A reader has posted a question on one of my earlier blog posts,

TJ Swafford Says: Question: I’m currently involved in a speeeeeeeeeendy photography degree at SCAD, Do I even NEED this degree to be successful? Or would I be better served by hooking up with an established photographer and glean what I can from him/her?

TJ,

Do you stay in school and get a degree or leave art school to learn from a photographer?

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There is no easy answer to your question. I am a big believer in education. Yet a Bachelor’s degree in Art is no guarantee of anything. For that matter, a Bachelor’s degree in many fields is no guarantee of anything.

Yes, education is expensive. Developing your mind and expanding your thinking is very valuable.

Everyone’s path is different. If you want to be a commercial or fine artist there is no straight path for your career. Unlike becoming a lawyer or doctor there is not a prescribed way to become an artist. The most successful artists have always blazed their own unique paths.

I know a corporate lawyer who told me that when he was in high school, his father said to him, “You can be a lawyer or a doctor. You choose.” He has ultimately pursued one of the two options dictated by his father.

You do have the power to choose your own path, wherever it may lead. Just by choosing to go to art school you have picked a path off the main stream.

To be an artist, you will need to have a passion and perseverance. You will need to figure out how to pay your bills.

Clients have never asked to see my diploma when they were considering hiring me. Instead they want to see my photographs. But my degree in History of Art and an education in the liberal arts have given me a conceptual framework to see and understand the world. I can discuss architecture with architects. I know what a cap rate is when I talk with a commercial realtor.

It is important to learn how to learn. I do feel that my liberal arts education boosted my ability to learn things on my own, which is an important skill in our dynamic changing world.

I did not take a digital photograph until 2001. Since then I have taught myself many things about digital photography, software and computers.

In the beginning of the digital photography revolution, I imagined I was climbing a mountain of knowledge, learning new technology. Yet as I hiked upward towards the acquisition of more knowledge, the mountain has kept growing and changing. The goal of reaching the top and completely mastering digital photo technology feels perpetually out of reach because the mountain of knowledge is always growing and morphing.

I also feel this way with using and understanding the internet and social media. There will be more changes in the future. So learning how to learn is important.

You will have to make your own decision as far as whether to continue and finish your degree. I don’t know your financial circumstances. If you are piling up student loan debt and school is a huge financial burden, it could make sense to take time off to work in your field and get the perspective of working with a real world photographer.

There are limited opportunities for paid work with photographers. Many commercial photographers are operating with fewer paid staff than before. The freelance model of hiring people is common. And unpaid internships are common, too.

If you leave school and enter the marketplace to find work with a photographer, you will be competing with people who do have degrees in your field. That’s not to say you won’t succeed, it’s just that if fifty people apply for a job, having a degree and experience could move your resume higher up the stack.

Good luck. Whether or not you ultimately finish school–keep learning and keep taking photos.

Keep in mind, one upside to getting a degree, especially a graduate degree, is that you get to wear a crazy hat.

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