Studying photography: part two – what worked

St Dunstans Church, City of London

I got rather gloomy after writing the last post.  I’d forgotten how conflicted I was about studying degree level photography, how it felt so constraining, and how I constantly had the sensation of being torn in two different directions – what I wanted to do, and what I felt I had to do.  What really prompted me to write about this at all, however, was that I’ve since realised  that doing these courses also had many positive effects, some of them long-term.  What follows is a summary of the main ones.

A structure to work within – when I started studying I was doing what most people do when they’re new to photography and wildly excited about it: taking random shots of everything and anything that caught my eye without making any kind of sustained progress.  It was good to have interesting assignments that made me think harder about what I was doing and what I wanted to achieve.  I can create my own structure now, but I wouldn’t have known how to at the time or had the discipline to stick with it without some external promptings. The assignments were interesting and challenging and allowed a lot of scope for personal interpretation, and most of the courses were well-written, thoughtfully put together, and stimulating.

Encouragement to work in themes – working in series, or themes, was new to me when I started.  I came to realise quite quickly that it’s much more fulfilling to work this way and it produces a more coherent, thoughtful body of work than the one-shot wonders I’d been producing.  I still take one-off shots of things that catch my eye, and I enjoy that, but what I really love to do is to explore something thoroughly, seeing more and more of its nuances and depths.  Working on projects like this has moved my photography forward in a way that nothing else has, and has made it much more worthwhile and satisfying.  This is one of the best things I got from the experience.

Window, St Dunstans Church, City of London

Background knowledge – I learned a lot about the contemporary and historical photography world, and a little about photographic/art theory.  I don’t think I would done so much of this on my own.  It’s given me a good foundation from which to discuss photography and photographers, and it’s knowledge I take pleasure in having.  It makes viewing exhibitions much more meaningful and enjoyable, too.

A more open mind – I had to look at the work of photographers that I would have otherwise avoided.  While not particularly pleasurable, this was really good for me and made me work to understand what was behind the images and what made them notable.  Over time I came to appreciate photography that I would previously have dismissed.  I learned to spend longer looking and avoid the knee-jerk ‘like/don’t like’ reaction I might have had before.

A supportive community of other students – this was a huge advantage, which I found far more valuable than anything else.  I made a number of good friends, many of whom I’m still in touch with, and a few whom I meet up with face to face.  I knew that I could get considered and thoughtful feedback from peers any time I wanted it, and I received immense support and encouragement from other students, particularly during a time when it was singularly lacking from official OCA sources.

Study visits – latterly, OCA began to hold study visits to significant exhibitions.  These offered more opportunities to meet and talk to other students, and hear tutors talk about the work we were viewing, giving us additional insight into it.  I also went on a residential weekend, which was arranged by the students themselves (in conjunction with OCA), and that was an amazing  and thoroughly enjoyable experience.

It included the opportunity to bring some work and have it critiqued by both a tutor and a group of students.  I was apprehensive about this to begin with, but having a variety of people contribute their thoughts resulted in a more rounded feedback that was less open to the bias one person might show.  It also increased my confidence to have another tutor say some very positive things about my work – I’d accepted by this time that I was never going to do very well within OCA, so this gave me a bit of a boost.  Of course, it could equally well have gone the other way……….

Reflection, St Dunstans Church, City of London

Greater self-awareness – one good thing about identifying what you don’t want is that it points the way to what you do want.  All the angst I went through at times had the effect of throwing some light on what it was I most wanted from photography.  It made me question myself, in a good way.

Increased self-confidence – this may seem unlikely given what I said in my previous post, but it’s a matter of  ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’.  I certainly lost a lot of confidence while I was doing the courses, but ultimately I realised that if I wanted to continue doing photography I couldn’t place too much importance on what any one tutor – or anyone else for that matter – said to me about my work.  I once had the same assignment marked by two different tutors and, although the overall mark was similar, the individual feedback on each image was markedly different.  Assessing any kind of art is unavoidably subjective and I stopped taking any of it very seriously – good or bad.  Of course, I then asked myself if there was a point to doing the course at all and I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t.  By that time, I had structures in place that gave me the other things I’d gained from studying, and if all that was left was course material, assignments and tutor feedback then it wasn’t enough to justify the costs involved in carrying on (both financial and emotional).

Were I to go back to degree study again, I’m sure all the old feelings of inadequacy would resurface – I was always a square peg trying to fit myself into a round hole and that makes it very difficult to hold on to confidence in your work.  But now I’m beginning to feel I’ve found my niche and my voice, and that I’ve made a solid foundation from which to move forward.  In a strange, and often indirect way, studying brought me to this place.

Arch with climbers, St Dunstan Church, City of London

At first, once I’d removed myself from the college I felt a little bit lost for a while, unsure of what I wanted to do or what I was aiming for.  Slowly I returned to the approach I had when I first started, albeit augmented by the positive things I’d taken from my period of study.  When I came across contemplative photography I realised that this is how I naturally work and suddenly I felt as if I’d come home.  College work was supposed to involve a lot of planning and research before you even got the camera out, and although I did go about things this way sometimes, it never felt right and never produced my best work.  At other times, I went back to working in a way that felt natural to me and added in the ‘planning’ and research afterwards to keep everybody happy.

And that was the real problem – when you do something with the end in mind, whether that’s a certificate, good marks, approval from peers/tutors, or whatever, there’s a real danger that you lose your way.  Some people are strong-minded enough to avoid this – I’m not always one of them.  To be truly creative you have to spend time in play, and feel free to make mistakes, and this wasn’t a culture where mistakes were well-received.  I became less and less adventurous and played it more and more safe.  And as I did, my marks got lower and lower, which in turn made me lose confidence, and the whole thing went spiralling downwards.  Looking back at some of the work I did for assignments, I can see that while it was perfectly OK, a lot of it didn’t reflect or express who I was.  I’m glad to have left it all behind, and grateful for the benefits I’ve brought with me.

Images are of St Dunstan’s Church in London and form part of an early assignment for the Landscape course.  I’ve pulled out the ones that feel most like ‘me’ – the others in the set never did.