University Roulette

by simonrleach

It is fast approaching that time of year when tens of thousands of you will make your final choice about which university course will launch you to photographic stardom. Whilst one or perhaps two of you might achieve those dizzy heights, for the rest, perhaps, a little thought and planning might help you on the way to something approaching a sustainable career.

As would be expected, there are some courses that may offer you greater benefit than others. Whilst I have an opinion, I am not going name courses (good or bad). First, because it depends a little on what you are looking for, and second, because they have better lawyers than I can afford. Instead, what I want to suggest are a few points for consideration, perhaps a few questions to ask and setting a personal expectation.

Be aware this is a serious investment, not just in fees and living costs. You should be willing to invest in gallery visits, work experience, production costs and possibly even starting your kit purchasing. That all requires more work or less parties, probably both. If you are on a fee-paying course you will be seen by the institution as a ‘client’. In my opinion this may or may not be in your best interests. It means there is an incentive to the University that you pick their course and therefore you will be marketed to! Meaning, you have to work harder to see what you might actually gain. My first question is, I would argue, the most important; what do you want from studying?

I have spoken to many students of photography in the last few years and all but a handful are surprised at the question, most don’t have an answer, many are even surprised to be asked! So to clarify, do you need technical knowledge, do you know everything about operating your camera without any built-in program? Or, do you need the creative process, do you know about personal style, concepts, semiotics, visual communication? I suspect that the vast majority would identify some balance of both, if forced to think about it.

If you need to learn the technical craft of photography, what do you know about the facilities you are being offered. Do not let yourself be blinded with a few state of the art pieces. You need to experience as much of photography as you can. You need access to different studio set ups, different cameras, dark rooms, digi-labs, lighting, the more things you can try the better. Do you know about availability and the booking process? Will you be taught how to use everything or is it a trial an error approach? Remember photography is a scientifically based medium and it’ll cost you more money to learn after you graduate, so do it now.

How about your tutors and technicians? Are you aware what background they have? Have they practised professionally, or as an artist, themselves? Maybe you’re lucky enough that someone is still running a practise alongside their teaching. This will give you better and more current insight into the industry and your earning potential. Whether you’re not sure what you want to do in photography or you’re fairly clear but want to experience different aspects while you can, make sure the knowledge base is available for you to learn from. What ever you do, don’t fall into the trap of thinking art is easy because you don’t have to do the business bit. Even artists have to eat and pay the rent. Look for courses teaching on business practise as well.

Finally, ask about the grading. Photography is a practical business and whilst I rarely use the theoretical writing I learnt in my time studying, personally do see a place for academic study within photography (not the view of a good number of photographers). I see benefit to understanding the history of photography, the way we read images and culture associated with art. The craft and practise of photography is by far the biggest element, but balance that with both academic study and business practise and you’ve found a great course.

Remember, things can change with time and if you are not sure about changes to the course you have committed to, then say something. If you take this opportunity seriously, then your investment will pay off. Good luck, and one last thing, don’t forget to enjoy it!