Can Photography Be Taught
This September I will be beginning my third and final year studying photography at one of the so called best places in Britain to do so. Two years into my degree, and perhaps two years too late I am beginning to question whether photography can actually be taught. A question that has troubled the minds of photography critics, writers and professors for many years. I believe it can be taught, the real question is can photography be taught well? Something that after two years of further education within photography I have began to seriously doubt.
Despite having lost my faith in photography being taught well at degree level, I know it can be. My father is a senior lecturer in photography at Cardiff University and taught me for my A level years in the medium- in fact he has taught me throughout these two years in university more so than any lecturer on my course I have come across so far. From a purely photographic lecturer role and not as a friend or a father he has encouraged me, pushed me, taught me and criticized me constructively throughout my journey in photography. I know it can be taught well- so why isn’t it in higher education?
There are many factors which contribute to the poor teaching of photography at degree level, which I will continue to write about here, but one important contributing factor is the structure and balance of a course. With the practical element almost completely overshadowing that of the theory side, students must claw the majority of their marks through final images- the most subjective portion of the course, impossible to be graded with an unbiased outlook.
We can, however, learn and be graded on our understanding of photographic techniques, how to develop and process a film correctly, how to use an enlarger and understand the mechanics behind how a camera operates. We can absorb information about the history of the medium, its invention, developments, theories behind movements and put this information into a gradable essay. We can be taught and tested around how to set up studio lights without causing thousands of pounds worth of damage. All of the above are important, if not vital elements to assists in a career in photography and as the majority is based around factual information you can simply be right, or wrong. Subjectivity is a much lesser issue. There was a great emphasis on these elements in the first four weeks of first year, probably so we didn’t end up causing the university thousands of pounds worth of damage. Slowly, but surely though these lessons dissipated. After first year our historical and critical studies lectures disappeared and if you wanted to learn how to use a new piece of equipment you’d need to corner the technicians when they weren’t busy. The theory side of the course shrunk further as we continued through to second year.
On my course and the majority of photographic courses in Britain the emphasis is all on our final output of images. After four months of work, three or more sketchbooks of in depth research, personal and technical development and a further understanding of theoretical photography the majority of our marks still come from the six or so final images we hand in. In reality, the balance is completely wrong. With a 70% to 30% split between practical and theory our degree is pretty much entirely based on a small portfolio of images and is not, may all new students and aspiring photography students be aware, a reflection of your ability, understanding or knowledge of photography but a reflection on how much your lecturer likes your work. A class of photography students is a catalogue of likes and dislikes for a course leader. A library of personally rated work, saying much more about them than the students who work their fingers to the bone producing what they feel is a strong body of work. How can it be any more than this?
The amount of research around a subject and around photographers working in a similar way, the justification of the way you choose to work and a clear and concise understanding of where your work sits within contemporary photographic practice and historical photographic practice is something that can be graded- so why this element of many courses is the where the smallest percentage of marks are gained is a mystery to me. Why our sketchbooks, things that are insightful, personal and show a great deal more than six or so single images do, are given little of the limelight makes absolutely no sense to me.
To all new photography students or those hoping to study the medium at some point in their lives, you should be aware that you have two choices. Either please your lecturers, photograph what they want you to, in the way they want, with the edit they want and get a first- or photograph whatever the fuck you want to, to a standard which you believe in your heart is the best it could possible be and risk leaving with a 2:2 or a 3rd, but knowing that you believed in your work and knowing that on leaving you will be walking away with a portfolio of work you are passionate about.
The course leader for my third year I’m soon to embark on has had brilliant reviews from previous students, from what I have seen of him he will push me as far as I can go and encourage me to pursue what I want to do as opposed to what he wants. I’m really looking forward to working with him and I suppose this is your third option- hope you come across a decent lecturer- who inspires and encourages you. Though few and far between I believe for my third and final year I may have finally come across the inspirational and encouraging lecturer I’ve waited for on this course- and if not I’m incredibly fortunate to always have one for a father.