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How to Teach Photography in the Age of Global Warming and Digital Abundance

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This post is part of a series called How to Teach Photography.
The Tuts+ Photo & Video Recommended Reading List

How can we imagine a positive outcome in this world? What does it mean to be a human on earth today? 

Photography has a unique power to answer these questions. The stakes couldn't be higher! Environmental degradation is now a clear existential threat. At exactly the time when photography should be making a difference photographers face more difficulty than ever in making pictures that will have meaning tomorrow.

In order to make sense of our times we need to think again about photography and how we teach it. How do we use photography to communicate in a changing physical, political, and media landscape? Are there new ways for our images to find purchase with audiences? The world needs better photography and better photography instruction.

In the Spring of 2015 I travelled to New Orleans, Louisiana, to the annual meetings of the Society of Photographic Education (SPE), to look for answers. These are my findings.

Fog on the embankment New Orleans
Fog on the embankment, New Orleans. Photo by Jackson Couse.

Photography, Global Warming, and the Crisis of Representation

Photography has a profound relationship with time. Photographers think in fractional time, one split-second exposure after another. We also think about memory, how we want to remember today, and how we want things to be remembered tomorrow. SPE keynote speaker Rebecca Solnit said that "change is the measure of time." If so, photography is an excellent measure of change.

Photography has a rich history of engaging the critical issues of the day to provide definition and nuance. As the photographer John Ganis said while presenting his work, The Endangered Coast:

"Climate change is the most pressing crisis of our time, and maybe of all time. Photography has a role to play, an important one."

Unfortunately, said Solnit, photography is in crisis too: a crisis of representation. Global warming is not just a story of natural disaster. As the history of hurricane Katrina illustrates, the tragedy of climate change is fundamentally social and political. As photographers we have failed to adequately map, understand, give context, and tell the story of our changing environment and the devastating impact climate change will have on everyone. We need to find better ways to represent, with our images, the importance of melting our ice caps.

But what can art do, really? Photography can stimulate the geographic imagination. It can document a place's emotional features. And art resonates politically: "art can interrupt romanticized versions of the histories of wilderness places," said Liz Wells.

"Recording places that are undergoing radical change is an important thing in this moment, where everything is going so fast."—Rebecca Solnit

So photography is more relevant than ever. But how do we teach it today? And how will our students get their work seen tomorrow? 

How to Make Meaning From an Overwhelming Abundance of Digital Photographs

We live in a time of photographic abundance, not scarcity. Digital photography is not the same as what came before. It is a new medium with a whole new set of challenges, quirks, and opportunities. Teaching people how to deal with the abundance of digital images is a key part of teaching digital photography. And not just digital photography, either, but sociology, economy, and political science.

It's more than technology, too. The nature of digital imaging, communication, and archival practices is socially and culturally new. Abundance and ubiquity have changed our relationship to pictures, fundamentally. We are immersed in a giant stream of images. 

We are past the point where a small group of gatekeepers—photo editors, curators, gallerists—can control the flow and make meaning for us. Furthermore, our ability to understand photographs critically is compromised. As Ruth Dusseault said in her presentation, Digital Humanities and the Documentary Age

"critique relies on privileged access to a veiled world. We now live exposed."

In large part, people in critical positions have lost the power to debunk fetishism and cultural assumptions. Understanding one's own visual culture is a skill, and part of a conversation that relies on input from sophisticated critical viewpoints. Today, many of the images we consume have no filter and no real context at all.

Scrambled eggs toast and sausage
 Like me, lots of people like photograph their breakfast. That doesn't mean the world needs to see it. As I was taking this picture, the woman next to me told me I had better hurry up and eat before it got cold. Too true! Photo by Jackson Couse

The Problem With Documenting Everything

We document everything. Digital memory is cheap. Here, look at my breakfast! Now look at my new shoes! Now look at me at the beach!

