Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Photo Opportunity

One of my duties at work is to carry out some of the annual teaching observations. I am sent into a class in any area of the college and asked to make a judgement on the quality of the teaching and learning that takes place.

The session that I was to observe last week was in photography - an area that I am interested in, and an activity I take part in when time allows. So already this particular observation was looking positive. When I arrived at the session I found the base room for the photo students had been set out lecture style (at least I wasn't going to be observing a session in the darkroom!) so I knew that this was a session in which I would learn something. The tutors on our photography courses are all working professionals and the head of the course is an internationally renowned photographer, so the students are very lucky to get real life, up to date, relevant information on their chosen industry. But this session was even more exciting as it was to feature a guest lecture from Donovan Wylie.

Donovan Wylie is a highly regarded photographer from Belfast. He began his professional career at the age of 16 and by 19 was a member of the prestigious Magnum photography agency. The talk he gave was about his approach to working in the creative industries; he briefly discussed his own background and early days, showed some proofs for his latest work and took questions from the floor. His relaxed and informal manner belied the seriousness of what he had to say. As I listened to him talk, feeling lucky to have had the opportunity to hear his views, I noted down some of the things he said. All of them apply to anyone working in the creative sector, from whichever discipline, and I have summarised them below.

"Photography was a wall for me to hide behind but I could speak from behind it with confidence"
The word 'photography' here could be substituted with any creative endeavour. It is a common feeling amongst artists that they hide behind their art, that they express things much more confidently and eloquently through their work than they do in real life. Donovan made the comment that being a photographer allowed him to be present but somehow removed from the moment at the same time.

"The buzz is something in me, something missing in me"
This comment intrigued me because it articulated something that I have seen my students have trouble expressing. It described the feeling of finding oneself through the portrayal of or interaction with another. Many people, when they meet someone that they know only through watching them on TV or through some other achievement, are struck by how much smaller they are in real life than they seem on the screen. This is because the person is somehow a conduit for the greater creative forces; they become, literally, greater than the sum of their parts.

"Failure is more normal than success"
This is a statement of an overlooked fact - it is much more the norm to fail that it is to succeed. We must get used to getting things wrong. The frustration and anguish of falling on our arse regularly has the benefit of teaching us about balance and the effects of gravity. The lessons learnt through failure are much more beneficial than any gleaned from success. This leads us neatly into the next comment which needs little or no elaboration.

"The more that you recognise failure and learn from it, the more successful you will be"

"Immerse yourself in the subject; look at other people's work, experiment with your own work, enjoy doing it - it is fine to copy others for a while, it allows you to engage with what you love"
I was glad to hear Donovan make this point to the students as it is something that I always go on about with my own. If you have any interest in and a desire to work in any branch of the creative industries, you need to immerse yourself in it. You have to read about it, watch it, think about it, argue about it and dream about it. Take a look at the history of what it is you want to do, learn from others, develop your skills, and keep honing them. As Donovan put it with reference to his own field, "do you love photography or do you love the idea of being a photographer?"

"Know your market, work with what people want, as there is always a commercial imperative, but don't make something without yourself in it. Once you know the market you can start to control your place in the market"
This was an important point about being self-aware in your awareness of the business side of the profession. You have to do the research, there's no point making great art for yourself; without an audience it becomes pure self-indulgence. Be mindful of the business side of things, the commercial imperative, but be true to your own voice too. If you are hired for a job, it is you that they want, your ideas, your creativity, your voice. Once you understand the context within which you work you will be much better placed to take ownership of your place within your chosen field.

"Have the ideas, go follow them, get the work done"
A simple truth but a universal one. It is fine having lots of ideas but they are useless unless you act on them. Make the work, to the best of your abilities and true to your vision, but get it done. The act of creation is a sacred one.

I was very fortunate to be present at the session and was inspired by what was said. It was a lucky opportunity I had to listen to a successful and respected artist discuss their work, their motivation, and their ideas. I am grateful to Sue Griffiths for letting me observe the session, to Trevor Griffiths for organising the talk, and especially to Donovan Wylie for giving me permission to quote him slightly out of context but, hopefully, in the spirit in which his words were intended. You can find information on Donovan and his work here The first year photography degree students are raising money for Marie Curie Cancer Care by holding an exhibition of their work. Prints are for sale, all monies raised will go to the charity. Here is a gallery of their work where prints may be ordered online.

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