Is Studying Photography Worth It?

Ever since the beginning, Matca has received a lot of questions from young people interested in making a career out of photography. This is also one of the main topics closely examined at the recent “Photojournalism – Untold Stories” panel discussion. A majority of the audience preparing for college or undergraduate graduation are faced with an old-time dilemma: Should I follow my passion or have a stable job? Is education a prerequisite for photographers to make a living out of the profession?

Obviously there is no right answer for everyone. Different individual goals and experiences will lead to diverse and opposed opinions when it comes to the role of education. If you ask a photographer trained in schools, it is likely that he will advise you to put money, time and effort into four years of college. Yet a photographer whose career is built upon days shooting on scene will possibly consider studying art a waste of time.

© Le Xuan Phong

Therefore, before taking others’ advice into account, you need to answer these questions by yourself:
Why do you like photography?
To what extent are you willing to pursue photography? 
Who do you want to be? A photojournalist, a commercial photographer, a visual artist or a photography critic?

One of Matca’s primary goals is to build a more comprehensive and inclusive photography environment, including information and opportunity sharing to our readers. Although no one can decide for you, you can still ponder over your decision in a more thoughtful and objective manner by listening to both sides of the argument. Below are the comments on the role education plays photography from practitioners of all kinds, from editors, instructors, photographers, visual artists to students majoring in photography.

© Angkor Photo Festival
© Angkor Photo Festival

Photography is neither science nor technology: it does not require complex machinery, specialized training or license to practice. A DSLR that costs more than five hundred dollars, a cracked edition of Photoshop and some personal experiment can take you really far in this career. Allision Morley, once the photography editor of the New York Times shared that her decision to assign photographers based solely on their portfolios. Obviously, attracting major news agency does not depend on your degree, but rather on your work because those are the most convincing evidence for your ability to satisfactorily complete assigned jobs.

Linh Pham, Getty Images contributor who has collaborated with quite a few international news agencies believes that studying photography or art at school is not a requisite at all for the profession. Along the same line, photographer Binh Dang also thinks that making a career out of photography and earning a living from it does not require qualifications or school training.

Theworkshop by Hai Thanh. © Tan Ngoc

However, they both recognize the importance of continually gaining knowledge through more flexible methods, such as attending workshops or studying under an established photographer. Both endorse local short-term workshops. According to Binh Dang, topical workshops help students save time and money and allow them to select what is necessary to learn. Linh Pham states that beside supplementing practical knowledge, short-term workshops also serve as a wonderful place to extend professional networks and even acquire job opportunities.

In our recent “Photojournalism – Untold Stories” panel discussion, documentary photographer Maika Elan shared with excitement about the local workshops that had set the foundation for her career. This is the chance to receive free training from renowned photographers around the world that can cost some hundreds or thousands of dollars if taken somewhere else. Maika did the series “Ain’t talking just loving” at Foundry Photojournalism Workshop, while her idea to do the project “The Pink Choice” stemmed from Angkor Photo Workshop. According to Maika, workshops with short duration turn out to be a motivation for students to work at high intensity to complete a ready-to-publish full story.

From the series "Mahout Family" made during Foundry workshop. © Binh Dang
From the series "Mahout Family" made during Foundry workshop. © Binh Dang© Binh Dang
From the series "Mahout Family" made during Foundry workshop. © Binh Dang© Binh Dang
From the series "Mahout Family" made during Foundry workshop. © Binh Dang© Binh Dang

In Vietnam or anywhere in the world, photography is a special profession in which practitioners have to manage a lot of aspects. Many young photographers have become disillusioned when they find out that taking photos professionally does not only equal creating nice pictures. Whether you choose commercial photography, photojournalism or art photography, chances are that you have to manage everything from marketing, network building, client seeking to accounting or service quality control.

Dong Hieu, a photographer and a lecturer in Art Photography at Hanoi Academy of Theatre and Cinema acknowledges the downsides of the current photography education in school. Apart from “hard” skills, soft skills such as communication, work presentation or aspects concerning business and self-promotion in professional photography are often neglected. Students majoring in Arts abroad share the same experience when classes at school only focus on training the profession, overlooking needed skills to make a living out of art. However, Dong Hieu states that we cannot compare short-term workshops with school education. Concentration and long training duration at school allow students the space to explore, develop, create, and receive critiques and continuous instructions from their instructors. This can be a fertile land for talents to be cultivated and grow.

Students' presentation of their works at Hanoi Academy of Theatre and Cinema. © Hoang Dong
Students' presentation of their works at Hanoi Academy of Theatre and Cinema. © Hoang Dong

Dat Vu (visual artist) and Bach Nguyen (currently majoring in Photography at School of Visual Art, New York) both study Photography in college. Both Dat and Bach had practiced some photography before making the decision to enroll in a four-year undergraduate program.

Similar to Dong Hieu, Dat and Bach agree on the benefits of a safe critical environment. An open class will motivate diverse and risky art experiments. Besides, modern facility and access to documents and a wide range of photographic devices also provide a great opportunity for those who want to go further into research in photography or visual art.

Dat and Bach also confirm that studying photography at college has transformed their understanding of this field. If they self-studied, a limit of definitions and theories would be the biggest challenge; each project would take longer time and more effort, and would also risk failure due to the lack of resources and expert feedbacks to open up new directions. Dat and Bach comment that due to their specialization and short duration, workshops will bring clearer benefits to those who already have specific orientation in photography rather than young beginners.

© Dat Vu

When asked about an advice for young beginners in photography, photographer Sebastião Salgado has said: “If you’re young and have the time, go and study. Study anthropology, sociology, economy, geopolitics. Study so that you’re actually able to understand what you’re photographing. What you can photograph and what you should photograph.” Here learning is not only about photography, but in a broader sense is about gaining social knowledge and experience—essential elements to make a good photo.

In conclusion, if you want to earn a living through photography, following a professional photographer or attending workshops is probably the most suitable way in terms of saving money, time and gaining practical knowledge. But in your photography career if for one moment you want more than materialistic values that photography brings, you want to thoroughly understand the photographic process, the visual language yet cannot overcome the high wall of prejudices, then maybe that is the time to consider going to college to study photography. I believe that an education in photography or art is not only about training a photographer or a visual artist, but is about teaching you how to speak and feel a new language—the language of images.

After all the choice is yours. Think carefully about the three questions at the beginning of this article before making your own decision.

Mai Nguyen-Anh is a Vietnamese visual artist who has great concern in contemporary issues, now based in Hanoi. In 2016, he finished One Year Certificate at International Center of Photography in New York.

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