Until just a decade ago, it was quite normal for photography students to graduate without ever having used a digital camera. Mobile phones rarely had built-in cameras and were merely used to make phone calls. In those days, it made perfect sense for a photograph to be taken using a device built for that specific purpose and loaded with light-sensitive material. It may seem like centuries, but it was actually just a decade ago.
In those good old days, the medium of photography itself was the limitation. A negative film was nowhere near capable of mimicking what the human eye was able to achieve. If there was just a hint of twilight, all of the photos came out blurred. The maximum light sensitivity of standard negative films was 3200 ISO, which produced shots that were so grainy you usually wondered if you had actually been in the place where the photo was taken. In those days, it was the limitations of the medium that constituted the main challenge for professional photographers. The person best able to deal with those limitations could look forward to a glittering career in photography.
Recently, images emerged from a Canon security camera that is yet to be released. This camera appears to be capable of taking colour photographs in the dark. So dark, in fact, that the human eye is incapable of actually seeing anything. The shots are of such good quality that facial recognition software can even be used to recognise the person caught on camera. The medium of photography is no longer a limitation, but a medium with unlimited possibilities: a camera can see in the dark, a photograph can move and a digital file can be printed in three dimensions.
The opportunities for the new generation of photographers are boundless. However amazing that may sound, learning to deal with these infinite opportunities is one of the greatest challenges faced by this generation of photographers. In his essay Two Concepts of Liberty, British photographer Isaiah Berlin drew a distinction between negative and positive liberty. In this context, negative and positive should not be seen as value judgements.
Negative liberty focuses on external influence –in this case, the limitations of photography as a medium – which transforms into unlimited opportunities in an incredibly short space of time. Positive liberty, on the other hand, focuses on the freedom to act independently, of your own will or ambition. The stronger someone’s reason for doing something, the more autonomous and freer they are.
Negative and positive liberty are interrelated. It is only possible to experience the new unlimited opportunities of the medium as positive if the user is capable of dealing with it, by virtue of having strong motivations – or a strong will. The challenge of photography education lies not in simply demonstrating and teaching about the endless opportunities of the medium, but in encouraging students to develop a strong ambition and a strong will. This enables them to take full advantage of the new, unlimited opportunities in technology and the other changes within our profession.
The final-year cohort of the photography department reveals a superbly eclectic mix of photographic expression and a celebration of liberty and freedom. They nurture photographic thought, although it may not necessarily lead to a photograph. This group of photographers no longer think in terms of traditional formats. What they all have in common is their deeprooted ambition to communicate and to share. They make their own decisions, have developed a strong will and, through it, prove that they are ready to take their place in the professional world.
Rob Hornstra & Lotte Sprengers, Co-Heads of the Bachelor Photography