An Interview With James Arthur Allen
James Arthur Allen is a practitioner and lecturer, living and working in Bath. After earning a BA (Hons) in Press and Editorial Photography from Falmouth University College, he continued his studies at the University of South Wales graduating from the MA programme in Documentary Photography.
.James won the Rebecca Vassie Award in 2016, and his work has been shortlisted for the Magnum Photos 30 under 30 prize and the RPS International Photography Exhibition among others. He has shot for leading publications such as Financial Times and The Guardian, while helping shape the new generation of photographers through his teaching. Together, we discuss the role of lecturers and the challenge higher education faces to remain relevant.
Victoria Cagol: Since we are exploring photography education, let’s begin with yours. You first studied at the University College of Falmouth for your BA, what knowledge and skills did you expect to gain from the course and were these expectations met?
James Arthur Allen: I came to photography later than most. I’d gone to Plymouth University to study a science based degree when I left school and had a hugely negative experience before dropping out after two years. My course was cold and formal, I felt a million miles away from the tutors and faculty. I returned to education on a whim five years later to study photography. However, I should note, Falmouth was not my initial taste of photography education. To gain a place I enrolled on a BTEC in photography at my local college to develop a portfolio for interview. Here I met a teacher called Jo Hounsome, she hooked me into photography, her attitude and attention to practice has stuck with me since. She brought out my self belief, I listened to her, respected and trusted her, which has informed my experiences in higher education since.
Falmouth was a transformative experience, we had a brand new EU funded campus that was run very much as an old style art school. The course I was on was new and edgy. We had inspiring tutors and mentors, where we were encouraged to try new things and not be afraid to fail. In 2009 allegedly photography was dead, this created a DIY attitude with an expressive, productive environment, the faculty wanted to prove that photography was very much alive. Like many students arriving at University I had no real idea of who I wanted to be, I just knew that I wanted to work within the arts. Thanks to people like Guy Martin, Julian Rodriguez and Mal Stone, my friends and I became obsessed with photography. We lived and breathed it. I was supported, happy and comfortable, the staff within the department treated us as equals and that enabled us to be who we wanted to be. I count many of my tutors as friends to this day. It’s a testament to the atmosphere they created that so many of my cohort are still working within photography in a myriad of rolls.
Considering I had no expectations everything was a bonus. It just felt right. Cornwall is not for everyone but the isolation of the county only strengthened the community and focused us entirely on work.
VC: How did the course prepare you for the professional industry?
JAA: We had the usual professional practice modules learning about business models and spreadsheets, this was all great but what Falmouth really taught me was resilience, community and the importance of being humble, particularly in the initial years after graduation.
It taught me to believe in myself and to always be making new work and thinking about photography. This was indoctrinated within us. The moment you stop making work you are dead, irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if it’s bad, what’s important is to engage with the process. This has stuck with me ever since and is still the best advice I have ever received. Technical and academic skills aside Falmouth built on my self-confidence, I’d need that as the following years were at points pretty bleak.
VC: Why did you proceed to undertake an MA degree after your undergraduate studies?
JAA: I found myself at a point where I had worked as a freelancer for a few years doing all manner of jobs to support the development of my portfolio. It was a struggle at times to keep producing work. During that time I had started to pick up some work lecturing and I developed a real taste for it.
There is something immensely gratifying in helping people out, particularly when I was in their shoes not that long ago. I think it’s important to disclose that as much as teaching was for the sheer enjoyment it also provided an alternative, consistent income stream. I quickly worked out that I could support my personal practice this way and still be involved with photographic dialogue, culture and discussion. My Masters was very much an investment in my future career. Although not essential, having an MA alongside your professional and personal practice goes a long way to informing your delivery and developing your academic practice. A tutor at Falmouth told me that before I did a MA to ensure I had become streetwise photographically speaking that I had some scars from experience by 2016 I felt like I had earned the right to go on to further study.
VC: This is an aspect I find particularly interesting, moving from student to lecturer. How do you approach teaching and how has it developed since you started lecturing?
JAA: It’s always good to remember what it was like to be a student, to remember the excitement of discovering something new or the satisfaction of getting something right. I think this is lost sometimes when teaching in Universities, people can forget why they are there in the first place. Joining a University course comes with a huge pressure for students, a degree is no guarantee of success, which creates anxiety. I can remember that feeling very clearly, and I try to be aware of it with my students.
I think people need to remember that the world at the moment is an unpredictable place, and we have a duty to ensure that students are getting value for their money by becoming well rounded as people, not just as photographers. My University experience taught me far more than just how to take a photograph. It taught me what it was to be a part of something.
In terms of anything changing? I think that finding your voice is a continual process and learning is reciprocal. Teaching ensures that I’m continually surprised, challenged and learning new things. I have had to understand and embrace so much more than the narrow viewpoint of my own practice, which is hugely exciting to me.
