What’s it like to study photography during the pandemic?

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This article is printed in the latest issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, Ones to Watch, delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription.

Covid-19 has disrupted education at all levels, including university degrees. Recent photography graduate Benedict Moore, who attended Manchester School of Art, speaks to three other graduates about the difficulties – and upsides – of studying during lockdown

For university students graduating this year, including myself, Covid-19 has split our studies almost perfectly in two: life before the pandemic and life during it. For many, this meant relinquishing independence and returning home to isolate with family, while others braved the lockdowns in desolate student halls. 

Covid-19 indisputably impacted the quality of teaching and students’ experiences of it. Indeed, The Student Academic Experience Survey 2021, published on 24 June 2021, which collected responses from 10,186 full-time undergraduates in the UK, found 44 per cent of them reporting ‘poor or very poor value’ for their course. Meanwhile, the repeated lockdowns and restrictions negatively impacted students’ wellbeing: 29 per cent of those surveyed considered leaving higher education, with over a third of these citing struggles with their mental or emotional health as a factor. Although the pandemic has hit all students hard, those studying for degrees with a practical element also lost access to facilities and equipment. They continued to pay high fees despite missing such an integral aspect. 

Perseverance and challenges have defined my experience of studying photography during Covid-19. Through no fault of my tutors at Manchester School of Art (MSoA), the university was often slow to respond to issues such as lack of access to resources. When MSoA ceased in-person teaching in March 2020 as the UK’s first lockdown ensued, I struggled to engage with the course. I went home to Essex for Easter and remained there, returning to my job as a supermarket delivery driver, which took on a new degree of risk during the pandemic. Surprisingly, the role engaged me more during this time than the course I had previously loved. 

When I returned to Manchester in September 2020 for my final year, the ever-changing local and national restrictions were hard: the work I do relies on me leaving my flat and interacting with people, both of which remained difficult. The process of integrating photography into my daily exercise became a battle in itself. Isolation led to a loss of confidence that made the prospect of interacting with strangers a challenge. The fear of an invisible threat posed by Covid-19, and the ambiguity of the government rules, heightened my anxiety. 

My practice spans fashion and documentary work. For my final major project, I chose to focus on the latter, depicting the lived experience of Covid-19. Although selecting this subject seemed obvious, it felt important to capture the pandemic. As Mark Power said on Brad Feuerhelm’s Nearest Truth podcast: “Those that haven’t done something [about the pandemic] may come to regret that.” Sadly, my cohorts’ degree show, which would have been the culmination of three years of study, has been postponed to 2022, when I will no longer be living in the city.  

I finished my BA wondering whether I would be making the same types of images had Covid-19 never happened. I see elements of my pre-pandemic practice in my work and signs of where I would like to go. I am keen not to ruminate on what my time at university could have been, or what work I might have made without Covid-19. To gain perspective on my experience and those of students countrywide, I spoke to three other photography graduates who reflect on their experiences.

Halfdan Venlov

© Halfdan Venlov.
© Halfdan Venlov.

In March 2020, on the eve of what was due to be a three-week trip home to Copenhagen for Halfdan Venlov, a student at the Glasgow of School of Art (GSA), the UK government announced the first national lockdown. Sensing that his plans to return after Easter might fall through, he packed his cameras, negatives and prized possessions. He felt lucky that he could return to his family home when some students were less fortunate. He has remained in Denmark. 

Surprisingly, Venlov regards the past year as the most successful of his education. At GSA, he developed a love for the darkroom process, and hand-printing became an important part of his practice. When he returned home, Venlov joined forces with two creative friends to set up a shared workspace, which allowed him to continue printing, but also meant he was no longer dependent on GSA’s facilities. 

Despite his positive outlook, Venlov laments the loss of the education he had moved countries for. More than a year and a half after leaving the city, he describes feeling disappointed that he couldn’t bid farewell to Glasgow in a “meaningful way”. However, looking back at his time there, he says, “I felt alone. Moving to a new country is difficult, no matter where in the world it is”. 

Venlov tells me GSA took the decision “very early on to not support a physical [graduation] show. Many students were surprised and really let down by that”. Instead, his cohort came together with other courses to create an exhibition of their own, a citywide Alternative Degree Show Festival. Unfortunately, the costs of travelling and potentially having to isolate meant that Venlov could not participate. 

