We’re All Learning, All the Time: The Current State of Photography Education

These days, photography education is all around us. How-to videos abound on YouTube. It seems like more universities each year are offering BFA and MFA programs. Every conference boasts workshops and portfolio reviews with established photographers, or competitions juried by well-known gatekeepers.

It has never been easier to find educational opportunities, and yet, many of us in the field find ourselves asking the question – is all of this learning really giving photographers the tools they need to build a satisfying career?

Chelsea Darter, ONWARD Compé '15 selected photographer

Chelsea Darter, ONWARD Compé ’15 selected photographer

The One-Size Fits All Model

The flexibility and freedom of watching videos from home makes online learning one of the most appealing and widespread forms of photography education, especially for self-taught photographers. How-to and do-it yourself videos put technical skills within the grasp of the disciplined and motivated student. Pre-recorded courses teach visual skills and knowledge.

Call me old-fashioned, but what I see lacking in the current model of online education is nuance. Learning to be a photographer is not a composite of technical skills; it’s not learning to take random, appealing pictures. The articulation of a photographer’s personal vision and the execution of that vision through a cohesive portfolio is the true artistry at work.

There is no YouTube video that teaches that.

The Formal Education Method

On the flip side of the coin, we are accustomed to believe that obtaining a degree in Fine Arts will be the result of both an education of technical skill, and also the ability to put together a portfolio that will grant access to a career in the field. You’re paying for this top-notch education so, in theory, you should upon graduation feel prepared to start your career. Yet, art students commonly joke that they’re just trying to stay in school as long as possible, or until they secure a teaching job. In recent years, students have often moved directly from undergraduate to MFA programs without giving careful consideration to the true possibilities of a career in the art form they are pursuing.

William Chan, ONWARD Compé '15 selected photographer

William Chan, ONWARD Compé ’15 selected photographer

It’s All About Exposure

If the end goal, regardless of education level, is to increase exposure, how can you be sure that you are fully prepared for the professional world? Competitions and portfolio reviews are popular ways for young photographers to put themselves out into the world. While these events are intended to provide motivation and movement forward in emerging artists’ careers, they can become too transactional: photographers paying for the chance to have their work seen by industry decision makers who may be able to get them that “exposure”. In the pursuit of access and exposure, many photographers use this “pay-to-play” method to reach curators, editors, and publishers before their work is ready. While these options can be helpful to some, they provide an incomplete solution to individual artistic growth.

The Missing Link

How then do educators create programming that provides solid mentorship and guidance, but allows students flexibility and affordability? This is a problem we’ve been thinking about as people who take photography education quite seriously and we believe we have a solution.

We have identified four fundamental components necessary in a program for students to build a successful portfolio. These can be described as,

  • Guidance: mentors available for feedback and critiques
  • Accountability: comprehensive course with frequent check-ins
  • Flexibility: online classes provide ability to work from home
  • Affordability: significantly less than traditional courses

We are confident that our method will provide students with a solid education and leave them with a professional portfolio with an individual artistic point of view. We call this the ONWARD Global Mentorship Program.

To find out more about the course click the button below.
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