Teaching Photography


This survey report is an examination and discussion of the qualitative information I gathered for my specialist project survey. It is an attempt to gain an understanding of the perception of teaching photography by those who actually teach it. My intention was to try and understand what teachers of photography think should be taught and how.

My original sample size was a survey undertaken by email to ten recipients in which only four responded. This was disappointing. I then opened up the survey to a wider audience via an online website and although the survey was viewed by 51 people as at 15th April 2010 no responses were received.

With only four responses it is difficult to conclude or make any definitive statements from the findings but nevertheless a number of comments made seem to reiterate researched literature on the subject.

After leaving full time employment after 26 years I successfully completed the MA Photography Course at Leicester De Montfort University. Following this it quickly became apparent that part of my practice as a photographer would possibly lay in education. I am intrigued by the possibilities of promoting photography and arts as a way of transforming both individual lives and communities and showing how it can be a conduit for further education and life long learning. I am undertaking the PGCE because I want the knowledge and experience to give me the confidence to plan, prepare and present successful educational activities to small and large groups of people. My intention is that what I learn by doing the PGCE will allow me to explore these possibilities underpinned by educational systems and carefully considered theory and practice.
The aim of my subject specialist project is to gain a greater understanding of the teaching of photography from the teachers’ perspective and how this may inform my own future practice and approach.
Part of my wanting to do this is my concerns and questions I have about the current state of British Contemporary photography. I want to try and ascertain whether teachers of the subject feel that what is being taught in FE and HE fulfils the needs of the industry. Does the photography curriculum give the students sufficient vocational knowledge and experience to prepare them for gaining employment in the industry? Also what is being taught must surely be influencing the work that is being put out into the public domain, culturally and aesthetically. I am interested to know what the tutors feel about this.

The aim of my project is to find out what teachers of photography feel about actually teaching the subject in view of the current predicament. That predicament being that there are more graduates of photography leaving higher education than there are employment opportunities available. That it is difficult for established and qualified photographers to find work and in the current economic climate this situation is not going to improve in the foreseeable future. This from Williams A (2009:6) reiterates my own concerns;
“Photography education does produce more graduates than there are jobs as photographers in the commercial sector, and we are often not realistic enough about it to students, or about the alternative careers that are available to them.”
I want to find out what teachers think should be taught and how, compared with what is taught and how? What is the best way to teach photography? Where should the emphasis in teaching the subject be placed; on the technical, the contextual or a mix of both. Also as part of our teaching should we be giving advice and guidance on the alternative careers available in media, research, curatorial practice etc to those students with a photography qualification? Are we sufficiently preparing them succeeding after College? Williams A (2009:127) makes the observation,
“Graduates are often ill-prepared to make the transition into their future careers of whatever kind and for too long we assumed that producing interesting practice is enough without giving them the strategies to capitalize on it”

The objective is to gain an understanding of the perception of teaching photography by those who actually teach it. To understand what teachers of photography think should be taught, how and where the emphasis should be placed. I want to discover if teachers have any concerns morally and ethically in teaching the subject and therefore share my own moral and ethical concerns as outlined above. I also want to discover if the teachers find the process rewarding and if it informs their own practice. I think the reasons for asking these questions are that of my own personal concerns. I feel a moral and ethical dilemma at times in teaching the subject and I continually ask myself a number questions. My concern as a teacher is whether I am giving my students false expectations of finding work as photographers when few employment opportunities actually exist.

My own experience is in the immense difficulty there is in finding work both as freelance and as an employee. Are we as teachers setting up students to fail? What then is the purpose of teaching photography in an already saturated market? On the other hand we could say that it is irrelevant what we teach but the importance is in education itself and that whatever we teach is a conduit to lifelong learning and the embedded skills we teach with it. An education is better than none at all so we might as well teach a subject that learners are likely to enjoy and be creative in. Williams A (2009:8) again
“However we should not assume that all students want to become commercial photographers. Some come into photography education simply because they like photography and have not thought much further than that”
I also strongly believe that photography is as manifest in today’s modern world that as a subject to be taught it should not be ignored and not be taught in isolation of other subjects. I refer to two articles which have informed my thinking for this project. The first was ‘A Manifesto for Photography Education’ Coleman A. D (1971: online) which argues that
“What we need, instead, is an educational approach to photography which does not relegate it to the tail end of Fine Arts departments, but which integrates it with virtually every discipline”

Secondly Lowe, P (2009: online)
“But why study photography in the first place? As someone who teaches photography at post-graduate level, I get asked that a lot. After all, taking pictures is easy isn’t it? You just pick up the camera and it does everything for you these days.”

