Photography and open education

Alicia Keys Alicia Keys by Jonathan Worth

Photographic tuition usually falls in to two camps, the hands-on, throw yourself at it kind, and the more contemplative course where class-based tuition is key.

Yet there is another way - open learning, where the majority of the students interact online with the face-to-face course being taught in a more traditional manner. With this comes a chance to share in the knowledge being offered by a wide range of tutors, photographers and others in the industry.

One such course at Coventry University is #phonar (photography and narrative). Run by Jonathan Worth and Matt Johnston, it can attract as many as 35,000 students as it progresses.

Every Wednesday morning in a room at the back of an old cinema, people gather to discuss what a 21st Century photographer is. Most aren't actually in the room, they join instead via the internet. But people do make the journey regularly from London, with others from as far and wide as San Francisco, Portland in Oregon, and even Otago in New Zealand.

"We have four hours a week and we have to stop teaching by 1pm or we get into trouble," says Worth. "But it is something that we feel very passionately about and so the project is something we throw all our spare time into. It has that back-bedroom feel about it, but it's turned out to be a strength not a weakness."

Worth has been a professional photographer since 1998, having lived and worked both in New York and London and currently works part-time for Coventry University heading up their Open Programme. "I was a successful editorial photographer, but like many I had a failing business model," he says. When asked to write some classes, he agreed so long as it wrestled with the problems crippling his business.

"I'd had to rethink what my product was as a photographer - I'd grown up thinking it was my images, but digital cameras meant everyone was a potential image maker. So I had to think why it was that I'd been successful in the past and I found a number of strands which proved very fruitful. That's the stuff we talk about in class."

Heath Ledger Heath Ledger - Worth's best shots came from walking between locations, rather than posing for the camera

Having not told the university that he'd given his first class away for free online, Worth was prepared for the worst. But it turned out to be just what Coventry University was looking for.

"The VC came to us and asked how we were going to raise the course profile, improve the experience for the students, grow their international opportunities and save money. Well, I was able to show how we'd been very successful attracting large numbers to #phonar and that we've had people go on to assist Annie Leibovitz, Trent Park, Steve Pyke, Elinor Carucci. It's now the hardest course in the uni to get onto, and by using existing social media environments it all came at no extra cost."

He uses Creative Commons licenses (CC) for his classes. "I'd always been an avid All Rights Reserved user but it just stopped making sense. The open classes can only work with a CC license, which was a big deal for the university because it turns out education establishment are avid All Rights Reserved users too. Much like me thinking I was just an image maker, the uni thought its product was 'knowledge' and their old business model relied on keeping a tight grip on that.

"Well, I knew it wasn't my product as a teacher. My product is the learning experience and opening the doors online meant that I turned that product into an outward-facing asset.

"In a world where everyone with a smartphone is a potential supplier of image content, I had to work out what I did that was different, and it turns out there's a whole bunch of stuff both as an artisan and as a mediator and publisher.

"On a personal level I also found out that this stuff has applications in other areas too - education being a case in point, where I realised the real thing of value was not the knowledge but the learning experience. The message of that experience is amplified by opening it up - hence the success of the open classes."

Worth's classes live on blogs and on Twitter (hashtag #phonar), and are proving a popular resource amongst photography enthusiasts and professionals alike. Their accessible nature is appealing and the list of contributors impressive. What's more you can book one-on-ones with guest tutors such as photographer Chris Floyd, artist Robbie Cooper and author Timothy O'Grady.

Jude Law Jude Law

The open approach to education is something that can only grow as online learning becomes widely accepted.

Anyone who throws themselves in will be well-rewarded as the interactive side of the class is key. Worth can see comments from students both in the room and online via Twitter or Facebook in real time, as well as allowing others to drop in, or suggest links to relevant material. It's a fluid learning experience, well suited to those who will be working in an industry that, like many others, is undergoing radical change.

Here, two students who found it suited to their needs share their thoughts on the open learning experience:

Larissa Grace

Photographs by Larissa Grace

My time on the photography course made me see my world and understand the way I learn, and perhaps how much of the population learns. It also taught me to believe in myself. I am dyslexic, and through my time in education it has been a battle. At Coventry University they helped me understand that dyslexia can be a positive attribute in this multimedia world that is being created by us around us.

I learnt that reading and writing weren't the only way to communicate and that visual language, audio and limited writing can for many people be an even better way of communicating. They taught me how to use images, sounds and video to tell a story.

I might not be able to write a sentence or even read it, but I can communicate powerfully through the visual language. I have used sound, images and videos to document issues of personal interest to me and to help others understand better. My most recent work was to publish a piece of work that gave voice to students in education with dyslexia.

Through my work with #phonar I have learnt the world is filled with lots of different people and we all think and learn differently. Coventry University has shown me it doesn't matter what disability you have, anything is possible. I truly believe if it was not for the great staff I wouldn't be standing here today with a degree, they believed in me. I will carry on my storytelling work on issues that are important to me and hopefully make them proud.

You can see Larissa Grace's work on her website.

Sean Carroll

Lee Carroll at home A frame from Sean Carroll's series on his father's possible return to work due to the Welfare Reform Bill

The photography course at Coventry University and especially the open classes have totally changed how I operate as a photographer. It's made me think about how I define myself as a 21st Century practitioner and helped me understand the importance of networking in order to find or tell a story.

It's opened up my eyes to the quantity of online platforms which can benefit me professionally, and has really kept me reflecting on myself in the role of author and storyteller.

As well as focusing on such online and digital tools, it has also promoted to me the idea of the importance of the physical artefact, something which has made a big impact on me and what I produce.

