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.

Teaching by Example

While writing my critical evaluations for the PGCE Teaching and Learning unit I briefly mentioned using my own work as material for teaching, and hinted at some of the benefits and difficulties of this. There wasn’t space in the evaluation to get into much depth about it so at the suggestion of my tutor I will expand on this here. The context for this was a discussion of some of the ways I have attempted to create a community of practice amongst my students, aiming to foster the sense that we are all united by a shared interest in and commitment to documentary photography. For me part of the way I seek to do this is to show my own work and to try be candid about the difficulties I have encountered in making it, so that students hopefully understand that difficulties (whether technical mishaps or unresponsive subjects) are something we all encounter, at any stage of our practices or careers.

My tutor picked up on the word ‘try’ in that previous sentence as something worth thinking about more. Certainly, presenting one’s own work as an example and being honest about the challenges that were involved is not quite as straightforward as it seems, and in fact raises a number of issues which cause me to hesitate before doing it. For one I am aware students might seek to rather directly emulate my approach, when what I really want is for them to find their own style and interests as photographers (although of course emulation is sometimes an important part of the process of finding these things). More difficult is the question of how frank to be about the difficulties involved in some of my work. In showing them examples I want to inspire them and make it clear that challenges are not always insurmountable, but I need to think carefully about not doing the opposite, over-emphasising the difficulties of documentary to the point that some of them start to anticipate complications which may in fact never occur.

Equally I feel a sense that perhaps I am sometimes revealing too much, making myself appear rather less than competent by discussing the moments when I found myself stuck or challenged in a project. While I am hardly a believer in the idea that a lecturer should be an unchallengeable sage maintaining and not undermining student’s confidence in your competence in your field also seems important if they are to trust the guidance and feedback you offer. Lastly I sometimes wonder if my own work is actually even the best example for what we need to discuss. Once during a class on writing text to go alongside photo series, I used an example from one of my own projects. My students were (in hindsight quite rightly) critical of the text I had written, feeling it was over wordy and could use shorter sentences. It turned into a useful exercise and I got them to rewrite it (a bonus bit of help for me), but this shows how true it is that we are often too close to our own work to assess it’s real worth and make objective decisions about it.

I’ve found that some of the most useful exercises have been where I have employed my own work without offering any sort of value judgement about how good or bad it might be. One example of this that I use quite often is asking my students to form small groups and edit a 10-photo sequence from a photo essay I shot right at the start of my career, when I was at a similar stage to many of them (the series is also about someone leaving home to go to university for the first time, a topic which resonates with many of them as they have just been through the same experience). Whether the series is good or not is beside the point, since the exercise is really about the power of sequencing and judicious editing. Having ‘borrowed’ this exercise from one of my own tutors I can say that as a student it was a really positive experience to be given the tutors work to sequence. Besides the obvious learning activity, it felt like a moment of trust that a tutor who we all venerated for his professional experience would let us edit and sequence his work. It heightened the sense amongst us that we were all joined by a common practice.

In short teaching by example in this way seems to offer a variety of challenges which need some careful thought, but in my experience, it’s value as a way to form connections with students and foster the sense of a community of practice seem invaluable and it is something I will continue to employ at key points throughout my units.

Why Teach Photography?

Colored school at Anthoston, Kentucky Lewis Hine, 1916
Colored school at Anthoston, Kentucky
Lewis Hine, 1916

These days about half my working week is occupied with teaching and with its accompanying activities; preparation, marking, tutorials, admin, standing in line for coffee. The amount of time I’ve spent occupied with this, and the fact I’ll be undertaking a post-graduate teaching qualification this year, has led me to think more and more about what it actually means to teach. Having been surrounded by teachers for much of my life, at home, at school, at university and then in college, it has always seemed such an everyday activity that it didn’t seem to warrant consideration. Teaching seemed entirely natural, like talking. Since I have started to teach I’ve gradually begun to think about it for the first time as a practice in the same sense that I think of photography or writing, as something which is cultivated and developed over time, which grows and evolves and solidifies, rather than being something that one just rather mechanically does.

This shift in perspective has opened up a multitude of questions for me, about what my ethos as a teacher is, about what constitutes good teaching, about how teaching can be sustainable and can not only function alongside other areas of my practice but in direct harmony with them. I have gradually started to synthesise some of the resulting thoughts into writing. I do this in the knowledge that these conclusions are likely to change over the following years as I think and learn more about teaching (and also as I do much more of it) but that’s rather part of the point. The ability to look back at my thoughts about things has always been part of the purpose of this blog, ossifying ideas so that later I can return, cutting through the strata of years of intervening contemplation, to arrive back at the bedrock, the foundations of it all. It is interesting in doing this to find that writing which seemed so essential and fresh at the time of putting pen to paper, now appears on rereading years later to be composed of nothing but ill shaped thoughts and vestigal ideas.

