Are photography degrees the joker in the pack?

I was reading through the comments on Joni’s post about photography apprenticeship v formal education (degree) and these words by Sara jumped out at me

‘I want to be able to experiment with new things and have a solid community where I can throw ideas around; both my own and others.

I don’t see anything in the university literature that really convinces me that I’ll get any of this. What I see is “do this degree and you end up with a piece of paper and a group show that we’ll promote” and also the numerous “student awards” that are run.

That’s all nice enough. But is it worth £9k per year? I really don’t know. It might be, or might not. What I am fairly convinced of, however, is that I wouldn’t go on any course expecting it to be my primary source of education.’

I’m actually writing this on the train on my way to London to spend the day teaching on the Masters in Photojournalism at the London College of Communication.

I’m chooseing my words carefully here and this comment does not relate to the course at LCC which is fantastic at creating a community of photographers who can feed off one another and also draws in some great teachers.

‘Most photography degrees are an absolute piss take’.

Over the years I have a fair amount of students come on duckrabbit training off the back of what is considered to be the best photography degree in the country : On Twerp. I’m sure its true that if you own a tardis and can go back in time it is the best course in the country but the students always say the same thing to me. We learned more in three days with duckrabbit then we did in the entire final year. I’m not saying that to look good because it provokes the same response at duckrabbit every time: anger.

Why are photography degrees often so out of touch? I think there are three major problems.

1: Too many teachers who haven’t hustled to make a living in many, many years.
2: An academic system that doesn’t reward quality teaching, that is weighed towards research that nobody reads.

But that’s not the biggest problem.

The biggest problems is students that don’t give a shit.

That’s the only excuse you can have for getting to the end of your degree and not knowing your f-stop from your elbow and thats the reason why I stopped teaching undergraduates. It’s really soul destroying to try and share your passion for something with a group of people who would rather be watching My Personality Is A Cesspit Get Me Out Of Here.

Students need to learn to do three things.

1: Think for themselves
2: Hustle
3: Take good photos

If they can do that they stand half a chance.

So what’s the future? Actually I think its quite bright. Jonathan Worth is doing revolutionary things at Coventry University. Falmouth, where David now teaches, has embraced new technology. A third of the students coming off the LCC course last year produced photofilms: many to a high standard. Newport and Westminster continue to nurture some wonderful photographers.

The degree of the future will be able to give you the best of all of this. Through access to on-line lectures and virtual discussion whilst pushing people to spend more time learning on the shop floor. It needs to do something else. Spit out more students at the end of year one who don’t care. Encourage them to get some life experience and come back when they’ll really benefit. Of course that won’t happen, cause these days its all about bums on seats, it’s about the money.


I think this comment by Ciara Leeming is well worth reading:

I think, like everything in life, it all depends. It all depends on you, your personality and level, it depends on the course, the group dynamic, and it depends on the teachers.

I’ve been on workshops and – this week – I’ve handed in my final project for my MA photojournalism/doc photography at LCC. It’s been a fantastic experience and I feel it’s been very worthwhile indeed – even more so because I’ve done it part-time over two years while balancing a career as a freelance.

My first workshop with Ed Kashi in 2009 was a brilliant experience – a small group (about 6 people), a teacher who was very generous with his time, and I was pretty new to photography so had a huge amount to learn.
Bit different but my workshop the same year with duckrabbit was excellent – again I was very lucky that just two of us signed up and since we were learning new skills and had great teachers, we grew a lot in just 3 days.

In 2010 I went on the Foundry Workshop and was in Rena Effendi’s class. She’s a very nice lady but I didn’t really get anything out of the experience – the group was too big (about 10 I think), the workshop was ginormous (more than 100 photographers) and I didn’t like the atmosphere, which I found very cliquey. I came out with a nice body of work, but I really don’t feel I grew in any way during that week. I decided as a result that I wouldn’t do any more workshops – that from now on I’d invest all my spare money in my work.

In Jan 2010 (before Foundry) I started my MA. It all depends how you look at this but I think £2,000 a year is actually quite reasonable for what we’ve had in return (especially when I compare it to workshop prices….when I looked at politics MAs after graduating in 2003 the prices at Manchester Uni were similar).

I have already undertaken independent photography projects at home and abroad, been commissioned by newspapers and magazines, been published and all of that before my MA started, so in some senses I had some of the skills and experience you are talking about already, but what I’ve gained from this course is being pushed to think in a completely different way about my practice. I really don’t think I would have produced the same kind of work on my own, and I’ve particularly enjoyed the research side of the MA.

