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Passing marks for our photo schools?

10 April 2015

Institutes around the country are churning out photography graduates, but are they being taught the right skills to survive an industry that may not have a place for them, asks PJ Heller

Become a professional photographer” shouts the headline from a newspaper ad for a local polytechnic. Ah, the life of a professional photographer — trotting around the world, shooting the rich and famous in fabulous locations, or documenting dramatic global events, all the while earning lots of money. At least that’s the way it is often portrayed in the media, but the reality is far from it, explains Aaron Key, executive director of the AIPA.

“Thousands of kids are going to see that and go, ‘Oh, wow, I’ll do that’, not understanding that for every one of those successful photographers, there are probably a thousand others who are barely managing to scrape together a living, even though they might be just as talented or have as much photographic ability.”

Yet nearly two dozen schools around the country continue to churn out graduates with degrees or diplomas in photography, laments Key. Only a handful of those graduates may actually work as professional photographers, with others moving into peripheral areas such as design, animation, retouching, teaching, or video. Some may decide to try their luck overseas, while others leave the industry altogether. Still, the age-old question persists of how many photo graduates the market can sustain.

Vicky Te Puni, who graduated from Auckland’s Unitec in 2012 with a bachelor of visual design majoring in photography, recalls on the first day of school that her instructor advised the class there were “absolutely no jobs in photography”.

“There are no jobs, but there’s a lot of work,” she says. “You have to create it yourself. You have to be smart about it.”

John Maillard, head of the photography programme at Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology (CPIT), agrees, saying there are very few salaried photography jobs available. “The first thing we tell our students is photography is a very difficult career, and you’re going to have to figure out how you’re going to make a living.”

Careers New Zealand rates the chances of getting a job as a photographer as ‘average’, citing stable demand and stable numbers in a competitive industry. In the 2013 New Zealand Census, 2130 people listed themselves as photographers.

Mike Langford of the NZIPP says the issue is compounded by the idea that “everyone’s got a camera, and therefore they think they’re a photographer”. Langford himself is director of the Queenstown Centre for Creative Photography workshops, which teaches many of those keen amateurs. “The days of just having a camera and being able to take a good photograph, and being a professional as a result of that, they’re gone. That doesn’t exist any more.”

Ann Shelton, associate professor of photography in the School of Art at Massey University, says the school is very aware of the realities, and does not try to attract students by convincing them that photography is “glamorous”.

“We let them know it’s going to be a lot of hard work, and to succeed you have to work really, really hard and commit yourself to a degree,” she explains.

Rachel Hoskin, head of the School of Photography, Arts and Design at UCOL, says the school cannot ‘create’ jobs for graduates, only arm them with the best chances possible of finding or creating work for themselves. “If they really have that motivation, that passionate drive, they will find their place in the industry and they will be successful.”

Ian Rotherham, programme coordinator for photography and senior lecturer at UCOL, says he has been hearing the question about whether the market is oversaturated with photographers for more than 30 years. “I’d ask the same question of lawyers and politicians. There are people studying economics and politics at universities all over the place, and it’s a pretty small pool to get a job within politics … I think putting a spotlight on just photography is pretty unfair.”

iStock_000004242081Medium (Medium)

However, photography schools have been in the spotlight lately, with UCOL expanding to launch the Commercial Institute of Photography Auckland, offering the two-year Diploma in Photographic Imaging. At the same time, Unitec has slashed its design and visual arts department by more than half, eliminating 50 jobs, which will be replaced with 17 new positions, many of them expected to be filled by outside design professionals. At Massey, its two-year Diploma in Photography has been put on hold, and its four-year Bachelor of Design with a major in photography has been revamped for the coming term.

Langford, Key, and Te Puni all agree that photography schools are more interested in their bottom lines than they are about what happens to their graduates. “They are profit-making businesses,” Langford says. “That’s what they’re there for.”

Some of the schools, however, supply accolades and statistics to make a case for their industry relevance and efficacy. UCOL points to the success of its graduates, as well as its staff and current students, in industry awards — most recently, photographers associated with the school grabbed 21 medals at the Australian Institute of Professional Photography’s annual print competition in Melbourne. Shelton reports 65 per cent of Massey’s 2011 design students obtained full-time employment within six months of graduation and, of those, about 80 per cent were in jobs directly related to their chosen areas.

“We’re teaching skills,” Shelton says. “We’re providing students with a set of really high-end skills that they can use when they graduate in lots of different ways. Some of them will use those skills to become commercial photographers, and many of them will use them in innovative and different ways.”

One complaint coming from both New Zealand’s professional photography organizations is that many students coming out of photo schools lack the necessary training in running a business.

“To actually make it as a photographer — as a wedding and portrait photographer or a commercial photographer — and do the jobs that a lot of those young people want to do, like the billboard campaigns, the magazine editorials, and other cool stuff, you’re going to be self-employed,” Key notes. “And to succeed as a self-employed person, it’s probably more important to have some business knowledge. You know how to negotiate. You have to know about copyright and all of the business side of things. That’s more important to succeed than actually knowing f-stops and shutter speeds.”

He says many schools simply teach insubstantial, tacked-on classes in business, because such classes are a hard sell to students more interested in creative endeavours. “It’s the age-old thing: they want to turn out art. To actually succeed in that you have to realize you have to devote a lot of time to the business side of it.”

This was very much the case when Te Puni was studying. She says Unitec was “totally lacking” in providing students with the business skills to be self-employed, such as the cost of running a business, how to prepare taxes and understanding GST. “They don’t actually prepare you for that even though that’s the reality.”

UCOL, Massey, and CPIT all say they require photography students to take business courses. “It’s quite a holistic programme” that includes web and page layout design, invoicing, and building a business, says photography instructor Deborah Marshall of CPIT’s business focus.

Similarly, Rotherham describes UCOL’s business component as “very nuts and bolts”, addressing areas like copyright and pricing. Students at Massey can do a minor in a business subject, such as entrepreneurship and small business, or marketing.

The photography school representatives all stress that students receive a well-rounded education to prepare them for the future in a rapidly changing industry. CPIT’s Maillard says professional photographers need to be multi-skilled and have to move beyond thinking of themselves as just photographers, and UCOL’s Hoskin agrees.

“We designed our programme the way we did so that students have multiple skills when they leave,” Hoskin says. “That’s the beauty of our degree. We’re not flooding the industry with people who only have one skill set.”

Massey’s Shelton also echoes the need to produce graduates who are adaptable and flexible, with a breadth of knowledge that can be applied in different ways. “We can’t predict what sort of careers will be out there for our graduates in 10 years … So we want to send a young person out there with a broader range of career options, because we can’t anticipate that change.”
Even so, Langford is unconvinced that all schools share those same attitudes. “There are a lot of institutes out there teaching photography. Some of them are pretty woeful, and the students, when they come out, really have no idea of how to use a camera to communicate.”

Institutes with real, substantial connections with the photographic industry are the most likely to produce graduates who are aware of and equipped to deal with the realities of the trade. They’re also fairly easy to identify, as they will wear this connectedness on their sleeves, welcoming industry members to observe their courses as readily as they’ll send students out to observe the professionals.