My approach to teaching has always been based on my own experiences as a student and of my relationships with those teachers who I remember years later, whether for better or for worse. I have always felt that one can learn as much from the bad as from the good, and like most people I have in my time had to contend with indifferent, bored, and even downright aggressive teachers and lecturers. I have been taught by people who made little effort to disguise their contempt for their students or mask the sense that teaching was a burdensome thing distracting them from their true calling in life, whether that was performing in a pub rock band or researching an obscure period of history. I’ve also been taught by people who actually seemed to rather hate their subject. These people have in a strange way become a minor guiding light of mine. They are a reminder to always strive to never become like any of them, and a reminder that whatever difficulties and frustrations are occurring elsewhere in my life I need to be mindful not to carry them into the classroom with me.

The many positive learning experiences I have had over the years as a student have been far more of an inspiration for my own teaching than the negative ones. I’ve had teachers who brought subjects to life and to light, who went to great lengths to make sure I understood, but who also did more than the bare bones of just decanting knowledge and making sure it stuck. I’ve had teachers who took time and expended effort to engage and know each student as far as they could, and in the process, they helped us know ourselves. These experiences all inform the class room environment I hope to create, one where students feel understood, that their tutors are interested both in their work on the course but also more broadly in what motivates and interests them. I hope an environment like this will in turn foster a sense that a diversity of experiences, interests, backgrounds, orientations and goals are all equally welcome, where students feel able to push and explore ideas about the wider world and about their own identities and aims. I don’t want to simply define photojournalism and documentary photography to my students, I want them to define it for themselves, in relation to their own experiences. Learning has been and continues to be a profoundly empowering process for me, a shy child who was always more interested in the constructions of his own inner world than the arbitrary reality outside of it. I want my students to have a similarly empowering experience, even while I recognise that the knowledge that matters to them and ways they might be empowered by it are likely to be very different.

At the same time as feeling empowered by education I want students to feel positively challenged in classes, intellectually and practically. This aim sometimes competes with the intentions outlined in the previous paragraph, particularly where a student group encompasses a broad spectrum of abilities and personalities, some of whom might require more or different challenge than others. A famous declaration by Finley Peter Dunne comes to mind when I think of teaching, his suggestion that the purpose of a newspaper was ‘to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’ would seem to have some relevance in the classroom. One aims for fairness and equality in treatment, while at the same recognising that different students need different guidance. Some students come with little confidence and need to be fortified simply in order to get them to make work, others come with an excess of confidence in their own abilities and need this to be questioned so that they can see the work they make with different eyes and in doing so make it better.

The Dunne quote I referenced above is also instructive in that it reminds me to constantly ask what the social function of teaching is, and to scrutinise where one stands as a teacher in the structures of society. Judging from my own experiences there is no fixed answer here, teachers can be activist, transgressive and speak truth to power (E.P Thompson’s searing expose Warwick University Limited comes to mind as an example from my alma mater). They can also  be conservative and defensive of ingrained inequalities and vested interests, a fact that seems particularly worth remembering in the context of the photography world, with it’s massive and largely unacknowledged inequalities, myriad gatekeepers and special interests. The idea of education as a force for social change, as articulated by Paolo Freire is one I find compelling, even if the promises of his ideas might be more modest in 21st century Britain than in the context in which he originated them. With the education sector increasingly seen as a business and students as customers, Freire’s ideas about how education can be a source of liberation or a means of entrenching inequality and his calls for solidarity and a blurring of the boundaries between teacher and taught seem highly relevant today. Likewise his idea of consciousness building seems pertinent to a field like documentary photography, where such a large part of the work is a process of disentangling the complex issues and systems one hopes to explore.

And lastly, I often find myself mulling questions of sustainability in a variety of senses. In some ways I find it remarkable how little technology has so far disrupted the teaching profession in contrast to other fields. I can’t see this lasting, and the smart teachers and institutions will be the ones anticipating how technology will change the demand, nature and delivery of education. An area I’m interested in specialising in is the use of online teaching platforms, technologies which bring with them their own peculiar dynamics, challenges and possibilities which are quite different to those of the physical classroom. With much current discussion of the precarity of the teaching profession I also find myself thinking about how teaching can be made professionally sustainable over the long term, both by working within traditional institutions of learning and outside of them. I often find myself wondering how teaching can work in harmony with the other things I want to spend my time on, and to some extent articulating these ideas here is a first tentative step into this area. The prevalent view of university arts teaching almost as a sort of subsidy for a small number of creative people to make their own work, research, or sometimes simply rest on their laurels, seems deeply unviable in the face of impending technological change, not to mention undesirable in the effect it sometimes has on those teacher’s attitudes towards teaching. So, these are the reasons I teach, because like so many things the challenges, promises, and the constant questions it presents are fascinating to me. In the end I teach, quite simply, because I want to learn.

This is a repost of a piece originally published on my blog Disphotic in December 2016.