I am occasionally sent emails from students or young people seeking a career in photography, who ask my advice on how to pursue this path and whether to go to university or not.
For a while now, I have wanted to write a blog post so I could give a cogent and useful response to those people and anyone else who is in the same boat. So here I go.
First, we must note that this is a complex topic. Whilst my opinions are strong, I want to give valid back-up to my argument, and I really don’t want to negate university in general. I am focused in this blog post on discussing arts/humanities degrees – so not just photography, but generally for those people who have a view to advancing onto a creative career. Photography is just one direction in which a creative person can go, so we all end up with the same quandaries upon leaving school/college. Also, I’m well aware that the photography world is a very vast one, with many different types and ilks of jobs. I’ve tried to address both the technical and creative sides of the spectrum, both left and right sides of every ‘photographer’s brain’ as it were, so my words can probably resonate for a range of photography directions. And of course, this post is based on my opinion, my own experiences of British university life, and impressions I’ve gleaned from others.
Let’s also get something straight before I continue – when I refer to my own experience of university, I refer to my 3-year degree in BA English & Media. I did not study photography. However, it’s the kind of degree one might study if they had a broad outlook to any kind of creative/linguistic job.
The first thing to realise is that nothing in life is in black and white. No one can really tell you whether university will be useful or not for you, first because everyone’s personalities differ, degrees differ, institutions differ, and nothing is guaranteed from, really, anything. Anything you do, be it a degree, work experience, a spurt of travel, etc, is only a tool to be used by you. Nothing really gives you anything – you can only take something from it. However, I have a couple of problems specifically, straight off the bat, with university.
The first is the classic ‘what can you learn in a classroom that is as good as learning on the job?’
The second is ‘university life is so slack that there isn’t even a classroom in which to “learn”‘.
So, starting with my first point.
‘What can you learn in a classroom that is as good as learning on the job?’
Something like photography is so apt for this provoking question. Successful photography is a blend of both conceptual and technical prowess. It’s about thinking about what you’re doing, as well as knowing how to do it: that is, creativity, as well as execution. I’m ’self-taught’, but I’ve become increasingly aware of the importance of referencing one’s own work, and the healthiness of trying to place one’s own practice (and indeed, calling it a ‘practice’!) into a historical context, rather than blundering naively an assumption that everything you’re ever going to do is wonderfully unique and ‘you’. However, I just don’t think you need university to tell/show you this.
Reading magazines, journals, books, researching the history of art, is all wonderful – but you don’t need to spent £20k+ and 3 years to focus solitarily on that. I find the work of ‘higher education’ is spread out so thinly over a wide scale of time that you might realise that everything you read or learned at university could fit into your bedtime reading over the duration of 2 more useful years doing photography in the ‘real world’. Study is good. But go find a library, do your own research and reading of your own accord. Independent study is what you’ll be doing at uni anyway, you just won’t have to pay thousands to do it!
When it comes to practical skills, it is flabbergasting to see how little photography degrees teach. Some are stuck stubbornly in the darkroom age, barely updating or even diversifying their department’s equipment, and most focus far too much on theory. Theory alone does not prepare you for a career in photography. I don’t think doing some token work experience or occasionally assisting a photographer is enough either – but it certainly should be the minimum. What is important is getting one’s head into the real world as soon as possible, thinking proactively as soon as possible, especially for something like photography, which is a multifarious industry and ever-changing landscape.
It’s a bit like when you’re learning to drive. When you learn to drive you spend oodles of money, and you’ll be desperate to pass your test to put an end to the pain of handing over £20 an hour to your smug instructor. But the cost of learning equates to the continued cost you’ll spend on insurance, tax and petrol when you drive a car for real.
In the same way, learning photography should be close to the real functionality of being a photographer. If you’re already studying photography, I believe you should get as much work experience as possible, attend workshops, do your own shoots, assist photographers, start your own business in small ways as much as you can. If you’re contemplating whether to start a degree or not, I truly think your money is better spent on short snappy, practical courses, with direct hands-on action guided by real working pros.
