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Portrait of James Smith

Course Leader Q&A

We encourage students to focus on the images which inspire them and to explore how to fit this to a commercial brief.

James Smith
Course Leader
Read James Smith’s staff profile.

What makes Photography at NUA distinctive?

The driving force of our course is commercial practice so it’s very much looking at and engaging with industry and finding out what is going on – because it is rapidly changing at the moment with the shift to digital technology. We make sure that our graduates leave with the skills to go into industry.

We are looking at very specific areas of commercial photography – advertising, editorial and fashion – so it’s a very specialised area of practice. We are a leader in this area of photography and one of the key aspects of the course is developing students as independent practitioners so that each has a body of work which is very specifically theirs. This means that when you see the work, you understand who they are and where they are coming from – so they stand out from the crowd. Individuality in creative practice is what we are really about.

How important are the links with industry?

We place a lot of emphasis on this through professional guest lectures and industry seminars on topics such as copyright, the changing nature of photographic practice and what clients expect from photographers. Tim Flach came to the department recently. He is very well known in the industry, his book Equus was groundbreaking, he sells fine art prints, gets very well paid commissions and does high-profile commercial work so he really covers a very broad range of photographic practice. His talk to our students was valuable because it helped them understand that aesthetics and communication come first and the technology is actually secondary.

Our course was recently invited to Tate Modern by photographer Simon Norfolk to see his work. He gave a tour and spoke informally with us and these kinds of experiences are really important. And Andy Earl of course, who has become a Visiting Professor at NUA and visits to attend critique sessions regularly.

Our staff are in constant contact with the photography sector, such as through our work with the Association of Photographers, and this helps us to keep the curriculum up to date. We have three full-time and five part-time lecturers who are all practising photographers. We feel this balance is important to ensure our students are well supported and have strong industry contact.

How is the course taught?

It evolves throughout the three years so that students become increasingly independent. In year one there is a lot of staff contact and projects directed by staff. We give a lot of guidance in terms of what students should be doing and give them a framework for how to approach things through seminars, lectures and individual tutorials. We also provide a lot of technical sessions, making sure all students know how to use a camera manually and looking at basics such as how contrast and lighting affect their images. At this stage in the course we use film not digital because this ensures that they know how to photograph properly – and that is really important as a basis for progression to digital practice.

In year two the course becomes very industry-focused and students do a lot of research, looking at markets and career paths and how much they can expect to earn. It’s about planning very seriously and realistically for their career. We encourage students to focus on the images which inspire them and to explore how to fit this to a commercial brief. This is the right way round because it means students are engaged with the work they produce and are following their own direction rather than trying to change their style to suit a brief.

In year three the course becomes a lot more student-directed. Each student develops a Learning Agreement saying what they intend to produce for their final project. There are a lot more critiques and discussions around students’ work in the third year. We want to push each student to achieve their best and to show how they are distinctive. When students work in the professional photography industry they are not going to have someone telling them what to do or suggesting changes so the transition to independent learning is a really important part of the second and especially the third year.

What do you look for in applicants?

A student who is technically brilliant but who shows no engagement with what they are trying to achieve is probably the furthest away from what we are looking for. This is because technical proficiency is the easy bit of photography. The difficult part is how you are going to develop your own unique approach. When we look at portfolios we are not necessarily looking for the best work. We are looking for an understanding of what applicants are trying to achieve and an engagement with the process. So if an applicant can discuss what they wanted to achieve through a photo and how it’s not quite working to meet their intentions, that is fine – and then if they say how they would change and develop it, that is brilliant

We tend to ask applicants to bring 15–20 images to their interview. They don’t have to be themed – they could be the applicant’s favourite images or ones they want to talk about. How they are presented is important because it shows whether they take pride in their work – so a portfolio folder or box is a good idea. If applicants have photographic work from outside school or college, that is really, really good because it shows a real interest over and above projects which they have been required to do on their course. It shows an extra passion and engagement. Photography should be part of your life.