The Trace of an Encounter
Approaches to Photographic Education at Degree Level
by Siún Hanrahan
Issue 24 Autumn 2000
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A key facet of photographic education in Ireland and the United Kingdom is the Bachelors Degree in Photography. This is by no means the only useful course for an aspiring photographer but it is an increasingly important qualification. (Indeed, the increasing availability of Masters and Doctoral degrees in the field indicates that it is becoming a basic qualification.)
Over the course of the last two decades there has been a dramatic increase in the number of Third Level institutions offering degrees in photography. In Britain the number has increased tenfold since 1982 - from six to over sixty. In Ireland (North and South) there are currently at least five institutions offering photographic degrees. To complicate things further, the diversity of photographic practice itself is reflected within this vast array: photography degrees are offered in disparate contexts such as Fine Art, Design, and Media. To capture some sense of how this terrain might be negotiated I interviewed lecturers on BA degrees in photography (or in which a student can specialise in photography) at seven third level educational institutions in Britain and three in Ireland (North and South).
The selection of courses visited reflects a desire to engage with the diverse approaches to photographic education available at present. It also reflects the limits imposed by a particular time-scale: I had one week in which to visit courses in Britain. That certain courses are mentioned, therefore, reflects little more than these desires and constraints; it says nothing about the relative merits of these courses and those not visited. Furthermore, no attempt is made to recommend some rather than others amongst the various courses mentioned here. My research was by no means sufficient for such an endeavour. What I will attempt is to give some indication of the various approaches that are available and to tease out some issues that these approaches raise. Thus, this essay offers the trace of an encounter with representatives from a range of degree programmes set in the context of wider pedagogical issues. (The twin foundations of education - teaching and learning - indicate a further limitation of this essay: it will address neither theories of learning nor the experience of students.)
What a degree programme seeks to offer is time in which to develop both a body of work and creative independence, and a rigour that goes beyond technical excellence and includes aesthetic awareness and critical understanding. Thus the distinction between a degree in photography and alternative qualifications rests upon the extra time the degree allows students for the development of their practice and the addition of a 'speculative' dimension (aesthetic awareness and critical understanding) to their education. Of these, it is the addition of a speculative dimension that marks the difference between a vocational education and a humanist one. Where a vocational education is primarily concerned with preparing students for employment, a humanist education seeks to facilitate the personal growth of the student and thus cultivate valuable citizens.
However, the clarity of the distinction between vocational and humanist modes of education (if it is ever truly tenable) is not tenable in relation to photographic education. A degree in photography involves both 'practical' and 'speculative' elements, and thus tends to amalgamate these two educational modes. Furthermore, the precise weighting of the amalgam can vary significantly between one photographic degree course and another. Some courses have a significantly vocational orientation, others a significantly humanist one.
Drawing on various interpretations of the work of sociologist Basil Bernstein (and my own experience of learning at Art College) it seems that the vocational-humanist tendencies of a course may be gauged in relation to two axes. One of these concerns the degree of separation between education and the workplace, and the other concerns the locus of control within the teaching/learning context.
With regard to the first of these, a course may be described as strongly vocational if the fact that education takes place away from the workplace is perceived as a barrier to be overcome. To this end a vocationally oriented course will seek to create structures that maximally reproduce conditions found in the workplace - in terms of the kinds of tasks/projects set and the kinds of working relationships fostered. By contrast, a course may be described as strongly humanist if the separation between education and the workplace is perceived as an advantage to be exploited in order to foster a critical disposition toward photographic practices through experimentation and reflection.
With regard to the locus of control, a vocational orientation is one in which the teaching-staff exercise clear control over what is learned, how it is learned and when it is learned. In contrast, a humanist orientation allows the student significant control over the 'what, when and how' of learning.
A course may be more or less humanist or vocational in orientation along either of these axes. Furthermore, each of these educational modes is valuable. What is important from the point of view of the prospective student is finding the blend that suits her or his particular interests and objectives. (This essay makes no suggestions as to which courses are 'better' or 'worse'. What I would suggest with regard to deciding where to study is: be as clear as possible about what you want to achieve and visit as many of the courses that interest you as you can. Talk to the staff about the structure of the course, have a look around the facilities and ask about any limits upon access. Try to time your visit to coincide with the degree shows so that you can see the work being produced, and speak to the students about their experience of the course.)
Many of the degree courses offered in Universities, Art Academies and Technical Institutes in the United Kingdom and Ireland have evolved out of technical support services to different departments - thus reflecting the diverse ways and contexts in which photographs are used. Others have developed from City & Guilds courses and Higher National Diplomas (HNDs). For the sake of coherence, in briefly describing the courses I visited for the purposes of this essay I will group them in relation to the disciplinary contexts in which they have arisen.
