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Does the Voice of the Student Matter? – By Holly Gilman

I have always worried about my level of experience and whether my thoughts matter. Being one of the more academic students at school perhaps set me up for this worry in later life because it is inevitable that, when starting in the world of work, you are the least experienced. More recently, as I’ve gained experience in my career, I have a lot more confidence to voice my opinions but have faced the issue of being ignored due to my youth, my gender and these days also my flexible working arrangement. 

What has that got to do with photography? Well, I’ve loved writing for quite a while now but would never have had the guts to approach a website like this to contribute. I am fortunate then, that Sroyon and Hamish recognise the value of someone writing about their learning journey. My experience writing for this website has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve even had people approach me privately to say that they would rather ask a relative beginner for advice than a master because the advice is so much more digestible – even if it is mere opinion. 

Pancro 400 -accidental double exposure
Pancro 400 -accidental double exposure

2020 was a hell of a year for most people, me included. However, I have come to the realisation that photography itself is not my biggest passion. Learning is. It just so happens that photography (practise and critical theory) is one of the main things I love to learn about. I truly hope that all my articles here are taken as they are meant, the words of someone learning.

Recently I received my first piece of particularly negative, and more to the point condescending feedback. Although this negative feedback was aimed at a couple of my articles, it seems that my review of the book Beauty in Photography by Robert Adams is what caused the upset. I’ve since read and reread my review to check whether I had been clear enough in my opinions, whether it left doubt as to where I stood but obviously, as the author I can only ever read it with my own eyes, if you get my meaning.

What appears to have hit the biggest nerve with this individual, and the issue I wanted to address here, is my lack of education. The opinions expressed by this individual suggest that they are uncomfortable with the idea that someone who is not an “expert”, does not hold a PhD or is not considered a master photographer, dare express their opinions in a public place. How dare I challenge the authority of Robert Adams’ words?

In response to that I would like to share a couple of quotes from the preface of Adams book:

“When readers learn that I was a teacher, and then encounter references to literature and art, past and present, they ask whether I think an appreciation of art requires formal education. I do not.” (Adams, 1996:7)

“No one though, has to go to college to make or understand or enjoy art. Wonderful artists and critics – some of the best – have educated themselves.” (Adams, 1996:8)

Adams also mentions that these essays are “not scholarly” and are based on his beliefs rather than suggesting that they are fact. This is a man, then, who welcomes respectful debate regardless of your level of education. I have never professed expertise, but does that mean my opinion doesn’t count?

Of course not, and that is the premise both of the Facebook group which we’ve set up, Photography Books and Theory, and my own website, School of Holly. We all want to learn more, hear the opinions of others and open our minds. I have just started reading The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes by Christopher James (Third Edition) and in the introduction he says it beautifully:

“The word “student” applies to all of us… Much of what the reader discovers will emerge as a result of play and if you don’t embrace the concept of play you probably won’t learn a lot about anything in life.” (James, 2019: Introduction)

I know he was referring to the act of creating art through alternative photographic processes but I think it can be applied to absolutely everything. We discuss and debate in the Facebook group because we enjoy it, if you don’t enjoy learning from others, you won’t enjoy the group! It is my aim that everyone taking part feel safe to express their opinions, knowing that discrimination will not be tolerated.

One of my main collaborators in this learning journey
One of my main collaborators in this learning journey

Before I end, and in the spirit of truly reflecting on feedback I would like to address one of the issues raised in the comment, which was my use of the word ignorant/ignorance to describe Adams. Perhaps this word seems heavy handed and I apologise for that, I had meant it in its most basic definition in that I felt the opinion expressed ignored other photographic mediums or other photographic subjects.

I was not suggesting that Adams is an Ignorant Man, I’m saying that these examples and opinions expressed, ignore the great work being done in the areas he is criticising. In hindsight, I should have used a different phraseology or expanded a little on my meaning. Overall though I stand by my review, I recommend others read his essays (and said so in the review) and I look forward to reading more of his work, the fact that I disagree with some of his comments and opinions does not change that, I hope that for most readers, this is apparent from my review. I am still learning and absolutely welcome respectful challenges to my work and opinions.

