What’s Changed? Nothing, It Seems.

As a recent photography graduate, I thought I’d have a barely-informed ramble through what I have learned thus far from teaching my students. I currently have three- Fred, Edith and Zam. I acquired Zam after Andy, another of the pros, had to jet off to his next assignment, and unfortunately her camera has come to grief (a memory card slot malfunction, it seems) so she has been shooting on my D700, leaving me free to instruct rather than being in the way all the time.

An abandoned hut crumbles in Itirihwa camp, Ciforo sub-county. Its occupants have returned to their village. Shot by Zam.

Explaining composition is impossible. Why is this shot stronger than that one? Because there are magic thirds in a picture. Why do we like repetition? Because. These answers do not satisfy the mind, and because I learned composition from endless copying of old photos rather than by book study I have no other understanding of it. It’s like my French- I know what works, but not why. So I try to teach composition by two main methods:

One, during my nightly image review with the students we discuss how each image can make a story. This seems effective because they can see how to assemble elements in a frame to make them play off one another.

Two, I show them old photos and we discuss what works. If you want to teach storytelling, go for Doisneau. He could weave together an entire story from two statues. If you want composition, Cartier-Bresson is the man. He learned by painting but was at heart a surrealist, so his composition is at once deeply classical and very avant-garde.

A boatbuilder, Panyimur. The boats take a week to build, and cost around $1000. Shot by Fred.

For technical training, I am amazed I ever got any exposures right when I first started bashing a Canon AV-1 into things. Digital is absolutely instant and the image can be checked for focus, exposure etc and yet still I will occasionally have to ask a student “why are you shooting at 1600 in broad equatorial daylight? No wonder you’re on f22!” Now the digital debate is very well covered and I’m not going to get going on that, but what I will say is the following:

– No wonder it’s bloody confusing. Instead of starting out shooting aperture-priority ISO 400 with a meter in the prism housing, the students are handed machines capable of going from ISO 50 to 3200, with spot, centre-weighted and whole-scene metering, with LCD displays and all the other bells and whistles. There is no split-screen in modern cameras, so manual focus is incredibly difficult to get right. These factors make learning difficult because the student is bombarded with a million things all at once. There is also a greater divide between theory and practice, because the camera does so much automatically.

Beekeepers, near Pakwach Town. Shot by Fred.

– The free, painless nature of digital imagery means that they can carpet-bomb, shooting a hundred frames to get the right one. I don’t mean this disparagingly, I do the exact same thing. But because I’ve had to develop a thousand b/w films and hand print the few usable frames, I have an innate fear of waste. Doctor Frederick, my first photography tutor, worked on an informal hit rate of about 1 frame per 36 for his first-year students I think. Mine started at well below that, as did I, and are now nearing three, but it’s been a struggle for the tutor, not the students. This I suspect was the case for Doc Fred too. However I wonder if there would be a little more studying if they had to spend two days a week in a converted girls toilets, trying to dev film.

The Sister in charge of Redeemer Childrens Home, Moyo, sits in the entrance hall. Shot by Edith.

However, digital is a godsend. I can now give instant feedback in the field, check camera settings and be told straight away if a camera is malfunctioning. I went to Morocco for three weeks a while ago, chewed through 26 films (that number is burned into my brain) on a 1938 Leica which I hadn’t properly tested, got back and discovered that the shutter fails at a 500th of a second. In Moroccan sun with a Summitar lens which only stops down to f12.4 (old German f-Stops), that meant about 50% of my images were blank. That no longer happens. However the fact that I can reel off those numbers while I still forget my own phone number is testament perhaps to how much theory goes into traditional practice.

– Digital processing is a complete language. Again, like French, I don’t really know how it works but it does. But trying to explain to a student (whose first language is not English, remember) that their image has a magenta cast (thanks David) is utterly impossible. The only way to learn post-production is to do it a million times, which is why I have given up teaching it as theory and now only do one-on-one tutorials where we sit and do repetitive actions over and over to see what they do. It’s the fastest way to learn, like sending your child to go and live in Bourgogne at 12 years old. That really happened.

Children at the Redeemer Childrens Home, Moyo. Shot by Edith, who is slowly learning to include people's feet in images.

– That guff about digital taking the skill out of photography is clearly untrue. It’s apples and oranges- both clearly fruit but that’s where the similarity stops. Digital imagery is so easy to mess up, and there are so many tools available but when it comes down to it you’re essentially back in a darkroom, just without the waiting and the smell. A crappy image will be crappy on film or digital, and post-production will only do so much. The weird truth is that film USED to be more like digital, but in order to advance it had to become more difficult. Black and white film used to be viewable under safelights, like photo paper. Bert Hardy underexposed some images in bomb shelters during the blitz, so he put them in his home-made developer (“super soup”), checked them, saw nothing, put them back in, went to his mums for tea, dozed off and came to check them hours later. They came out perfect if a little heavy, and the photo-essay remains a classic to this day. Because he could check them, this was possible. Modern b/w film fogs in any light, so with digital we have in some way gone back to the 1930s!

And overall I can say that my experience so far of teaching photography corresponds fairly directly to my experience of learning it. This is obviously down to stealing my lessons from good tutors, but it still shows that photography remains unchanged in its fundamentals. Good images are still good, focus is still important (and autofocus is as hard to teach effectively as manual), and the best way to learn is still by shooting hundreds of frames and watching them get painfully rejected in favour of the one with that magic ingredient.

A coffee grader shows the beans he is about to check, Paidha Town. Shot by Zam

“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” ~ Dorothea Lange

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About Muzungu

I’m a Uganda-based freelance photographer (and occasional writer) working for a broad range of clients including NGOs, newspapers and magazines and development agencies. My work has taken me across East Africa, South America and Europe, and previous clients include USAID, the World Bank and the East African. I also work on personal documentary projects in my spare time. If you’d like to hire me or to know more, please feel free to get in touch.
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