Documenting everything has a false economy. Not all moments are equally meaningful. In a sea of images, how do we find the ones that actually matter? How can we find the time to think?

Many of the photographs we make today arguably aren't actually documentary pictures, either. Though made in the moment, like a documentary photograph, so many images now are photo illustrations: graphics made to communicate a point, not record the world in front of us. In my view, these photos are a record of the performance of a kind of self-imposed personal docu-fiction, not the world we live in.

Documenting Change: The Photographer as Digital Humanist

Photographers are practitioners of humanistic investigation. Digital photographers use digital media to make images of the world around them. These images have power and influence like no other.

As the power of the individual image diminishes, however, there needs to be a broadening of our understanding of photography to encompass more varied digital techniques and lines of inquiry. This is important. Many practising photographers have a hard time thinking of themselves as only a photographer. Many people who use photography as part of their practice, even as an essential part, don't think of themselves as photographers at all. Photography is now a normal part of daily life, for everyone.

Accessibility can be a good thing. Photographs and photographers are accessible. Photographers are a natural partner for all kinds of people who want to broaden their range and communication styles. Digital photography makes all kinds of new collaboration possible.

In dealing with abundance as we teach, it's key that we expand our idea of what a photographer is to encompass new approaches. Or, as Dusseault says, the digital humanist asks: "how can technology be brought to bear on human problems?"

New Tactics in Digital Photography

In large part, using new tactics is about reaffirming photography's claim to present a real and true depiction of the world. Here is a selection of important new tactics and approaches identified by Dusseault:

  • Archival practices, especially digitization, search, and visualization
  • Photographic witnessing, and the creation of engaging records of today with interactive, multifaceted presentations
  • Applying data mining and statistical approaches to finding thematic associations and patterns
  • Re-photography (visiting a place multiple times over a period) and collection of site-specific evidence, visual or otherwise
  • Combining maps, indexes, diagrams, photogrammetry, and geographic information systems with photography
  • Gaming and gamification
  • Hypertext: using photo, video, audio, mapping, text, and social media in concert
  • Multi-modal communication and packaging work differently to suit diverse audiences

I will add that an ethos of self-determination, reciprocity, and community service was a strong theme in several presentations at SPE. Direct distribution and DIY approaches are rapidly becoming a real alternative for photographers. I find that very encouraging.

New Frontiers in Photography Education

Free and low-cost education, like Tuts+, has created a shift from lectures to a more active teaching model. Dusseault observes that photographic education now includes more:

  • workshops and seminars
  • projects and "mission-based" learning
  • peer-to-peer mentoring
  • student-led learning

The studio arts have long used these teaching styles, but now the practices are spreading to the sciences, including social sciences. Scientists are making art, and artists are using the visualization tools of science.

What Works

Multi-disciplinary teaching styles that incorporate diverse viewpoints and approaches work. A multi-disciplinary perspective tackles problems that cannot be described or solved through single disciplines.

Adopting an open-source philosophy empowers community and discourse. Encouraging sharing, mutuality, and accountability in your community will help create and support a dynamic, flexible learning environment. Look for opportunities for input from outsiders by opening your process and your results.

What Doesn't Work

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, were heralded by many in higher education. They've turned out not to be such a successful experiment for most. Flipped classrooms, online workshops, and online approaches that don't try to replicate the classroom lecture model have had more success.

Universal metrics: uniformity is required for broad transmission, but so too is a uniformity of language and practice. This rationalizes and reinforces existing genres and silos. Look for ways to support diversity in your community and give people as many ways to communicate as possible.

Our Challenge

Photography as we know it has been transformed, and is transforming still. So is our earth. We have a lot of work to do! We have new tools, and giant new challenges to test them with. It is an exciting time to teach and learn photography.

"We do our work to try and change the story, to try and leave a story for posterity."—Rebecca Solnit

As you think about your photographic practice and your teaching, I encourage you to take the broadest possible stance towards the possibility and power of photography today. Your students—and the world—need you to think big.

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