As another academic year approaches the finish line, I’m again inclined to reflect on what happened and what could be done differently, from hereon. However, as we all know, this was not just “another” school year. Now that my online classes finally came to an end and I’m fully back at regular classes with all students, I just want to get over the online experience and move on. Regarding photography classes, and those I teach in particular, nothing good came out of that distance and I’m not keen on repeating the dose. Funny enough, the thoughts that began lingering in my mind when I got back to regular classes, by the end of May, didn’t concern this particular experience we were all having, but, instead, they revolved around the idea of photographic language. Maybe, somehow, this online experience made certain issues clearer, but I believe the prevalent reason for what I’m about to write results from two facts: that this year I was a tutor to a single unit – Project; and that I’ve been working closely with another teacher, with whom I share classes in two schools, Orlando Franco. 

Some years ago I had a disastrous experience while sharing the tutoring of the Project Unit with a colleague. At first, I thought what was common in our grid of references and knowledge would be enough to sustain an affirmative dialogue between us two and the students, but that wasn’t the case. Our differences, regarding pedagogy, took over and students just got lost in the midst of our opposite methodologies. This new experience, with my colleague Orlando, is a new chapter and I think students benefit both from what is similar and different in our approaches. Orlando is altogether a better teacher and I’ve been learning from him. His timing is kinder to students than mine, but I believe we complement each other. Orlando is a visual artist and his vision regarding students’ projects reflects his focus on thought and process. I tend to address aspects that have to do with photographic language and “alternative methods” to materializing images. Orlando lets himself get dazzled by images, and students definitely benefit from that excitement. Maybe I do as well, but I’m always more critical, always pushing students (maybe too hard?) towards what could be improved and reinvented. I’m also a bit obsessed with aesthetic truth, so I insist on students finding what is authentic about their expression. Our constant sharing of impressions in between classes is extra work, but rewarding. Because this is not a critic of the school system and the framing of our jobs, I’ll leave comments regarding our precarious conditions to another post.

Moving on… 

The generation of students we’re in contact with, the majority being millennial, has it own context, and it happens to be one particularly linked to photographic imagery. The way images impact their lives is highly complex and the consequences start to come forward once we challenge them to create photographic projects and find their own language to address the ideas they choose to express, photographically. Some of the themes that prevail are historic and they reference the medium itself, but some are generational. Of course, the clichés keep driving some students, and so does a naïf understanding of “the photographic” being something that relates to the camera and what is in front of it. Overall, there’s a major confusion regarding photography as an expanded field. Historically speaking, this generation faces a big challenge with freedom, and what surprises me is that some deal with that problem by demanding categories, rules and boundaries. Because of that, and also because I find chaos to be a great creative force, a big part of what I try to do is stir things up.

This year I’ve accompanied students doing their projects thruout the year, but was also faced with a new task: to accompany students whose projects I was unaware of just as they are coming to an end, guiding them thru the final stages, making choices regarding formats, printing technologies and presentation methods. Teaching is complex and each group of students has an autonomous identity, so our job involves a great deal of empath, understanding and mutual respect. When that fails, hell breaks loose. I’m not one to give up on things and I tend to keep pushing students to improve, but this year I’ve learn to let go. Some students just don’t care, some are just not whiling to put in the effort, and after 10 years I finally understood there’s nothing I can do about that. It’s liberating, for then all focus and energy can be redirected to help students who are keen to learn and grow. The covid mayhem and the online experience made that clearer. 

These students aren’t different. It’s just the same as when I was a student: some people are passionate, profoundly interested in learning and keen to experiment; some aren’t. On the other hand, regarding the less appealing part of the job, I start to see a pattern and I think the design behind that pattern is particular of this generation. The pattern involves: reluctance to learning, fear or reluctance to show work and/or hear comments about their works (did social networking install a fear of comments?); reluctance to  experiment; a slight arrogance towards tutors (as if they already knew it all and our knowledge was worth shit) and a high praise of superficiality (often glamorizing societies’ most profound questions and treating them as fashion trends). There have always been rude students, there’s no difference there, apart from the realization that in private schools episodes involving lack of respect tend to happen more often, as if money empowered them to act without consequences. Is that what our capitalist society is teaching them?

