Thoughts, Musings and Inspirations
An esteemed art writer once said: “The difference between commercial and conceptual photography is that one ends with a full stop, and the other, with a question mark”. The divide between art and commercial photography may have become increasingly blurred in recent times, but this distinction forms the basis of diverse approaches to photographic education. A skill-based approach involves science, physics and engineering- what we take to be empirical truths. A concept based approach however, derives itself from the humanities – semiotics, history, anthropology, politics, geography.
This question has been on my mind for a long time, but it only took on a personal resonance when I started designing a student education programme for the 2012 Singapore International Photography Festival.
The Tug of War between a more conceptual or technical approach
When it comes to exposing students to photography, do we teach skills and techniques first or do we teach appreciation? It’s like the chicken and egg dilemma. In order to create quality artworks that can best express their ideas, a certain level of skillfulness and mastery of the medium is necessary.
However, some practioners feel that overly focusing on honing skills would condition students into treating photography as a craft or the camera as a tool to be mastered. That will diminish avenues for them to think about the ‘soft’ skills of art making- how to enjoy conceptual photography as it is, and learn how messages are expressed through images.
I spent a few months pouring over research from other notable art education programmes in overseas museums and reviewing recent materials that public and private art institutions in Singapore have came up with.
The Singapore Art Museum (SAM) came up with a really well thought series of booklets for students during their Video Art History showcase in 2011, segmenting the group into 3: children from age 5 and above, 9 and above and 13 and above. Unfortunately, these efforts don’t seem to be consistent for other of its shows. In terms of segmenting the student audience, Singapore’s public art institutions seem to be falling behind our U.S. or European counterparts, save for this attempt by SAM last year. We have yet to reach a stage where we target very specific learning needs or age groups.
Besides, I realized there is indeed a shortfall in structured photography education for schools that not only impart technical skills but also emphasize photo literacy. Most private photographic schools such as Photographic Society of Singapore, Objectifs and School of Photography are targeted more at young or working adults from the age of 20 and above. Student outreach for those below 18 is close to negligible.
While schools in Singapore do hire third party companies to come and teach photography to students, but these are skill based and very often, one-off endeavours. One exception is Art Outreach, a charitable organization operating for close to eight years. It runs on a pool of volunteers who travel to various schools to hold art literacy lessons on a fixed bag of subject matter eg. portraiture, public art and sculpture in Singapore, print making etc.
Targeted at primary and secondary schools, their education material is very engaging and informative, even tying in with national education, such that you can glean much from them even as an adult volunteer attending training lessons.
However, their only photography component, the last I checked a year ago, was focused on photojournalism and documentary photography; nothing on conceptual photography is available yet.
I personally find this dearth or perhaps slow growth in photo literacy and appreciation quite baffling.
Many people would attribute this to the infancy in Singapore’s art scene. Hence by deduction, photography, which took a long while to gain its stars and stripes as an artform, would naturally be taking its baby steps as well.
However I beg to differ. For one, the Cultural Medallion, the highest accolade for artistic achievement initiated in 1979 by then Minister of Culture and former President Ong Teng Cheong, awarded its very first photography honours to David Tay Poey Cher in 1982, and subsequently for almost consecutive 8 years, included a photographer in its honour roll, with other notable names like Yip Cheong Fun. Then there was silence for 14 years, until another photographer was honoured in 2004, after which till date, there has been no photography mention given out again.
Certainly one has to take in consideration the criteria for awarding Cultural Medallion winners, but it is in a quick glance, a litmus test for not only how photography is developing in Singapore, but also how the state recognizes or promotes the art form.
One can also rule out the possibility of technical limitations that is limiting the development of conceptual photography. Singaporeans on the average, have one of the highest disposable incomes in Asia. The rate of gadget uptake and renewal here is so rapid that a friend once said this is the best country to get second hand cameras because they are as good as new.
So it seems everyone is a photographer here in some way, but not really seeing while shooting.
There was a lot to grapple with when planning the education programme for SIPF. Who to target? How to go about doing that? What should our objectives be? What can we plan and execute? How do we evaluate success?
I studied existing public education materials here from museums, and felt the approach was mostly a question and answer format ‘What do you see, How do you feel?”. I was hoping to steer away from that one-way approach and make photography open for discussion. So I first created a theme centered on storytelling, history and interactivity, named Conversations with the Black Box: Murmurings of Past, Present and Future.
Then I was keen to produce an education booklet with post visit activities that teachers can work on in class with students beyond the festival. The education booklet underwent several drastic revisions.
My first draft focused a lot on using photography as a vehicle for teaching knowledge such as science, gender studies, history and politics. That means the subject matter takes priority and photography as a medium, takes a backseat. I decided to revise it again, trying to strike a balance between disseminating information about photography as a concept, technique and medium of expression, and also helping students learn about the subject matter.
