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What price your dream?

14 September 2011 - Neil Turner

In Britain a staggering 1600 photography courses will be touting for students in 2012. Neil Turner, professional photographer and tutor on a new photojournalism course that starts in Bournemouth this month, asks whether enough of these courses actually prepare students for the harsh realities of professional photography today.

If you get a dozen professional photographers together and ask them about the state, standard and suitability of photographic education in this country you’ll get two dozen anecdotes about graduates who don’t know their arse from their f-stop, and a consensus that higher education is failing the students and the industry. Is this true? Are we missing something, or is the system getting it wrong big-time?

According to Skillset, the creative industries sector skills council, whose job it is to know about this stuff, there will be 468 higher education courses that teach photography looking for students in 2012, and in excess of a staggering 1,200 courses in further education and other non-degree qualifications teaching the subject.

I have had countless conversations with lecturers and course leaders about the purpose of photographic education. I have started those conversations because it has always struck me that very few courses really prepare their students for a career as a working photographer. I have also had conversations with a large number of students who have had very little in the way of effective tuition in anything approaching professional practice.

One lecturer, who didn’t want to be named, told me that the BA photography course that he teaches is not practice based and does not claim to prepare graduates for employment as photographers. He pointed out that very few people who study English literature become writers and only a tiny percentage of those with degrees in history actually work as historians. Of course this is true, but what do photography graduates expect to do when they leave?

Do courses prepare students for life as a working photographer?

When I started to write this piece I put out a call on Twitter for photography students and recent graduates to talk about their time on their courses. This was a self-selecting group and so we are in the realms of anecdote here (unless someone wants to give me a research grant to do the work thoroughly) but it is interesting that none of the respondents felt that they had been prepared for life as a working photographer.

Chak H, a recent graduate from a Photography & Video Degree at deMontfort University said that he was happy with the technical side of the course but, when asked if he had been prepared for working in the profession he said, “This is the aspect that I resented most. Most of us realised by the third year that the course prepared us very little for the real world. The syllabus had a module called ‘Professional Studies’ which revolved around learning how to approach a brief/commission/job. The problem was this simply extended to PowerPoint presentations with screen grabs and nice fonts. It was all theoretical. There was no failure rate or real world application, which in turn exaggerated the illusion that we will all be fine once we graduated.”

In response to the same question Tim G who had been on a BA (hons) Photography course at Sheffield Hallam University was less critical. He is also about to start an NCTJ Press Photography course in Sheffield: “The course was a general photography course and did not promise to prepare you for a working career. It did absolutely give me the confidence to go out there and try to figure it out for myself though.”

Helen H who is studying photography for a second time having done other work, is currently on an FdA Commercial Photography course at Stockport College, and says that “We are encouraged to go out and work and lots of work does come through the door via our tutors. They certainly push us to be out in the industry, working, getting paid and making contacts.  Of course for some students – more likely the fresher faced ones, who don’t have a lot of ‘worldly’ experience – don’t really have the confidence to go out and bid for work.  Next year that should change as we must gain credits for work-based-learning as part of the degree.”

Three very different experiences from three different courses: Their responses make me wonder how you know what you need to know until you realize that you don’t know it! But these are three switched on students, all of whom have a very real world attitude to the industry.

If you knew then what you know now …?

The question that I was most keen to ask was “If you knew then what you know now, would you have still gone ahead with a degree course?” My own answer to that when I left the old Medway College of Design would have been a resounding ‘Yes!’ Chak was, however, less sure and said, “To be frank, I’ve asked myself that question many times and the short answer is no, I wouldn’t have. This does not strictly apply to photography as a degree, but rather to various degrees which are considered ‘Mickey Mouse’ courses. It’s not a case of whether the degree is educationally worthwhile (that is up to the individual to decide) but rather what occurs afterwards when it comes to employment.”

Helen was far more upbeat and said, “Yes.  I am finding it invaluable.  I don’t believe you can teach yourself from books or from the internet.  Our Commercial Degree course at Stockport is heavily geared towards sending you out into the industry to work whilst studying. I can understand some photographers who shun the mere idea of going to university, but I find these are the people who don’t fully understand many technical aspects of photography, when challenged.

“I know some ‘photographers’ who don’t know a thing about creative lighting or digital workflow and processing, who say they don’t need to shoot raw,” said Helen. “I’m not doing the course for the qualification as I don’t believe it will help, but for the practical and technical knowledge. It’s not the fact of either having a degree or not, that is the problem now, it is the wider attitude towards photography as a medium.  It has lost its value.”

Tim’s response was quite revealing too: “Yes – without experimenting with all types of photography I would not have discovered press photography. It was important for me to experiment with different genres and methods of working, but it just so happened that I interviewed a press photographer as part of a project a month before the end of my course. Since that day I’ve been driven to pursue a career in the press.”

