Living the Dream

The car pulled up to the traffic lights. I could see the art building that for two years had been my place of learning. That was all history now. I was heading back to Yorkshire and an uncertain future. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye i spotted something. A car had pulled up alongside my father’s Volkswagen. An American police car. A proper black and white American police car with all the lights and everything. Sitting inside, looking straight ahead, were Jake and Elwood Blues. The legendary Blues brothers. My father and i just looked, and as we did, they slowly turned their heads to look at us. It was as surreal as it was a funny. It was like being in a film. They were, of course, a totally in-character impersonation act, a blues brother a-gram on their way to their next gig, but such a surreal event felt like a fitting end to my years as a photography student.

For six years i studied photography. In all that time, i got to see the good and the bad parts of the education system that was designed to produce the next batch of film makers, photographers and visual artists. After six years in the system, i think I’m pretty qualified to comment about them. I do admit that my experiences were 11 years ago, and the system may have changed beyond recognition. Somehow, though, i seriously doubt that.  I first started studying photography in late 1991, and apart from a year out in 1994, i studied until the summer of 1998. Photography courses differ from place to place. Some are good and others less so.  Some aim at the fine art photographers and others at the documentary snappers, but they all have one thing in common. They are designed to guide and educate students in the art of photography. Notice that i say the art of photography and not the business, but i will get to that topic later. For the most part, these courses are good at providing an art education. They do, however, have one fatal weakness. They don’t seem to offer any education relevant to working in one of the most competitive industries in the world. The photography business.

Specialization is an integral part of the photographic education. What do you want to do with that talent? It’s a tough call, but most people usually aim at a number of areas – usually fashion, photojournalism and fine art. Yes, a course may offer other outlets like advertising, but for the most part, many students go down one of the previously mentioned paths. The more observant of you reading this may have noticed that these three areas of photography are often deemed as glamorous and appealing ones. The cool fashion photographer, the dashing photojournalist and the sophisticated creativity of  the fine art photographer. Wonderful, and yet at no time during the studying of these subjects does the real world play any importance. The question ‘ How will you make a living from this? never crops up. Mention high street commercial photography like family portraits, weddings etc and you kiss your ‘artistic’ credibility goodbye. Weddings???? uurrrrrrrggghhh. I have to admit that i fell into this commercial snobbery trap and only really came to my senses during the last 18 months of my education. How will i make money? Is the work there? Is specializing in one type of photography wise? All good questions that i never answered at the time. At least i was asking the questions – many of my fellow students were still oblivious to the horrible brutal truth. We were living in our own little worlds of illusion where we thought we’d leave University to a round of loud applause and job offers.

The future, and how students will fit into the outside world is the fundamental issue that all colleges and university should be addressing. The Colleges and Universities need to keep quality links with industry and should aim to deliver an education that can help students move into the photography industry. The most important of these are business skills because chances are, you will find yourself having to become self employed. I don’t know what business studies covers on these courses now, but on my degree it seemed to only concentrate on financing an exhibition. Tax returns, invoicing, job quotations, what to charge, business plans, finding work, promoting yourself – none of these subjects were ever covered by a lecture on my degree…. not once!  My HND course did cover it briefly, much to everyones horror i might add. Paperwork!!! But i  just want to take photographs! Reality came knocking. Our lecturer, Simon, worked as a professional photographer and knew all too well what ‘living the dream’ entailed.  Looking back, I now know that the time spent that morning was probably the most valuable of the whole college year. With that lecture in mind, I did ask at one point on the degree, about the business side of photography and got the terse reply ‘That isn’t what the course is about, Richard’.  Well maybe it should have been!!!

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