I would hope that a review of how photography is taught by the teachers could synthesize a more constructive approach to its teaching. By considering the understanding of how teachers perceive the teaching of the subject it may lead to a greater focus of where the emphasis of the subjects teaching should be placed within the contents of the course. A consideration of these factors would hopefully be beneficial to students in the long term.

There is a number of photography courses run at the Further Education College where I am on placement. This College forms part of the wider Sheffield College serving the entire city and as such the students who attend the photography course can come from right across the social and demographic spectrum. The College provides education to the entire city of Sheffield. My learners are likely to have a rich cultural and ethnic diversity. My own learners vary considerably in ethnicity, religion and age ranges with different reasons for pursuing the subject. There is no predominant group which attends the photography courses and the learners have different reasons for attending. From 16 -19 year old who wish to further their education and maybe progress to University to retired professionals who wish to learn a new skill as well as a whole host of reasons in between. An understanding of the diversity and needs of the learners is crucial to teach the subject successfully. As an educator it represents an opportunity for me to promote inclusiveness. Photography discourse provides ways I can adapt and develop strategies to do this;
• A humanist approach as defined in the theory of Rogers (Curzon 2004) i.e. learning photography through active discovery, group discussions, critiques and presentations. Presenting photography from around the world and not just that which is Euro or American centric.
• Consideration of the cognitivist theory as defined by Dewey (Curzon 2004) to help students create patterns of meaning which align to their existing mental framework of their own social and cultural backgrounds. Building on their existing knowledge of the subject, showing and discussing imagery of subjects they are familiar with.
Aimed at the different learning levels from entry Level 1 through to and including Level 4 & 5 Foundation Degree it could be argued that all the photography courses fit into John Biggs (Biggs 1999) theory of Constructive Alignment as discussed by Houghton (2004: online) and is the underpinning concept behind the current requirements. The courses all try and have a clear idea of what the students are to learn which in an art based course like photography which tends to be very subjective can be difficult. Specifying intended learning outcomes and assessment tends to focus on those activities which are mastery in Atherton’s (2009) form of curriculum model e.g. demonstrating use of correct camera controls, techniques and processes. As a teacher it can be difficult to promote the self expressive nature of the subject while simultaneously ensuring that intended learning outcomes, activities and assessments both formative and summative align.


Since my research question is interested on what teachers ‘think’ the method I have used has been by email questionnaire to a list of known photography teachers and placement colleagues (Appendix 1) in order to obtain some qualitative data for analysis. My questions were structured to seek general opinions. My research and analysis would therefore be of an ‘interpretive’ nature. This approach can be defined as the grounded theory approach to qualitative data Bell (2005) whereby I am beginning with questions but am not necessarily starting with a hypothesis. My analysis was to take place as the data was collected. The responses would be of a narrative inquiry nature, Bell (2005:21-4) and in that sense my analysis would be subjective and as a result problematic and complex. As Bell (2005:20) states
“It requires the researcher to identify concepts, codes, categories and relationships in order to bring to the data, and the time taken to become skilled at identifying and applying them is considerable”
With the limited data I have received I have analysed it in two ways. Firstly by looking at each question in turn to see if there are any common concepts and ideas and secondly to identify any broader themes which share certain views and definitions and which may align with current educational theory and practice.

