7 Lessons I have Learned By Teaching Photography


Anyone can do great things with photography, from getting involved with analogue formats – which teach us to be slow-paced and patient photographers in this highly dynamic digital world – to getting close to people with the excuse of making some photographs, only to end up listening to their magnificent life stories.

Photography has been generous to me and given me countless beautiful experiences, and the most recent one happens to be the most meaningful in my life so far. This experience is simply called “teaching” (in a formal way), and it has allowed me to make photography easier to understand for other enthusiasts and newcomers.

With my Students

It makes sense for a photography writer like myself to eventually stumble into academic entities, and this year I've had the beautiful opportunity to teach an entire photography course at a design specialized university in my country. Each lesson is 5 hours long, so managing time has been a challenge. Today I want to share with you some of my most thrilling teaching experiences.

1. Students Are Curious About Things That No Longer Delight Me.

Image by Melissa García

After 9 years walking along this road of light, some things are not so thrilling for me anymore, like achieving certain looks using aperture or shutter speed settings. I'm currently more drawn to meaning and aesthetic. But my students are still going through that former phase, and being able to teach them this stuff with easy-to-understand and practical examples is a blast.

Watching their faces after they've achieved some exposure-related effects is a sweet experience indeed. This has been a very humble lesson for me too because I've come to realize that we as photographers shouldn't lose our ability to be surprised.

2. They Are Extremely Critical Thinkers

Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

The average age of my students is 21 years old, so they aren't that old yet. But they aren't teenagers, either. One of the most meaningful academic experiences I've had in photography happened while I was studying Contemporary Photography at the Node Center for Curatorial Studies.

There, we were assigned to contemplate a photograph for a long period of time (sometimes even 2 hours), so I tried this exercise with my students for briefer periods.

I was surprised to see how they could read the photographs and, especially, think and debate among themselves. Pushing them to actually think has brought me deep joy. Photography schools (and pretty much all schools) should encourage their students to think for themselves.

3. Photography Was Crucial For Them When Deciding On A School

Image by Daniel Zepeda

I've had academic experiences before, in talks and portfolio reviews, but I hadn't had the experience of teaching a whole course before. I'm aware that, unlike the portfolio reviews and lectures, the people taking this course weren't necessarily into photography.

Graphic Design is a vast world, and unfortunately in my country, if you want to study something related to the visual arts, your only option is graphic design.

Therefore, I knew my place, and I was aware of that. Surprisingly enough, I asked them about the real place photography had in their lives, and their answers blew me away.

It happened to be that for some of them (I have 14 students nowadays), photography was a crucial subject when deciding on graphic design. Obviously, they have high hopes with photography, and my mission is to decently fulfill those expectations.

4. They Are Aware Of The Newest Trends

One of the methodologies I use at first when practicing in the studio is to ask them for references, with the basic purpose of mimicking and understanding light better.

Almost all references they were sending me were up-to-date with trends, looks, and concepts – and that’s awesome because it's clear evidence that they are consuming images in a deeper level than the crazy swiping mania that many people have nowadays.

5. Photobooks Blew Their Minds

Photo by kazuend on Unsplash

I have the fortune of being in charge of my country’s national photography library, so for some lectures, I took some photo books from the library into my classes (with the proper prior notice, of course) for them to read.

To my surprise, some of them had no idea about the whole “photo book” editorial genre, but as I imagined, they were crazy about the photo book exercises. They were slow- paced, and watching them reading images made me feel wonderful.

6. It Is Fun To Be Their Assistant

Me teaching

In my classes (at least in the practices) I transform into their lighting assistant and explain what I'm doing while changing the light. I also help them with settings and stuff. I encourage them to try different things beyond the traditional studio setting so they can understand light better.

I never press a shutter button in my classes. My students are the photographers, and I'm just a mere handyman pulling and pushing lights back and forth.

7. It Is Fair That All Students See Their Teacher's Work

Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

Before turning myself into an actual educator, I was against having an Instagram profile. But I knew that maybe Instagram could be the perfect channel for connecting with the young ones, so I decided to create one.

The main purpose was to be transparent to them. Students have a right to demand to see the work of their teachers, and that doesn't happen much in real life. They were extremely excited that the first thing I did with them was to show them my photographs. They felt confident that I wasn't there to patronize their work, but to actually share my passion with them.

Being empowered to teach people about your greatest passion in life is a dream come true. I've always said that teaching is about vocation – but there is more to it. You also have to love the subject you are sharing with others, and photography is indeed my unique love in this life. When I'm on the streets with my camera, seeking the most meaningful unseen moments, nothing else matters.

About Author

Federico has a decade of experience in documentary photography, and is a University Professor in photography and research methodology. He's a scientist studying the social uses of photography in contemporary culture who writes about photography and develops documentary projects. Other activities Federico is involved in photography are curation, critique, education, mentoring, outreach and reviews. Get to know him better here.

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