Now onto my second point. It wouldn’t be as bad if you knew that going to university would be a place to work you to the bone, both in theory and practice. But even that’s not guaranteed!
‘University life is so slack that there isn’t even a classroom in which to “learn”‘.
When I reflect on it, I realise how disappointed I was with university. When I was a child, I regarded university with awe as the esteemed pinnacle of education which would surely work one’s brain to the max. My experience was not like that at all, at least, for an humanities/arts degree. After arriving from a mentally-brisk experience at sixth form college, I soon grew to realise that intense work wasn’t the order of the day for most people once I got to the real ‘university’ beyond the pages of the glossy prospectus. University assumes no-one needs discipline, and they shouldn’t, we’re all adults now – but sadly it seems like they do. There was an all-too palpable lack of enthusiasm from a generation that cares more for discussing ‘last night’. Students on different courses of my programme varied in social class and intellect level but that didn’t discriminate when it came to drink – everyone ‘gets pissed’, either talking about in past or future tense. I despised, and still despise, how becoming regularly inebriated has become a normalised, unquestioned rite of passage for university students and for young people in general. I much preferred college (there, the beginnings of teenage binge-drinking was drowned out by the somewhat heavier schedules) and I even felt more ‘worked’ at primary school. To me, it’s bizarre that this is the time that the student forks out their weight in cash in tuition fees, which threat to augment all the more (for me, with my parent being under the primary income threshold I did not have to pay any of these). Then the long summer break came round the corner – ah ghastly! 3-4 months slap bang in the middle of the year to fanny about fancy-free? I didn’t get it. I didn’t like it.
Let’s explore the good things about going to university. For me, university was good for three things: (1) becoming independent – many will agree it is a wonderful chance to become self-sufficient. Circumstantially it eased me into flying the nest. Having a degree, any degree, is said to prove on paper that you know how to discipline yourself for a long period. The rest of my article obviously does object to the latter, and although you can gain independence through the experience, university is not the only way to do this. (2) It gave me time to think and explore. When I was applying for university degrees back at college, I did not know exactly what I wanted to do. My photography career was an unborn child. It emerged later, after my gap year experience and in the middle of my English degree. And (3), through writing those essays (not as many as I should have had to write, over the course of 36 months) with a spot of human guidance but most of which I could probably have done over an internet connection 2000 miles away, I developed what I consider to be good skills in organising an argument, thinking about more than one side to a story, and backing oneself up with cited evidence – skills to be used in both written and spoken word. Sometimes I feel I can spot people who have been to university, because they don’t come crashing down onto a conclusion 2 mins into a debate, and they can cite the odd literary reference. As well as use words like ‘juxtaposition’ of course. This reason is less critical because I don’t deem these as skills I was ‘taught’ at university (you ‘learn’ diddly squat) but ones I honed, myself, whilst being at university. College was the place that hammered me into an essay-writing groove.
Reason (2) is really the only reason that I would posit as to why studying is a good option, as opposed to going headlong throwing one’s life into the mouth of time and not having time to think about what you actually want to do. Everyone needs time to think about what they want to do, it is vital, and to that length, study is important. I’ve seen people rashly rush into jobs (like my friend giving up her GCSEs to work shifts at Kwik Save) but I think university stretches out study to the proportions of procrastination, to unnecessary lengths, ie. you don’t need 3 years to ‘think’ about what you want to do. Unlike other disciplines, a degree in an arts/humanities subject is never/rarely officially required for a job anyway, so reading poems, novels and academic books is more meaningless and irrelevant to the real world – which may well be a quite boring ‘real world’, but it’s a world we’ve all got to find employment in afterwards. After graduating I failed to get three admin jobs with my First in English and Media and long list of extra-curricular arty farty pursuits because I didn’t have enough dreary ‘office experience’! Even though I’d spent 3 years tapping away on a computer, researching, managing files and ferreting around for books and pens, it didn’t even get me a pen-pushing £12k salary job which would barely cover Brighton rent.
So what are the solutions?
