning paragraph I claim the skills we might think students need to become photographers are not necessarily technical skills. I make this claim primarily because techniques change and alter over time. I also make it because technology attempts to prevent us from ‘accessing’ it and yet still allows us to achieve results. In this sense technology is increasingly becoming invisible, hidden, enabling. I think there’s a lot of research and practice that can be worked through in this area. My desire for learning technical skills would be to question their value, to seek their limits, to understand how technology determines the images we make. I believe these are the most useful points of departure. I think they are valuable approaches to the problem of skills and technique.
I have, first hand, seen students being taught technical skills in the most flat and unoriginal ways. The instructor and students both appear to be elsewhere, neither paying attention to what is happening, to what is being communicated so badly. It’s time for that approach to end. Technical skills needs to be contextualised, they need to be applied. They are essential, to the point at which they are necessary to know, but they should not dominate pedagogy. To allow this to happen is push Higher Education into the domain of the apprenticeship, to the practical aims of programmes like the old City and Guilds certificates. These in themselves were solid programmes where students learnt specific, practical skills. But these were not the basis of Higher Education. It is then a balance between setting out the terms of the craft, equipping students with the knowledge to use a range of techniques, against creating a space into which students can discover different methods to do different things.
Perhaps photography needs a skills audit, a review of the useful and useless things we acquire in learning it as a subject. My main concern in Higher Education is that skills based teaching literally hides or stands in for the real teaching that should be taking place. This is not to state something akin to: ‘students, beware, if you’re being taught skills you’re being taught the wrong thing.’ It is to make a claim that there is so much more to photography than learning technical skills. In my own experience, I have generally learnt technical or craft skills in order to achieve an end result – as means to getting elsewhere in my own creativity. I believe this is where our attention should be focused.
Essentially, I can see there are divisions in photography as a subject and in Higher Education in general. The divisions very simply put, are around vocational skills based training vs what degree level study of photography should consist of. Clearly the latter point crosses into what do we expect from degree level study of any subject. Photography offers some insights into these questions since it can be engaged with on purely technical terms or it can be engaged with in a highly academic and philosophical way.
I will, inevitably, as an educator, return to different versions of these themes – the vocational vs the educational. But this article sets out the first outline of my thinking. It is largely because photography is such a changing subject area that I think it’s possible to align these debates together. Photography as a programme of study is ready to be reviewed, to be reconsidered and to be re-mastered.