A young boy sits in an armchair. Wearing a woollen cardigan, his hands loosely grip the side of the chair. His expression is neither buoyant nor sad. For all intents and purposes, this is just an ordinary photograph of an ordinary boy, yet the image forms the basis of an academic essay. Written by Benjamin Matthews – a part-time Masters student currently reading Photography: History, Theory, Practice at University of Sussex – the paper investigates the attribution of victimhood to subjects in images where an act of injustice is suggested but not shown.
With this context, the significance of the photograph becomes apparent. The image is part of a collection of material held at The Keep archive, and donated by relatives of German-Jewish families who survived the Holocaust. “The photograph is of a young boy who was tragically killed in Auschwitz,” explains Matthews, “but it was taken before he was transported. The image itself does not contain any reference to the young boy’s murder, it was taken as a family photograph, yet its place within the archive gives the photograph new context and significance.”
Matthews is a photographer with a background in practice-based arts – he holds separate BAs in Design Crafts (1995) and Ceramic Design (2014). Photography: History, Theory, Practice is his first formal exploration into the historical and theoretical foundations of photography. The MA was launched by University of Sussex in 2018 as a photography course with a difference. The teaching of photography is often divided by a focus on either practice or theory; this Masters presents the two on an equal footing and encourages experimental combinations.
The degree to which Matthews engaged with his chosen subject matter was evident and he was awarded a highly commendable grade for the paper. As a result, just one term into the course, he decided to shift his immediate focus to a more theoretical and historically grounded study of photography. “We have seen a lot of this already and it is something I am really happy about,” says Dr Ben Burbridge, a senior lecturer at University of Sussex who was instrumental in the founding of the new MA. “It shows how much the students are learning, how open they are to the unpredictable ways in which an educational journey can unfold, and how quickly they are developing new or different sets of interests.”
Photography: History, Theory, Practice encourages its students to combine the development of their photographic practice with an exploration of the history and theory of the medium. “The MA grew out of our feeling that traditional distinctions between theory and practice were in many ways unhelpful,” says Burbridge. “In some way, those distinctions seemed to suggest that practice was somehow mindless, and that thinking and writing did not qualify as ways of ‘doing’ photography. They also risked discouraging innovation.
“Our students seem totally sympathetic towards our overarching philosophy that the most interesting ideas and the most interesting practices very often emerge from a place where that relationship is approached differently.” Many of the students currently enrolled on the course were searching for a degree that did not force them to choose between the practical and theoretical study of photography. “I get to decide what ratio of practice to theory there is,” says Matthews. “In this sense our course feels pretty unique, all the other MA Photography courses seemed weighted one way or another, and not in a way that the student can influence.”
Clare Patrick signed up to the MA after she graduated from fine art school. She focused on photography and art history during her undergraduate degree and believes that a sophisticated understanding of theory is fundamental to practice. “Photography today is understood to be so many different things … and theory can offer a way to define practice as much as practice can inform how to approach and critically interact with theory.” she says. Furthering her knowledge of the wider context of photography has been crucial for Patrick’s practice: “understanding context makes my work much stronger; it allows me to be confident in what I want to say with my work.”
In setting up the Masters, Burbridge worked with other university lecturers and academics to develop a set of structures and frameworks that could assist in the reimagining of traditional disciplinary boundaries. The course, for example, facilitates cross-disciplinary study in subjects including art History, Film, American Studies, English and Media. Yet, according to Burbridge: “The most exciting and important work is now being done by the students, who have already challenged some of our ideas and assumptions in very productive ways. The students themselves are now the main force shaping this dialogue between theory and practice, and in determining what forms it takes. The course is a living entity now.”
Another distinct feature of the MA is the importance it places upon archival and collection-based learning. The department holds partnerships with two of Britain’s most significant collections of photography – Getty Images Archive and the Archive of Modern Conflict – and students are encouraged to engage with both through masterclasses and self-initiated research. The Keep, a Sussex-based archive and conservation centre, is particularly central to students’ learning. In the course’s first semester, a significant portion of contact time is spent at the archive. During this time students handle and examine a diverse array of material including daguerreotypes, photographs from private family collections, artists’ book dummies, ethnographic imagery, spirit photographs and scrapbooks of press photography. Such approach feeds into the MA’s overarching goal to redefine and push the boundaries of photography education.
For Matthews, this focus on archive-based learning is a key element of the MA: “This is the differentiating factor of this course: the doing nature of our research,” he says. “The revelatory experience of handling the original object, rather than seeing it as a part of a Powerpoint display, enables experiences, discussions and research that just would not be possible otherwise.”
The flexible and evolving nature of the course, together with its non-traditional approach to the teaching of the medium, allows the MA to attract a student body that is incredibly diverse. This in itself is a draw: “Naturally,” says Patrick, “it impacts on the discussions that unfold. There are many perspectives that offer new and challenging ways to think about photography.” Individuals currently enrolled on the course include photographers with long-established careers in the industry, those with backgrounds working in museums and galleries, writers, and recent graduates with a variety of subject specialisms.
The direction in which Photography: History, Theory, Practice will evolve shall largely be shaped by its students. This is apt for a course that believes the teaching of the medium should be flexible, responsive and fluid. “Photography is such a complex, eclectic and contradictory subject. It can mean so many things,” says Burbridge. “Just as it makes sense to explore it across different areas of culture and within different disciplinary frameworks, it needs a diverse and engaged group of students to do justice to its multifarious character.”
This feature is supported by University of Sussex. Please click here for more information on sponsored content funding at British Journal of Photography.