Scotland’s Awesome Assignment Work

Yet another victim of the “I’ve been incredibly busy so far this year” syndrome, has been this little blog post, which I meant to write a month ago as soon as I returned from my week-long trip to Scotland to lecture at City of Glasgow College, Paisley Reid Kerr, and Edinburgh Stevenson College.  I may have got some people’s hopes up by promising it ages ago, so I shall put them out of their misery, take a break from doing my annual accounts, and stick it online.  For the past couple of years, when I’ve done lectures at universities and colleges, besides the morning talk, I’ve also set a select group of students a timed assignment.  The structure has remained broadly the same since I first did it in 2008, and now something like 35 colleges and groups have completed it in it’s various forms.  The general format is the same – the students are given a choice of subject areas/briefs at midday, and may choose not only what to shoot but how to shoot it, and then they hand the finished images in to me by 3pm.  They are also expected to hand in an invoice as if the shoot was a commercial job.  Once I’ve had a chance to look things over on my own, we all gather back together and I critique both the work, and the invoicing paperwork.  The results have been varied, to say the least, but I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a stronger set of images, and matching invoices, than those produced at the 3 colleges I lectured at in Scotland this year.

Scotland Assignment work by Martins Melecis
By Martins Melecis from City of Glasgow College. This was conceived, sourced, shot, and delivered in 3 hours, along with an invoice. 3 hours. I couldn’t shoot a still life this polished if you gave me 3 bloody days!

I’ll readily admit that when doing a group critique I try very hard to be positive, and avoid the temptation to come crashing down on people who’ve lost the plot, but at the other end of the scale I’ve no interest in just standing there and spouting superlatives about the work people hand in.  At times in Scotland it can be a bit tricky avoiding the latter!
The 3 topics the students had to choose from were:

  • Vodka
  • The Church
  • The Suit
Assignment work by Maria Bowskill
By Maria Bowskill from Reid Kerr College. I was particularly impressed at the ingenuity of this image, and the speed with which she did the photoshop work. Still can’t fathom how the potato cost £1.75 on the invoice though – think she may have been trying to rip me off!

Then, they had to shoot and invoice according to their chosen market.  So, if they’d picked Vodka (as quite a lot of students chose to) and said they were shooting for the advertising market, I’d expect 1, or maybe 2 very polished finished images that look like an Ad campaign, and an invoice that has a corresponding fee with lots of thought given to the usage of the images.  Or, if they’d gone down the editorial route, I might expect to see 8-10 documentary images of a Polish social club, and an invoice that was quite a bit lower.

There were 2 things that struck me most about the colleges in Scotland.  Firstly, the much higher level of technical and craft skills than I’ve found elsewhere, and secondly the more pro-active (hate that word) attitude.  I’ve always been a strong believer that good technical and craft skills are essential to a professional career, if only so that you can choose to reject many of the “rules” and play fast and loose with them, and in my opinion too few colleges spend enough time teaching technical craft.  It seems very common to leave it up to the students to find these things out for themselves, and this isn’t always the best solution.  I’ve given this assignment to hundreds of students, and on more than one occasion I’ve found myself giving out fundamental technical advice to 3rd years about to graduate during the critique.  I shouldn’t have to do this….

In Scotland (and at least one course in North East England…) technical skill is woven into the course fabric, and it shows.  The results the students turned in with just 3 hours to conceive a plan, go out and shoot it, do any post-processing, and then hand it in were on the whole incredibly technically polished, and put many professionals to shame.

As for attitude, there seems to be a general trend towards a bit more initiative North of the Border.  Lots more questions during the talk (and almost no “what camera do you use?” questions), lots of different interpretations of the brief, and lots of results that demonstrate much more get-up-and-go than just standing a mate in front of a wall and shooting them with on camera flash.  I shall stick my neck on the line here and say it’s because Scotland never adopted the tick-the-box National Curriculum, and so hasn’t developed a generation of students whose initiative and ability to think for themselves has been stifled at every stage of the education process!

Corrine MacDonald assignment work
By Corrine MacDonald, of Edinburgh Stevenson College. This is Cardinal O’Brien, who’s head of the Scottish Catholic Church. Religious issues aside (me being an Atheist and all) it’s a very good portrait, and a real coup getting someone like this in the 3 hour window.

So, yeah – Scotland would appear to be a good place to study photography at the moment.  I’d go and have a look if you’re thinking of starting a course in the near future, and colleges in England could do well to have a good look at what the Scots are doing!


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