I did not foresee any ethical issues since I was seeking opinions from teachers and colleagues across a number of educational establishments. My questions were not intended to seek criticism of the educational establishments or curriculum but a general view of how photography is taught and where the emphasis is placed on the teaching of the subject. I anticipate that some of the answers I receive could possibly raise some contentious issues, a criticism of the curriculum and or the establishments involved. By promising anonynimity I hoped that the participants would be able to respond freely without any possible repercussions and this would encourage a greater response. I am not necessarily interested in individual responses but a general overview, dialogue and informed opinion of the questions I pose. However I am mindful that as I know most of the respondents in either a personal or professional capacity their replies might influence my own personal opinion of them as people and photographers. I have to be wary of the fact that my own personal opinions on the issues that I am researching should not cloud my judgement on them if their responses are diametrically opposed to mine. Their opinions have to be respected.
As the survey progressed I became concerned at the lack of responses given the time constraints placed upon me i.e. submission dates for the PGCE. In order to try and get more responses I opened the questionnaire up to the web based photography network Redeye (Appendix 2 ); a photography resource site from North West England but of course available worldwide. Again my questionnaire was aimed specifically at teachers but I realise that anyone could have responded and this may have skewed the potential qualitative data, giving me opinions which were not necessarily as informed as those in the teaching profession. Sadly at time of writing this report no responses were received on the website and only 4 responses have been received out of the ten direct email requests I sent, despite repeated reminders. This rate of responses equates to 40 % and in retrospect I think this is approximately what I should have expected.
If time had allowed I would have liked to have conducted the interviews personally on a one to one basis or via telephone. This almost certainly would have resulted in much more discursive data from which to analyse and I can’t help feeling that my own opinions and concerns would have informed and influenced the final outcome, which I wanted to avoid. I wanted to gather the opinion of others independent of my own so as to hopefully inform and clarify my own thoughts and considerations. Clearly the skill of interviewing is to conduct the interview in such a way that obtains the necessary information while ensuring the questions and responses are not influenced by my own opinions, interpretations and dialogue. This is the problematic nature of undertaking as qualitative interpretative study such as this.

Key Findings and Evaluation

I have analysed the data in two ways. Firstly by taking each question in turn and interpreting the responses and secondly by analysing the data in terms of themes which may arise e.g. a consideration of the generic skills which a photography course might deliver.

See Appendix 3 for all responses.

1. Thinking about the photography course that you teach on where do you believe the emphasis should be placed i.e. technical, contextual, historical and why?
All of the responses seem to recognise that a level of technical proficiency is required in order for students to be able to respond critically and contextually to the world around them. The four responses I have had are from tutors who are teaching at different levels in FE and HE. For those responding who teach in HE it is assumed that students who arrive on the course already have a level of technical proficiency. Nevertheless all respondents recognise the need to strike a balance between the technical and the contextual. One response views the teaching of technical as a means to an end i.e. “a technically proficient image which allows them to successfully communicate their individuality to the viewer”.
These findings seem to reiterate the statement by Williams A (2009:7)
“The emphasis is on a conceptual approach, since that is what unites the most interesting work in these three areas, and it is grounded in a theoretical understanding of photography and its cultural and professional contexts”
What the responses are looking for it seems is images from their students which are technically proficient but more importantly are images which are of a personal and creative nature.

2. Why do you believe the teaching of photography is important?

All responses seem to agree on the importance of photography and visual literacy as a way of making sense, understanding and creatively expressing feelings about the world around us. One response refers directly to the constant visual imagery we are surrounded and bombarded with and the necessity to understand how we are influenced by imagery. Another response stresses the importance of creativity as a way of enrichment and personal fulfilment. Lowe, Paul (2009) reflects these comments;
“We need people who are visually literate, who understand how significant and important images are in contemporary life”
Appendix 3 Response 1 makes direct reference to the role teaching the subject can make in giving a learner self confidence and a sense of achievement. However the response also talks of the problematic nature of achieving a qualification in this subject and perhaps the anxiety felt at their students having to achieve a qualification in order to prove their worth in the subject. The response also touches upon the question of the purpose of education in our society and in a sense questions its direction.

“Creativity feeds the soul and enriches the lives of many people so if we can contribute to this then there is some worth in what we do. I think the problem with education at present is the expectations placed on young people to achieve qualifications; if they do not succeed they are made to feel that they will never amount to anything. There has always been an alternative route for non academic people but unfortunately these routes are narrowing as our society becomes increasingly skill centric.”

In a sense I feel the above comment questions and in some senses requests clarity of the Governments own rhetoric on education defined through Ofsted. Established by The Education and Inspections Act in 2007 Ofsted inspect the quality of teaching, being required to focus on how the College delivers value for money, promote improvement and how it operates its policies on equality and diversity. The principle aim of Ofsted is to, Ofsted (2010: online)
“We regulate and inspect to achieve excellence in the care of children and young people, and in education and skills for learners of all ages.
We want to raise aspirations and contribute to the long term achievement of ambitious standards and better life chances for service users. Their educational, economic and social well-being will in turn promote England's national success.”
The FE College where I am on placement like all FE Colleges is subject to the Common Inspection Framework (CIF) operated by Ofsted whose criteria, inspections and regulations focus on the interests of what it defines as service users i.e. children, young people, parents, adult learners and employers. The CIF for all post 16 providers makes explicit reference to the five outcomes of Every Child Matters or rather in the case of post 16, Every Learner Matters, see Appendix 1. These considerations have all had an effect on the photography curriculum and my practice. As part of my teaching I have to ensure that my lesson plans take into consideration inclusivity and diversity which I can do in a number of ways. I think on reflection that these considerations ensure that my teaching is more centered towards student centered learning as defined by Light et al (2009:29)

