Documentary v conceptual art photography. What’s with the aggro?

If you have time I recommend you go and check out the end of year show for the Masters in doc photography and photojournalism at London College of Communication.

Go with an open mind about what is photography. There is, if you’re open to look some beautiful, thoughtful work, both journalistic and conceptual.

I tweeted about the show a couple of days back suggesting that two worlds, conceptual photography and traditional documentary, were fighting it out in the same space. After a few minutes I started to think what a narrow way of looking at the show that is.

Why is one way of looking at things always to be measured against another? Isn’t that just a form of photo tribalism that traps people? Isn’t my obsession with traditional narrative storytelling just, well, a very limited way of looking at the world?

We sometimes complain at duckrabbit that photographers would produce deeper work if they could just get over themselves, but it took me a challenging conversation with Jenny Pollard (a very interesting lecturer at LCC) to realize the same goes for viewers. If I’m to be open to the work, I need to get over myself too.

I’m told many of the highest marks this year went to the more conceptual work. Afterwards in the bar a few of the students expressed their unhappiness about this. I understand where they are coming from, they are shooters and its a documentary course so the ‘best’ photos should get the best marks right? Paul Lowe (course director) made the very good point that a masters is not just about taking pictures, but inquiry into the medium. It’s an important point.

Far fewer students attempted photofilms this year.  I don’t see this as a bad thing, more perhaps as an acceptance of the complexity of attempting this kind of work.  Personally I would love to engage more with the students on the course but my understanding is that the hours of outside lectures are being cut, the numbers of students have been raised and the fees have increased.

I left the BBC partly because I felt it was becoming more and more difficult to deliver programs in the quality I demanded of myself. Is there a danger that a course that has built a solid reputation over the years will be torpedoed by University administrators with no real respect for that legacy and whom see the course as some kind of cashcow that can help cross-fund other less successful departments?

Personally I think there is. And this is not just a issue for LCC but right across graduate and post graduate education in this country.

Despite the note of warning I’m confident that next year will produce a crop of outstanding photographers and I do know the tutors at LCC, Paul, John, Jenny  and Patrick, work very hard to promote the photographers they think have the talent and professional aptitude to thrive. I’m not sure they get as much respect as they deserve for that.

Let’s end on a postive note because if you take the time, there are many positive things to say about the show. Do go.

I spent many happy years washing dishes at a cafe/gallery/restaurant called the Egg in Liverpool. One of the interesting people that would spend an hour or two daydreaming on the Egg’s famous sofa was a young man called Christian Peterson (his website does not do his work justice).

Christian, like me, was a bit of a dreamer.

I used to tell him about my dreams of doing something with radio and he used to tell me about his dreams around photography.

Imagine my surprise, and his, when I turned up to teach at LCC and in shuffled Christian.

His show at LCC centres on a small English rural community centered around a nuclear power station.

At the private view Christian did me the great honor of talking me through the work in his customary humble way.

It is possessed with quiet beauty. None of that showy lyricism that so many of the young photogs are at today with their medium format cameras. No this was a photographer working lyricaly inside the circles of a very insular community. Since I spent many years documenting communities like these I can’t tell you how sweet this work was to me. In total harmony with my own experience but at the same time teaching me something new. Exisiting at a level that perhaps in fifteen years my own radio documentaries only achieved once or twice.

The best complement I can pay Christian is to say that I was as thrilled to experience his work as I was to discover that other great chronicler of rural communities Seamus Heaney.  Both Seamus and Christian are poets of the highest order, both worthy of mention in the same breath.


One final thing. I wish more photographers had a bio like this. I read it and I thought hell yeah, you sound like a bloke I would like to meet, and now I’m thinking my own bio is just a bit crap.


I’m Christian, I’m 33 and I’m a photographer living in London.

I like to tell stories with photographs, and I’m influenced by the normal things, the everyday things and the everyday people I meet.

I also enjoy photographs as objects in themselves and collect old and found photographs some of which can be viewed here on the site and at my blog also.

I’ve worked for sometime in a supporting role with people on the margins of society and I’m also interested in using creative practice at a community level to explore ways of new and inspiring educational and creative practice. Examples of my community work can be seen on this site too.

[email protected]

UK 0044 (0)7752281386

More details on the LCC show here.



Author — duckrabbit

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

Discussion (23 Comments)

  1. ShaneLynam says:

    I went down to see the show last week after reading your tweets about Anders Birger’s work. I thought the presentation was outstanding.

