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Why study photography? Is that a good question? A pointless question? An obvious question? A rhetorical question?
Whatever you think, there can be little doubt that it is a question regularly asked, for which there is no one agreed answer. The answer you receive or decide upon, and the satisfaction you have with that answer, is based upon your expectation of what photography will give you and your personal experience of the process of learning and teaching.
Expectation is defined by several factors, including:
Do you want to be a professional photographer who earns their living purely from photography?
Do you want to further explore photography as part of a personal interest or hobby?
Do you want to gain a qualification that will aid you in teaching photography?
Do you want to progress your work and develop your practice under the tutelage of those you respect?
These are realistic and common reasons to invest both time and money in attending an educational establishment offering photography as an academic option. However, I wonder how many of those looking to study photography see it as an opportunity to learn how to work a camera, set up lights and how to use Photoshop? How many see it as a new language and an opportunity to expand their visual vocabulary? And how many people who have expectations of a course based on prior learning have them met or surpassed?
These are more questions than answers, I know, but please stay with me on this. Let’s be honest—unless you are going to enter the world of teaching — any photographic qualification you receive will be of little or no relevance to your career as a photographer. The benefit of study comes from the opportunity to spend an extended period of time exploring, experimenting, and learning about photography with and from others who are on a similar journey as yourself, as well as time with those experienced and engaged with the world you wish to enter.
When you enter the world of professional photography as a photographer, it is your work and how you present that work — not a certificate or grade — that speaks for you.
What if you don’t want to be a photographer, but still want to study photography? In the university sector, “transferable skills” is a phrase commonly wheeled out as a reason for studying a subject that may have little obvious relevance to a potential career yet is actually hugely relevant to the study of photography. Decision making, digital understanding, communication, self-confidence, presentation, collaboration, self-analysis, research and marketing skills are all essential elements of a professional photographer’s working practice and should therefore, in my opinion, be the foundation of any good photographic teaching.
My experience is that very few potential undergraduate (or, for that matter, post-graduate) students of photography have this depth of understanding of about what being a photographer involves. Once you do, the answer to why you should study photography should be both simple and exciting.
Photography today provides the alphabet for an international language that informs all forms of global interaction. By understanding that alphabet, you can create your own journey within the new media environment. That may or may not be as a photographer.
I believe that studying photography is no longer about training to be a photographer. It is about learning to speak a new language with confidence and understanding.
It is with this understanding that perhaps the elephant in the room can be addressed. That elephant comes in the shape of a widely held belief that we do not need any more photographers as there is no work for them. It is a tough belief to argue against if we see the study of photography as only having one outcome. But if we see the study of photography as a gateway to visual literacy, then the potential outcomes are multiple.
The course I lecture on has a long-established reputation for producing students who graduate and begin to work as photographers, photographer’s assistants, agents, location hunters, picture editors, shoot producers and within post-production. But it is now the case that they are also moving into the spheres of filmmaking, social media and digital publishing. This is as a direct response to the implementation of moving image and social media understanding as part of a photographic education and the re-interpretation of the oft-repeated phrase “We are all photographers now” to “We are all publishers now”.
With this understanding, the creation of lens-based media can be seen as an intrinsic element of global communication, and that is a powerful and seductive reason to study the language that is at the heart of the most important form of storytelling we have today.
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography,
a Senior Lecturer in Editorial and Advertising Photography at the University of Gloucestershire, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained
(Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015).
Por: Grant Scott