Open College of the Arts

Spring 2009

Take the leap with the OCA
Welcome to this special edition of the OCA student newsletter, Showcase. We are dedicating this issue to photography as the Open College of the Arts is launching its new photography degree programme at Focus 2009. With the addition of a new course, People and Place, students are now able to study for a full BA Honours degree in Creative Arts by choosing from photography modules. We are pleased to have an interview with course author Michael Freeman. Michael has been associated with the OCA for nearly 20 years and his book ‘The Photographer’s Eye’ is the best selling art book on Amazon.

Michael Freeman on the changing world of photography 2 & 3 Meet OCA tutor José Navarro 4&5 Photography students on why they love their courses 6&7

In the face of fleeting reality
Showcase talks to Michael Freeman author of the new People and Place and Digital Photographic Practice courses on the changing world of photography
People and Place is a new course. How do you feel it builds on existing level 1 courses? I think there’s a serious danger that when people come to photography, they get embroiled in the technical aspects. So much goes on inside a digital camera, the menu choices for the user seem endless, and this continues onto the computer and the processing of pictures. The net result is that it’s all too easy, right from the beginning, to lose sight of the fact that photography is really about taking images of what is in the world in front of us. We have a course on Social Documentary in Photography 2, but we felt strongly that earlier than that we should be pushing students to engage
Michael Freeman photo© Fred Kranich

that we pass through. No other art form comes close to achieving that. Why did you to replace the existing digital course? Digital has not only changed the practice and procedures of using a camera — it continues to change, and we need to keep pace with that. I also wanted to tie things together at the start by introducing the idea of workflow. Gone are the days when you simply loaded a roll of film in the camera, shot the pictures then unloaded it an gave it to the lab. There are now many possible steps and sequences, and they will vary for every person according to how they shoot and what they feel comfortable with. In addition, I want to encourage students to think early about the alterations to imagery that digital makes possible — real or fake, in other words. In fact, there’s a sliding scale of what we call in the course ‘reality and intervention’, and it’s important to form your own opinions about this. In the 70s Susan Sontag spoke of the

with life in front of the camera. Among all the many fields into which photography has evolved, documentary reportage remains central to this spirit of engagement with the world. Photography can do many things, but I would argue that what it does best is to take moments from the living world

*“To take photographs is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge in the face of fleeting reality” Henri Cartier-Bresson


‘democratisation of photography’. She was talking about cheap film cameras, but digital and services like flickr have taken this to a new level. Where do you think this leaves aspiring photographers seeking to make a start today? Now photography is truly democratic in a way that Sontag could never have envisioned. Digital has made some obvious contributions to this in its instant results and instant feedback, but perhaps even more influential is broadband. Millions now share their photographs and their opinions about photography. The old hierarchy with professionals at the top of a sort of notional pyramid, with snap shooters at the base, is gone, to the benefit of most. I see that Getty are now cherry picking images and photographers from flickr. The barriers to doing serious photography have largely come down, but so also has the protection for full-time professionals. Unlike many of my co-professionals, however, I still believe that excellence of work ultimately counts. By excellence I mean images that stand out, that cause you to pause and reflect. And that is what we are aiming for in these

courses. In the Digital Photographic Practice course, you write about truth in photography and ‘the real’. Do you have a clear sense of what constitutes the real in your reportage work? The philosophical depths are bottomless, but as reportage photography is robustly practical, I have my own pragmatic ideas about this. One of my guiding principles is what a normally perceptive viewer would expect from a photograph. Digitally altering the content is not expected and so is out of the question. More of an issue for reportage photographers is staging, or stage management. If you ask someone to look up and pose for you, that’s usually obvious from the image, and understood. But arranging for something to take place that would not normally, or giving stage directions according to your idea of how something should happen — that really belongs in advertising, where it’s accepted, and not in documentary work. Finally, what are you working on at present?