The skills I have learned and developed from the open classes have given me the confidence in my work to distribute it and enter it into national and international competitions. From this I won an honourable mention in the non-professional photo essay and feature story category of the International Photography Awards and was also was selected to exhibit at the recent Brighton Photo Fringe.

From this came coverage by other photo platforms like Foto8 which ran my work as a feature story in October.

You can see Sean Carroll's work on his website and keep up to date with his ongoing series Does not suggest that death within 6 months is likely to occur on his blog.

You can learn more about #phonar on the course website or via Twitter.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    Noted a few years ago at wedding reception - grooms family member with digital camera kept missing great candid shots because he was 1. too busy posing people 2. reviewing his photos & deleting ones he didn't like 3. showing pictures to his family. Those with film cameras just snapped away when those moments happened. Camera phones can be just as bad live through the small screen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    It's great that Universities are starting to offer online courses. People should always be encouraged to improve their knowledge and skills, both for the workplace and for personal betterment.

    I've had an interest in photography since I was a teenager. 30 years ago it was a relatively expensive hobby, now it is much cheaper. Don't knock camera-phones. I've got some great shots with them!

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    In the US you can have your digital pictures printed at stores that had/may still have film developed. Picture of Clinton getting a hug from Monica was taken on film - photographers using digital will delete pictures not used.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    Film is rapidly fading from mass use although I have always prefered it to digital. My dad was a photographer for 30 years gave it up to run a photo processing lab instead another 30 years but that eventually became economically unsustainable as digital reduced film based customers. Custom lab services for film are in the dumps as people print their own pictures at home with Photoshop. It's life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    Very happy to see my old university achieving success in something . . . only wish they'd put in this much effort into the courses that Students were paying for

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    Photography is what ever you want it to be, capturing a moment in time, a beautiful landscape, a baby's first smile, or you can use it for art, some will agree and some won't, I do it because I enjoy it, and sometimes you make your own personal masterpiece and mostly you don't but it is the thrill of finding it that ignites the passion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    Had much the same as #52.So much for photography.After 50+ years I've given up.Perhaps this sort of behaviour only occurs in UK but I'm too old to move.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    The "talent" isn't in pressing a button. Just because everyone has a camera doesn't make everyone a great photographer: If everyone had a piano, everyone wouldn't be a concert pianist. Anyone can pick up a pencil, but not everyone can be an artist. Develop the talent first, then use the tools. Talent isn't packaged with tools, nor is it automatically installed along with software.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    Anyone who ever had a camera thought they could do as well as a professional photographer. Given the current technological state of the digital art that is closer to the truth today than it was in the film dominant age. Much has been said about the 'vision' thing but it's simply chance encounters. I have in my life seen innumerable great photographs of momentary worth and forgotten them all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    Free education? I'm sure the copyright hounds will be on this soon. Can't be having education for people without money; that sounds too much like a society i'd like to live in, perish the thought.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    Photography as a medium is more alive than ever, which is brilliant, but photography as an industry is pretty dead.

    Its a hobby-job for the wealthy or for people who are prepared to make huge financial sacrifices with their lives.

    Only a very minute percentage of 'professional photographers' make a living from their work, with most people subsidising it with other incomes, like teaching.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    I think the new accessibility of photography is a wonderful thing. The result of this - one look on photo sharing sites and you can be inspired by anyone, whether a famous photographer or an amateur with a camera phone. It is inspiration and interaction that improves us as photographers, no matter what sort of photo gear we have. It seems the course is helping us to do this even more. Good!

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    Can please "talk" to the people who use their iPad camera? Please tell them they look like complete plonkers :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    I've had photography as a "serious" hoby for a number of years and I believe digital has made my personal learning cycle much easier. I thought about moving professions once but I couldn't figure out how to generate a consistent income so I left it instead as my only creative outlet. It's something I enjoy and rather than sneer at those who use their camera phones I would rather talk to them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    I've worked in photographic studios & labs all my working life, in Cardiff, Coulsdon & central London. While it's true that most enter the profession with high hopes of creating a work of art, the reality is rather more mundane, as you end up shooting pack shot after pack shot of dull products like boxes of tea bags or pairs of Wellingtons. One job we had involved photographing man-hole covers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    HaveIGotThatWrong - Having taken photography classes and invested in an entry-level SLR, I find I take less photos as I stopped taking pictures of the same thing hoping that one will turn out ok, and now take better images. In fact I won the first photo competition that I entered! "And the camera does everything for you" - not at all! Few of my best photos are taken on 'auto' settings!

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Ah but that's when some busybody call the Police (because your acting suspiciously with a big camera under your jacket), who then hunt you down as a potential terrorist or paedophile and demand you delete all your photo's.... As happened once to me not long after casualy walking through a family picnic area on my way to some local woodland to photograph an old WW2 bunker type thing :(

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    Same problem for me. Trying to get a group of like minded so we can be our own security in these situations.
    I often hide my Canon camera bag inside a slightly larger but cheap looking rucksack and dress as though I'm just on my way home from a factory job so I can walk around the streets. If the camera is out of the bag it will be worn over my shoulder and under a long jacket to hide it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    I get dragged into the 'Anyone can take a photo' debate all the time and it is true, anyone can press a button.
    The other day a friend of mine took a picture on his phone. I then got him to stand a few feet further forward and take it again. He was amazed at the difference this made.
    Before I press the button I have already made a number of decisions based on location, distance, lighting etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.


    He may be and you are pointing out the obvious but more so I do believe it's intentional. It's the feel it gives the overal portrait..a slightly removed alien feel.

    Pinpoint sharp would have been bland really


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