You cannot draw many conclusions from three students chosen almost at random but their experiences have helped me to look at the system in a slightly different way. Whilst it is undoubtedly true that there are thousands of students paying course fees and hundreds of lecturers collecting salaries in dozens of universities and higher education colleges, I’m not sure that many students are getting what they pay for.

Of course there are honourable exceptions – the vast majority of which are, or were, specialist art and design colleges rather than university or former polytechnic departments. There are courses out there that work very hard at giving their students a professional outlook, real-world skills and realistic expectations of what to expect when they leave.

There are also courses that leave their graduates no better prepared for a career in photography at the end of three years study than they were before they contracted a five figure debt, and these are in the majority.

Where have we gone wrong?

The truth is that when you are busy writing the course outline, it’s a lot easier to bulk it up with investigations of photographers who were ground breaking in the 1940s and 1950s, than it is to feature the work of those currently leading the profession. Getting students interested in what was current in the 1970s and 1980s when many of the senior lecturers were themselves in the vanguard presents many fewer headaches.

This is how the higher education bureaucracy works and it’s fine for academic subjects; the knowledgeable professor who doesn’t need to be in touch with industry and the eager student who acquires their knowledge just for the sake of mind expansion. There is, indeed, room for this approach in photography but the vast majority of students that I have worked with don’t want that – they want to be prepared for a career behind the lens, they want professional and vocational education.

So, where have we gone wrong? I say ‘we’ because I have been there in the mix trying to get things right. I went to several meetings of SKILLSET – the government appointed sector skills council for the creative and media industries – where we discussed what should go into a syllabus.

We had those discussions amongst well-meaning professionals and we largely approved of their outcome. The trouble is that we work in an industry that changes amazingly quickly and we have to set that against an education system that cannot change at anywhere near the same speed.

Courses have to be planned in advance, students have to be recruited in advance, staff have to be employed in advance and all against a background where running to keep up with developments in the market place is a real challenge – even for those of us who are outside the bureaucracy of higher education. Many of the standards agreed in 2006 were in danger of being out of date by 2008, and most of the others are only relevant because they are vague.

SKILLSET was, and still is, a good idea. Having a collection of course elements that course leaders can draw from makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is the way that the vocational photographic courses have to be put together.

How long is it going to be before a student brings a miss-selling action against their college?

We now live in a world where students are consumers, clients and customers of their colleges and universities. They pay course fees, tuition fees and spend a lot of money on accommodation and travel. Consumers normally have a right to expect that when they buy something that it is fit for purpose and that it isn’t being sold as something it is not.

How many of these students would willingly get into debt on a course that doesn’t come close to preparing them for a career in photography? How long is it going to be before a student brings a miss-selling action against their college?

Chak, the former deMontfort student, left with a burden of debts. “The debt/education to future possibilities ratio makes no financial sense,” he said. “I would love to tell you how much in debt I’m in now, but I’ll probably make myself cry.”

Tim’s student loans for his course at Sheffield were over £22,000 when he left along with an overdraft, despite working part-time all through his course. Helen is glad that her course fees would only be £3,000 a year and was expecting debts totalling £16,000 for her two year course. She said, “As a ‘grown up’, I’ve also had to incur other debt such as credit cards because I have bills to pay and a house/car/teenager to run. I also invested heavily in equipment before the start of my course from my redundancy money so that I would not be reliant upon borrowing college equipment.”

Higher education has to be honest with its’ photography students. They have to know the truth before embarking on two, three or four years of hard work. The framework within which the colleges exist is not suitable for a fast moving, largely freelance and inherently unstable industry like ours. Smaller, shorter and less bureaucratic courses might be one answer, and now that course fees could go as high as £9,000 a year the private sector may well be able to offer (non-degree) alternatives for students keen to make a living in the industry.

The seminar and training business that already exists in photography could provide an alternative model for some of those who are not getting the most from academic courses, and any changes that are made need to be suitable for students and the industry.

Love photography, dream photography and live photography

At the end of my prepared questions I asked the students and graduates if there was anything they wanted to add. Helen didn’t hold back:

“Having originally studied photography and broken into the industry aged 18 (in 1990) I was quite lucky insofar as there were far more opportunities to find work as either a studio assistant, freelance assistant or commissioned work for say, magazines.  I only gave up four years later as I was truly fed up with people not wanting to pay my invoices. 

“In this respect, little has changed.  Finding work, however, is truly tough.  Newspapers (round here) used to pay £10 an image over 20 years ago.  Now, they refuse to pay at all. 

“This summer I had four months break from university and fully expected that, given my experience, I would have no trouble finding work even as an assistant.

“I now know that there is NO studio work to be had anywhere.  Out of 30 photographers I contacted, only ONE replied to say they are already committed to employing students till next year. The rest didn’t even say thanks but no thanks.

