A new culture of producing and consuming photographs is in place, challenging the profession of photographer as we once knew it. This is a confusing yet exciting moment, a time to re-think the need for and use of photography. How do current photographers adapt to these changes, and how do we teach photography to the next generation?
For nearly a year, Transformations has been exploring changes in photography through a series of guest articles and interviews. The Transformations team felt the time had come to arrange a live event to set a discussion in motion among some key players in the photographic world. So we teamed up with YET magazine and Cosmos Arles-Books at Les Rencontres d’Arles, where we invited a group of photography educators, curators, editors, entrepreneurs and, of course, photographers to grapple with the question: ‘What does the photographer of the future need?’
In the brainstorm session we addressed the needed skills, knowledge and attitude of the future photographer and talked about what kind of educational support is needed for the photographer. The brainstorm took place on 5 July 2017 and was followed by an open talk the next day.
The format was an unconference-model discussion, meaning that participants set the topics discussed. The brainstorm started with everyone defining key issues they wished to address. These issues were grouped to form three main areas for discussion. The main topics that emerged were Collaboration, Entrepreneurship and Adaptability. The group then split up into three smaller teams to brainstorm around these topics. At the end, a summary of each session was shared with the whole group, and the next day presented to a general audience.
Issues, Conclusions and Questions
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Photographers need to be adaptable because of the dynamism of the contemporary situation: the medium is changing, platforms are changing, the industry is changing, the world in which they all exist is changing. In today’s world, the photographer must keep learning (in order to adapt), but what exactly is it that the photographer should learn? In this brainstorm session the group talked about the need for defining the (new) basics of photography, but was quite divided about what these basics should be. While some felt that teaching traditional photography techniques and history of photography is essential, others felt that more emphasis should be put on narrative skills, entrepreneurial skills, and learning skills beyond conventional photographic skills, such as coding or social media skills. Documentary photographer and teacher, Mads Nissen, suggested that teaching photography should be more a customized journey than a set curriculum: photography should be learned through practice not theory, as a process where the individual needs and interests of the photographers is the starting point.
Katherine Oktober Matthews, chief editor of GUP magazine, stated: “Maybe being a good photographer is not the most important thing about being a photographer,” suggesting that a much wider skill set is what really makes a difference nowadays. Curator Iris Sikking, who also lectures at AKV St.Joost in Breda, talked about how the photography department there has merged with the film department. The focus in the curriculum is no longer first and foremost on the technical skills associated with the specific mediums, but on things that concern both filmmakers and photographers such as ethics, engagement with your subject, your position as a maker, participation with the audience, and so on. Whether or not this is a successful model will have to prove itself in a few years.
What all seemed to agree on was that one cannot master all the necessary skills, but that as a photographer you should be aware of what you are lacking and know where to look for the needed expertise. “As a photographer you don’t work alone anymore,” said Klaus Fruchtnis chair of photography at Paris College of Art. You don’t need to be able to do everything yourself, but you need to know a bit about everything, and perhaps be a specialist in something, in order to know how and with whom you should collaborate. It’s not about asking people for help, it’s about teamwork. Klaus also stressed that talking about transdisciplinary instead of interdisciplinary collaboration is more empowering for the photographer. A transdisciplinary approach transcends; an interdisciplinary one simply integrates. “A good photographer, artist or creative thinker will be the one who can work in a transdisciplinary way,” said Klaus.
Coming from the film world, Iris Sikking was amazed when she started working with photographers at the idea that you have to do everything yourself instead of through teamwork. Even working with a graphic designer can sometimes be difficult for photographers, she says. Multimedia journalist Ilvy Njiokiktjien, who is used to teamwork, points out that selling complex interdisciplinary projects can sometimes can be difficult, as publications usually just want to buy a part of it, for example only the pictures. The idea of collaboration also raised questions on authorship: who is the author within a collaborative practice and how does that affect the work and income of the photographers? In the open talk, Katherine Oktober Matthews summed up the groups thoughts: “There is a risk associated with these collaborations because it means that credit and resources must be shared.”
