Blazing a new path in your photography education

For me, blogging, like life, is most interesting when seemingly disparate things come together in unusual and thought provoking ways. A recent series of events got me thinking about photography workshops in particular and photography education in general. Since I studied the history of photography, work as a photographer, and teach a fair number of workshops, this is not new territory for me. What is new is where my thinking ended up at the end of the mental twists and turns that I recently went through.

It all started because I am working with a new intern who is a chef and an aspiring food photographer. As we were talking, she said something that hit me like a bolt of lightning. Unlike virtually every other young photographer I have met, she said she did NOT want to go to school and get a degree in photography. She already has an undergraduate degree is in illustration, so her next formal course of study would have been a graduate degree in photography.

Her perspective was interesting because it aligns with something I have long believed. I have told hundreds of aspiring photographers that unless they need the “letters” that come with a graduate degree, graduate school is often an enormous expenditure of time and money for limited tangible reward. (I still stand by this belief!) The letters in question, in the case of photography, are usually M.F.A., as in Master of Fine Arts. That is the degree that is pretty much required to teach photography at a college or university level.

My wife has an M.F.A. and her experience in getting that degree proves my point. Graduate school for her, like most people, was almost torture. It was an economic hardship to say the least, a monstrous logistical hassle and she rarely felt supported by her graduate school faculty. Most of what she achieved, (and the career advancing steps she took while in graduate school,) were largely undertaken at her own initiative. Yes, she acquired “the letters” and those have been important in her job as a professor of photography at the University of Rhode Island. But she advanced as an artist in graduate school almost despite her professors rather then because of them. This is a surprisingly typical experience for many graduate students in photography (and probably numerous other fields.) The vast majority of her peers, and most people who complete graduate studies in photography, do not get the kind of jobs where those all-important “letters” are required.

I have suggested to dozens of students to take the $50,000 (or more) that a typical two-year degree will cost (in tuition, materials and living expenses) and spend that on workshops, low paying or unpaid internships or anything where they will learn about photography. I say this assuming they want to be photographers as compared to being university professors who are teaching photography. I have to admit that very few people have followed my suggestion. I have been both heartened (and saddened) by the few who have told me, years later that, ironically, I was largely right.

This same new intern recently directed me to an upcoming conference, “…the third biannual International Conference on Food Styling & Photography,” in Boston. See more at: http://www.foodstylingandphotography.org/ What caught my eye was how narrowly focused, but potentially very useful a conference like this could be for an aspiring, (or an established) food photographer. Wisely, my new intern sees this conference as an important stop in her informal education as a photographer.

Food photography is an especially interesting realm of the photography world since there is a great deal of demand for food imagery. On the other hand, every one with a camera eats and, like in so many areas of photography, far too many people who have a camera think they can take great pictures of whatever they see. Professionals and serious photographers know better, but that does not stop people from doing all sorts of dumb things involving food and photography.

The passion that people bring to the subject of food and photography is highlighted by the recent tussle about VegNews, a “vegetarian lifestyle” magazine/site based in San Francisco. They used stock images of food containing meat in articles about Veganism. The furious reaction shows the passion that many people bring to the question of what they eat and how it is portrayed visually. More at: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/19/science/earth/19vegan.html

The “Conference on Food Styling & Photography” led me to think about workshops, which is the kind of teaching I tend to do, as compared to my wife and the others who teach at colleges and universities. I have blogged in the past about what to expect in workshops and how to get the most out of a workshop. See: http://thewellspoint.com/2009/10/30/the-top-ten-things-photo-workshop-attendees-need-know-and-do/ and http://thewellspoint.com/2009/03/23/workshops-teaching-and-the-transformative-power-of-photography/

My thinking wandered to the overseas workshops that I teach in places like Bangladesh, Guatemala, Singapore, India, and most recently in Vietnam. I will continue teaching overseas workshops in the future (and you can see where, I will be on my workshops page.) Then I started ruminating on the question, besides learning a certain skill set, what would a photographer be looking for as they take such a workshop, and why take one overseas?

I can answer the last question first. I suspect that travel heightens our sense of awareness. Good photography often feeds on that same heightened sense, so an overseas workshop can be successful if it harnesses the intersection of those two experiences. The better workshop directors I have worked with understand that idea. Liza Fourre, who runs Art Workshops in Guatemala http://www.artguat.org/ gets it. She knows that as much as her students want to learn about photography, they also want to experience a new place in a way that gives them more than a surface understanding of the culture. This is not an advertisement for Liza’s workshops, though I think highly of them. It is an explanation of and an endorsement for her approach. The other thing a good overseas workshop will do is to expand the participant’s world-view, without pushing them too far out of their comfort zone. A little push is good but not too much.

I have seen how stretching such comfort zones can change people (and their photography.) I strongly encourage students who are looking to really immerse themselves in another culture to try a workshop with an organization that is NOT meant for outsiders, but rather is aimed at the people who live in that culture. I have taught classes in a few such workshops, particularly at Pathshala, the South Asian Media Academy in Dhaka, Bangladesh http://pathshala.net/ the Centro de la Imagen (the Center for the Image) in Mexico City http://centrodelaimagen.conaculta.gob.mx/index.html and Objectifs, in Singapore. http://www.objectifs.com.sg/

I have told my North American students over and over how much they would learn by taking a class in any of those three places. Since the classes are aimed at students in those cultures, they are much cheaper. (Though most of these same workshops do not organize hotels or transportation either, so it takes a bit more of an enterprising photographer to manage one of these workshops.) I have had a couple students who took me up on the suggestion, including a Canadian who took a class with me in Mexico City and a New Yorker who took a class with me in Vietnam. Afterward, they both spoke very highly of their experience and how the people in those cultures encouraged and supported them. I know from my time in Bangladesh, for example, hospitality is such an important part of that culture that any “outsider“ will end up feeling like a welcomed (even honored) guest.

I started to realize, watching my intern as she is creating her own less than formal, non-degree course of study,that she was thinking innovatively about her education in photography. Wisdom (or lack of funds) prompted her to very clearly define what she wanted out of her educational experience. Currently, she is interning with my wife and me, learning about the commercial side from me and the fine-art side from my wife. I am guessing she will eventually work with other photographers, where I am hoping she will have the most success by diving right in, like she did with us.

Amidst all this thinking about education for photographers, I am continuing to work on Photo Synesi, http://www.photosynesi.com/. Photo Synesi is another type of alternative learning strategy, where aspiring photographers are able to get in-depth and personalized reviews of their work by professionals in the form of both written and spoken feedback. While I obviously have a stake in Photo Synesi, in the context of this blog and my own mental meanderings, the service it offers is one more argument for each photographer defining their own educational path.

On the heels of watching a photographer-in-the-making create her own educational path, I was recently introduced to the Photo Essay Workshop of the PhotoWorkShop China 2011, which being held in conjunction with the College of Arts and Communication of Beijing (China) Normal University. Read more at: http://photoworkshopchina.com/default.aspx Larry M. Kushner, a photographer in Southern California and an instructor of photography at L.A. Pierce College in Woodland Hills, California is leading the workshop. One of the many unique aspects of the class is that the American students will be working with Chinese students on a daily basis. That sounds like a particularly interesting way to both build skills as a photographer and get an insider’s perspective on Chinese life and culture.

Then it hit me. That was the revelation to me! The key to growth as a photographer is thinking innovatively and finding the best resources for learning based on what the individual photographer needs. Unless you need the degree (with the accompanying letters,) ignoring peers, media campaigns and marketing messages can be hard, but it is often the only way to get what you want in photography education (and in life in general.)

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