The project that’s engaging me the most is a book — large and mainly photographic — on one of the ancient Asian trade routes, called the ‘Tea Horse Route’. A network of trails developed, beginning in the 7th century, along which pack trains carried tea from the far southwest of China to Tibet. In the opposite direction, China imported war horses to protect their northern frontier. It’s a piece of history that every Chinese schoolchild learns, and for me it combines a story in depth with adventure. I’ll probably take two years over it. The slight urgency now is to photograph and interview the old trail masters before they’re gone. Oh, and in the realm of books about photography, I’m starting to plan a sequel to The Photographer’s Eye. This is largely under pressure from my publishers because of this one’s success, but also, from my own point of view there were issues in The Photographer’s Eye that I very much want to explore further.

Tutor: José Navarro

Travels with a camera
Bristol based photographer and OCA tutor José Navarro left Spain and a promising career as an engineering lecturer and moved to the UK in 1996. Twelve years on he says he doesn’t look back to what now seems a completely different lifetime. “I never consciously planned to leave Spain let alone thought about working professionally in the photographic field”, says José. However, a 4-month placement as official photographer on Raleigh International’s expedition to Guyana in 1995 provided the springboard he needed to take the plunge in the photographic arena. Once in the UK José concentrated on editorial and stock adventure travel photography and also worked for publishing labels such as Alastair Sawday and Rough Guides. It was with the new millennium that José decided to take his photography to a new level. In 2001 he received a Millennium Commission On the Line Award for a cycling and photographic trip to Mali. Talking about this project José says “I can’t possibly figure out how on earth I managed to do it; I must have been absolutely raving mad. Photography and cycling on the Sahel’s sandy tracks do not go well together, really”. The photographs he took during his journey were published in Geographical magazine and donated to UK charities. The Mali project was the catalyst for a radical change in his photographic practice. In the same year he enrolled on an MA in Documentary Photography at Newport. “It was the most influential period of learning in my life” says José, “it expanded my views on photography and endowed me with a critical perspective which my work was lacking”. During his time at Newport José focused on representations of ethnicity in heritage and cultural tourism. “I looked at the historical framework for contemporary attitudes towards photographing other peoples and cultures. I also explored the role of photography in creating and consuming modern notions of ethnic and cultural identity.” he says, “the MA changed the way I see photography – for the better.” Following his MA he continued with his involvement in the


publishing industry, writing and researching on Spain, Morocco and India. At the same time José concentrated on long-term, personal photographic projects of a clear humanist nature. He spent time with crofters in the Hebridean island of North Uist and walked 250miles across empty Spanish landscapes with semi-nomadic shepherds. “I think that those two projects, crofters and trashumantes very much define where I stand regarding photography and the world out there. “ explains José, “The camera enables me to experience the work in unique ways. It gives me the opportunity to convey to an audience values which are universal and I consider crucial for an ethically sustainable existence. We can all learn from the crofter’s determination and resilient nature and from the trashumante’s good-natured camaraderie and nonjudgemental attitude towards life and people. A photograph has the potential to convey these messages.” In spring 2007 José joined OCA’s team of photography tutors, and has since become an assessor in our accreditation programmes. “Probably the best thing that’s happened to me in the last two years”, José says of his OCA appointment. “It’s not only rewarding but also very inspiring. My students are producing very exciting work, and of the highest standards. I feel that rather than operating as a traditional teacher, OCA offers me the flexibility to establish a special rapport with my students and engage in aesthetic and even ontological discussions about photography with them”.

José firmly believes in life-long learning. He’s currently enrolled on a distance-learning MA in Environmental Anthropology at the University of Wales. “I hope to gain new perspectives on the dialogue between documentary and anthropology, and explore the field of visual ethnography. I’m looking at mechanisms to reconcile the visual with the humanistic, that is, expression with information” says José about his MA course. He believes that his experience as an online student gives him a unique perspective on the dynamics of distance learning and the needs of mature students. Just before this issue of Showcase went to press José was shortlisted for the British Journal of Photography (BJP) / Nikon Project Assistance Awards. He’s one in eight finalists, selected from hundreds of photographers worldwide, hoping to receive financial support to develop a personal photographic project. “The award would allow me to go back to Morocco and spend a season with semi-nomadic herders of the Atlas Mountains. When you think about it, Morocco is less than 10 miles form the UK – Gibraltar. We don’t seem to know much about a way of life [of the Berber pastoralists] which falls outside the mechanical and technological matrix that most of us are trapped in”. For further information see

