Decolonising the Documentary Curriculum

As I have remarked on this blog a few times, the celebrated canon of photojournalism and documentary photography has tended to fixate on a small pool of largely white, European, men. While many of these figures made important contributions to the history and evolution of the subject, what is problematic is the continuing absence of figures who do not fit this profile from much teaching and scholarship. These missing figures are part of what Lesley le Grange has characterised as the ‘null curriculum’, that which is missing or absent from the explicit university curriculum. It is an ongoing aim in my teaching to try and address this. While not actively ignoring or erasing those figures who are traditionally seen as important, I seek to incorporate more examples of photographers who are lesser known or celebrated into my classes, to widen my student’s reference points, and in doing that hopefully also provide them with more examples they can be inspired by.

One of the other students on the PGCE remarked on this aim of mine, saying that he was surprised that I was concerned with it since I am a white, male, European, and therefore most likely benefit from the present status quo. While this is true, this expectation also partially explains the persistence of this and other problems. If the people who do not benefit from the status quo are the only ones willing to challenge it, change is going to be a harder thing to accomplish. I might stand to benefit from the current system, but that doesn’t mean I feel it is morally right for me to do so, or even to tolerate it. One could say my motivations are partially selfish in so far as I see this homogeneity as an enormous problem for a subject like photojournalism and documentary, which concerns itself with exploring human experience. Most documentary photographers would recognise that the topics we choose to explore are highly motivated by our individual backgrounds and experiences. Equally our attempts to observe, record and explain are filtered through our own individual experiences. Therefore in order to explore the diversity of the world in the most nuanced way, it seems important that our subject field and the practitioners in it are similarly diverse.

When it comes to teaching I want to inspire my students with examples that reflect their own interests, visual styles and personal backgrounds. Particularly with some of my students from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, choosing to study journalism and particularly visual journalism is felt by some of them as having taken something of a risk (parental approval has come up a few times here), and I want to show them that if it is indeed a risk then there are examples of photographers that prove it is one worth taking. Like other tutors I routinely recommend students examples of photographers who I think they should look into, but also when I select examples for classes or refresh lectures as I do most years, I do this partially with a mind to the specific group of students I will be delivering the classes to. If I know a particular student has a strong interest in a certain topic or approach, I will try to seek out a few examples which I hope will interest them. Showing these to the entire class clearly has the advantage that these examples may unintentionally inspire others.

My ability to do this is obviously dependent on my own limited knowledge. I try to constantly learn more about my field, but this is one of many competing priorities for my time. Increasingly I try to use my former and current students as a way to introduce me to new photographers, creating exercises that encourage them to research and introduce examples of photographers who inspire them or connect with the same sorts of issues that interest them. While I take no credit for it, some of my former students have gone on to recognise that their background can be something of an asset. In one case a former student has established herself as an expert in Chinese photography, using her western education and Chinese background to bridge the gap between these two cultures and educate western audiences about the wealth of Chinese photography which goes largely unseen in Europe and north America.

Author: Lewis Bush

Photographer, writer, curator and lecturer.

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