I often start these think pieces with a question or an attempt to defend the title as being succinct and relevant rather than a clickbait attempt to get people to read what I have written. Primarily because I like to feel that we are all on the same page before I get started. Before we get into the meat and potatoes of the issue. This time I am going to do neither of these things because I don’t think I need to. I think we are all reading from the same book.

In all aspects of our lives what we once knew and now know as being the foundations of learning are being challenged. In addition the sense of security we once may have had within a chosen career has been removed. As a result the ability to control our own destinies has become a daily consideration based upon a sense of self-worth and resilience.

These are factors that we develop through education, not just formal but lived. Through our friends, mentors, family, colleagues and teachers. The photographic world is no different. I have often spoken about the fact that I never studied photography formally. However, I did attend art school and gained a degree in graphic design at a time when all of my teachers used the extra income they received from teaching to fund their extra curricular activities, both work and social! I was never taught by a career academic within the creative arts. I may have been unusual in this as over the past decades I have met many who wear teaching during the time that I was a student. However, I believe that such dedication to academia over engaging with a broader practice experience can become a heavy burden to carry.

Photography is an evolving practice with a great deal of that evolution based in technology and yet many of those teaching the medium over the past thirty years have either decried that new technology or pretended that it wasn’t happening feeling safe in remaining within what they had been taught and passing this on to future generations. Meanwhile photo school administrators constantly looked to start new courses that reflected the changing nature of the visual communication world with little success as neither they or the photography courses were willing to understand a new direction of travel. Why fix what is not broken? The problem is that the break was there, it just couldn’t or wouldn’t be seen by those that needed to see it most as its fracture widened.

This lack of willingness to embrace new ways of seeing and engaging with photography as an evolving taught subject combined with poor financial control and projection by academic institutions has seen a tsunami of staff redundanicies, course’s ending and entire schools closing over the last year and there will be many more over the coming months. This is a big problem for the medium.

I know that many people believe that attending any form of insitutional learning related to photography is a waste of time and money. Everything can be learnt on Youtube and forums I hear them cry. The truth is that such comments are ill-informed at best and ignorant at worst in their understanding of good formal learning. It is true that you can learn a lot on line but successful learning is about being challenged to understand yourself, not just mastering cameras, lenses, lighting and post-production.

I speak from the inside on this matter as a university lecturer and course leader at both under graduate and post-graduate level but my life is not controlled by that reality. Having never studied photography I am not bound by what I learnt within one medium. Whatever I know about photography came from personal interaction with some of the greatest photographers of the last and this century. Discussions, conversations and the sharing of knowledge. That is what makes good education and a relevant photo school in my opinion.

So where is the photo school today? Schools are fighting to defend what was, whilst spreadsheets and financial forecasts are the basis for any decision at management level. As you can tell I am not placing the blame on one group of people here. The issues are too complicated to do so. The key I think is a lack of communication and a sense of protectionism. The decision makers are disconnected from the academics and the academics have been attempting to keep what they had and have in the face of a change they could not stop. If you are an academic of any kind you may well disagree with me on this and you are welcome to do so. I can only write on the basis of personal experience.

However you see the state that photographic education is in I think we can agree that it is not looking good or positive. The mantra I often hear is that student numbers are the basis of continuity for a course and yet I have also heard of high recruiting courses losing staff members who have not been replaced due to cost cutting measures. It maybe a numbers game but it is clear that something else is at play.

It makes me wonder if the ubiquity of the smartphone and its constant promotion as a camera to supply a reason to upgrade has removed the magic of photography. Add to this the role photography now has in so many of our every day decisions in what to buy, wear, eat, live, vote etc etc and it is clear to me that to many photography is no longer something that you need to study. Of course this is ridiculous and as nonsensical as stating that we should not study reading and writing because they are everday aspects of our lives.

The smarter the tools become, perhaps the belief is that photographers are not required. The arrival of AI supplements this argument. The future will no doubt see more and more AI related courses launched with the hope of connecting with a new young audience. I am not so sure however if success will be guaranteed. I am not pessimistic, merely realistic. The majority of students in the UK coming to universities come straight from high school. Aged eighteen they have little understanding of the subject they choose to study and decide based upon something they may have enjoyed previously or their highest subject grade attained. As we know photography is not an easy option and without extensive research an expensive mistake can be made.

To my eyes for the photo school to exist it requires a rigourous re-think. It needs to place itself within the new world and explain this new context to insitution management with clarity and belief. I cannot guarantee that this will work but it has to be a sensible first step. The beginning of a converstaion. Photography is a global visual language that needs to be studied and to lose the spaces where that study can take place is in my view a criminal act.

Dr.Grant Scott
After fifteen years art directing photography books and magazines such as Elle and Tatler, Scott began to work as a photographer for a number of advertising and editorial clients in 2000. Alongside his photographic career Scott has art directed numerous advertising campaigns, worked as a creative director at Sotheby’s, art directed foto8magazine, founded his own photographic gallery, edited Professional Photographer magazine and launched his own title for photographers and filmmakers Hungry Eye. He founded the United Nations of Photography in 2012, and is now a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, and a BBC Radio contributor. Scott is the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019), and What Does Photography Mean To You? (Bluecoat Press 2020). His photography has been published in At Home With The Makers of Style (Thames & Hudson 2006) and Crash Happy: A Night at The Bangers (Cafe Royal Books 2012). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was premiered in 2018.

Scott’s next book is Inside Vogue HouseOne building, seven magazines, sixty years of stories, Orphans Publishing, is on sale now wherever you buy your books.

© Grant Scott 2024

Categorized in:


Last Update: 06/18/2024