“I am astonished at how many people expect you to work for free.  ‘Exposure,’ ‘it’s good for your portfolio’ and promises of credits never did pay the bills and I refuse to step out of the door and use my fuel (paid for from borrowed money, remember) to do a job. I have spent many days contemplating whether or not I made a huge mistake.

“Recently I bid for a studio job which involved lighting, styling products, post-processing, studio management and photography.  They turned me down as they thought I was too expensive at £7.00 per hour. I really wanted to tell them that Tesco’s pay £7.70 an hour to an untrained trolley monkey … but I resisted!

“The young, hungry 21-year olds might not realise just how much effort you have to put in to survive as a photographer. Age does bring a certain amount of cynicism. However, I’ve worked long enough for ‘the man’ and don’t want to go back there. This is what drives me to carry on.  I refer you back to your own blog entry.”
Helen then quoted what I had written on dg28 in August 2010:

  • So many talented photographers chasing such a small pool of work with fees barely greater than they were fourteen and a half years ago.

  • An industry where photography and photographers seem to be the first casualties in every round of budget cuts.

  • A very unrealistic attitude amongst the general public that somehow digital photography is easy and that anyone with enough megapixels can shoot pictures.

  • The depressing notion that Adobe’s wonderful product Photoshop allows the worst pictures to be made great with a few clicks of a mouse.

  • The disproportionate rise in the cost of gear – in 1987 a couple of days work on a decent magazine would pretty much cover the cost of a new pro camera body. Now you need nearer two weeks.

To which I would now add …

  • How do we go about changing people’s attitudes to photography particularly in a recession?

The fall off rate has always been high in photography. Out of 28 on my course at Medway in 1986 as many as 12 became working photographers, but I really do wonder what all the students from those 468 higher education courses and 1,200 plus further education courses who begin their studies in 2012 are hoping to get for their money?

That said, I’m going to leave the last word to Chak – someone who does seem to have the drive to succeed:

“Love photography, dream photography, live photography. I haven’t given up, since I would much rather be a little bit broke yet enjoy the unpredictable, challenging nature of the subject than work indoors or behind a screen. I know a few people from my course have abandoned pursuing photography as a career, but I don’t agree,” said Chak. “Persevere, push yourself in all aspects, learn from the pro’s around you and be really annoying and you will find a happy medium.”

Neil Turner is a tutor on the UpToSpeed photojournalism course which begins at The Bournemouth Daily Echo on 26 September 2011. Neil is Vice-Chairman of the British Press Photographers’ Association, and was a staff photographer on the Times Educational Supplement and Times Higher Education Supplement for over fourteen years. He has worked with and taught on several degree courses.

Text © 2011 Neil Turner

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My first job in photography included a five-year apprenticeship. I worked under two journeymen who taught me all I needed to know.
Anyone wishing to work as a freelance photographer today may well need a structured college course to teach them the technicalities of photography as it is unlikely they will find an apprenticeship with a professional photographer who is working on the staff of a newspaper or freelancing as an individual.
The best you could hope for is a ‘buddy’ already established in the business who will give free advice. In fact, the sooner you talk to a working professional, the better.
Selling photographs is becoming more and more difficult as more and more people buy decent cameras and are happy to see their pictures published without payment.

Comment 1: Gordon Wright, 17 September 2011, 02:50 pm

A few years ago I was asked to join an assessment panel to evaluate and approve a local HND photography course. The panel included an expert on HND courses, two lecturers from other colleges and myself as the only professional practicing photographer.

The morning was spent interviewing staff and students. What emerged was a woefully inadequate course. No theory was taught. (The principal informed us that knowledge of things like ‘Curves’ was no longer relevant in the digital age.) There was no academic booklist. One final year student told us that Photoshop was a programme to do ‘weird colour with’.

After lunch we continued to discuss the issues. My input was fairly damning. Then suddenly the HND expert and chairman announced he had to leave to catch a train and that his conclusion was that the course be assessed as excellent with no adverse comments. I was totally flabbergasted.

At the beginning of the day I was asked if I wanted to do more assessments at other colleges. After I made my feelings known I was never asked again.

Comment 2: Bob Croxford, 30 September 2011, 12:16 pm

I really do not know about the quality of photography in higher education at present, but my own experiences of completing a BA Hons in Photography left me somewhat cynical about these type of courses. It is really important to check out the practical elements of the courses that are on offer. My course turned out to be slanted in favour of social theory and practical work was really a small part of the course. Out of 16 graduates only 3 became practising photographers, whilst one became a lecturer and eventually course leader, directly after graduating from the course! Only upon leaving university and working as an assistant photographer did I really start to learn the basic skills as a still life photographer. In my view a combination of attending a part time course and working for a photographer would be far more beneficial for the skills required for a photographer. Full time education in photography can be beneficial in the sense that you are shown a different way to look at the world, but I think that some of the courses need to up their game when offering a good practical element to their syllabuses.

Comment 3: Gary Ombler, 7 May 2014, 09:42 am

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