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I made this image while I was a student at NESOP. I was playing around with composition and trying to make this really big guy look even bigger. I was also trying to make an image like my hero Richard Avedon. I don't know how successful I was at any of this, but I still had fun doing it.

I made this image while I was a student at NESOP. I was playing around with composition and trying to make this really big guy look even bigger. I was also trying to make an image like my hero Richard Avedon. I don’t know how successful I was at any of this, but I still had fun doing it.

Recently while teaching my alternative process class at NESOP, I listened in on a discussion my students were having. They were complaining about their other class work.  They were frustrated that their work wasn’t “good enough” mainly because they didn’t have a thick stream of nonsense to go with their images. They were worried more about the gravitas of their projects and less about the craft. They needed to lighten up.

Sally Mann said it best while making pictures of her dead dog: “It’s supposed to be fun.”

If she said it, it must be true.

Most NESOP student work is about learning what the camera can do than expressing any profound message. The angst they were feeling about their other classwork was entirely self-inflicted. The truth of the matter is when you’re a student, it’s okay to make work that looks like student work. It’s okay to play within the boundaries set by the teacher. The vision and style will come if it doesn’t already exist. I promise.

Assignments in any school boil down to learning how to do the work. Photo students are there to learn how to make photos.  They are learning what their world looks like with a camera. They are also learning how to think about and articulate their ideas; but, that part comes naturally if more attention is paid to formal instruction. It also helps to remind them that there are no fixed stars in their creative universe.

Making photos requires creativity. Creativity requires a certain amount of freedom to roam. Roaming is fun.  Learning how to make serious art should be fun too. I’ve found the best students to be the ones who don’t feel the need to drape their work with a profound narrative while learning. I understand, more than you could ever imagine, the paralyzing desire  to be taken seriously and to be appreciated. It takes courage to let your work reflect where you are in the journey.  The need to wrap the intricacies of learning any craft into a “story” inhibits any real learning.

A caveat: some students can master technical aspects quickly and proceed to hide behind technique to avoid learning how to talk about subjects they are exploring. They should learn to accept the instructor’s invitation to explore the questions their images evoke.

Most successful learning has more to do with diminishing the ego than mastering the material. Being teachable is something that can’t be taught, but most people pick it up when their fear of being vulnerable is smaller than their interest in the material they want to master. In other words: the work becomes better when “work” becomes “play.”