So, does the voice of the student matter?

Yes, of course it does. Learning is a collaborative effort, it happens much more quickly and much more effectively when there is open, respectful and honest discussion happening.

I also wonder at what point you stop considering yourself a student. At what point do you say that you have no more left to learn? I would argue that even those considered master printers by Ilford are continuing to tinker and improve their practice. In my day job I make an effort to ensure I listen to everyone’s opinion. We are trained from the very beginning of our careers, to draw those who are naturally quieter into the conversation regardless of whether they are more junior in grade or more senior; those doing the day to day tasks are more likely to spot issues and come up with solutions. It is now considered to be detrimental to business to only listen to the opinion of those at the top, I believe the same can be said for most topics, including art and photography. To make sure there is no misunderstanding I will reiterate – I’m not saying that we shouldn’t listen to those with more experience than us, I’m saying we shouldn’t ONLY listen to those with more experience.

It has long been my conviction that everyone should have a voice, and this experience has only strengthened my resolve. I am happy for my ideas and beliefs to be challenged, that’s how I learn and grow as a person, but it must be done in a respectful manner. It serves no-one to get angry, defensive and aggressive.

My apologies for getting so serious but I wanted you to know that your opinion counts, regardless of your background or level of expertise.

Thank you.

If, like me, you are interested in life-long learning and have a broad range of interests you may enjoy my website, a space designed to be a place of community and solidarity and resources for those who have a lot of interests. For my photographic work my Instagram is where I post my images.

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About The Author

18 thoughts on “Does the Voice of the Student Matter? – By Holly Gilman”

  1. Holly, learning never stops. I think some of the best learners accept insight and knowledge from whomever or wherever it comes. If someones ideas,concepts and thoughts threaten our position how do we respond? I want to always be open to adjusting my processes as needed but that doesn’t mean my processes are faulty or incomplete. Each individual brings a different history to the table and that means a different approach. These different approaches also bring different insights. I consider myself a craftsman in my work. I don’t say that with any pretense other than that’s my approach to my work. I’m in a constant state of learning but I also have a solid workflow. Craftsmanship implies an understanding beyond the norm but it can also be a philosophy of thinking that far exceeds our own level of experience.

    All that to say, YES, I believe a students voice does count. I’m avidly looking for some new dot to connect in my brain and I never know where that will come from. Age and experience certainly count for something but ultimately I am wanting to improve at my craft. Keep speaking up, I want to hear what you have to say.

    1. Thank you! I’m glad my point came across – I am absolutely not reducing experience and craftsmanship to being invalid but that we should listen to everyone with equal respect 🙂

  2. Everyone has the right to an opinion, but if that opinion is a public criticism, or a judgment, then one should learn not to bristle at being themselves criticized, or judged.

    Robert Adams needn’t have experienced Photoshop to opine on alternative photographic visions, as there were more than plenty artists who used photography in different artistic ways. From pictorialism, to Man Ray, to Jerry Uelsmann, and more. It seems he just didn’t like it.

    1. Thank you for joining the conversation on this. Apologies if I have misinterpreted your comment but I believe you are suggesting that I have a problem with being criticised. I just wanted to clarify, in case it didn’t come through in my article, I don’t have a problem with someone disagreeing with me and telling me so and why as long as it’s in an open and respectful way. I want to learn from others, it’s why I love the community in our facebook discussion group, I have my thought processes challenged by people who disagree with me and our discussions are so thought provoking. I do have an absolute zero tolerance policy on aggresive comments and critising in a nasty manner – it’s unneccesary and noone learns anything from it.

  3. Great article Holly. Photography is “polymesmeric” to quote (or probably misquote, given my memory) Joseph Heller. It’s a technical and objective process to achieve subjective results. And a very broad church. So plenty of scope for disagreement and discord when opinions diverge. But as you say, as long as the resultant discussion is civilised and respectful, it’s all good. Uncivilised and disrespectful: not good at all, block, move on, don’t let it get you down.