Adaptability is at root about the need to solve a problem, but to define the ways a photographer should adapt, one has to define what the ‘problem’ is. Are you trying to pay the bills? Create incredible work? Trying to work out what will help you in the right direction? It’s not only about adapting blindly to the changes, it’s more about finding your own way through them. The group felt that we should not only talk about the photographer adapting, but suggested that the industry should adapt more to photographers / creative thinkers who are changing at a faster pace. The big questions left unanswered was: ‘How do we teach the industry to change, and what platforms are needed to support the change?’
Collaboration was a keyword that kept coming up in all three group discussions. Both intellectual collaboration (broadening vision and sparking new inspiration) and practical collaboration (enabling support from other fields and finances) were considered necessary for photographers on all levels. In this particular session, the group discussed collaborative practices as a necessity within the educational system. Artist and teacher Olivier Cablat recognizes how much teaching photography has changed. “When I studied photography 20 years ago, one could specialize in a field of photography, but now when I’m teaching we have to enable the students to integrate so many things and multitask, which is very complex for both students and teachers.”
The group agreed that students need both collaboration across disciplines and collaboration with professionals, which allows them better insight into the value of their work, and gives them a realistic image of the world after graduation. Many young students feel under pressure to succeed quickly after graduation. Collaborating with professional mentors could be a way to help them stay on the right track and not rush into things. Mads Nissen advises his students to forget about people’s expectations, and to look inside themselves to figure out why they became photographers and what matters to them, instead of stressing about outside factors such as exhibitions, social media and winning awards.
Federica Chiocchetti, founding director of the Photocaptionist, mentioned the need for photographers to look for inspiration beyond the medium, as she expressed it: “photography is a container but not necessarily a content.” It is good to know the theory and history of photography, but inspiration can also come from such areas as cinema, literature, science, anthropology, psychoanalysis.” Having non-photographic disciplines covered in a program, and inviting guest teachers from other disciplines, is a way of introducing young photographers to new sources of inspiration. Federica encourages her students to become researchers first and foremost. Art and business advisor Isabella Brancolini, by contrast, points out that she has seen many weak contemporary experiments where photography is forced beyond what it needs to be. “Photography is an art in itself and doesn’t need to be associated with or vetted by other mediums to become more interesting.” She suggests that we should be open and receptive to other artistic disciplines, but not forget that photography is also a medium in its own right. Photographer and lecturer Guy Martin added that it’s important for photographers to take complete ownership / authorship of their projects in order to offer the necessary depth, and that goes further than photography. This is something that artist Delphine Diallo recognizes. Even when working on commercial assignments you need to have a personal vision and for that you need to look outside the medium, she says.
This loops back to the idea expressed by the ‘adaptability’ team: that one does not need to know everything, but to know where to find it. If you are not sure how to brand your products or promote your work, you should not be afraid of approaching experts to discover how they manage this. Photographer Émilie Régnier recommends more collaboration with grant-writers, as she sees grants as one of the most sustainable models for supporting photography projects at this point. The group agreed of that one should not be afraid of looking into new collaborations. If you are looking to fund a project, you can consider teaming up with commercial entities and if you are not sure how to brand your products or promote your work, you should approach experts to discover how they manage this.
According to the group, it is essential to get photographers to reach out and collaborate with others at a very early stage, not only to develop vision but also business skills. This links to comments made by the ‘entrepreneurship group’. We shouldn’t get stuck on the old business models; teachers should help students to open their minds and make connections to the corporate world, and to connect with business students. Facilitating cross-disciplinary collaboratives for visual storytellers is something that Evelien Kunst, fellowship director of MIAP, is a strong believer in. She sees this as empowering photographers by introducing them to new partnerships—such as collaborations with other creative thinkers, but also social organizations and businesses—to prepare them for an increasingly challenging market and to ensure high-quality stories.
