Self confidence in your photo skills will trump a photo degree

My diploma from Philippine Airlines Aviation School. It's real folks. What has this to do with photography? I'm not current and I haven't flown in years. Do I have the confidence to go up in the air? Probably if I were alone, but I wouldn't take any passengers with me.

Lately I’ve been asking myself how important a formal photography education is.

According to photographer Tony Blei, the degree gives you credibility, and offers you an opportunity to network.

My guest speaker Rick Sforza said a formal education in photography places you in an environment which fosters collaboration between  like-minded individuals .

Clearly both of them believe some sort of education is important.

I’m in agreement with them but the problem  is often the photography curriculum in the schools.

First we have to understand that academic institutions are businesses.

You pay them, they supposedly provide you with skills and present you a piece of paper with fantastic calligraphy  which shows you have ‘staying power’ and can start and finish something.

Stories abound where students say they completed a certificate or degree in photography, but have not been able to get a job in their field.

We rarely hear of a medical school or law school graduate who can’t find work in their field.

However, in the arts, especially photography, it is extremely common.

Photography graduates traditionally had very few places where they could be a staff photographer.

A staff photographer is just someone whose sole occupation is to take pictures for their employer.

In return the employer owns the rights to his pictures and they pay him a salary and benefits.

My photography professor Charlie Brill had a bluntness about him that I remember to this day.

He knew not all his  photojournalism students had what it takes in the super competitive world of photojournalism.

Charlie thought that it was better to be blunt, so that these folks don’t waste their time or money.

I was fortunate enough to attend a journalism school where part of the requirement to graduate was completion of an internship.

Now in retrospect, as I find myself in the role of teacher, I can see now why Charlie made an internship a graduation requirement.

The photo classes I took in college taught me how to make technically perfect pictures but what they lacked was a real-world component to it.

The assignments I shot for class were usually good enough for an ‘A’ based on composition, exposure and subject matter, but the problem was: until I got a car to get off campus, my pictures were often in the very sheltered world of the college community.

A world where people seldom objected to being photographed. Where ‘news’ was some peaceful protest at the Student Union building.

The internship,  even if it was at small weeekly newspaper, exposed me to the real world where felons and corrupt officials don’t cooperate where news events happen at odd hours and you don’t get to do it over if you goof up.

Now some 20 odd years later, I’ve become a part-time instructor.

I haven’t seen the curriculum change much.

There is no instruction on how to run a business, how to market yourself and how to be profitable.

It’s almost as if photography as it’s taught in college has to be all about Fine Art.

What about folks who don’t want to teach, those who want to support themselves doing it?

Adding insult to injury is inevitably the folks in the Art department always wanting to wrestle control of the photography department, instead of treating it as a vocational skill like the culinary arts, automative repair or even cosmetology.

If that is allowed to happen, most photography programs will never change to serve their students’ best interest.

Be careful out there if you’re thinking of studying photography.

This recent Photo District News article about the Art Institutes is worth reading.

Peter Phun Photography

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2 thoughts on “Self confidence in your photo skills will trump a photo degree”

  1. Wanda,
    I agree wholeheartedly with you. The only thing is: unless you’re independently wealthy and don’t need to recoup your cost of getting that BFA, what good is that piece of paper unless you really, really want to teach fine art photography? Most colleges require a minimum Masters to teach. A bachelor’s degree isn’t enough to get a teaching gig.

    I would save my pennies and take workshops from reputable professional photographers. And even in that group, not all are willing to share what they know willingly. You can’t blame them especially if the students don’t have a good attitude.

  2. I have thought about getting a BFA, just for the opportunity to collaborate with like minds. Fine Art Photography is my passion, so I think I would benefit more from a degree than I would if I was interested in commercial photography.

    Someone who is interested in commercial photography is probably better off attending a photography certificate program or going to workshops held by professional photographers, rather than seeking a fine arts degree.

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