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The 'whole'…and the 'I' thumb

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.

Posted by author: Jose
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32 thoughts on “The 'whole'…and the 'I'

  • Hi Jose
    You asked me to leave you my contact details re Emmaus, so am taking this opportunity to do so.We have led Communities for 6 years until fairly recently, so I hope we will be able to help your student.
    Refreshing to read your robust response to ‘The Source’. Having just started, I, for one, am relieved.
    Paddy Howe

  • I am glad to see OCA assessors valuing the personal input that photographers can make to their work. In any case, I’m not at all sure that it is possible to de-personalise photography. The choice of subject matter, framing and composition is generally personal, for example, so I cannot imagine how it is possible to take the ‘I’ out of photography. That is an illusion akin to the false notion of the scientific paradigm of social research.

  • Thanks Jose for sticking up for the photographic student – I wonder however what the authors are talking about.
    The concept of “I” is something that can be debated and often is; there are those who say it is real and those that regard it as an illusion. My understanding is that it is a reference point; search for it and you can find no such thing.
    Denial of the “I” might be a step towards selflessness yet it could equally be an erosion of individuality; either way, the authors you refer to seem a bit repressive !?

    • I know Amano, I know. De-self-centering and opening one’s mind to the world is actually positive. Perhaps that’s what the authors meant.

    • No, I haven’t. It wouldn’t be appropriate. The authors expressed their opinion and made it public using a suitable channel – Source magazine. I also expressed mine and made it public using another suitable channel – WeAreOCA blog. This is like photography itself. The moment one brings it into the public domain one needs to be ready and open to genuine criticism. That’s the only way to keep learning and promoting understanding in any discipline. I’m sure I’m not the only one out there whose experience differs form the authors’.

  • The tenuous nature of distance study impels many students one might suspect of implanting the notion of ‘I’ into their work, anymore anonymity would might render it completely decoupled.

  • There’s an interesting parallel in discusions today concerning the “I” in this item and the item concerning Elena Brotherus that Sharon has posted.

  • Thats an interesting article from Susan Orr, I guess the assessors have a hard time sometimes knowing much about the individual student as we don’t have the experience of working alongside one another in a studio environment as she describes. Its leaves me somewhat worried (again!) about my logbook, which I imagine is more or less all you have to go on at assessment. In a non-distance environment student engagement would be much more easily assessed.
    Also very interesting is the description of how it is possible to be both subjective and informed. I sometimes get the impression that some of us have a hard time getting our head around the concept that not all opinions are equal at the same time as acknowledging that we are all different and so have different preferences.

  • I was hoping you’d got it wrong, Jose, but after reading your post yesterday I had to have a look at it myself today, and it made me seethe!
    Source do have a reputation for – rightfully – publishing material that challenges or perceptions of the photography industry, community and academy. However, in this instance, I think this piece is completely unjustified and shamefully out-dated. It sounds like something from the 1950s, and whilst learning some lessons from the past are good from time to time, the authors, Jane Fletcher (a current lecturer at Derby) and Greg Lucas (at DeMontford, I think) have got it badly wrong. If I was one of their students, or for that matter, in charge of settling their paycheques, I’d be up-in-arms.
    Perhaps they count themselves as those people who enter a career in Higher Education because they ‘originally wanted to avoid a proper career’ p.32. But as far as I am concerned, they are speaking for themselves and none of my colleagues or acquaintances.
    If this is all meant to be ironic then it is bad taste and waste of valuable column space.

  • I think there is a very real danger in assuming that the standards expected of and achieved by OCA students are representative of all ‘schools’ of photography. One has to remember that OCA students make a commitment beyond that which is expected of the full time student i.e to study part-time where supervision and interaction is very limited compared with the full time Course. It is not easy to buckle down to study nor commit the time when the demands from the rest of one’s life is literally in the same room or building so we are special.
    I recently had contact with staff teaching photography at a University where there had been a change of Course Leader. The Course leader was so taken aback by the student’s submissions that he insisted that all submitted fresh portfolios. To paraphrase his remarks – the view here is that you just have to turn up to get your degree. He has set out to change that mind set not only amongst the students but also the staff.
    One has to be careful that when taking others to task for their views that you are fully aware of where they are coming from. Having seen some of the work at the aforementioned University of third level students I have a sneaking feeling that in some cases that Lucas and Freeman are probably right. However to make a sweeping generalisation as they have done is to discredit themselves and wrongly accuse those photography Courses that demand very high level s from their students and the very high level of commitment shown by for example OCA students.