I think university poorly implements ample aid for those people who want to go into something creative but are not sure exactly what (ie. me, and thousands others). What would be perfect is a kind of intense apprenticeship programme which gives students short bursts of hands-on experience trying out a host of different jobs, sampling a variety of potential creative careers so you can actually decide what you want to do initially. Interspersed with some short sessions poring over the words of Sartre and Bourdieu.
As most photographers are self-employed, and largely oversee their work projects themselves, the first lesson that must be learned is that becoming a ‘photographer’, and hence becoming self-employed, is about entering the unknown: erratic income, a continued level of uncertainty. This ties into my point earlier about university offering very little of the ‘real world’. Being sheltered by the false security of a student loan and various grants, some supplemented by parents’ money perhaps (though I know many go on to live the rest of their lives blindly buttressed by parents’ dosh) is a dubious lifestyle that should come with a great return. University doesn’t deliver that great return in my opinion. Student dinners and manky halls aside, it is misleadingly comfortable.
‘Getting into the real world’ is much about shedding the innocence of being a young carefree person, and taking the brutal weight of the world onto your shoulders. I’m aware I’m essentially advocating for one to take on that weight sooner rather than later. Part of me feels that is wrong, but another part of me thinks that 16/17 year-olds nowadays are not children, and have a wisdom and drive beyond their years. They don’t need to, and shouldn’t be, ‘protected’ from the realities of a world that can be humdrum, difficult and cruel – it’s better, as in the crux of any ‘education’, for a young person to become accustomed to reality – the bad, but also the good; how hard work can pay off, and in photography’s case, how one’s passion for image-making can relate satisfactorily to that same ‘real world’.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in life is that you make it happen. You make your own work, and in turn, your own life path. This became emphasised especially upon organising our recent Shoot Experiences together with my partner Matthew. They started off as an extension of the workshop idea – ie. people paying to come along to ‘my event’ - but it quickly dawned on us that this wasn’t like a workshop so much – it was an environment we are creating, in which we as the hosts are making images ourselves, employing our passion for photography in a context in which other people can also collectively participate. We made a business idea as well as a creative one.
At the moment I’m seeking a photographers’ agent. It feels like trying to enter a crowded noisy party with people ten feet taller than me. Instead of loitering around waiting to be handed a golden ticket I’m making my own work, commissioning myself almost, in recent shoots such as one I did with a snake – spending money (feasibly) on my own mini productions simply because I love what I do and I’m confident to stake on it. If you want to do something, set the date and make it happen yourself. Photography is much a waiting game but you don’t have to sit down to wait.
So, all in all, what is my straightforward advice to young people?
If you’re curious about photography, but not certain it’s what you want to whole-heartedly pursue, then you might like to study something quite broad so you can keep your options open (like I did). But look at the content of any degree or course you are interested in, and makes sure it’s practically relevant to you. I would probably have gone for something of the length of 1 or 2 years; 3 years feels like too much time. Look for an apprenticeship, a vocational course, something hands-on.
If you’re more confident that you know you want to be a photographer (hard to know when you’re 16 or so, but possible, and career deviation over time is perfectly normal unless you’re torn between that and studying medicine to become a doctor!) then I’d recommend investing in practical courses, getting work experience, assisting photographers, maybe doing a 1 year vocational course just to give you time and something to hinge your everyday life upon meanwhile. I don’t think it matters what type of degree/course it is – types, credits, points, etc – for a creative career like photography, you don’t need a degree on paper anyway. I reckon that it’s skills, confidence, even some contacts & portfolio – what you take away informally – that is the most important. None of the links I have gained with companies, galleries and influential people have been made with what I had ‘on paper’, but from self-made exposure, personal introductions from contacts I made through that, and the continued process of experience.
Everyone needs time to nurture their interests and figure out what they want to do. I just think that most university degrees don’t provide the right tools.
Feedback, objections, questions, testimonies to the opposite of everything I claim about the university culture and youth of today, all welcome…
Images used above:
The artists’ sketch (collab with Rossina Bossio)