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Practicing Photographers as University Lecturers

A positive or a negative?

During my half hour lunch break today I read a chapter of Bill Jay’s Occum’s Razor, titled ‘professors and professionals’. The writing discusses the relationship between teachers of the medium and practitioners within the medium. Jay comments on how he believes the gap between the two is widening and how as a result of this students are becoming further detached from photography as a profession and being pushed much more into teaching.

On my course the majority of my lecturers are practicing photographers and are very much in the prime of their photographic careers. There is also a diverse range of genres covered by the lecturers we have had and current have. One is a photojournalist; who is often also referred to as a conflict photographer, another is a curator of a successful gallery in London, another an advertising photographer and the list goes on. Based on the fact that we are being taught by individuals who are currently working within in industry, the course sounds brilliant. To school or college leavers the prospect of being taught by people who are actually doing what they want to do rather than simply talking about it is exciting.

There are, however, downsides to this perk. First and foremost there is a time issue- or perhaps I should refer to it as a time management issue as our lecturers like to call it. To make a photographic career work you must be available at all times. Ready for a phone call asking you to document a news event or free for the opening week of your exhibition. This is where having practicing photographers as university lecturers first falls down. Their personal photographic careers will inevitably come first. Of course they should, but as selfish as it may sound, not at the expense of my eduction. If a practicing photographer can no longer devote the majority of their effort and time to their students they should not be in that position.

I am not naive or selfish enough to believe that a lecturer should live and breathe their students career and ignore their own entirely. However, when exhibitions, shoots and meetings begin to take priority over a lecture you must deliver or a tutorial you need to attend- the role of the professor must give. As a result, we suffer.

One negative then is the time with students that these individuals must sacrifice, but there are positives to having practicing photographers as core lecturers on a degree program. Their experiences and knowledge of the current photographic industry is indispensable; because of their personal careers they hold information that is relevant that we as a select group of student would be privileged to gain. First hand they are able to honestly reveal the ups and downs of a career as a photographer; whether that be in photojournalism, advertising or whatever their chosen genre. Unfortunately this passing on of information seems to have passed some of our lecturers by.

A member of staff on my course has recently returned from a shoot in Africa. He was there for a couple of weeks photographing and filming for a charity. That, is the only information we were given and through hearsay and course gossip I am unsure how much of that information is accurate. On his return we received a short half hour lecture from him in which he barely discussed his trip, only to state he had seen difficult things and had had difficulty photographing in the country because of the controlled media there. If he was indeed working for a charity I would absolutely love to hear more as that is the type of work I have always been interested in doing. We heard very little though, almost nothing at all in fact. In essence we were without one of our main lecturers for a couple of weeks and gained nothing whatsoever when he returned.

I want to know how he organized the trip, what equipment he took, what precautions he had to take, was there a language barrier and if so how did they cope with that, what the brief was, how closely did he have to follow the brief, how did he cope with photographing in a country with a closely monitored media, what did he learn from the trip, what advice could he give us, would he do it again, would he advise us as young photographers to follow a similar path? There are so many more questions I could continue to list for pages. It feels almost as though we were being sheltered from his experience rather than being exposed to it. The things that he learnt and experienced could be hugely beneficial to us as young aspiring photographers.

The role of the conflict or charity photographer appears brilliantly exciting. You get to travel, see the world and its weaknesses and appreciate your privileged position in life. You have the opportunity to help a worthy organization and in doing so develop as a person and a photographer. This is an idealistic view that I have created because of numerous things I have been exposed to, photographically and personally. Am I glamorizing their roles and creating a fanciful reality in my mind? I don’t know. My lecturer, however, does know. He has experienced it, he knows the positives and negatives, the reality as opposed to the glamorous myth surrounding a career as a photographer doing this type of work. If he does not share his experiences and knowledge though, I will never know. From my perspective he may as well not be a practicing photographer and a lecturer because I am gaining nothing at all from his absence.

Another lecturer of mine spend a good few months documenting the Arab Spring. Quite the opposite occurred with this photographer. We saw an exhibition of his work, which was displayed both at a local venue and in the university gallery, we were invited to hear him talk about his work and it would be fair to say he spoke a great deal about his time there to us. However, it did feel he had perhaps forgotten he was part of the degree course to lecture and not plug his own work. I know it sounds as though I will never be pleased- the practicing photographers either talk too much or too little about their own experiences. However, at every opportunity the lecturer would refer back to his time in the Middle East whether it held any relevance or not. I felt he was perhaps using his position to, well, boast about the success of his own career. The advertising photographer we had for professional practice spoke a great deal about himself too. None of which was truly relevant, educational or inspiring to me as a student. I could perhaps recite this man’s earnings to you but couldn’t tell you how he earned so much or why. The practicalities and details of his great success was not shared, only that he was a great success.

Perhaps it is not the photographers who are at fault here. Is there time and room for them to thoroughly discuss their own experiences with us or does the structure of the course stifle them from doing so? I would relish the opportunity to attend a lecture outside official course learning time to listen to their experiences. Perhaps if the structure of the course doesn’t allow for this, and the lecturer is willing to give up his or her time, an extra curricular presentation could be arranged. Visiting lecturer’s talks during non teaching hours are often well attended by students and if our own lecturers were to organize a similar event I’m positive the turn out would be excellent and well worth their time.

If a practicing photographer is unable to share his or her time equally between their personal careers and their students perhaps a solution would be to employ older photographers who have worked in the industry, still have relevant experience to share but have, in short, done all that they wanted to in their professional career. In this scenario students could still gain knowledge and expertise about the current industry from visiting photographers during guest lecturers.

So to conclude, it is an excellent idea to have practicing photographers as lecturers if they are able to share their time equally between pursuing their own career and supporting their students and are willing to share their experiences openly and honestly with the course. It is this delicate balance which I feel is perhaps lacking on my course. With the correct balance, students will truly benefit and the degree program will be stronger for their involvement and teaching.

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