Hands up everyone who thinks a BA degree in photography is one of the most useless degrees a person can acquire?
I’m writing to convince you (and government funders) otherwise, with a few careful observations.
I have a little experience here, having taught at four different higher education institutions in Ireland over the past 25 years, mostly in photography but also digital media, design, business sustainability and business ethics. I’ve been teaching on the Honours BA in Photography in the Dublin Institute of Technology for nearly 20 years. I’ve watched our students graduate and establish careers as entrepreneurs, teachers, activists, managers, and yes, even photographers.
It is fascinating to follow the often non-linear progress people follow that builds on skills developed in college. Before graduating in 2013 Deirdre McGing made several projects that investigated the qualities of gender identity and representation. After DIT she secured an internship in the Gallery of Photography in Dublin, where she helped organise “The Photo Album of Ireland” exhibition that was shown throughout Ireland and touring in the U.S. last year. She worked as an online Photoshop instructor, and now Deirdre’s ability to understand and communicate with images has led her to a job as a social media marketing expert.
Another of our graduates, Ángel Gonzalez, founded the PhotoIreland Festival and The Library Project in Temple Bar in Dublin. Originally from Madrid, Ángel started the Festival to promote photography in Ireland and has secured international funding to promote Irish cultural productions in Europe. A graduate in 2011, Stephen Comiskey developed an interest in clinical photography while still in DIT. Through his own initiative and drive Stephen got work experience in the field. He wrote his B.A. thesis on medical photography, and now works in the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital where it sounds like his work requires a huge amount of skill as a compassionate health professional as well as an image maker.
We need to celebrate the range accomplishments of our students and shout about the broad benefits of the arts in a third level education. It isn’t just the computer technicians and engineering graduates who benefit society. In the important argument over the value of third level education and how much funding should come from taxpayers it is necessary to avoid simplistic insults about ‘useless’ fields of study. We need to expand our discussion beyond the fashion that ‘apps’ and high tech are where it’s all happening. Society needs a dynamic culture to make it liveable. Society needs people who can think and communicate clearly. A third level education, even a BA in Photography, helps develop those skills and helps people understand the world in which they are living.
A good degree programme requires students to think carefully, to research and analyse diverse information from different sources, then evaluate and discuss those ideas using their own judgement. This is part of what we in the education business call ‘transferable skills’; the practical skills that can be applied to work in an advertising agency or the civil service or a cultural organisation, as well as to be an effective participant in society.
In order to graduate from the DIT BA in Photography we require students to write essays, participate in discussions and make presentations. They also have to spend six months writing a 10,000 word thesis on a topic of their choice. And that is hard. Few of them enjoy that process, but they all learn to research, think, and write. We have external examiners every year tell us that the best dissertations from our BA program are at least as good as the Masters degree dissertations from their programs in the UK or Europe.
There is a misconception that a degree in photography must mean those students spend an easy four years learning how to use a camera, walking around and taking a few “snaps.” After all these years I can pretty quickly teach anyone to use a camera better. The more interesting task is to help students learn how to make images that communicate ideas. So yes, our students do take lots of pictures, and they do learn to use different cameras. But that is the easy part. They also learn to identify the ideas that are important to their lives and their communities and find ways to communicate those ideas to others using pictures and words.
Over the past few years we’ve had students complete projects that show an incredible range of topics. Joanna Heaney spent months creating images that show the beauty of the Wicklow mountains where she has spent many years walking. She now runs her own design and craft business. Jason Kearney documented the work by a group of Dublin residents to reclaim a site of waste ground on Dominick Street and turn it into a site for families and the community. Jason is also helped develop A4 Sounds, an organisation that hosts workshops, studio space and exhibitions. You could also say their group fosters ‘cultural entrepreneurs’ if you want to use words that mean more to our elected representatives. Karl Leonard did his final year project with people who experience different disabilities. He interviewed his subjects, made photographs and a video to show the different techniques the people used to accommodate their conditions.
I could go on for hours about the accomplishments of our students, and what I have learned from them. I feel bad for not mentioning more. I am constantly surprised by the amazing things they create.
So that’s why people go to art school, and why an arts degree can help them succeed in their lives because it allows them to develop their creativity, as well as their ability to think critically and independently, and to work hard. That’s why I think 3rd level education deserves government funding. Our society is not built just by finance or engineers or business graduates. We need people with all kinds of skills, with determination, with ideas.
We need good citizens.