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Does the Voice of the Student Matter? – By Holly Gilman

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I have always worried about my level of experience and whether my thoughts matter. Being one of the more academic students at school perhaps set me up for this worry in later life because it is inevitable that, when starting in the world of work, you are the least experienced. More recently, as I’ve gained experience in my career, I have a lot more confidence to voice my opinions but have faced the issue of being ignored due to my youth, my gender and these days also my flexible working arrangement. 

What has that got to do with photography? Well, I’ve loved writing for quite a while now but would never have had the guts to approach a website like this to contribute. I am fortunate then, that Sroyon and Hamish recognise the value of someone writing about their learning journey. My experience writing for this website has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve even had people approach me privately to say that they would rather ask a relative beginner for advice than a master because the advice is so much more digestible – even if it is mere opinion. 

Pancro 400 -accidental double exposure

2020 was a hell of a year for most people, me included. However, I have come to the realisation that photography itself is not my biggest passion. Learning is. It just so happens that photography (practise and critical theory) is one of the main things I love to learn about. I truly hope that all my articles here are taken as they are meant, the words of someone learning.

Recently I received my first piece of particularly negative, and more to the point condescending feedback. Although this negative feedback was aimed at a couple of my articles, it seems that my review of the book Beauty in Photography by Robert Adams is what caused the upset. I’ve since read and reread my review to check whether I had been clear enough in my opinions, whether it left doubt as to where I stood but obviously, as the author I can only ever read it with my own eyes, if you get my meaning.

What appears to have hit the biggest nerve with this individual, and the issue I wanted to address here, is my lack of education. The opinions expressed by this individual suggest that they are uncomfortable with the idea that someone who is not an “expert”, does not hold a PhD or is not considered a master photographer, dare express their opinions in a public place. How dare I challenge the authority of Robert Adams’ words?

In response to that I would like to share a couple of quotes from the preface of Adams book:

“When readers learn that I was a teacher, and then encounter references to literature and art, past and present, they ask whether I think an appreciation of art requires formal education. I do not.” (Adams, 1996:7)

“No one though, has to go to college to make or understand or enjoy art. Wonderful artists and critics – some of the best – have educated themselves.” (Adams, 1996:8)

Adams also mentions that these essays are “not scholarly” and are based on his beliefs rather than suggesting that they are fact. This is a man, then, who welcomes respectful debate regardless of your level of education. I have never professed expertise, but does that mean my opinion doesn’t count?

Of course not, and that is the premise both of the Facebook group which we’ve set up, Photography Books and Theory, and my own website, School of Holly. We all want to learn more, hear the opinions of others and open our minds. I have just started reading The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes by Christopher James (Third Edition) and in the introduction he says it beautifully:

“The word “student” applies to all of us… Much of what the reader discovers will emerge as a result of play and if you don’t embrace the concept of play you probably won’t learn a lot about anything in life.” (James, 2019: Introduction)

I know he was referring to the act of creating art through alternative photographic processes but I think it can be applied to absolutely everything. We discuss and debate in the Facebook group because we enjoy it, if you don’t enjoy learning from others, you won’t enjoy the group! It is my aim that everyone taking part feel safe to express their opinions, knowing that discrimination will not be tolerated.

One of my main collaborators in this learning journey

One of my main collaborators in this learning journey

Before I end, and in the spirit of truly reflecting on feedback I would like to address one of the issues raised in the comment, which was my use of the word ignorant/ignorance to describe Adams. Perhaps this word seems heavy handed and I apologise for that, I had meant it in its most basic definition in that I felt the opinion expressed ignored other photographic mediums or other photographic subjects.

I was not suggesting that Adams is an Ignorant Man, I’m saying that these examples and opinions expressed, ignore the great work being done in the areas he is criticising. In hindsight, I should have used a different phraseology or expanded a little on my meaning. Overall though I stand by my review, I recommend others read his essays (and said so in the review) and I look forward to reading more of his work, the fact that I disagree with some of his comments and opinions does not change that, I hope that for most readers, this is apparent from my review. I am still learning and absolutely welcome respectful challenges to my work and opinions.

So, does the voice of the student matter?

Yes, of course it does. Learning is a collaborative effort, it happens much more quickly and much more effectively when there is open, respectful and honest discussion happening.

I also wonder at what point you stop considering yourself a student. At what point do you say that you have no more left to learn? I would argue that even those considered master printers by Ilford are continuing to tinker and improve their practice. In my day job I make an effort to ensure I listen to everyone’s opinion. We are trained from the very beginning of our careers, to draw those who are naturally quieter into the conversation regardless of whether they are more junior in grade or more senior; those doing the day to day tasks are more likely to spot issues and come up with solutions. It is now considered to be detrimental to business to only listen to the opinion of those at the top, I believe the same can be said for most topics, including art and photography. To make sure there is no misunderstanding I will reiterate – I’m not saying that we shouldn’t listen to those with more experience than us, I’m saying we shouldn’t ONLY listen to those with more experience.

It has long been my conviction that everyone should have a voice, and this experience has only strengthened my resolve. I am happy for my ideas and beliefs to be challenged, that’s how I learn and grow as a person, but it must be done in a respectful manner. It serves no-one to get angry, defensive and aggressive.

My apologies for getting so serious but I wanted you to know that your opinion counts, regardless of your background or level of expertise.

Thank you.

If, like me, you are interested in life-long learning and have a broad range of interests you may enjoy my website, a space designed to be a place of community and solidarity and resources for those who have a lot of interests. For my photographic work my Instagram is where I post my images.

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Holly Gilman

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