  2. Thank you so much Shane, that really means a lot! Very pleased that so many people got to see all our work especially knowing how hard everybody worked on their projects.

  3. Bronzska says:

    Well done, there is always some good photographers and some mediocre ones coming out of photography schools. LCC does it’s best and some good work has been nurtered and mentored from the school. Theres a lot of debate surrounding the question: are photography degrees needed today, and thats all depends on the individual and their situation. On my course there were a mix of aspireing young and mature students, some with high skills other novices there were also a few already succesful photojournalists who were looking to teach or re-define their practise and goals, some of them I must say were perhaps jaded.All I can conclude from my own perssonal experince is that its still about money and luck-but you have to find a way to make them both happen, the type of photography Newport & LCC both define is the life changing ones where its a passion, life and if you have the money to push youre work or the stamina, skil, luck and sacrifice’s you may get there, if you give up you never know. The best photographers a lot of us when studying aspired too (if they did BA’S,MA’s or neither) understanding the human condition, world etc was just a natural way;its was never a job. The ones that were at the right moment or won the right prizes of course were elavated at a time when photojournalism was still valid and informed people, I can say that for the most part now its an art-form and say the way you get youre work seen is more like an artists now ( you use youre own pocket and keep going hopeing to be discovered by an agent,agency or curator-but you must get youre work seen. (The differnce being press photographers still possibly?)

    Lat words (sorry)when I dreamed of being a (documentray/photojournalist) photographer when i was 14 i thought you couldnt study or get a job you had to win a major award or prize to be able to start anywhere. 28 years later after studying for five year, travelling and gaining a few small publications I still belive ‘its the same ‘ truth.
    Just depends if takes you 3-5 years of study to learn this?

  4. Victoria says:

    Coming from Glasgow where it can be the Art Schools versus the Traditional Colleges I have some thoughts on this matter, although they may seem overly stereotypical they are just some observations I have noted over the past few years.

    I think ‘Conceptual’ students, for the most part, research prolifically before they create their work, they think about visual perceptions and what impact images have today. However they quite often, in my opinion, get lost in their own heads and can frequently lose the everyday viewer.

    ‘Traditional’ students will often have the passion to tell a story but are also blinkered in their beliefs that these stories are the truth and don’t fully think what impact their images will have on audiences(students who automatically pack up to Africa to create ‘projects’ springs to mind).

    I think there has to be some middle ground where both groups can learn from each other in order to create some challenging ‘pieces of work’.

    • duckrabbit says:

      Hi Victoria,

      I couldn’t agree with you more and I think this is where LCC demands a critical engagement to get the best marks.

      Of course its all very subjective.

      I think its a bit sad that very often we have no thought for the ‘everyday viewer’.

  5. Dave says:

    Its understandable the conceptual work got higher marks, bearing in mind the grades came from a university, and not VII or a newspaper editor.

    Always felt slightly confused by a photojournalism MA. It is a subject that is extremely vocational. Would it be safe to assume everyone doing the course would want to be a photojournalist? Theres not much else to benefit from besides being a photojournalist is there?

    Some degrees really do raise the question of money making, and i sadly feel that this is one of them. Granted there will be some great work come from the course, and people will gain good career prospects. But did they really need to ‘study’ in an institution if they wanted to be a photojournalist?

    For example; if they want to be the next robert capa, they could spend £7,000 or so on a degree, learn some stuff, take some photos, and have their rite of passage, a degree show. Probably make some good work from it.
    Or they could spend £7,000 on travelling to some country they wanted to, spending a few months there, shooting a thousand rolls of film etc.

    Sure you wont have a postgraduate degree and MA at the end of your name. Is an MA even respected in the world of photojournalism?

    I certainly know who i’d respect more.

    • duckrabbit says:

      Hi Dave,

      good comment.

      The benefit of the masters (IMHO) is to meet and work with a tight group of people. That provide a lot of energy and impetus.

      I think too we need to get away from the idea that we need to spend lots of money to make a decent photo story.

    • Victoria says:

      I don’t know what exactly a photojournalism course entails but I would think that photojournalists, more than any other category of photographer, would benefit from 3 or 4 years of education. They have in a way more responsibility and impact on this world than a conceptual photographer because their photographs are being published and seen by the millions.

      I know I would certainly respect a photojournalist who has spent a decent amount of time thinking about their images, how their images will be seen, what consequences their images have, rather than one who ‘just travels to a country’ and starts shooting, that is how stereotypes and irresponsible imagery is made in my opinion. Of course some photographers can do amazing projects without institutional education, however I think they are the exception.

