Notes from the VisCom Classroom: Are You Teaching Video (Yet)?

Two years ago I bought my first digital camera. Now I’m shopping for a video camcorder. No, I don’t have dreams of winning an Academy Award. But as an instructor of visual communications, I need to stay at least a few paces ahead of my students.

I’ve had more than 30 years’ experience with still photography — shooting corporate and editorial assignments, writing articles for Photo District News, and teaching photography in San Francisco. Now, teaching and going to graduate school at the University of South Carolina, I’ve landed in the middle of an educational revolution. At the university’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications, the Visual Communication (VisCom) major places great emphasis on helping students gain a wide range of skills in addition to photography, including design, layout, computer graphics, newspaper production, slide/sound projects, and video.

In April 2007, Dirck Halstead published a column on his Web site called “The Coming Earthquake in Photography.” In it, he predicted the demise of still photography in newspapers and its replacement by video. Halstead says this earthquake, like so many other trends, is being driven by the Internet and economics — newspapers are looking to their Web sites as a way to replace declining ad revenues. And success on the Web depends on capturing and holding the fleeting attention of as many Web surfers as possible.

Go to the home page of the New York Times, for example, and you’ll find links to a wide range of videos produced by Times staffers. You’ll find similar videos, along with slide/sound projects, on Web sites of the Washington Post, the Dallas Morning News, and the San Jose Mercury News, to name just a few newspapers that have gone beyond the bounds of traditional photojournalism.

Of course, still photographers shooting moving images is nothing new — Gordon Parks and Robert Frank are two names that come immediately to mind as pioneers. Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, some advertising photographers, who were already adept at working on big productions with models and large crews, added film and video production to their repertoires. And it’s hard to imagine a wedding without at least one photographer shooting video.

Up until now, however, embracing video has been a choice, not a necessity — something an individual photographer could do if he or she saw fit. According to Halstead, however, embracing video has become the key to survival, not just for newspapers but for photographers as well. And I would guess that photographers are taking Halstead’s words to heart, given the recent upheavals in our industry, including digital imaging, royalty-free stock, and the Internet. Nobody wants to be left in the station this time when the train pulls out.

Halstead’s article also caused a stir in my university, and I suspect we are not alone in that reaction. After all, if you are involved in training the next generation of visual-communication professionals, you want to offer a cutting-edge academic program (ditto if you are in charge of ordering new cameras and other equipment).

Fortunately, I landed in a department that has already begun to integrate video and slide/sound projects into the curriculum at all levels. For example, students in Intro to Visual Communications create podcasts of each class and post them on YouTube (search for “jour364” to see examples). Students in the Advanced Photography class create slide/sound projects, which blend still images with audio. In the class I teach, Photovisual Communications, students progress through a series of increasingly difficult still-photography assignments, learning the basics of composition, light, photographing people, and creating simple photo-essays. For the last assignment of the semester, the students work in small groups and shoot short videos — which are based on the most successful photo essays.

What is amazing to me about video is how good the students are at figuring things out on their own. Turn them loose with a video camera and iMovie and stand back! In no time they’ve figured out how to work the camera, download files, edit clips, add sound, and produce a finished movie — all with very little assistance from me.

This bodes well for the future, I think. If Halstead is right, those of us involved with teaching (and learning about) visual communications need to jump on the video bandwagon. It will involve lots of adjustments and readjustments — I believe that learning to teach new skills is harder than learning the skills themselves. The transition probably won’t be smooth and painless — after all, there are folks who still shoot Tri-X. One thing is certain, however: we don’t have to worry about getting too far ahead of our students, because they are probably much more flexible and adaptable than we are.

[tags]photography instruction, video instruction[/tags]

Leave a Reply