    1. Thank you Steve 🙂 I highly value people who disagree with me because I can’t learn without being challenged in my assumptions. I will always consider myself a student, regardless of the qualifications or job histories detailed on my CV (entirely theoretical at this point haha! My CV contains nothing relating to photography at all)

  4. Following your journey has been so amazing and definitely raised my spirits throughout 2020. So thank you for that. I think the student/master concepts are sometimes blurred or hard to make out. I would never call myself a photographer, yet I have been taking pictures for over 20 years, on various formats and mediums. My friends would call me a photographer. It’s a weird thing in art, very much in photography. If you build a cabinet, are you a carpenter, a cabinet maker, frugal or simply hands on? Now what if you made cabinets for 30 other people and never charged? What about if you only made 5 but charged for each of them? The answer will most likely vary from person to person. If there is a photography questions, nine times out of ten, my friends will come to me, so am I a photographer. How much is skill vs vision? I remember doing a shoot with my buddy about a decade ago. He was a master at Photoshop, where as I am still kind of basic, I don’t do photo manipulation much. I would take a shot and often he would follow after me to take the same shot because I was better and framing and “seeing” the shot. Later we both posted our picture and mine paled heavily in comparison because of the post prod that he would do. I would not say that it makes him a better photographer than me? The results say so. Everything is subjective and I love viewing the world through your lens, I’m happy that you are letting this derail you.

  5. Suggest you check out “I’m OK, You’re OK” by Thomas Anthony Harris. What I’m getting from this post is all rooted in transactional analysis.

  6. Learning from others involves an element of keeping an open mind to the unexpected. Similar to what can happen if a piano is placed in a busy shopping mall.

  7. Hi Holly – This is a good discussion to have. I remember your first article on 35mmc I think, and found it so refreshing and liked your style. (Still do btw.) I also remember the exchange you mention that upset you – and to be perfectly frank with you, I thought the guy in question was polite and reasonable (but yes, condescending.) I also suspect that while his English was perfect it was not his first or only language and there may have been semantic issues involved there too, but – whatever.) What I now observe is that you learned from that exchange, and that’s a good thing as you love learning. Should I be making this comment here? I could send it to you privately, but hey, yours is a public post so I’ll make a public comment. I too love learning – I’m going in to full time study this year in the area of contemporary art. One thing that I find fascinating, and something I often discuss with others, is the matching the platform to the discussion. It’s tough gig to do meaningful exchanges on blog posts or fb posts. I don’t think it’s really the place for it – it’s tough to disagree without it sounding rude, and as you say, you don’t learn from people agreeing with you. It’s also not set up for lengthy or deep exchanges. It’s a bit of a pet amusement of mine – the “OMG so talented!” type of feedback on Insta. I like getting positive feedback from an article – probably most people do. It’s nice to think someone has appreciated what you do – even though (for me) I learn most from the writing of things not the feedback on it. Anyway – we’re all learning and mucking about I think; the whole of 35mmc is a bit of a fun playground it seems to me. My favourite pieces are the honest ones where you learn about the person who wrote them – not just the info – because that way you also get a fresh perspective. Keep ‘em coming Holly!

    1. Hi David, thank you for your comments. I will say though that the comments I’m refering to were never published due to how rude they were – a decision that was discussed between Hamish and myself, we also discussed whether to publish them retrospectively in light of this article but I decided not to call out the individual by name, that isn’t the point of what I’m trying to do with this piece. He did indeed then write some more polite versions of what he’d said in the original which others have seen. I’m really glad my opinions and writing resonate with others. It’s scary to put such a raw and honest opinion piece out there but I also think it’s important to push past it, to connect with others 🙂

  8. Hi Holly! I’m late to the party but just saw your post. I really appreciate your perspective and my experience fits what I think you are saying. Anyone who is offended by the correct usage of a word (“ignorant”) should maybe spend a few minutes looking in the mirror before blasting another. As a non-trained passionate image creator I have found a lot of arrogant attitudes among the so called “elite” photographers guild. I just carry on creating art and images that fit my vision and they can argue about trivial differences in lens design or other esoteric topics… I hope you keep moving on and don’t let the technocrats drag you down!

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