3. What difficulties, issues or concerns do you have, if any, in teaching photography?

The responses to this question were mixed and perhaps on reflection the question was not specific enough, allowing varied responses which are difficult to analyse to give a general quantifiable result. However the underlying concern from the responses I think is the commitment that is required by students in order to achieve success both intrinsically (personal fulfilment) and extrinsically (financial reward, career etc). One response is critical that the teaching of the subject does not incorporate giving students the tools and knowledge, financial management, self promotion business acumen etc to be able to function once they have left the course. This from one response,
“We do not teach them about the difficulties that they may face once they leave. A foundation course on business management and a future photography plan would help students understand what’s going on out there”

Again this seems to reiterate the view held by Williams A (2009:6)
“Graduates are often ill-prepared to make the transition into their future careers of whatever kind and for too long we assumed that producing interesting practice is enough without giving them the strategies to capitalise on it”

4. If your students are not going to be professional photographers, what is the benefit of your course to the learners?

The responses to this question I find interesting in educational terms because they all contain words which point to a sense of teaching the subject for intrinsic motivation. Words such as ‘understanding’, ‘self expression’, ‘building confidence’, ‘awareness’, ‘communication’ seem to value the teaching of photography as a means to personal expression and fulfilment. They seem to echo my own internal discussion that I have on the value of education per se as discussed earlier, i.e. teaching the subject as a means to access an education and promote lifelong learning and not necessarily teaching photography for its own sake. As Coleman (1971) states,
“That issue is this: if we are to come to grips with the phenomenal power of the photographic image in our culture and its potential as an evolutionary (as well as revolutionary) tool, we must recognize the fact photography has multiple functions in this society, and that many of these functions have little or nothing to do with the aesthetics and goals of “serious” photography”

On the whole a number of themes have emerged from the responses I have received. Most of the responses believe in the transformative nature of teaching photography; that of allowing them to “successfully communicate their individuality and personality” and using the subject as “a unique vehicle of self expression and communication”. Another theme which emerges is photography’s ability to act as a vehicle for a wider learning, “to examine their photographic practice in relationship to wider contemporary, cultural and contextual as well as historical frameworks”. It would seem that all my respondents are in agreement with the subject’s ability to promote wider learning and a world view as well as its ability to empower and enable. As one response states “to allow students to look at the world in different ways” while another is of the opinion “Understanding about photography and its concepts opens the person to be more creative. They also look at the world differently so teaching can give them a different view of the world.” These thoughts offer up a humanistic approach to teaching photography as defined by Atherton JS (2010: online)

Conclusions and Recommendations

Generally I am satisfied with the questions I asked and the responses which they elicited. However were I to undertake the project again I feel that more dialogue by way of face to face or telephone interviews / conversations would have fostered richer and deeper qualitative data.

The project has been extremely useful in helping me clarify my observations and feelings about teaching my specialist subject. I feel that some of the concerns I have had are not unfounded, and based on my own research and readings, some of which is presented in this report. In this respect I think the findings are as I expected them to be. Certainly the consensus seems to be that students need to be proficient technically in order to express themselves creatively but a great deal of emphasis needs to be placed on the critical and contextual as well. A balance needs to be achieved between the two areas.
Not surprisingly all my respondents believe that teaching the subject is important both as a subject in itself but as a means of visual literacy and creative self fulfilment. They believe in the power of teaching the subject as a way of promoting lifelong learning and creativity.
Obviously I would have liked more responses to my questionnaire and if I were to do this survey again I would have factored in more time and attempted to undertake face to face or telephone interviews rather than relying on email responses. I feel that face to face interviews would have given me a substantially more qualitative data in which to analyse both witting and unwitting Marwick 2001: 172- 9) quoted in (Bell) 2005,
“Witting evidence is the information which the original author of the document wanted to impart. Unwitting evidence is everything else that can be learners from the document”
As a result of researching this topic and thinking about photographic education I feel much more informed. That photographic education has a great service to offer in intrinsic motivation. Perhaps more importantly it will inform my own teaching such that part of it will be an attempt to provide my students with the knowledge and skills to operate effectively in the industry once they have left the course. I hope that in future as part of my teaching practice I will be in a position to influence the content and delivery of photography courses, for I would ensure that some focus is given to accounting skills, financial management, business acumen and self promotion etc. This has been a concern of mine while on placement and my general observation of other Photography courses and one of my survey responses reflects this, “My concern is that students automatically think they can go out and create a web site and start earning mega money. We do not teach them the difficulties that they may face once they leave. A foundation course on business management and a future photography plan would help students understand what’s going on out there”