Student: Mark Hall

A wider perspective
I am 37 years old and have lived in Malaysia (Borneo Island) for almost 4 years. I live with my wife, Amanda, who is working as a Primary School teacher. We decided to take the opportunity to work abroad after I was made redundant from my job as a Branch Manager for a finance company in the UK. I am a full time student and have been studying for a photography degree with OCA for the past eighteen months. After looking at various study options, I choose to do a distance learning course because of the flexibility it gives me. I can study at my own pace, and unlike other courses I have the advantage of having the whole course in front of me. Another reason for choosing distance learning with OCA is I do not have to sit an exam, which cuts down on the huge costs of flying back to the UK. All my work is assessed by the accrediting university without me having to be there. Studying with the OCA means I have the flexibility to move through the course at my own speed. OCA suggests that each module takes about 12 months to complete provided you study for eight hours per week. Being a full time student I can apply more time to each module so I can work through the course a lot faster. I have a very good relationship with my tutor who has constantly supported me throughout each course. The support from the tutors and staff at OCA is very good. They are just a phone call or e-mail away and will sort out any problems or questions you have. Submitting your work for assessment with the university is also very easy, OCA tell you what you have to submit and you send it all to them. They then liaise with the university and do all the paperwork for you. One of the downsides of distance learning is not being able to talk to other students or my tutor face to face. However, OCA does have an active online student community which enables you to chat with other students and showcase your work.. Another downside is that I recently had a few of my photographs displayed in an OCA exhibition in the UK and unfortunately did not have the satisfaction of being present. Two years ago I would never have imagined that I would be on my way to getting a degree doing something that I love, meeting interesting people through my photography, having my own exhibitions in Malaysia and contributing to this article. I want to complete my photography degree and change my career. I hope to work as a freelance photographer, contributing to major newspapers and magazines. Eventually, I would also like to have my own photography gallery.


Student: Annabelle Studholme

Getting results
I’ve always enjoyed photography but would get frustrated because I couldn’t produce the results I wanted. I would see a potential photo and press the shutter, but somehow the colour would be wrong or the light never turned out the way I saw it at the time. OCA taught me how to capture the photo that I saw in my head, and this introduced me to a new world of photography. I expanded my horizons and even felt confident enough to run a creative digital photography workshop for some of my friends. In the last few months, I have sold two photographs and am working on producing an exhibition. All of this is thanks to OCA, without their tutoring, encouragement and support I would probably still have been taking holiday snaps. Currently I’m working through ‘Photography 3: ‘Your Own Exhibition’ and aiming for a degree. It’s a stimulating course, which continues to expand the way I look at photography and encourages me to delve deeper into different aspects of photography and photographers. I travel a lot for extended periods, often to third world countries. This provides wonderful photographic opportunities but life without electricity, internet and libraries can make study difficult. Luckily, there is a lot of flexibility in the course, which means I can organise my projects to fit my lifestyle. I’m looking forward to moving on to the ‘Photography 3: Advanced’ course and after that, well maybe OCA will start a Masters in Photography!

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OCA welcomes contributions to Showcase but reserves the right to edit materials at its discretion. Views and opinions expressed in Showcase are not necessarily those of OCA, nor does the inclusion of an item, insert or advertisement constitute a recommendation. To amend your contact details or to give feedback – please contact Dee Bean, Marketing and Events, on 01226 704364 or email


Your study pathway
BA Honours Degree and Associate of the Royal Photographic Society Exit Photography 3
Your own Exhibition


Photography 3

Progress to level 3 Photography 2

Diploma in Higher Education


Photography 2
Social Documentary


Photography 2
Progressing with Digital


Choose 2 units from 3

Progress to level 2 Photography 1
The Art of Photography

Certificate of Higher Education


Photography 1
People and Place


Photography 1
Digital Photographic Practice


Through accreditation of previous study or of a portfolio of work it may be possible to gain credits which provide exemptions from some level 1 and 2 courses.

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