VC: Do you see a different approach to education from your students compared to when you were studying?
JAA: References mainly, social media has changed the game. Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter are amazing places to find photography. The main challenge I face with this is to teach students how to distinguish good photography from bad, this can be a slow process.
But on the whole not really, the touch points are very much the same in terms of theory and context, the contemporary photographic landscape is continually shifting so output and approaches vary from year to year depending on who is really making waves in the wider photographic/art world. Many students still choose to write work books physically which is great, however I now and again see people working on iPads, but it is not that common.
I would say the core structure of a degree course is the same as when I was a student. A mixture of practical and theory. However a good degree course is continually evolving to ensure that their output is relevant and to give undergraduates the best chance to forge a career. If you are going to go into higher education make sure the course you are going to attend is relevant and in touch with current trends and practice.
VC: Would you say students now come with a clearer idea of what they want to gain from their time in University?
JAA: The variation in confidence and the standard of students when they arrive is staggering, I’ve come to the conclusion that this comes down largely to the quality of the teaching they have been exposed to previously. I find this concerning in some cases and this accounts for the wide range in ambition from students when they start their degrees.
The expectations vary hugely, a lot of students turn up from college or sixth form with no idea what they want to do or who they want to be. Others turn up knowing exactly where they want to go.
It makes no difference in my opinion, it is fine either way. What is guaranteed however is that three years later you will walk out the door with a completely different outlook. Degree level study allows you to explore a huge amount of different techniques and approaches and challenges you constantly. University is not for everyone but if you want to be working on projects for three years with room for reflection and growth then I would say it will be the most liberating time of your life, there is no other time as far as I can see in your career that you will be afforded this luxury. As a consequence many students leave as very different individuals with strong voices which are unrecognizable to the ones when they had when they arrived.
VC: What is next for photography? Where do you see the medium going?
JAA: That’s such a hard question to answer, photography has so many potential outputs and voices that I feel that it will always continue to push and prod. There will always be room for quality photography.
When I studied we were told that the camera phone was going to kill off photography, that there would be no need for photographers. What actually happened was the exact opposite, the currency of photographs from these formats can be so low it creates a space for well thought out, researched, impactful photography. Be that documentary, fine art, or fashion.
There will always be a need for quality imagery, increasingly so. Photography in recent times has made the world both a safer and more dangerous place to be.
I don’t think we are quite there in terms of monetising photography efficiently, and many who want a career in the arts will need to earn money from a variety of income streams. I look forward to seeing where we end up, but imagery will continue to have value and weight.
VC: One of the challenges the education system faces is how to stay relevant to the current generation. Given the array of online information new generations have access to, online courses, photographer’s online workshops etc, how can an academic education in photography remain significant and evolve?
JAA: Simply put I think there is no substitute for the interaction you will receive at University, there are many different courses with different staff, faculties, output and impetus. The downfalls with workshops is you will only be exposed to one person’s way of thinking, at University you will be exposed to countless voices and opinions. This is important when forming your own. I think that the emergence of online MA courses is a good thing as an MA is much more self-directed and this gives students an opportunity to base themselves near to or around their subject of interest and also offers a greater marketplace for students. This in turn makes courses work harder to be stand out. Look carefully at the experience of the staff both academically and professionally, if it is someone you admire or respect then this is good value.
Higher education is expensive so you need to get good value. You will get out of a University exactly what you put in, it is not a magic wand. If you are engaged and willing to get your money’s worth you will learn a lot and quickly. In that respect academic study will always be relevant.
VC: What is the first advice you would give somebody starting his studies in photography this year?
JAA: As I touched on above you will get out what you put in. You cannot just turn up and cruise along. I think some students need to be more aware of this. If you treat a degree like a full time job you will go far.
Engage, listen, ask questions, argue and make work. Learn to fail quickly, making mistakes and the acceptance of failure and subsequent reflection will accelerate your development and prepare you to go it alone.
I would advise all potential students to be open to all possibilities, to love and obsess about photography and photographs. You must love photography, it is paramount.
VC: How do you see your future? Do you see yourself continuing down an academic path or focusing more on your personal practice?
JAA: Going back to one of my first answers I believe strongly that if you stop making work you are irrelevant, if you stop thinking about, arguing about and writing about photography, you are irrelevant. So you must keep making work. I think it is unfair for me to stand up and talk to students about photography if I am not engaged in it myself. It’s good practice to be able to show and talk to your students about mistakes you have made in the past as well as ones you made last week. I don’t think you can do one without the other, both equally inform my output.
Teaching photography gives me huge amounts of inspiration. I don’t know which I am (teacher or photographer) first anymore, and I don’t think it matters. It’s a lot of hard work but I would not change it for the world. I’m incredibly fortunate that I get to do both.
VC: And we’re fortunate to have you share your thoughts, thanks James.
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