Talking about Education: the Self-Taught Photographer

With the launch of our online educational program, we will be writing about topics related to career development and learning opportunities for photographers. In this article we explore the concept and practice of the self-taught photographer.

We went to speak with a number of them from different generations and parts of the world to understand what it means to be self-taught. And, what are the most important lessons they’ve learnt.

© Carlos Spottorno. Guests at a reception held before a fashion show at the Badrutt Hotel, St Moritz, January 2014. Image from the series Wealth Management.

The meaning of being self-taught might differ depending on who you are talking to. Some people even say that being self-taught is not possible anymore in today’s world, since we are all constantly exposed to different sources and events through which we learn and our careers are shaped. In fact, everyone you meet and everything you experience can be your teacher as long as you have a curious and open mind. “As of late, I'm not sure that self-taught is how I'd like to describe myself, as I feel so many people have lifted me up and mentored me”, says Hannah Reyes Morales from the Philippines.

© Miguel Ángel Larrea Peroldo. La Habana, Cuba 2015

So even though the definition of self-taught might change slightly, there seems to be a consensus that a self-taught photographer does not follow any form of formal and structured (often accredited) education in photography at an art school or university. Unlike in many other professions, in photography it often comes with pride to say that one is self-taught. It seems to be true that when you start working professionally, it is your work and how you present that work that make you stand out, and not necessarily a certificate or grade.

Aspiring photographers choose either consciously to be self-taught, or are self-taught because certain circumstances forced them to take an alternative path than the formal one. In many countries around the world, there are simply no opportunities to learn photography the formal way. This was the case for Miguel Angel Larrea from Chile. In his country there was no education on offer when he started off. Then also, sometimes the opportunities that are available are too costly or don’t fit one’s lifestyle at that particular moment.

© Hannah Reyes Morales. Inside the home of a family living in a shanty community in Manila. Families often rely on screen time to pass the time - prime time television often dominates life in these households, but today there is a rise of more affordable smartphones, with networks offering free Facebook.

Others choose to explore the discipline in their own free time. Anita Pouchard Serra from Argentina says that at first she did not want to follow a specific line into the photographic industry and, instead preferred to ‘‘find my own way and questions, looking for a specific knowledge or methodology”. The photographers we spoke to who voluntarily decided to be self-taught all wanted to remain in control of what, how, and when they would learn something. They did not want formal education to get in the way of their process. In a way, they preferred to be their own teacher. Naoyuki Ogino from Japan tells us that he thought it was “dangerous to go to learn photography without knowing or identifying my own kind of philosophy. I thought I might be lost.” Isadora Kosofsky, who is based in Los Angeles, adds that “photography school cannot teach you to follow your truth; only your pains, joys and contradictions guide the way”.

Whether autodidactic by choice or force, the reality is that every photographer needs to learn skills, acquaint themselves with knowledge, and adopt attitudes in order to make it in the professional industry. With an infinite amount of online resources “photography as a craft in itself has become something that can be learnt with video tutorials”, as Carlos Spottorno from Spain says. Another way to learn is go for trial and error learning. Throwing yourself into it: exposing yourself to new situations is also a way to get there. And seeking constructive criticism from people you trust (be it, for example, a masterclass or over a drink) is also of fundamental importance to your development.

© Jetmir Idrizi. A gay couple from Sao Paolo, Brazil posing for a picture in their apartment.

Many self-taught photographers do participate in forms of non-formal education, such as workshops, online photography courses and masterclasses. It might seem even more urgent to attend these kinds of events in their case, because it offers the perfect occasion to meet like minded people and share one’s concerns and doubts. Sharing with others in an inspirational environment can enable you to reach a new level of photographic revelation on the journey to becoming a better photographer. Jetmir Idriz from Kosovo, who has attended several workshops over time, advises every young photographer to take the chance to participate in a photography workshop when it is free or at least with a small symbolic price.

Of course, workshops can be valuable because of what they teach you, but interestingly enough, most photographers say that these were unforgettable and learningful experiences because of the sense of community it gave and the collective experience it generates. Peer-to-peer learning and constructive critique given in a nurturing and co-operative environment are, indeed, successful ingredients for professional, and often personal, growth.

