A Perspective Shift Beyond Formal Learning

Since 2006, ISSP in Latvia has developed into one of the most interesting photography hubs in Europe. Through innovative programs and expert teaching, the School is questioning the classical approach to learning.

© Oscar B. Castillo. International Summer School of Photography 2015

The PHM 2017 Women Photographers Grant offers one photographer under 30 years of age the opportunity to attend a workshop at the 2018 ISSP. In conversation with Julija Berkovica, the founder, we talked about the intense learning experience at ISSP and the significance of engaging in new approaches to photographic education.

Hi Julija. In 2018 ISSP will celebrate its 12th anniversary. What was the main driver that twelve years ago pushed you to create such a program? How it has been evolving year after year and is there any relevant news for the 2018 edition?

Back in 2006, when there were hardly any photography education programs in our country, we wanted to bring great photographers over and give people an opportunity to learn from them directly and experience the international aspect of it, to put things in proper context. But above all, the wish was to create an important personal experience for the participants – a sort of “perspective shift”, that goes beyond formal learning. Thinking about it, our motivation is still the same, we have just got a lot better at doing it - and much more conscious about it too. ISSP is not about “photography education” per se. It goes beyond that: it's about making connections, exchanging ideas, and creating new combinations, inspiration, and friendships, etc. - all the human aspects inside, around and beyond photography.

The news for the 2018 edition is that in addition to a few excellent workshops as usual, we will be introducing an ISSP Residency - a response to the maturation of our audience. It will be a chance for a few artists to spend time at ISSP creating their own work, consulting with experts, taking part in portfolio reviews, evening talks and everything else the ISSP campus has to offer. Apart from that we will also have, for the first time, a workshop on curating photography, which will bring together the professionals acting as mediators between the artists and the public, to reflect upon the process of passing on and creating new meanings. This will be an interactive process involving all the other participants, so we expect many exciting things to happen.

© Oscar B. Castillo. International Summer School of Photography 2015

What is the structure of the summer school and what differentiates it from other educational programs?

ISSP is a very intense learning experience. The participants, the mentors and the staff are in the campus together around the clock, experiencing a wonderful mix of workshop discussions and exercises, evening talks, portfolio presentations and reviews, producing work, editing work, preparing and installing the final exhibition, as well as the social life before, after and during. The campus is in a beautiful countryside location away from any city distractions, which helps everyone concentrate on photography full time. There is no hierarchy at the school, so the learning happens horizontally as well as vertically, and our mentors often say they learned a great deal from their students. People receive a tremendous amount of input in a short time; information that usually takes months after to process – we have heard many times that a week at ISSP gave more input than several years in a university.

Every summer the group of students who participate in your program is quite eclectic – they come from different countries and different backgrounds. What are the characteristics you are looking for in the selection process?

The participants come from many different countries; indeed several continents. First and foremost, the applicants must have a good quality portfolio that shows that they understand what they are doing with the medium, and be motivated to learn and experiment. The rest is up to our application jury members and luck. Another point - we do value diversity as an important component of the ISSP experience, so the applicants from less represented countries (or continents) will be more likely to be offered a place, other things being equal.

© Wikus DeWet. International Summer School of Photography 2016

What are the most important training aspects and values that tutors aim to pass on to students during the week-long workshop? What can the participants expect to take home after such an experience?

This is entirely out of our control and depends on the personality of the tutors. What we are looking for in our mentors is artistic excellence, openness, and willingness to share and communicate. Ideally they would already have teaching experience. The participants are expected to take home lots of new ideas on how to go ahead with their photographic practice, new inspiration, plenty of new friendships and connections across borders, as well as (possibly) an experimental piece of work as an addition to their creative portfolio. After ISSP, many people shift their direction in photography, start exploring other mediums, or (which has also happened) quit it completely.

Many people may not be that familiar with Latvia. Can you tell us more about it and the location where the workshop will be held?

Latvia is a small country with hundreds of kilometres of unspoilt beaches and wild forests, lakes and rivers. People here are still connected to nature and the population is quite small, so all of this can be enjoyed in relative seclusion. The ISSP campus is located in a 19th century castle in a village next to the small town of Kuldīga, 150 km away from the capital. Kuldīga is a wonderfully preserved medieval town with Europe’s widest waterfall in the middle! It’s pretty breathtaking. You should see for yourselves.

From your answers we’ve clearly perceived the uniqueness of the ISSP, but if it comes down to a single answer, why do you think people should apply?

I think all in all it comes down to these three - community, inspiration, new ways.

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Julija Berkovica is the founder and managing director of the International Summer School of Photography in Latvia, which later turned into association ISSP, an internationally renowned education and networking platform for emerging photographers. She is the co-founder and director of several ISSP educational and exchange programs in contemporary photography - ISSP School in Latvia, the year long ISSP International Masterclass, Self Publish Riga, and other projects dealing with contemporary photography.

Rocco Venezia is an Italian photographer whose works originate from a personal interest in literature and an awareness of European political and economical situations. He started collaborating as assistant curator with PHmuseum in April 2017.

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