    • And that commitment, which shows, for example, in a student driving from the East Coast to Bristol and back, in a day, for a 1.5hr tutorial, doesn’t go unnoticed. The same happens at assessments; students’ commitment reveals itself in how they present their work and the depth and breath of their coursework, including their learning log.

  • “we will heartly encourage our students to leave out the ‘I’ in their photographic practice.”
    Im not sure I’d want anything to do with a course run by someone who would make that kind of statement. In fact I am sure, I wouldn’t.

  • I’m one of the editors on Source, Jesse mentioned the discussion. Thanks for your interesting response. The piece is long and covers a number of issues so it’s hard to do it justice in a few sentences but I wonder if the point about leaving out the ‘I’ could be characterised differently than the way you are talking about it here?
    You ask: ‘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.’
    But is authorship important in most of the photography we encounter? If we see a satellite photograph or a professional product photograph we might find the picture pleasing and useful but would we complain that its ‘soul’ had been taken away because we were not made aware who made it, either by a caption or its distinctive style? As with the post here about Stephen Bull’s work I think there is an underlying question about what we prize photography for.
    Of course, I do not wish to denigrate authored photography, after all that is a lot of the work published or discussed in Source. But I think there is more to Fletcher and Lucas’s essay that you are allowing. To transpose the discussion to a different sphere, the study of poetry at university is, for the most part, undertaken by students who seek to understand the history of literature, technical aspects of how it works and how critics have understood it. People studying poetry are learning something valuable (and useful) but they are not learning a ‘self-expressive tool’. They are not learning how to be poets.
    Why is photography different?

    • Poetry is part of existence – the study of it can help one to understand that it is more than words on paper – not many are able to translate this experience of poetry but anyone who can feel it is in a sense a poet ! Without the “I” there would be no poetry …

  • I do not have access to the article and so will make no comment on the discussion of thus far. However Richard’s final paragraph does need an answer.
    In the visual arts at least, we have and are increasingly making the distinction between study to become a practitioner and study to become a theoretician. Whether we like it or not, HE has perforce, taken on a large responsibility for job training in most disciplines and the visual arts are no different in this. I have no knowledge of poetry courses in HE establishments but I would be very surprised if they are not learning a ‘self expressive tool’ and I have yet to experience a visual arts course, not clearly labeled as such, that is not aimed at students learning a ‘self expressive tool’, they are learning how to be artists. Now if we are being told that universities are offering courses under the guise of a Bachelor of Arts course, with or without Honours, that is in fact a City and Guilds technicians’ course then something needs to be done about it. If on the other hand we are being told that it is possible to do a BA(Hons) Photography without ever picking up a camera then I say “Why not?”

    • Hi Peter, I’m not sure if you are agreeing with me or not! I think you would agree that most people studying English at university do not become poets. They don’t study poetry because they intend to use it as a ‘self-expressive tool’ (of course they may but that’s not the justification for its study). You say that in the study of the visual arts there is a distinction ‘to become a practitioner’ or ‘study to become a theoretician’. I was trying to suggest that you would be unlikely to say the same about the study of English or History or Philosophy or German. Most people studying these subjects don’t expect to take them up professionally.
      Also in this issue of Source (which it sounds as if you might find interesting…) there is a longer piece about the recent evolution of Photography degrees. For this we did a survey of recent graduates. We asked them ‘Would you recommend your Photography BA to someone as an educational experience, even if they DIDN’T want to be a photographer?’ 71% said they would.