© Isadora Kosofsky. Ramon, age 15, stands in the gym at the juvenile detention center in Albuquerque, New Mexico

In conversation with the photographers, it becomes clear that having a successful career as a photographer goes beyond knowing the craft of photography. It goes beyond knowing and understanding hardware, software and the latest technologies. Actually, many of the biggest lessons learnt they share with us don’t have anything to do with the hard skills of photography. They mostly relate to what is called the ‘soft skills’: skills that relate to interactions with other people and will help one work with subjects, clients, and people in general. Examples include a strong work ethic, critical thinking and strong communication skills - skills, that are not necessarily uniquely linked to working as a photographer. They are transferable skills: a core set of skills and abilities that can be applied to a wide range of different jobs and industries.

Mastering business skills as a photographer was mentioned a few times as one of the biggest lessons learned by the photographers we spoke to. Being flexible, having good interpersonal skills, knowing how to network, having clear communication skills and being self-confident are all skills that fit into that field. “Dreams are good - but business is business!”, says Kasper, “...dreams and good hearts need to find sustainable ways of paying the bills. Business is the foundation of all the rest.”

© Kasper Nybo. Image from the series North pole outpost Svalbard.

For very few, making it as a photographer in the professional industry is an easy ride. The question is whether it is a harder one for self-taught photographers compared to those who have that formal degree in their pockets. It’s difficult to draw general conclusions on that from the conversations we had, but there are certain skills that also seem hard to master in today’s photography schools and academies. These are skills that demand simply experiencing life to its fullest, getting yourself out there, exposing yourself to new situations and working hard. Always work hard. And always do what you love. “Focus on issues you really care about. Anything else will be done without care, therefore badly done.”, says Carlos.

And on a final note, Ian Teh shares: “A friend once expressed his opinion that there wasn’t really a secret to success in photography as a career — it’s just consistent application of oneself.”

© Anita Pouchard Serra. Sorority, two women near the Argentinian Senate, waiting for the votation of the legal abortion law. Buenos Aires, Argentina, August 8, 2018.

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Thanks to the following self-taught photographers who reached out and helped us to write this article.

Anita Pouchard Serra is a French-argentinised photographer whose work revolves around questions and territories that cross her personally, connected with current societal problems around identity, migration and territory with a transdisciplinary approach. Her work is widely published and has been exhibited in different festivals around the world. She is part of Hans Lucas and ARGRA.

Carlos Spottorno was born in Budapest, but grew up in Rome, Paris and Madrid. His career started as an advertising art director. In 2001 he switched to photography. Since then, he has been pursuing his self-generated long-term projects alongside regular assignments for editorial and commercial clients. He has published six books.

Hannah Reyes Morales is a documentary photographer from the Philippines. She grew up in the messy streets of Manila. Her work has been published widely in, for example, The Washington Post, The New York Times, National Geographic (online), Al Jazeera, The Southeast Asia Globe and Newsweek Japan. She is a member of MAPS Images.

Ian Teh is a British photographer based in Malaysia. He has published three monographs: Undercurrents (2008), Traces (2011) and Confluence (2014). His work is part of permanent collections in different musea around the world. He has received several honours including a travel grant from the Pulitzer Centre for Crisis Reporting in 2018.

Isadora Kosofsky is a documentary photographer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. Her passion is long-form storytelling, spending years shadowing individuals and communities. She is a 2012 Inge Morath Award recipient and a recently named TED Fellow.

Jetmir Idrizi is a freelance photographer born in Pristina, Kosovo. His work focuses on social issues and the developments that Kosovo has faced since the end of the war in 1999. Throughout the last three years Idrizi has shared his time between Kosovo and Brazil, where he has been working on a photography book project on Gender Identity. Idrizi has participated in several workshops and exhibitions worldwide.

Kasper Nybo is a Danish documentary photographer and visual artist covering human stories, struggles and triumphs around the globe. His images are commissioned by organisations and institutions in need of communicating strong stories - often on delicate subjects.

Miguel Ángel Larrea is a Chilean photographer, journalist and photo editor. He is a founding partner of the Humo Photo Project, a professor of photography at the University of Chile, a photo editor for regional media, and serves as co-director for the International Festival of Photography in Valparaiso.

Naoyuki Ogino is a Japanese photographer, born in Tokyo, raised in Mexico and currently living in Kyoto. One of his themes as a photographer is "in-between". He is a professor at Stanford University and he oversees study programs in Kyoto.

Peter Krogh is a photographer, writer, filmmaker, publisher and consultant. For 30 years, he has created visual images for editorial and commercial clients who need to send a message, tell a story or connect with an audience.

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