But the overall drama seems to arise from the fact that a lot of photography students fail to recognize that photography is a language and, thus, in order to practice it, one needs to know its structure, so I often end up talking about images as if they were texts: a stain of words, punctuation and empty spaces. The emergence of mobile phones and social media definitely changed the landscape for photography and the learning experience. Instead of being inspired by photographs seen in books and/or at exhibitions, movies and literature, often at first their grid of references comes mainly from Instagram and we keep throwing references at them. One of the issues I’ve been feeling conflicted about is precisely this exchange of references, which has a big impact in what students create. Are we over redirecting? Holding their mobile phones, our students see hundreds of photographic images every day. Their references often have no source. Images are aliens, participating in an archetype that rules their visual world. Once they begin their courses, we see those references come out. It’s about coolness, lifestyle, feel-good moods, colors, bodies, styling, highly contrasted and saturated images, etc. For most, that changes thruout their courses and there are always some “black sheep”, meaning people that come with their own set of values and drives and, thus, readier to mature. There’s always a potential path to be walked with students who want to do the work, no matter what stage they’re at. Their refusal to speak photography is really the only thing I can point out as an impeachment to move forward in what we try to do while accompanying their projects.

In former years, I’ve enjoyed teaching a unit called “Photographic Language” very much. I feel we need to begin there, talking about semiotics, addressing what is specific about visual language, in general, and photographic language, in particular. Together with technical issues, I believe semiotics form the basic of what is so specific about this language. Once that is addressed, it is possible to move on and talk about aesthetics and visual expression. The problem is the basic is often not apprehended once students start working on their photographic projects, and that’s where some major difficulties begin, regarding our communication.

Some students trust us to fill in the void that, at some stage, permeates their projects. That void, in itself, would not be an issue if they worked their way through it. But scholar environment is often not generous enough to an experimental approach. They need to produce work in a limited time-frame, so we often rush through stages of discovery that would otherwise be slower and kinder. Once projects are “finished” and students present their works, two questions arise that need further reflection: truth and autonomy, or the lack thereof. Projects that are successful have that aesthetic truth I came to understand as a sign of authenticity. My belief is that my job is to help students find that authenticity and maybe all we can do is to try and contaminate students with that ethical approach, so that they can move on start working on their major projects. 

But there’s also an issue with immediacy. Newer generations expect things to happen quickly. They want results. While trusting the internet to provide all the answers in an instant click, there’s a thought process that gets lost. Thinking, searching though books and dictionaries, wandering around, loosing track of time in movie theaters or bars… those things stimulate both conscious and unconscious processes that would latter flow into one’s creative ingenuity. I often hear students’ tales about denial and avoidance, as if other generations’ curiosity, eagerness to know and experiment was something of another era.

Between workshops and institucional classes, this year I’ve been in contact with more students. From that, a more positive perspective arises, given that the energy of those who are really keen on experimenting with life and photography has a bigger impact. In sum, because that creative energy is stronger, my frustration and fatigue are lower and that’s saying much. At times, getting home from a day’s work and finding all the different email boxes filled with student’s emails can be exasperating, but overall I understand their eagerness to ask for help and guidance and I thank those you have been kind enough to share this journey with us in an honest and humble way. 

Below, a glimpse of some of the students’ projects I had the pleasure of accompanying this year (at one stage or another).

© Hugo Nunes, “Burning Soul”. I was not Hugo’s teacher, he was mentored by my colleague Susana jesus. I just stepped in to help with final stages (formats/printing/presentation).







2 replies on “Students who speak photography

  1. Wonderful to read a teacher who reflects deeply on teaching and learning in photography. The larger issues have not changed from my experience of teaching before I retired 6 years ago, and what you say chimes with my experience as a photography student in the early 1970s. I think there has always been a reluctance to share work in critique sessions (which are crucial and very hard to replicate online). I remember several instances over those years of students storming out in tears, resentful, defensive responses from others and of course the frustration of engaging those who lack commitment. What has changed, as you point out, is the unmediated overwhelming exposure to imagery (Instagram etc.) through which any sense of the continuities of the medium, and discernment of its quality, is diluted. Add to that the fact that as a profession, photography has become devalued, and no wonder students feel lost. The converse is that the medium has always been bigger than its use in commerce and art, and is constantly expanding despite predictions that the moving image (and now VR) would supersede it. The still image as ‘a message in a bottle’ needs decoding, but in context is as eloquent as a haiku, a political slogan, a vow, a curse, a blessing, a joke, an instruction. That it reads across cultures of different spoken language remains proof of that. It is wonderful and affirming to read your words about “those who are really keen on experimenting with life and photography”.

    1. Thanks James for the comment and the input. As you can imagine, it resonates deeply with all that motivated me to write this text (and everything else what was left unsaid).

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