I think the project has certainly been worthwhile and while I don’t think I can do much with the analysis I do think that it presents me with opportunities to open up and widen the debate further in future. I think it provides me with an opportunity to discuss the nature of photographic education in a wider context and I certainly feel less apprehensive about the ethical and moral dilemma of teaching the subject for vocational purposes only and therefore on a personal level it has been a worthwhile exercise.

References / Bibliograp

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Arts Council England (2010). Turning Point : A strategy for the Contemporary Visual Arts in England. Last accessed on 22 April 2010 at -point/

Arts Council England (2010). Why Arts Matter. Last accessed on 22 April 2010 at -matter/

ATHERTON J S (2009) Learning and Teaching; Curriculum [On-line] Last Accessed 13 April 2010 at

ATHERTON J S (2010) Learning and Teaching; Humanistic approaches to learning [On-line] UK: Last Accessed 19 July 2010 at :

BAINBRDIGE, Simon (2009) Time to Recalibrate British Journal of Photography
[online] Last Accessed 5th May 2010 at

Bell J (2005) Doing your Research Project – A guide for first time researchers in education, health and social science. Open University Press Maidenhead.

BUTCHER, John. (2005). Developing Effective 16 – 19 Teaching Skills. Oxon. RoutledgeFalmer.

Coleman A. D (1971) A Manifesto for Photography Education. Last accessed 5th may 2010 at

Curzon L.B (2004) Teaching in Further Education, An Outline of Principles and Practice. 6th Edition. London. Continuum

FOOK, Jan and GARDNER Fiona (2007) Practicing Critical Reflection – A Resource Handbook, Open University Press. Maidenhead.

HOUGHTON, W (2004) Constructive Alignment – and why it is important to the learning process [ online] Last accessed 2nd May 2010 at

LIGHT, G, COX , R, and CALKINS, S. (2009) Learning and Teaching in Higher Education – the Reflective Professional (2nd ed ) London: Sage

LOWE, Paul (2009) Learning Experience, British Journal of Photography Issue 23/12/2009, 48 – 49.

Ofsted (2010) Common Inspection Framework for further education and skills 2009 [online] Last accessed 6 April 2010 at

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PETTY, Geoff. (2009) Teaching Today Fourth Edition A Practical Guide. Cheltenham. Nelson Thornes Ltd.

REDEYE the photography network (2010) Redeye Forums photographic education [online] Last accessed 5th May 2010 at

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SMITH, Jim and SPURLING, Andrea. (2005) Understanding Motivation for Lifelong Learning. London, Campaign for Learning, Southgate Publishers.

SOTTO, Eric. (2004). When Teaching Becomes Learning A Theory and Practice of Teaching. London, Continuum.

WILLIAMS, Anne. (2009) Identity Crisis- Photography Education. Photographies Education Special Issue Vol 2 Issue 2

WOODS Richard (2010) The Shooting Party’s Over. The Sunday Times Magazine. 7th March 2010. 24 -27


Appendix 1

Photography – The Teachers Perspective Questionnaire


I am currently studying for a Post Graduate Certificate in Education at Sheffield Hallam University, part of which is to undertake a Subject Specialist research project.

Project Aim

The aim of this project is to find out what teachers of photography think and feel about the actual teaching of the subject. I want to gain an understanding of the perceptions of teaching the subject of photography from the teachers’ perspective.


Please answer all questions on page 2 of this document and return by email to Andy Greaves at email

Please Note - All replies will be kept anonymous. If you are interested in the findings of this research please indicate in your reply and I will share my findings with you when completed. Many thanks for your cooperation and input.


1. Thinking about the photography course that you teach on where do you believe the emphasis should be placed i.e. technical, contextual, historical and why?

2. Why do you believe the teaching of photography is important?

3. What difficulties, issues or concerns do you have, if any, in teaching photography?

4. If your students are not going to be professional photographers, what is the benefit of your course to the learners?