The 'whole'…and the 'I'
The characteristic seasonal blue glow of the evening is long gone by the time we reach the surface again. 3 days and over 75 submission later, I and four other assessors leave the basement where the latest photography assessment had taken place. This time it was perfectly obvious that the standards of submission are rising, rapidly, thanks to students presenting thought-provoking work at levels 2 & 3. It confirmed a trend that we started noticing over a year ago.
Fresh from the latest assessment session, it’s hardly surprising that I felt despondent when I read the article The Empty Lens: teaching photography as a dead language in the latest issue of Source magazine, which is dedicated to photography education. The following statement, which the authors of the article shared as a product of their experience, shocked me:
“it is currently possible to complete a photography degree without fully understanding the medium’s (historical) technological processes, social applications and cultural functions” – Greg Lucas & Jane Fletcher
I say I was shocked when I read it because that couldn’t be more different from my own experience at the OCA. As an OCA photography tutor, assessor and curriculum leader I can confidently say that there is no way a student can get our BA(Hons) degree without being fully aware of the medium’s cultural functions. They would not make it through the assessment process. In the same article the authors quote Professor Graham Gibbs, who stated that:
“[S]tudents work out for themselves what counts, or at least what they think counts, and orient their efforts accordingly. They are strategic in their use of time and ‘selectively negligent’ in avoiding content that they believe is not likely to be assessed.”
No chance. Not at the OCA. Our holistic approach to assessing students’ work is one the greatest strengths of our assessment process. Assessors have something akin to a sixth sense that detects when a student has taken shortcuts. Just as well because otherwise we would be devaluing our own BA(Hons) degree.
At the OCA we take into account every nuance of the student’s learning journey. Parity discussions during the assessment session reinforce a holistic approach that puts every submission in the context of standards of work across all the submissions, work produced outside the OCA at other HE institutions and work produced on professional circles and the wider contemporary photographic community . Our holistic approach also incorporates a ‘subjective objectivity’ that each assessor, thanks to their personal and professional experience, brings into the process. Susan Orr’s article Making Marks: assessment in art and design identified beautifully this essential component of assessments.
Fortunately, at OCA assessments I have personally noticed very much the opposite, particularly at Level 3. Students do not only avoid taking shortcuts but, on the contrary, weave long, fruitful and inspiring journeys in photography. It is actually their setting high standards. We, as assessors, uphold them.
Submissions of work at Level 3 at OCA assessments also evidence clearly-defined personal voices, photographic voices that are finding their own place in photographic culture. Individual, non-transferable voices. So I could hardly disagree more with the conclusion to which the authors of The Empty Lens arrive:
“By removing self-expression from photorgaphy education, students will learn to understand how the medium works…we will heartly encourage our students to leave out the ‘I’ in their photographic practice.” – Greg Lucas & Jane Fletcher
What would be left of a photograph if you removed the ‘I’, I wonder? An ‘it’ perhaps? A corpse of an image. Something whose soul has been taken away. Something putrid, reeking of detached analytical rationality and lacking the sweet smell of the author’s feelings. ‘I’, for one, won’t be the one asking my students to leave the ‘I’ out of their photographs.