But that would also mean more complicated and sophisticated content.
Imagine telling a 12-year-old about new objectivity and Bernd and Hilla Becher. Would they be interested?
I was really uncertain. I only knew one of aims is to challenge the level of photography education in Singapore. I hoped to push the boundaries of what people conventionally know photography to be (eg. Snapshots, advertisements, movie posters, facebook pictures etc).
Beyond appreciating photography as a form of expression, I wanted people to think deeper about our visual culture and how we consume images. I would love to see them feeling inspired, and then empowered to be their own photographers and historians and weave their own narratives.
Yet, I always found it hard to gauge from my own time growing up, what young people nowadays are thinking and what makes them tick. Technology has widened the gap between generations more than ever, and even if it was just a decade apart, our mentalities, learning attitudes and experiences are very different. But ultimately, I guess all teenagers are at a stage of searching for self identity and exploring their purpose in life. Bearing that in mind, the education programme should ideally help them navigate these issues in some ways.
For activities, I proposed a half day package consisting of a 1 hr guided tour around SIPF Open Call exhibits and three hands-on programmes.
1) I Spy With My Little Eye: A day out with the pinhole camera
Students learn about the history of the pinhole camera, principles of pinhole photography and how to build their own camera obscura in this fun-filled hands-on workshop.
2) Retelling histories: an old photo project
History is a composition of memories. In this activity, students will be guided in writing a short story based on photos from their school or family albums. They will also learn how to shoot self-portraits to express their identity and personality in a creative way.
3) Find and Shoot: A photographic treasure hunt around Singapore’s arts belt
Students will learn basic photography skills and attempt to answer riddles about landmarks and cultural sites within the festival district through photo-taking.
The idea was to provide a programme offering with a mix of technical and literary skill sets. But so far, it seems like the pinhole camera workshop has generated the most buzz.. I’m guessing it is because the younger generation grew up surrounded by digital technology, and analogue photography is something very intriguing and exciting for them.
Challenges and last thoughts
My greatest challenge remains the fact that I’m completely new to education and pedagogy. My background was in news and photojournalism. However, I never felt my role in this festival was to be think like a full time school teacher or operate like one. I just wanted very much to share what I know and get people interested and curious about photography.
But that being said, it was still an uphill task trying to catch up with the knowledge gap and forging vital connections in academia in the short term. Putting together a festival, like many other events, is probably more about who you know, more than what you know (though I would say knowledge is power too!)
In addition, we were extremely stretched in terms of manpower and resources. I was the only one running the programme – from planning, publicity, executing programmes and logistics, generating content for an education booklet, working out supplementary materials for the website-, and because of my full time job, my hands were sometimes really tied. For some weeks, I was just surviving on three hours of sleep a day while working out the programme, sending out emails, and then shuttling to my full time job. Those were the days I was teetering on the brink of sheer exhaustion, wondering what else is there to push me ahead, wondering when would that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel ever reach me. I practically clawed my way to the finishing line, but not without indispensable extra boosts, help and support along the way, which I am immensely grateful for. My colleagues at the festival were extremely accommodating, so were the many friends who cheered me on. I reserve my biggest thanks for Vanessa Ban, a designer with a great eye, heart and speedy hands.
The next challenge was reaching out to schools. We spent quite a bit of effort on publicity by email and snail mail, but these weren’t enough. We needed committed individuals within the teaching circle who see value in the education programme, to help spread the word and pull in the interest. Word of mouth is the best publicity one can get.
Though there wasn’t enough manpower and budget to assemble an education team or department, this was never a lonely journey. I learnt great insights into event management, executing a photography education programme -probably the first of its kind in Singapore based on a festival-, managing expectations of different stakeholders like teachers, students, the general public etc. These are all invaluable experiences I’m very thankful for. In addition, I met so many passionate, likeminded individuals in the local and overseas art scene, and they really inspired me. I believe no one knows everything, but definitely every one knows a little something.
I clarify here that I’m definitely not saying my programme is perfect – it is far from it, in my opinion. The list of things to improve and fine tune is endless. But I feel making this attempt and making this first step is important for the community at large. We all need to start somewhere and grow the seed for art and photography appreciation. This might take 5 years, 20 years, 50 years, but surely not overnight.
And so I conclude by saying patience, perhaps, is the greatest lesson I learnt in this one-year endeavour. That patience is so much needed for us to overcome adversity and solve problems, that patience is needed for photography appreciation to slowly sink its roots and blossom in Singapore, and that patience will ultimately be the carrier of the good fruits this festival, and all the blood and sweat of people involved, has borne.