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What Photographers Really Should Be Learning in School

A few weeks ago, we asked top photographers what they wished they had learned in school. Unsurprisingly, many mentioned a desire to have learned m...

A few weeks ago, we asked top photographers what they wished they had learned in school. Unsurprisingly, many mentioned a desire to have learned more about business and marketing. But beyond the selection of course subject, there is a more fundamental aspect of learning in the 21st century that should be addressed. Recently, I attended a lecture by Dr. Yong Zhao, a renown researcher in education, who has espoused many progressive ideas about the education system and how it is failing us. His thoughts made me reconsider the role of school for photographers and other creatives. Here’s what you really should be learning in photo school.

1. It’s not about what schools should be teaching, it’s about what you should be learning

You’ve probably heard of the Common Core curriculum that is permeating through the public education sector. Common Core is a set of requirements that codifies what and how students should master at each grade. The problem with this approach is that its overly prescriptive, and caps success. When you put the onus on a school to tell you what and how to learn, you necessarily stifle what you could be learning. When you score 100% on a test, you’ve only fulfilled the criteria set out by someone else. Yes, school should absolutely provide foundational skills, but after that you shouldn’t be asking a school what to learn next. You need to find your own interest and pursue it vigorously. Your own inquiry should drive your learning and discovery process.

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2. Students should figure out how they can be of value to others

Students have traditionally spent time learning a fixed curriculum in an educational vacuum. Advocates claim that college gives you this opportunity to think academically and theoretically without the distractions of the real world. I am a firm believer in this aspect of higher learning, but it also means that you leave school with very little understanding of how to make money. You are, in Dr. Zhao’s words, just spending your parents’ money (or your own). A photographer shouldn’t strive to learn how to take a picture, he/she should understand how they can be of value to others. This is very different than generically learning about business and marketing.

Since everyone has a camera, what value will you bring to the table as a professional photographer? Maybe you understand social media and how photography can be leveraged. Maybe you have superior producing skills. Maybe you have digital tech skills. If you can’t identify your value to others, you’re no different than a hobbyist. Taking a good photo is a skill, but it’s not necessarily of value to anyone else.

3. Problem identification is as important as problem solving

The successful entrepreneur not only comes up with a good solution, but has also identified a problem. Did you know that finding a taxi was so difficult before Uber? Did you realize that a few click-to-apply filters and a social media component would make a killer photo app? Being able to identify or anticipate problems will make you much more valuable to your customers, and might lead to business opportunities that you never considered. Don’t just solve problems that are presented to you. Identify new problems and try to solve them.

4. Traditionally useless people are now useful (and vice versa)

Kim Kardashian makes millions of dollars a year without any obvious skill set. Entertainers outnumber auto workers. This isn’t an indictment of these occupations, but rather, an indication of how society has evolved and how the information age has redefined ways to make a living. Traditional jobs, like the staff photographer, have been eliminated, but new jobs have also popped up. Online educators, digital techs, retouchers, social media photographers have emerged as the new workforce in the photographic industry. As an extreme example, people who excel at creating controversy, get paid nowadays (see Prince, Richard).

The challenge isn’t identifying your useless skills (I’m make really good scrambled eggs!), but identifying skills you cultivate that are now monetizable. It also necessarily means that students shouldn’t enter college with outmoded career path ideas. You will most likely not leave with a traditional staff photographer position, so what skills and experience should you acquire to prosper? How can your creativity lead you to new career opportunities? John Stewart popularized “fake news” and created a career that spawned an industry. The “Honey Badger” creator appropriated National Geographic footage, conveyed information in a humorous way, and got 70 million views along the way.

5. Realize that people consume psychological and spiritual products.

We don’t need them, but we want them, says Dr. Zhao. We don’t need another miracle diet (they never work), but we want to believe that it’ll work. We don’t need Chase Jarvis, but we want to feel inspired. Since he can’t inspire us every day, he created CreativeLive. He identified a problem, figured out how to be of value to others, and has turned into a virtual ATM for himself. Successful wedding photographers are keenly aware of this dynamic. They don’t sell photos, they sell a relationship – a friend for the day that “gets” you; someone with whom you’re happy to spend the most intimate day of your life. Husband and wife wedding photographer teams: now that’s brilliant.

Figuring out how to inspire others through photography could lead you teaching opportunities, or could help you close a big project with a commercial client. If your business plan is to sell photos, you’ll be out of work in a heartbeat.

6. Create your own job

Your parents grew up in a world where industry and government created jobs and provided pensions. But you live an age of the transient worker. Photographers, for the most part, already know this since so many of them work as freelancers. But many freelancers are still pursuing traditional paths – a small cadre of regular clients mixed with a larger number of one-off gigs. How long do you want to be lugging 35 lbs of gear around for $250 per assignment? Better to be someone like Bill Cramer, Me Rah Koh, or Peter Hurley. Be an entrepreneur and a photographer. Learn how to assess and measure risk, identify problems, and create solutions that have value to others.

School curriculums will always lag behind the pace of technological and cultural change. The 21st century young adult is astute enough to quickly adopt the newest technologies, and they must be prescient enough to guide their education for future success.

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