The photographer hopes to create a book from his final university project, Tomorrow’s Dream, which is set in a Copenhagen cemetery. “Instead of just photographing people, I wanted to make it about a place,” he says. Young people, whom the work centres around, use the space like a park. A central theme of the project is the juxtaposition of youth and leisure in a place characterised by death. Although the ongoing project is not about Covid-19 explicitly, it is a by-product of the pandemic and Venlov making an unexpected journey home. 

halfdanvenlov.com
@halfdanvenlov

Eleanor Beale

© Eleanor Beale.

When the UK went into lockdown in March 2020, Eleanor Beale was working on community-engaged projects at Bristol’s University of the West of England (UWE). After the institution closed its doors, her peers turned to social media to display their creative responses to the pandemic. At home, seeing the work of others made Beale anxious. “The pressure of it was really intense,” she recalls. 

Adjusting to online study was also challenging as lectures were plagued with technical problems. “It was like everything was working against you,” she says. However, Beale’s tutor, Jack Latham, was supportive, offering his personal contact details to students who were struggling with work and the situation more broadly. At the time, Beale was fortunate to be living with course-mates, who together converted their shared bathroom into a darkroom. 

For her final year, Beale had planned to travel to Africa to produce a body of work. However, due to the pandemic, she turned her focus closer to home, collaborating with her younger sister, Daisy, who was diagnosed as autistic in 2012. “Covid-19 has been awful, but it has matured my practice,” she reflects, describing the process of making the work, A Leaf in the Daisy Field [overleaf], as a dance between her and her sister. Indeed, one can sense the collaboration that fuelled the images. Beale points to a photograph of Daisy balancing on a wooden pallet, a pose that was suggested by her sister. “There’s a lot of guilt in this project,” she continues. “Four years ago, we didn’t really have a relationship, I didn’t understand her as a person.” Unexpectedly, Covid-19 brought them closer. 

eleanorbeale.squarespace.com
@eleanorbealephotography

Carlos Anguera

© Carlos Anguera.

As a result of Brexit and Covid-19, Carlos Anguera, originally from Spain, brought forward a planned post-graduation move to Berlin to March 2020. Prior to this he had been living in Scotland and studying fine art photography at Glasgow School of Art (GSA). When I speak with him, Anguera has rushed back to Glasgow for a month to clear out his study and move his remaining belongings to Berlin.

Anguera emphasises that issues existed at GSA before the pandemic. In May 2014, a fire ravaged parts of the school’s library and west wing. Then, in June 2018, as a £35 million restoration of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s art nouveau masterpiece neared completion, a second blaze tore through the building, jeopardising its future. Anguera describes this, and its negative effects on the institution’s finances and its staff, as creating a “precarious” atmosphere across campus. 

Since 2014, GSA has had three different directors and two different heads of the School of Fine Art. As of 2015, the university also planned to increase the student population by 25 per cent, with no evidence of an increase in already “stretched” staff to reflect this, resulting in widespread dissatisfaction among students. Anguera talks of a culture of inconsistency and lack of transparency from the university, which the pandemic only served to exacerbate. In his opinion, one of GSA’s strengths was its creative community, which has been “broken” by the pandemic and the other problems affecting the school.

The photographer reflects that momentum was building in his practice before 2020. He was experimenting and making the most of GSA’s facilities, notably its studios. However, when Covid-19 hit, Anguera experienced a “hard cut” after the university initially shut down. With access to space and equipment remaining a problem until spring of this year, he wonders how his practice could have otherwise developed. “I’ve learned a lot by working differently,” he says, “but I haven’t had time to digest or reflect properly.” Despite establishing a new space to work in, Anguera was left with little choice but to incur significant fees when taking his film to private labs in Berlin. 

Nonetheless, there have also been positives. “I’ve matured within my practice, but I still want to go back to some of the things I was doing from a different perspective,” he continues. Previously Anguera’s work was “more poetic and less intentional”. Now it is increasingly focused on the subject matter instead of aesthetics. Anguera also speaks about growing increasingly confident in exploring complex themes, such as capitalism, which he attributes to time spent working with limitations. After the unpredictability of the past 18 months, he is more inclined to embrace the unknown.

carlosanguera.com
@carlosanguera

Benedict Moore

Benedict Moore graduated from Manchester School of Art with a BA in photography this summer. He is currently London-based, working as a studio assistant at Big Sky Studios, and as a photographer and writer, specialising in photography and art.