I’m not particularly trying to make a living purely from photography but want to balance it with my existing (writing) work. I don’t think any of my classmates are naive enough to think it’s going to get them jobs – we all just wanted to grow as photographers and people, cheesy as that sounds.

I think people find the path that is right for them in the end. Uni courses work for some, workshops for others, and just going out and doing it for others.

Author — duckrabbit

duckrabbit is a production company formed by radio producer/journalist Benjamin Chesterton and photographer David White. We specialize in digital storytelling.

Discussion (15 Comments)

  1. OnTwerp grad says:

    I have a BA from OnTwerp and your comments were bang on -3rd year was a waste of time, my year didn’t even get the fabled ‘London Show’, a lot of students refused to be involved with the final show at the uni due to being so pissed off with it all, and we hardly saw the staff. 1st year was excellent, if 10 years (more like 20 or 20 to be honest) behind technologically and 2nd year was reasonable. Whilst it lacked heavily in the modern technical skills it was very strong on the theoretical side with 2 hour Friday lectures run by the MA course leader attended by even the most hungover and uninterested students…

    I’ve since done an MA on an up and coming course and can honestly say more teaching and practical knowledge was packed into 1 year than the 3 years at OnTwerp, and it very much pushed all students towards creating much stronger work.

  2. Sam says:

    The real joker in the pack? In the US there are now 300 creative writing programs that offer Masters of Fine Arts Degrees. That’s a lot of unemployed poets.

  3. Christophe Dillinger says:

    I regularly give workshop at HE level. I come round with a collection of old machines, I show the kind of zany stuff you can do with film, I talk about my work and the maagzine I’d put together. Students and I have a great time and very often we keep in touch, although I was only a couple of hours with them. I ws also an art teacher and I have just fininshed 6 years of part time studies (5 years BA PT art + 1 year FT masters). It is not that students don’t give a shit (well, some of them are not, obviously). It is not that the lecturers are old fashioned or out of touch or do not know their subjects. You see, I used to teach photography evening classes in FE. I have a teaching qual and I learnt everything about “barriers to learning”, “learning styles” and all the rest of it. This is useful stuff, and it works. All this is out of the window by the first year of BA. It is as if HE was a kind of separate world, where students magically change when matriculating from FE and they don’t need to be taught anymore. They do. Virtually every single student I have talked to has said the same thing to me in one way or another: the knowledge is there, we get glimpse of it, but the majority of lecturers can’t pass it across.
    Think about it: for years and years young people are told what to do, where to do it and how to do it. Then suddenly it all changes and nobody gives them any direction.It is not so much that students don’t give a shit, it’s more a case of lack of communication and lack of formal teaching.

    • Sara Trula says:

      You raise an interesting pint, Christopher. Maybe my questioning of qualified courses stems from the fact that I, out of some strange and intoxicating mix of being in a crap area at a crap primary and then secondary school but also being bright.

      I learned quite conclusively not to rely on my teachers in my first year at secondary school. The school had organised a charity (sub-charity to a proper one) for Eritrea. We were asked to apply for posts like treasurer, secretary, and so on. For art classes we spent some time designing potential logos, once of which would become the charity logo.

      I made a drawing of the continent of Africa, with a woman’s head on the west coast. I coloured it in using the Garvey colours. With hindsight, I realise my design error – Eritrea is not Africa, nor is it anywhere near the west coast of Africa.

      My art teacher laughed at it and told me I’d made a mistake.

      Because I’d “used those rasta colours and rastas are Jamaican not African.”

      My young 11-year old self tried to very politely explain the history. I ended up with detention. So I took it to the deputy heads of the school naively thinking that, once the misunderstanding had been realised, they would thank me for pointing out that the Garvey colours aren’t just a Jamaican ‘thing’. I ended up with a term’s worth of detentions.

      Even before then, I’d been driving my own education in a big way. But ever since, I’ve known not to depend on authority figures to be right or do enough to educate me.

      Which isn’t to say that I can’t/won’t learn from such figures, just that we as a society advocate an absurd amount of blind faith in titles. I’m constantly assessing the relevance of the input I receive from others, and actively seek out the most reliable/pertinent to the specific matters I’m working on. And only ever consider that input to be supplemental to my own study/work.

      That’s the criticism I have of the amount of provenance that is sometimes conferred by pieces of paper or particular institutions – none of that counts for anything if the individual isn’t capable of guiding their own development.

  4. Sara Trula says:

    Sorry, I meant Christophe. Feeling the natural high and mild exhaustion of a gloriously ace day. Off to bed with me, before I start calling this place Ruckdabbit… :-/

  5. Bruce Malone says:

    I have a 30+ year career as a photographer and I am gonna make this REAL EASY for anyone wanting to be one.