      • duckrabbit says:

        totally agree Victoria. But we also have to question what is being taught.

        My understanding that the subject of ‘ethics’ rarely goes beyond the use of photoshop on degree courses.

    • “shooting a thousand rolls of film ” using film, that has to fall in in the “conceptual” category, yeah? 😉

      • Amin says:

        Hello to this great blog. Interesting read on a continuing debate. I hope to participate as much as I can in the future.

        In about three weeks I’ll begin my first day on this course, and I still debate with others and in myself the value of attending such a course. Most the issues already raised have cropped up in my mind—what are my prospects come 2013, is it not wiser to use my savings and loan (yes, loan 🙁 ) on materialising a dream project or just packing my bag and loads of film and returning with a folio to show editors, what about the talk I hear about increased fees and less contact time, how will such an advanced degree benefit me coming from a non-photographic background…the list goes on.

        Well, I don’t introduce myself a photojournalist or documentary photographer now, and am not sure if I will in a years time, we’ll see. I don’t think there is a right or wrong way to learn this trade…down an educational route or a more vocational avenue, this has to be a field which the practitioners personal application is of the most importance. Despite being aware of various grievances about the course (but please note: i haven’t heard un-similar things about ANY of the other UK based courses I researched either!), I believe this subject still has a place in the sphere of eduction. Primarily for the reason duckrabbit mentioned above (22/12, 14:38 and 14:47). I’m hoping that an MA will provide a platform for some serious discussion and debate, an opportunity to work and share ideas alongside some of the most aspirational and motivated folk around (if we’re spending £15k++ on this, we bloody BETTER be 150% into with what we’re doing), a chance to be guided by some of the most experienced and knowledgable in their line of work. Maaaybe, in a few months I’ll come back with my tail between my legs, complaining about this that and the other, but for now I feel excited if also a little nervous about having a personal challenge in which I wish to push my approach to this form of communication and gain as much as I can from my peers and the course (and likewise, share as much as well).

        Any maker should be critically engaged with his/her subject (in this case photojournalism). How does it evolve otherwise? And with the ways in which photojournalism is changing, it *needs* to evolve and so needs that engagement. I don’t know if one must choose between a conceptual or traditional route…it is possible to find a balance between the two, but maybe dependent on the type of project being undertaken? Coming from a degree a while back that involved a lot of critical analysis, I would be disappointed if this was not happening at LCC next year, be it among staff, or fellow students. Of course, very little actually beats *doing* or making the work, instead of talking about it.

        Rambling now, but to finalise, I don’t think either an education or a years headstart covering a story are better than the other. What matters is the photographers engagement with his work and practise, commitment to developing it, his ability to step back and ask all manner of questions (interpreting an image from the viewpoint of an everyday viewer vs alternative viewpoints?), and his integrity. The most suitable way for him to reache this way of thinking is upto him.

        Great blog, thank you for every post (especially the controversial ones 🙂 )

  6. I could care less if work is conceptual or traditional, if it tells me a story that moves me, then it’s worked. If it tells me something that I didn’t know before, its worked. If it makes me ask questions, its worked. At least ‘conceptual’ implies there was a degree of thought given to the work at hand. However I agree with Victoria – getting lost in your own head is not a good thing, when the work stops being about the subject and is all about the photographer then its game over for me.

    • Amin says:

      Good comment—mustn’t the primary objective of the work be to communicate something, be it unknown, moving, or thought-provoking? Whatever it is, truth and being always about the subject at hand remain of utmost importance. Ditto John’s point.

  7. Student Photog says:

    Thanks for writing about the show!

    Dave, doing the course certainly doesn’t prevent people from spending considerable amounts of time researching their subject, or indeed travelling. Several of the projects had been realised over a period of years.

    As duckrabbit pointed out, the interest of the course lies in being part of a group of motivated indivuidals, and being able to learn from each other.
    Having a piece of paper can also be helpful when applying for internships, or day I say jobs… (do they still exist?)

    As for the conceptual v non-conceptual debate, it probably needs to happen on a deep level. It strikes me that both approaches are the “inverse” of each other. That doesn’t mean they can’t coexist…

    A conceptual work takes a basic idea, intellectualises it, deepens it, collects varying viewpoints and then presents them in a way to further academic debate.