For the group discussion on entrepreneurship time ran short, as there were many necessary skills, aspects of knowledge and attitudes to discuss. The first issue to be raised was the need of good budgeting skills and the importance of having a business plan. “Many photographers have a creative plan but not a business plan,” said Giuseppe Oliviero, founder of the Photographic Museum of Humanity. “Not only do you need a business plan but you should keep coming back to it. As the creative plans evolve, the business plan should evolve as well.”
Having people skills and knowing how to network is another key issue raised. Your attitude as a photographer might make or break you. Someone who says “yes” and has a positive attitude is someone you want to work with, the participants agreed. There is no room for divas and complainers. Understanding the market and knowing how to approach people, especially when it comes to pitching a story, was another issue in point. If you are approaching a gallery, a publication or a tech-company, for example, you need to pitch the story in very different ways.
Simon Karlstetter, director of Der Greif magazine, pointed out that there are many misconceptions when it comes to making money with photography within the art world. Only a tiny number of photographers make money from the gallery world, it’s the few known names that we keep hearing about. Freelance photo editor, educator and producer Amber Terranova agreed, saying that she advises her students to be open, not package their work only for gallery walls but to think more about the context, so that their work is suitable for various outputs. Evelien Kunst suggested that aiming for diversity in income streams—from publications, prints sales, exhibitions, and so on—would help clear the way to a more successful income model. The more you diversify, the more successful you will probably be in terms of business models.
Diversification was a keyword in this discussion: finding ways of reaching different audiences through various channels. “You don’t need to change the story you tell, only tell it in a different way,” said Lotte Sprengers, head of education at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. At the Academy, learning entrepreneurial skills is always at the top of the agenda. Creating an audience outside the photography industry is something photographers of today and tomorrow should aim for, Giuseppe Oliviero added, “We are not monetizing so much because there is no audience,” he said, bringing up the example of the skateboarding industry, which went from a small inside crowd in the 1980s to the multimillion industry of today. In a similar fashion, photographers of tomorrow, but also of today, have to create their own audience outside the industry as well.
There is no questions that entrepreneurial skills are much needed for photographers today. During the open talk, Lotte Sprengers summed this up for the group: “One could say that photography is 10% about photographing and the rest is all about entrepreneurial skills / business skills.”
Participants in the Arles Transformations Brainstorm
Amber Terranova - Executive Producer, SCREEN, and Faculty Member, BFA Photography and Video at the School of Visual Arts.
Delphine Diallo - Artist
Émilie Régnier - Photographer
Evelien Kunst - Fellowship Director at MIAP, and Guest Lecturer at DMJX
Federica Chiocchetti - Writer, Curator, Lecturer and Editor specialised in photography, Founding Director of the Photocaptionist
Giuseppe Oliviero - Founder and Director of Photographic Museum of Humanity
Guy Martin - Documentary Photographer, and Associate Lecturer at the University of Falmouth
Ilvy Njiokiktjien - Multimedia Journalist
Iris Sikking - Independent Curator/ Lecturer
Isabella Brancolini - Art & Business Advisor and Founder of nineteensixtyeight
Katherine Oktober Matthews - Chief Editor GUP magazine
Klaus Fruchtnis - Associate Dean of Graduate Studies / Chair of Photography at Paris College of Art
Lotte Sprengers - Co-head BA Photography at Royal Academy of Art, The Hague
Mads Nissen - Documentary Photographer, teaching masterclasses and long term workshops
Olivier Cablat - Artist, Founder and Artistic Director Cosmos Arles-Books
Simon Karlstetter - Director Der Greif magazine
The brainstorm session in Arles was the first of a series of discussions that Transformations is looking to facilitate. This time the umbrella question was intentionally wide to help map a broad range of topics. The discussions were predictably and pleasingly wide-ranging, and though—given the time frame—we weren’t aiming at this stage to find all the answers to the many good questions raised, we did get a much clearer picture of where future discussions need to focus. We are looking forward to staying in touch with the network and to digging deeper through further sessions and research in order to distill some answers for this and the future generation of photographers. In the meantime, we are looking to keep the conversation active and invite you to help re-think photography with us. If you have ideas, comments, platforms for discussion, don’t hesitate to contact us at: [email protected]