      • I think on the whole I am disagreeing with you. The visual arts are not the same as surgery or dentistry. By definition the they are modes of self expression whereas surgery and dentistry are not. Your example of English is not well founded, had you chosen Creative Writing you would have chosen a closer parallel and here I think you would find that most Creative Writing students do indeed become Creative Writers…how successful in financial terms the become is another matter and the same can be said for visual arts students.
        Your point about the 71% is equally immaterial. Even if a proportion of the students on a course were not intending to become practitioners, the course would still be geared towards those who do, often to the dismay of those who don’t in some areas like professional practice at least.
        Again the parallel between History or Philosophy is not well drawn. These are by definition theoretical subjects so the distinction does not apply.
        Thank you for the link but I am not sure where that gets us in that it is dealing with, as far as I can tell, an American experience rather than a British one and seems to have more than a passing affinity with the,”don’t let creatives do university courses it will stunt their growth” school of thought.
        As I have said, I have no access to the article that started this discussion so don’t make any comment on it, merely I respond to comments in the thread.

  • Hello Richard. I may be missing the point, but while it is true that people studying, say, English Literature, at university (as I once did) are not learning to write poems or plays, those studying creative writing are.
    It sounds as though you are suggesting a move away from the study of photography as a practice to the study of it from an academic perspective. Possibly that’s what the reference to studying as photography ‘As a dead language’ in the title is about? (I’ve been prompted to subscribe to Source by the discussion but haven’t got a copy yet).
    I have no problem with the idea of including photography within art history or cultural studies syllabuses, but what has that got to do with the study of the practice of photography?

  • Hi Eileen, Your question is not an easy one to answer, especially as I was really only trying to suggest a broader reading of the article under discussion. However, I think it would be fair to say that almost any photography degree today would be part practice and part theory. In fact, there may not be an obvious distinction between these aspects of a course (is ‘ethics’ in photography a practical or theoretical question?)
    Comments here have objected to the article for suggesting photography education should move away from an emphasis on self expression. I was giving examples of other academic subjects whose study does not depend on self expression. I could equally suggest other practical examples, a student surgeon or dentist will not seek (I hope) to ‘express themselves’ but we would still think their study was worthwhile. In any case I had probably better let the article speak for itself, although your mention of creative writing would probably offer an interesting parallel to this discussion, as in this interesting recent review of a book on creative writing courses in the LRB.

  • Thank you very much indeed for joining in the discussion, Richard.
    I think a statistic in the the other article by Tom that you mentioned supplies something of an answer: I don’t have it to hand, unfortunately, by the proportion of undergraduates who expected, or hoped (I forget the wording) to work as a photographer (or in the photography industry) is very very high, I think about 90%. I expect the proportion of undergraduates enrolling on English degrees who hoped to be writers wouldn’t be as high. Part of Photography BA programmes baggage (for better and worse) is that most courses and institutions have a legacy of teaching photography within the context of a vocational practice, and also, quite a lot of mythology surrounds the prospect of being a photographer (wrongly!) which places quite a high expectation upon students, and ergo the institution, to give them the skills to get a job. The only thing that I think really separates one student from another, is their personal vision and voice. I learned most of the technical stuff as an assistant, and working on my own jobs.
    I personally wish that more students entered photography programmes because of a love for the subject, and a desire to find work in the creative industries or arts sector more generally. Actually, a refreshing thing from the OCA perspective is that I think most students enrol (and the strongest ones, who go all the way) do it because of the former reason, not because they reckon a piece of paper will open all sorts of doors to job opportunities.
    Thanks again, Richard.

  • Yes – thank you Richard for contributing to the debate and for taking time to reply to my question. The article you link to is indeed very interesting, as are the responses to it, and I look forward to reading the original article in my copy of the magazine when it arrives.

  • Hi Jesse and Eileen, Glad to join in.
    There seem to be two questions here, is photography education vocational and is ‘self expression’ an important part of that education? Jesse says that most students are doing photo courses for vocational reasons and that self expression is important because it helps distinguish them from their competitors in a crowded job market.
    I would say:
    1) I don’t think photography education has to be judged as a vocational degree. It can still be a good education even if it doesn’t get you a job.
    2) The authors are not suggesting photo education should just be a technical matter. Do you think that a rounded photography education that DIDN’T prioritise self expression would produce students whose work was identical? I don’t think so.
    3) If we think of professional photographers who are in no way interested in self expression are they notably similar in style and unsuccessful in the market? Take for example Maurice Broomfield and John Hinde…

