First published on 30/01/10

The Value of Education

Every year, and the last was no exception, there have been articles published relating to college/university education and the value of such learning. In the British Journal of Photography there have been articles covering specific courses and the resulting letters came in two camps – those who had denounced photography education and claimed that there are too many courses churning out too many students with unreal expectations; and those that believe that learning photography and gaining a qualification in photography is a good grounding for those entering photography as a career.

Is either of these camps right? Yes and no is always the answer.
It is true that there are many photography courses, especially at the lower level of the qualification scale, being run by so many colleges it is hard to count. Within a thirty mile radius of where I live there are about five colleges teaching photography to Diploma and Higher National Diploma level, two in Edinburgh alone. And it could be argued that there are too many photography students being produced for the number of jobs available – this is in fact undoubtedly the case.
However, the other side of the argument is just as relevant. Photography today as it is practised is not the same as the one I was trained in back in the early 1980’s and is so far removed from those days it is hard to comprehend the shift. Photography now includes web design, film making/video production, CAD, CGI and a thorough understanding of computer software – especially Adobe Photoshop and its add-ons – plus file types, image management systems, and communication systems that didn’t exist five years ago let alone twenty. In the 1980’s it was a matter of passing the City & Guilds 744 exam based on a technical understanding of photography and film (I know, I have that qualification), and then I learnt even more by working as an assistant in London with very good photographers covering still-life, fashion, room-sets and loads more. But times have changed. The basic premise was the same across most branches of photography – medium/large format cameras with flash in a studio. The film was processed (transparency pushed or pulled a wee bit) and handed to the client a few hours later (or next day even). The luxury of time!!

Colleges today are able to afford the time for students to learn many aspects of image creation – not just the basic technical knowledge required of taking a picture - but also introduce new uses of photography that working as an assistant with a few photographers is unlikely to cover fully.

Here I will introduce my interest in this subject – Education. As I have said already, I have a City & Guilds 744, I worked in London for five years as an assistant photographer covering architecture, location and studio fashion, room-sets and still-life, and catalogue photography. I ended up running my own photography business doing portraiture for in-house publications in Scotland. I have also passed a further City & Guilds qualification in Video and Television Production. In 2000 I began taking photographs using a digital dslr and from 2001 I have never been asked to photograph using film again – though I still have my Bronica medium format camera just in case.
The computer and digital photography has changed everything. My business shrank as clients no longer produced glossy in-house magazines, but moved to on-line variants where the photographs were produced by the in-house designer/p.r. person or the regular staff. I jumped ship and studied, gaining a first class Hons degree in photography and then, more recently, a teaching qualification.

I understand those who see education only as a way of getting a job – this is the old fashioned concept of schooling – get qualifications, find a job and stay there until you retire, or die, whichever comes first. I have even read about politicians who advocate local businesses to become more involved in educational establishments defining and structuring courses around the type of employee they wish. This will not work. Most businesses close within twenty odd years and even large multinationals only stay in one area for that amount of time too. Where I live three major international companies Motorola, Sun Micro Systems and Hewlett Packard have come and largely gone in a little over thirty years. They were, we were promised by the government, the future. If the colleges had relied on those companies for their long term survival, then they too would have closed down.

Luckily education is more than just learning to do something – learn the times tables or learn how to turn the camera on and off. It has to be about enabling and encouraging the student to think, define and argue about what they see and how they understand what they see. Photography education is also about research, communication (visual, written and verbal), team work, time management, planning, discussion, argument; everything that is necessary for not only working as a photographer, but, more importantly, working in any field of communication. I don’t see students of photography only becoming photographers, any more than they did thirty odd years ago when I was at college; but I do see them broadening their ideas and from there being open to new ideas and then discovering what they wish to do and this might include, for some, becoming a photographer.