    IT IS WHO YOU KNOW ! ( Just like almost every other business)

    Not how good your photos are because anyone can use photoshop to make things look great…

    Most of my clients only care about what is for lunch.

    • Quote: “IT IS WHO YOU KNOW ! ( Just like almost every other business)”

      With respect, I have to disagree strongly Bruce.

      Who you know doesn’t count for much if you’re total and utter crap. You generally get found out.

      Is yours the voice of experience? Is that how you got the breaks? No hard work just nepotism?

      Your website looks like you know what you’re doing – your work is excellent and appears to demonstrate flair and imagination – so you must be good enough to make a buck on skill alone surely?

      IMHO Photoshop cant put drama, real emotion or the magic of human interaction into a photograph. It cant put in whats not there, only work with what is. In many genres of photography ‘making stuff up’ in pshop is simply not an option.

      Your clients only care about lunch?

      Your clients would throw a hissing fit in their super expensive French restaurant if their lunch turned out to be a semi-raw hamburger served with a dollop of ketchup because the chef’s brother got laid off from BurgerKing and needed a job and he pulled some strings and got him in the door.

      With the greatest of respect advice like this coming from someone with 30+ years of experience does nothing to help encourage aspiring photographers, particularly young ones.

      Or have I missed the intended irony?

  6. Tom White says:

    I’ve been on both sides of the divide, as a student and as a teacher and the most important thing for me is that you give it your all. I think you are bang on that students really need to engage with the course. When I did my degree in Fine Art a long long time ago I gave up on it in my first couple of months and would have quit completely but in those days there were no tuition fees. I stayed the three years and met an astoundingly brilliant community in my fellow students and spent my whole time doing my own thing in the darkroom and the painting studio. Brilliant. Almost everything I learned was from my peers. The tutors (with a couple of notable exceptions) really didn’t give me much, but part of that was my own attitude.

    Years later I went back to school (having sworn never to do so after my degree) but this time I knew exactly what I wanted to get out of the course. I was basically a self taught photographer and I knew there were some gaping holes in my technical knowledge, plus my interesd had shifted from the art world and self expression to documentary and journalism. I was saving money from my job to study in the U.K., but when my girlfriend moved to New York and couldn’t get transferred with my work I applied for a one year course over in the States, bit the bullet of the (then) higher fees and spent all the money I had, got financial help from my mum and lived rent free with my girlfriend (who I went on to marry!) while I studied. This time, because I knew what I wanted out of the course I was able to find the tutors who I could learn from and becasue I was engaged and alert, I found a few things I didn’t expect. Were the teachers better? Maybe, maybe not. Was I a ‘better’ student? Absolutely. I felt much more engaged and as I result I learned a lot.

    Again, the community of students that became my friends and colleagues was so important to my experience and continues to be so. Now, as a teacher, I get to put back some of what I learned and I try to be as engaged with the students as I possibly can. There is nothing worse that a lazy teacher. Teaching is a great challenge as you are solving not only your own problems but also those of a whole class of students and doing so with the resource that is their each individual experience, thoughts and feelings. It’s facilitating an environment where they can acheive their potential. And again, it’s about forming a real community. Another great thing about being a teacher is that it forces me to continue learning. I have to keep up to date with the technology, with the debates, with the attitudes, with the questions about our profession, becasue I have to deal with these in class and this helps to prevent me becoming complacent when I am out working as a photographer myself. I see so much hunger and talent in my classes and I think “Shit, I’m here training my competition! I better up my game!”.

    I think a real problem can arise when you have teachers who are just going through the motions and teaching the exact same cirriculum in the exact same way year in year out and you have students who are not engaged. These can of course feed and perpetuate each other. In both cases, my question would be “Why are you here then?”

    Education should not be a chore, for either teacher or student. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be hard work (quite to the contrary!) but it should be something you want to do. You should want to learn. You should want to teach. Sometimes you should want to do both (As I say, I learn things from my students all the time!).

    The question of “Is it worth it?” Is an individual one. I always ask students “What do you hope to acheive, what do you want to get out of this class?” and do my best to meet those needs.

    Of course, schools are not the only place you can learn. Some people waste their money on a class or a course. I’ve heard it said that with the money some spend on tuition they could go and get an education from the school of life. I know people who have done just that. I know people who are successful and talented who didn’t spend thousands and thousands on a photography course. You should see it as an investment. If you think you will get a worthwhile return on investing in a course then do it. Like all investments, it carries risk. So think carefully.