  • Thanks for contributing to the blog Richard. I’m out of the country and unable to keep track of the full discussion but I really appreciate your joining in. The informed dialogue that follows a difference of opinion always results in a learning experience for those involved. That goes for tutors like me too.
    You raised very interesting points; my own take on them is that:
    1) education costs a lot of money and for many students out there HE is now a serious investment. And I suspect they expect some sort of return from it. That poses serious challenges to us, educators.
    2) Very true; self-expression is not necessarily a conscious process and it will be present whether we prioritise it or not. It will always be there because that’s part of being human. The question is to what extent we would be unwittingly suppressing it by not acknowledging it openly.
    3) No they are not, I agree. But I find it hard to believe that Maurice Broomfield, for example, did not feel a certain complicity in the optimistic post-war outlook of the time. Hence he was expressing himself through his photography.

  • The pros and cons of vocational vs academic education are a perennial and long-standing source of dispute. I don’t think there will ever be a single right answer that covers every case. People and their needs, capabilites and drivers are very different. That said, the task is to have a model that aims to produce an optimal result for the largest number of people.
    I think we are mostly agreed that some form of roundedness – or balance if you prefer – is important so that people have sufficient technical and artistic skills to achieve their aims.
    I also think that while you can’t fundamentally change who a person is, in this context, you can teach them to be more mindful of the decisions they make, and how those all contribute to the end product. To take one example that is close to home: being a distance-learning institution OCA students receive written modules, and these, together with tutor interaction, form the core of the learning experience. OCA is in the process of rewriting most of its modules just now. I understand there are a range of reasons for this, but at lease one reason is that previous iterations tended to be a bit mechanistic and technically oriented – in style if not in intention. This can have the effect of prompting fairly mechanical responses – at least initially, until students get into the swing of things.
    I’ve been a student at OCA for a few years now, and from what I’ve seen there is little doubt that students who are prompted to make work that is artistically challenging can make considerably ‘better, (more interesting, more engaging) work than when ploughing along in ‘technical’ mode. I think we learn more and become more engaged when appropriately challenged, and that process results in skills that could, if desired, be put to commercial use. I have very limited experience of other institutions and can’t speak for them.
    As has been noted, most of us students at OCA are putting ourselves through the courses for its own sake – very much like the paradigm you are putting forward. The evidence I’ve seen (admittedly limited) is that people benefit more from this process when challenged to make interesting work, rather than purely technical/academic. (I’ve switched from ‘self-expression, to other terms as I’m assuming this isn’t just about narcissism as such, but about artistic expression vs other ways of working).

  • I have studied art and design at a university where the first thing we learnt was that art was definitely not self-expression. I am now studying photography here at the OCA where I’ve discovered what I was doing was self-expression.
    As far as I can see what I do is what I do and it is not defined by what people label it as being.
    What I’ve learnt is that there is more than one way of looking at exactly the same thing and that both ways are valid and reveal different aspects of the whole.
    I think there are benefits and disadvantages to both ways of looking at it. From my own perspective the benefit of the non self-expression way of defining it is that you can put an emphasis on collaborative process in which the individual is a participant. This has major benefits for the teaching process. The other thing i miss is a more objective way of looking at other peoples work that respects context more than ideas about the maker of the work. (I have a personal preference for that)
    The benefits of the self-expression definition is partly as mentioned by Eileen – many of our students are mature students and have ideas about photography that might be quite limited (sorry to anyone offended).
    From a personal point of view taking the suggestion that my work is self-expression on board…its led me to look at my own work quite differently and I think that might be turning out to be important for me, although I’m not sure about how it will affect my work as yet.
    (I want to stress that when studying in the mode of art that is not self-expression – I was very encouraged to make work that was personal and self-directed, more so than I have been able to do here so far which I think is because of the distance learning aspects.)

  • Apologies for coming in at a tangent:
    Isn’t self-expression another way of saying “finding one’s own voice” ? And isn’t finding one’s own voice an essential part of maturing as a photographer?

    • I mean self-expression at its best.
      Perhaps it’s all semantics. Who would argue against the idea of a student photographer finding their own voice? Whereas ‘self-expression’ as a term may have connotations of self-indulgence to some.

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