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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Those Who Can't, Teach - What BS

I was recently reading an article on the merits of quitting the day job and going ‘all-in’ to freelance photography. The article in question sounded a more negative note than many that float around on the internet. I agree with the caution that the writer recommends. I’ve written before about the realities of working as a professional photographer. However, there was one line, flippantly added, that raised my ire. In the writer’s words: “Those who can’t, teach,” is perhaps more real in photography than any other creative field. I certainly agree that there is a load of bumpkin on the internet regarding photography. It’s the internet after all. It isn’t exactly like there is a panel of peers vetting the quality of information that gets out there. But that one pithy line, taken as a truism by many, also disregards the importance of good teachers.

I’m going to spread the argument slightly. Although the article suggests that the line “Those who can’t, teach” is more applicable to photography than other fields, both creative and technical, I have heard it countless times by people trying to justify why teaching is a lessor output than practice in several other unrelated fields. My background is in academic anthropology. While studying we literally had an entire sub-course on the differences between academic and practicing anthropology (to be specific, ‘academic’ does not mean only pontificating some esoteric theorems and then publishing them - it requires and is sustained by a heavy dose of teaching). I hear the same arguments again and again from colleagues in statistics, law, zoology and a range of other fields. I heard the argument just the other day when photographing a Technical College in Zululand. The Principle complained about how his staff were not taken seriously by the engineering field because they had opted to teach, rather than practice their chosen profession. As he pointed out, teaching can be an over-riding vocation. We teach, because we can, because we want to.

If I look back at my education and development as a photographer, I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the teachers that I have had. Although I am self-taught as a photographer, that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t guided by other photographers who taught. Outside of the field of photography several teachers have been instrumental and critical in getting me to where I am now. My lecturers at University, the professors who supervised my research, the teachers who guided me and mentored me before I was even lucky and fortunate enough to study at tertiary level. Then there are the plethora of excellent teaching photographers who I have read, followed and been fortunate to occasionally spend time with. Their ability to pass on information and the love of the medium, has at the same time continued to fuel my own passion for photography and image-making. From my very first editor (Thank you Mrs G) to the photographers I consider peers today, I have been taught by people who consider themselves first and foremost, teachers. 

Nick van de Wiel discussing composition during a Nature's Light workshop

This doesn’t mean that all teachers are good of course. I am acutely aware of the poor information and teaching that is spewed onto the internet daily. However, the argument, “Those who can’t, teach”, also implies that those who don’t teach are good. What a load of codswallop. There are far more bad photographers out there than there are bad photography teachers. Then there is the more perverted scenario which I have repeatedly come across of good photographers being truly appalling teachers. Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you can teach it.

To be fair to Billy Murray who wrote the article, I actually agree with 99% of what he says. He essentially points out the difficulty in making a successful career out of photography. Personally I think his cautionary advice is applicable to any creative career, and not just photography. There is no such thing as an overnight success (and those who claim to be such, usually are not telling the whole story). More than that, Murray’s advice is applicable to anybody wanting to open a business, because that’s what it boils down to. Freelance photography is a business. It takes a particular kind of personality and frame of mind to make that work.

Still, that throw away comment, “Those who can’t, teach” rankled me somehow. This is odd considering that I once argued with a photography mentor of mine, Monty Cooper, that you cannot teach photography. He convinced me otherwise and I have spent the last decade attempting to be an educator in photography. Ironically, I would earn significantly more if I gave up on the teaching aspect and just concentrated on my fairly successful commercial work (I consider a stable and growing income that supports a family along with a love of what I do success, although some might argue that success is only achieved when you reach rock-star status….yeah, right). 

Paul Greenway teaching macro photography during a Natures Light workshop

So why do I teach? Why do others who have chosen to teach spend the time writing, educating and basically being imaging evangelists. Because I love it. I love the interaction with like-minded individuals. I love being able to make a positive difference on a small level to the knowledge trajectory that a photographer might have. I love learning. True teachers are akin to Chaucer’s Clerk; “gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche”. Most of all though, it is because I have learned to look up to and respect teachers everywhere. Teaching is not the second-best option. It should never be seen as such and the comment “those who can’t, teach” demeans the vocation. It ensures that people avoid teaching because it is misconstrued as the lessor alternative. Teachers, not just in photography, but in every walk of life are the guides that transfer knowledge to the next generation. They ensure that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but can rather strive for greater knowledge and understanding. To be sure, there are bad teachers and people who claim to be able to teach who simply can’t. Just don’t confuse bad teachers who give bad advice with all teachers.

The so-called truism was originally ascribed to George Bernard Shaw who wrote, “he who can does, he who cannot, teaches” (in Maxims for Revolutionists). Although It is suspected that Shaw had a healthy suspicion of teachers and educators in general, Maxims for Revolutionists was probably intended to be satirical. It is interesting then that the quote has become so overused in downplaying the importance and actual difficulty of good teaching. I rather like the counter argument, “Those who can, do. Those who can do better, teach”, or better yet, "those who can't teach, do."


End note and disclaimer: Yes, I teach photography and co-own a photographic travel workshop company, Nature's Light. A cynical reader might see this as a defence of my own chosen income stream and profession. I'd like to believe that what I have written above is a validation of the extraordinary efforts of the many teachers in my life who have helped me become me. That said, there are also several individuals who have claimed to be teachers who quite frankly are a disgrace to what should be a noble calling. Rather than build, they break down. Worse still, we all know someone who fits this bill. To these individuals, Shaw's tongue-in-cheek maxim is wholly relevant and applicable. False teaching is equally dangerous, and anyone using the internet to learn photography or to figure out whether photography as a profession is viable (as the original article tackled), needs to do so with a healthy skepticism and not a small amount of common sense.

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