Of the undergraduate degree courses I visited, two were explicitly concerned with photography as a Fine Art - the BA (Hons) Fine Art at the Glasgow School of Art, and the BA (Hons) Fine and Applied Art at the University of Ulster at Belfast. On the basis of these courses it would seem that studying photography within fine art involves no pre-described outcomes. The photograph is seen as an 'interpretable space' that draws on all the different traditions within photography. Both course's understanding of 'education' is explicitly humanist - they both seek to provide structures that support the development of creative, independent individuals.
The course at Glasgow is quite vocational in respect of the locus of control; the course is heavily taught until the last term of the 3rd year (of 4). Thus there is a strong emphasis upon providing the photographic skills (19th century processes to digital) to enable creativity and the articulation of experience. There is a heavy emphasis upon exhibitions - both as an important site for the placement of photographs and in terms of students seeing as many as possible. Other important sites for photographs are artists' books and the catalogue, which is seen as a creative space that can be entirely different from the work on the wall. In addition to being practising photographers, some staff members also write about photography and most participate to some degree in the delivery of critical studies lectures.
The course at Belfast is distinctly humanist in respect of the locus of control; workshops are available so that students can avail themselves of the possibilities inherent in photography but students decide when a particular workshop would be useful to them. This approach, which emphasises Fine Art rather than photography, reflects the department's sense that photography is so interlaced with the wider culture that to treat it as a single subject would be too narrow - photography always refers back to more than itself. Nonetheless, a vocational emphasis in respect of 'separation of education and the workplace' comes into play in the final year in a number of 'professional practice' modules specifically aimed at career development. Student-led seminar programmes encourage the students to explore the relationship between the critical studies component of the course and their own practice. (It is important to note that it is also possible to specialise in photography through Fine Art at the Crawford College of Art & Design, Cork, and at the Limerick Institute of Technology.)
The Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design & Technology offer a three-year Diploma in Photography with the option of studying for an additional year for a degree in either Fine Art or Interactive Media. Although the Diploma is based within Fine Art their educational objectives are both technical and conceptual and the programme encompasses both commercial and gallery-oriented photographic practices. The course is highly structured initially, with increased flexibility in the latter half of the second year and an entirely self-directed third year. The course is thus vocationally oriented with an increasingly humanist emphasis toward the end (particularly for those who proceed to degree level). Similarly, in relation to separateness of education and the workplace, the course is strongly vocational in its early stages - projects are commercially oriented - with an increasingly humanist emphasis in the latter stages where students are encouraged to question diverse photographic practices. Academic and studio staff work as a team and invite students to be reflective by offering them diverse analyses and interpretations of their work.
Two of the photography courses I visited are situated in Design departments - the BA (Hons) Visual Communication (Photography) at Edinburgh College of Art, and the BA (Hons) Editorial Photography at the University of Brighton. (The University of Ulster also offers a BA (Hons) Visual Communication with photography as an area of specialisation.) Studied within the context of Design, photography is addressed as both a marketable product and one that may be shown in a gallery. Consequently, the question of 'audience' looms large in consideration of the work produced. The educational objectives of each of these courses are significantly vocational due to an explicit concern for the 'market' and yet both espouse a humanist concern for the growth of the individual.
Within the course at Edinburgh there is considerable separation between the structures of education and those of the workplace. Experimentation is encouraged and the whole of a student's work is examined at the end of the year, although a vocational emphasis is added by time spent on an industrial placement. The course is significantly humanist in structure in that there is considerable technical support for the acquisition of skills but staff prefer to err on the side of self-expression. The university's Humanities Department delivers the critical studies component of the course, the role of which is to provide students with a broad awareness of 'the niche' into which their work fits.
At Brighton, separation of education and the workplace is minimised through an emphasis upon working collectively. The main mode of delivery of the course is through group criticism and studio spaces are used by groups of students at a time and for specific purposes (mounting of work, editing, etc.). A more humanist approach is evident in their approach to the locus of control. All students are taught basic photographic skills and further skills may be acquired when they are needed, the expression of ideas comes first. After the first year, theory and practice are not taught separately. They teach through the practice and theory is engaged with through colleagues' questions prompting further development of students' ideas.
Degrees in photography are also offered in a wider Media context. The BA (Hons) Photography, Film & Television at Napier University (Edinburgh) aims to train and educate people in a much broader arena than just photography. While the course is 'ideas driven', employability is a concern - students will need to earn a living in a mixed economy of work - so the course seeks to prepare students for lens based professions but also for areas where a visual language is required. The course has a humanist emphasis in respect of the separation of education and the workplace. Considerable emphasis is placed on critical skills and on creating a forum for discursive engagement with peers and staff. Nonetheless, a vocational orientation is given through the tight structure of the course. Students must acquire skills across the three disciplines over the first two years, after which their work is increasingly self-directed and specialised. The course is heavily theory driven, although practice-based activities are occasionally set as part of theory projects, and several staff-members contribute to both theoretical and studio-based activities.
