Having completed Assignment 3 of G&M and started Assignment 3 of Documentary, I am very nearly halfway through the degree, content-wise. This feels like a good time to try to articulate something that’s been preying on my mind for the last few months.
I’m disappointed with my own work on Level 2 – sometimes it feels like I peaked at the end of Level 1…
My journey through Level 1 was probably not dissimilar to many: I studied part-time over just less than three years and did Art of Photography, followed by People & Place, finishing with Context & Narrative.
Of the three, I really loved Context & Narrative – it felt like my photography moved onto a whole new level. I was ecstatic to see that my development was recognised as my marks progressed from 62% (AoP), through 71% (P&P) to 83% (C&N). And I half-jokingly said that I must have peaked on Level 1 and it’s all downhill from here… but sometimes it feels like that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that I need to shake off.
And now I look at the work I’m doing for my assignments – both on G&M and on Documentary – and find it somewhat lacking. I don’t feel that the assignments are as creative, conceptual or interesting as the work I did for C&N, nor as much a part of my developing photographic voice. So I’ve been looking at reasons this might be the case, and what I can do about it.
I posted in the OCA Photography group on Facebook a question about whether my occasional feelings of self-doubt are normal, and got a resounding Hell, Yeah. Everyone who responded confessed to having the same feelings, some more often and more deeply than others. A few people posited theories as to why this is the case, particularly on Level 2 and above, and a strong theme emerged of simply having higher standards as one progresses.
At Level 2 you analyse the work of others more, both professional practitioners that you look at as part of your research and (more fairly, perhaps) other students on the same course. As time goes on I feel I can more clearly understand and articulate what is ‘good’ (successful, achieves its intent, thought-provoking, whatever) photograph or project, and when I measure myself against these standards I mostly see the gaps and the failings.
What can I do about this? First of all, to simply be aware of the above context helps. Then, I need to remember that when comparing myself to others, to look for the ways in which I am improving rather than obsessing on the weaknesses. Also, I should keep getting constructive critiques from peers, as they have the double effect of both pointing out where I am being successful and politely offering advice on overcoming weaknesses.
Feeling too constrained by the briefs
I specifically used the phrase ‘feeling’ rather than ‘being’ too constrained; it’s up to me how to interpret the assignment briefs, but I do sense that I fall back into accepting limitations more than pushing against them. I find it too easy to take briefs at face value and only really identify ways of making the assignments more interesting after the fact.
Case in point: I asked for peer feedback on Assignment 3 (portraits) and someone suggested I could have done absented portraits using objects. My response was: yeah, I thought of that but dismissed it. But did I really give it serious thought? Did I visualise, sketch out, test shoot any variants of this approach? No, I stuck with a quite traditional response to the brief.
I do think the briefs are written in a more prescriptive way than on C&N (which surprised me, as I expected briefs to get ‘looser’ as the course progressed). On C&N the conceptual parameters were clear enough (‘photographing the unseen’; a self-portrait series; a constructed image etc) but the approach was very open. On G&M the subject matter parameters come across as more limiting (‘a local issue you feel strongly about‘; ‘a group with a varied membership‘ etc) and sometimes the submissions and format requirements are oddly specific (‘produce three images each of four people, shot in the same location, print one per person at A4 and the other two at 5″ x 4″ each‘ etc).
I confess I can’t remember which student said this in their blog, but I recall reading something along the lines of ‘Gesture & Meaning, more than any other OCA Photography course, is designed to prepare you for being a professional photographer‘ (my emphasis).
With this in mind I accept that part of being a professional photographer is working to client briefs, and this is something I need to get used to! But I also need to stop letting these parameters curtail my creativity.
This is my recent realisation. Last year I decided to take a career break to study full-time, having been increasingly disillusioned in my career as a management consultant. This has had two unexpected effects.
Firstly, it’s possible that I do too much studying and too little other stuff! I’m currently averaging about 20-25 hours study per week, alternating between G&M and Documentary, plus photography seems to occupy much of my thoughts even when not sat at a desk or pointing a camera at something. Aside from domestic chores, a few hours volunteering and a bit of socialising, I’m all about the photography study. Maybe I’m just too close, too focused, too narrow in my horizons? When I worked full-time and studied part-time, I had other aspects of my life to think about, and maybe this mental space was actually useful… Now, I’m really quite immersed and that’s not necessarily all that healthy for my development. Maybe I should slow down the studies a bit, give my development some breathing space?
Secondly, almost all of my work on C&N that I was so proud of was a reaction to the rest of my life, particularly my dissatisfaction in my career. Assignments covered variously: surface appearances being deceptive (alluding to my smiley happy work mask), feeling disjointed and ‘all over the place’ (a reference to my constant work travel and lack of stability) and my decision to choose between a corporate life and an academic one. It hit me today: those tensions in my life led to interesting photographic work – and my current carefree home-based lifestyle does not!
To be honest I’m not quite sure what to do with that last point! I am not planning to re-introduce stress into my life just to act as a photographic muse.
I think just writing all of this down has helped me to see things more clearly. It reframes the feelings that I’ve been having and has helped me to unpack them and make more sense of them.
Specifically regarding my lack of satisfaction with assignments, I’m now understanding why so much is made of setting some time aside for rework at the end of Level 2 courses. I think with the benefit of time passing, I can come back to my assignments from the first half of this year and make them better.
Normal cheery service will be resumed shortly!