Writing on photography

Decolonising Photography Education: If Not Now, Then When?

Universities speak a great deal about decolonising their curricula, which is broadly speaking the objective of adjusting the content, delivery and staff of courses in a way which steers them away from Eurocentric perspectives and towards a better representation of the multitude of different viewpoints and histories that exist.

I think it’s important to lay my cards on the table straight away about several things. One is that I am entirely behind this project. It seems to me that decolonisation should be a particular priority for photography, a medium with a problematic history entwined with projects like colonialism, eugenics, racist policing and others, and still profoundly and often unknowingly tainted by these activities. How many photographers for example know that the typology, that overused photographic mode so popularised by Hilda and Bernd Becker, found its earliest form in colonial anthropological projects?

Secondly, I acknowledge that I’m very much part of this problem. Photography is a medium which was for most of its history almost completely dominated by white European and north American men, and it has changed relatively little even in recent times. Even the awareness and expression of this still seems very much like a work in progress project, with many photographers unwilling or unable to even talk about the way this demographic skew has starkly impacted the type of work that has been made and rewarded. At the same time, I should say that I do not believe that privilege is in itself a mark of shame (because who is given the choice to be born with or with it), what matters is what you do with that privilege, and the mark of shame for me comes when you use your existing privilege to simply accumulate more of it and deepen the disparities that already exist.

There are also pedagogic issues with this under-representation. For example it’s an issue simply in terms of identification, and the fact that teachers are often role models as much as they are imparters of knowledge. I’ve heard some academics say they don’t invite a more diverse array of guests because the field of photography is already so predominantly white, and putting asides the obvious problem with this excuse that it just isn’t true, you have to ask how can we expect this situation to change when young BAME photographers look at the teaching staff of major institutions and see very few people who they identify with?

Thirdly while I recognise we need a word for this project, I will say that I don’t find the term ‘decolonisation’ ideal. Partly because I think it’s easily seen as reducing a wider set of issues that need addressing in the academy to just a single one (I get that many of us understand there’s more to it than that, but in my experience some of the people able to make the changes we want don’t). There’s also an issue that for a British audience at least the term decolonisation calls to mind a historical period and process often officially remembered as relatively simple and benign but which was actually profoundly complex, sometimes extremely violent, and one where the terms were dictated more by the colonisers than the colonised, and where the outcomes continue today to sometimes suit the oppressors much more than the oppressed. One of my fears about decolonisation in higher education is that sometimes it can mirror it’s historical antecedent.

Still, we need a word we can rally around, particularly in fractured institutions like universities where there are many competing priorities and specialisms. And in these places great effort seems to have recently been poured into events, conferences, and publications around decolonisation. Yet the net effect at the coal face of teaching seems to be comparatively limited. Cast your eye over the syllabus, reading lists, staffing and guest lecturers of the average photography course today and its clear that relatively little has changed. Too often I feel the emphasis is on the appearance of doing something, much more than tangible change.

For sure there are challenges that obstruct decolonisation even in those places where there is a strong will to see it. Part of the problem I think is that responsibility for decolonisation is placed primarily on academics. There are valid reasons for this, we are the ones who develop the teaching syllabus and invite guests in to speak to our students, but it also neglects the fact that there are also considerable institutional, bureaucratic obstacles that often make this difficult to achieve in practice. This is not an excuse, but academics have a lot less power over the way their courses are run than people outside institutions often believe, but even that being so, many do not use the power that they do have.

The current pandemic presents profound challenges and threatens tro exacerbate many existing inequalitues, but it also presents many opportunities. Amongst these I find it impossible not to repeatedly ask the question that if we are not going to more proactively decolonise our teaching now, then when? So many courses have moved their teaching activities online, many of their students have returned to their home countries, and yet so many courses ontinue to return to the same guests located in the same former imperial metropoles, when the opportunities of who is invited to speak and share their perspectives are now truly global.

As the acting course leader of the MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography (online) at London College of Communication, I feel this very acutely. I am proud to remotely teach a student group scattered across the globe, resident in countries across every continent on the planet except Antarctica. I feel a sense of obligation because of this to constantly try and expand the historic and contemporary examples that I introduce to our classes, and I feel very lucky that in this regard my students are often teaching me about the photographic cultures and histories in their respective countries. I would be the first to acknowledge this is a work in progress.

It’s also important to note that online teaching also introduces some challenges to this task. Connectivity and infrastructure is one, and as has often been noted global information networks often mirror colonial era distributions of power. But my experience is that this is increasingly only a problem in a minority of cases, and can usually be overcome. Other challenges exist outside the institution, for example UK right to work legislation and the checks we have to undertake before engaging staff makes it challenging to employ overseas lectures, even when those lecturers are not actually stepping foot in the UK to do their teaching work (and in many cases the students are not based here either). Ironically Coronavirus has actually helped us in this regard, by making it possible for the first time to conduct virtual ID checks rather than in person.

In work in an institution which has been pretty pro-active about this goal and so I recognise my experience may be not the average one, but from what I have seen most academics are sympathetic to the goal of decolonisation. The obstacles to it extend far beyond individual course staff, and it’s important to identify and place pressure on those other blocks as well as keeping the pressure on reluctant academics to expand the scope of their teaching, and to encourage and enlist students in the task of expanding who and what we celebrate in photography. But at this very moment, right now, we have a really significant opportunity to make headway on this.

If not now, when?

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

1 comment

  • Thank you for writing this. Not much has been written recently on said topic (as if ever), but there was a brief dialogue concerning the lack of diversity in photography back in the aughts at the peak of photoblogdom. As a person of color, I eagerly participated in said discussion however fleeting, and as with all things concerning race- denial and defensiveness were still very much prevailing factors. FWIW, together with a few other proponents for change, we did, at least temporarily, manage to raise a small ruckus about the lack of diversity in: competition juries, pro photographer agencies, etc.

    While photography has more openly embraced women into many of its positions of power, people of color remain underrepresented. And in this “post racial” age (ie- of complete and utter denial), the torrents of increased nationalism and outright fascism have further limited rational discussion of said matter…

Writing on photography