    Traditional journalism and documentaries seek to analyse and synthesize complex socio/political/economic concepts and present them in a way to engage the general public. I think one should stay clear of identifying traditional pieces with sets of nice pictures… the apparent simplicity of the narrative is a testament to the success of the analytical work that has preceded its presentation. To imply that communicating to a mass audience requires less depth of understanding than the production of a piece destined to more of a niche market would IMO be misguided.

    Whilst conceptual pieces often experiment with format, journalistic ones aim to present their content with the utmost clarity, appeal and effectiveness. Both goals require comparable levels of skill and expertise. Both can fail – maybe conceptual work is more difficult to assess, precisely because it by definition lacks elements of comparison.

    If you don’t mind me throwing in a bit of food for thought, I’m also a bit bothered by the assumption that the best pictures are likely to belong to the non conceptual pieces.
    Of all time, audiences have been attracted to art thanks to the “wow factor”… the display of skill that mystifies the layman. When art forms replace the pursuit of technical excellence with concept, they lose their appeal. Skills should be there to highlight and showcase life transcending ideas… you can’t do away with the craft or you end up boring everyone to tears. “Nice/good pictures” constitute the strength of photography as a medium. If you remove the esthetic value, you end up with yet another burdensome art form one feels obliged to engage with to keep up with the jones. And the only audience left is the type for whom keeping up with the Jones is important.

    Both camps – conceptual and non conceptual – need each other. The journalists need the food for thought and the intellectual challenge, and the artists need the communicators to understand their ideas and present them to the general public in a lively, mass user-friendly form their original presentations sometimes fail to achieve. (and indeed, the journalists often challenge the “conceptuals” in their own way as well)

    The question lies in the respective places of these approaches in the academic world. The experimental visual artists have traditionally belonged to the art and philosophy departments. The art of communicating with the public, and doing it well, has been the actual essence of faculties of media throughout the world. For argument’s sake – if they start sending out the message that generating academic debate is a greater achievement than effectively communicating with society at large, are they not shooting themselves in the foot? Precipitating, even, the death of what they originally stood for?

    Of course it doesn’t need to be either or – there is space for all. I do however believe in, and stand up for the reasons I chose to do the MA in the first place: the importance of communicating ideas and encouraging socio-political debate
    amongst groups of people who don’t all have the opportunity, desire or even ability to engage with the raw material.

    I hope the debate will take place on the course in the future – I believe it already has started (including through your blog). I’ve been very priviledged to spend a year studying alongside an inspiring bunch of people, and the bottom line is that it’s really nice to read about some of the actual work on here!

  8. linkaao says:

    I am currently enrolled in the LCC course and I have a couple comments. The value of the course depends on how one perceives value. If the course helps me to focus on my photography, as well as develop the way I make new work (or percieve old work), I think it is worth the tuition fees. I am paying a higher rate of tuition as well, because I am outside of the EU & UK.

    Do I want to be a photojournalist, no I do not. I am a photographer and I like to tell stories, but I didn’t enter the course to become a photojournalist, I entered the course to focus on my work. I personally need deadlines and feedback, I love competition, and I enjoy group sessions & editing. Personally I don’t expect the MA title to do much for me, solely based on the Master. I do expect that more will happen with my work after I graduate, because I have taken two years to really ask myself questions about my work, as well as make connections and develop my working methods.

    Also, we do discuss ethics of photography, past the darkroom etc. We discuss what it means to take photographs and the responsibility that we have as image makers. I love debate and the course has great seminars about these issues.

    I think what one gets out of a program like this, depends a lot on where they are in their career, what their expectations are, and how dedicated they are to the program. It does take a lot of self direction, which I have in spades. Thus for me, the program has been pretty awesome. Thanks for the article duckrabbit, cannot wait to see my classes senior show, hope to meet you there!

    • duckrabbit says:

      Thanks for your comment.

      I’ll be at your show if I get an invite …

    • Chris Jepson says:

      These are exactly the reasons I did the MA this year. I don’t anticipate being a frontline conflict-style photojournalist, but I do want to tell stories in a traditional documentary style. I have been a self-taught professional commercial photographer for about 10 years and I’m sure the MA is not going to suddenly boost my income or even open more doors, but the experience of working and studying for a year with 27 other photographers (the first time I have ever done so) was invaluable as were the techniques and teachings on history, other practitioners work, approaches to documentary etc

  9. Steve Pace says:

    Interesting post from Student Photog
    Here’s a small body of work from BKK’s Live fire Zone shot in 2010

    2nd edit just finished. All work taken from uncorrupted original files with now, basic photoshop adjustments

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