The BA (Hons) Photographic & Digital Arts at the University of Westminster also presents photography in a wider media context. Originally based at the Polytechnic of Central London, this course places an equal (50/50) emphasis upon practice and critical theory. Its aim is to provide students with a thoroughgoing (practical and theoretical) knowledge of visual culture and of how images work so that they can be employed in a number of different areas. With regard to the separation of education and the workplace, the course is both humanist and vocational in orientation. Students are encouraged to experiment but they also do a piece of work for an outside organisation at an early stage in the course. The course is also significantly vocational in that the first year is highly structured, although there is greater latitude for personal interpretation in the second year and the final year is self-directed. While theory does not function as a complementary study, making the connection between theory and practice is left to the student (although lecturers in theory are often practitioners).
Although it is situated within a School of Media, the recently founded BA (Hons) Photography at the Dublin Institute of Technology is reluctant to be identified with any particular approach; their orientation 'will be dictated by their students'. For their part, the staff are interested in photography as a form of communication and seek to situate it in relation to broader (national and international) cultural debates and social critical history. That historically the Irish (North and South) have been more photographed than photographing is something the course seeks to address. A vocational orientation is evident in the 'building-block' approach taken to the three linked areas of the course - critical studies, core practice and technical workshops - although it is student-led by the final year. The course is significantly humanist in relation to the separation of education and the workplace. Projects are designed to enable students to follow their own interests and a challenging and creative approach to photographic practice is encouraged. While theory and practice are taught separately, critical theory lecturers frequently take part in studio discussions.
One of the most challenging courses in relation to the whole idea of photographic education that I encountered on my short tour was the BA (Hons) Photography course at Manchester Metropolitan University. The objectives of the course are humanist and much like those of other courses - to foster creative independence and thinking skills through photography. The course is decidedly humanist with regard to locus of control. Workshops are provided for the acquisition of skills but these lie outside of the assessment process and are wholly optional. The course is largely student-led, as they feel no two students should necessarily go through the same conceptual or technical regime. It is thus humanist with regard to the separation of education and the workplace. Theory is delivered via lectures but the contextual essay submitted in the final year is not given a separate mark - it and the student's practice are considered as a whole. Indeed, students' final submissions need not include lens-based work but whatever work is produced is nonetheless understood in the context of photography.
The final course that I visited was the MA Photography at the Royal College of Art. With more and more colleges offering Masters programmes and more and more students returning for such qualifications it seemed appropriate to at least acknowledge this dimension of photographic education. The key difference between degree and postgraduate work is that people come to the latter with a practice. What the postgraduate course offers is a space in which to develop a mature, autonomous and responsible practice. The MA at the RCA is offered in the context of Fine Art. As they see it, at postgraduate level one should be free to do what one wants, 'teachers' are there to provide a context in which experimentation and critical discourse is possible. What they demand of students is that they rigorously and playfully question received ideas about images and how they work; what is cultivated is a highly reflective practice.
One of the key impacts of the introduction of photographic degrees has been the critical self-consciousness it has fostered in relation to photography and its histories. In this respect, the emphasis upon theory required by the status of 'degree' has made a significant contribution. Nonetheless, the relationship between these two components of degree programmes - how they are combined - is troublesome. As Nils Lindahl Elliot suggests, 'theory' and 'practice' are two analytically distinct discourses. Photographic skills are always already theory-laden; they are not thoughtless forms of practice, although they do tend to be based on relatively unselfconscious forms of reasoning. By contrast, theory tends to be a significantly reflexive and self-conscious form of reasoning.
While most courses talk of integrating the two, their actual structures tend to reinforce their opposition. This poses a serious difficulty for the student who is asked to somehow integrate two distinctly different modes of thinking. Awareness of this difficulty is evident in the widespread perception (amongst lecturing staff) of the 'constipating' potential of theory as something to be guarded against, with various strategies being employed to this end. Granted that there is no theory-less practice or practice-less theory, the question of how to mediate the relationship between the two is a live issue.
The reflection upon our teaching practices that this calls for is also needed at a more general level. Third-level education is a rapidly expanding area but one that seems to require relatively little engagement with philosophies of teaching and learning of its practitioners. Reflecting on one's practice needs to be at the core of photographic education for educators. It is important to be reflective about the assumptions that drive one's work and to endeavour to make these assumptions visible and thus subject to debate. Teaching practice can thus provide a model for the photographic practice it endeavours to impart to students - a model of reflective practice.
Other articles by Siún Hanrahan:
Issue 23: The Place of Photography in (an Irish) Commercial Art Gallery [Feature] ▸
Other articles on photography from the 'Education' category ▸