    I almost left school at 16 to go get a job, but my grades, my teachers, my parents and friends all persuaded me to do A-Levels. After that, University was the natural progression. Back then, as I say, the Governemnt paid your fees. These days, I would not have been able to afford to go without putting myself in a lot of debt. One thing I think Universities really need to address is this issue. Their students are going to most likely finish that course with a huge loan hanging over them. If a degree course does not offer a business component, I would most likely not enroll on it. It’s all very well knowing your F-Stop from your elbow and a Cindy Sherman from a Gursky, but if you don’t know how to run a business, you’re pretty much screwed from the beginning. Let’s face it, photography is, and always has been a lucrative career for the very very few. Most photographers hustle like crazy to make a decent living, and most learn the business on the fly. No one has ever taught me how to manage a business, and I struggle with that all the time. I think that especially these days this needs to be a essential part of any photography program.

    Anyway, I could go on. But suffice it say that education is important and both students and teachers should take their responsibiliies seriously, school is not the only place to learn, a course will never teach you everything, the best photographers are not always the best teachers (and vice versa) and if you’re thinking of taking a course, see it as a business decision as much as a opportunity to develop and expand your skills and think very carefully before you invest your time and money.

    Oh yeah, and one last thing. If you’re smart, you never stop learning.

  7. I got accepted into LCC’s Photography foundation course when i was 19. I couldn’t afford the fees (it’s worse when you’re an international student) so I went back to interning at the newspaper i was working at. 7 years on, I feel i’ve learnt way more on the field than I would’ve in class, but part of me still misses a formal education. The projects, the classmates, those long discussions of photography. I’m currently teaching a UG photo course in college, and I feel thats a wonderful way to learn more and push yourself as a photographer, as your student’s enthusiasm rubs on you and they’re always looking to experiment- which in turn opens new avenues. However, I’m still looking out to be part of a course- a short term one, as time is scarce now, but something which will not only fill out the gaps in my formal education, but also build on my skills as a professional.

  8. Angela says:

    “The biggest problems is students that don’t give a shit.”

    It is a shame your interesting article starts out with this insulting sweeping generalisation. Loads of undergraduate students are very committed, and remember you won’t get postgraduates if you don’t have undergraduates!

    I am really happy that I gave up a full time job in my thirties to do the BA Photographic Arts at Westminster, great teachers and technicians and a great environment to develop. I have not gone on to a career in photography. The problem I and a lot of other would be photographers have is that we can’t afford to do lengthy unpaid “internships” and too many organisations expect photographers to work for free. I have got a kid and need to pay the bills. Still I don’t regret doing the degree and I keep up my own photographic practice when I can while I have returned to the same kind of work I did before to earn money…

    At the end of day if your photography is better as a result of doing the course then I would define it as a success.

    • duckrabbit says:

      Hi Angela,

      thanks for your comment.

      I think a sweeping generalization, in the sense of your argument, would be ‘the biggest problem is that ALL students don’t give a shit’, but I didn’t write that. I’m well aware that plenty do and value their experience. I wasn’t one of them when I did my degree.

      I’ve taught tow undergrad classes. One was brilliant, the other was a huge struggle. The difference between the groups was that one showed a general apathy to being there.

      Wether its the ‘biggest problem’ is pretty contentious.

      I totally agree that the point of a degree shouldn’t be just about getting a job on the other side.


  9. I was a fashion photography major at the Fashion Institute of Tech, before digital, which seemed to change everything I learnt. But I still say to students a camera is only as good as the picture you take. So learn to take the best picture, whether from doing, or learning through a school. Any way you can learn that and it is different for everyone, you can make a good picture, but then you will have to find ways to sell it to be a professional. And I don’t teach picture taking as much as I teach creativity and tech together.

  10. dan says:

    I totally hear what you’re saying. I am 3 months into my first year as a photography undergraduate and all we have done so far is go over and over aperture, iso and shutter speed. IMO You should not be at university if you do not understand these basic fundamentals. I am at university to specialise, not to re-do my last 2 years of studying at a-level, and when the other week I had a colleague ask “what is RAW?” I actually lost my mind. Maybe I’m being ott but sorry, if you can’t be bothered to learn all this in the summer run up to Uni or to actually turn up and pay attention in your lectures then stop ruining the atmosphere for the rest of us by complaining you don’t have enough time or money to get your work done when all you do is sit on Facebook or watching Eastenders instead of looking on the internet at photographers, artists, journals or blogs or actually going out to galleries. It’s lazy and is the reason why the generalisations such as ‘The biggest problems is students that don’t give a shit.’ come about. ’cause despite what anyone else may say, the majority don’t.

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