How a Photography Degree Has Shaped My Life and CareerPosted by
What Can You Do With A Photography Degree?
Colleen Gutwein O’Neal is a photographer and curator from the Northeastern United States. O’Neal’s work is focused on the human experience through personal engagement, using photography as a way to build lasting relationships within her community. We caught up with her and asked her to answer a few questions about her career and find out what you can do with a photography degree.
O'Neal's most recent long-term work, The Newark Artists Photo Documentary Project, pays tribute to, and immortalizes through photographs, ninety-plus artists within the Newark arts community. A natural extension to her photographic work, O’Neal curates contemporary exhibitions inspired by the artists she has built relationships with over time.
How did you become interested in photography? Describe what made you fall in love with it.
I became interested in photography at a young age, around five or so. My grandmother and grandfather owned a small wedding and portrait photography business. My grandfather would take photos and my grandmother would hand-color them. Watching an image slowly appear like an apparition in the developer bath has never lost its magic to me, although we live in a digital world, I still spend a great deal of time working in the darkroom.
Did you know right away that you were going to get a photography degree?
I didn’t take a photography class until I got to college. Before college I saw photography only as one of many artistic mediums and opted instead to take my electives in painting and philosophy. I spent a lot of time in the summer between high school and college with a friend who was a photography major at Rowan, and this rekindled my interest in the medium. After that, I took an Introduction to Photography class my freshman year and once I was re-submerged in the darkroom, I knew a photography degree was for me. However, I still explored other mediums as well as language, philosophy, math, and science to incorporate all of it into my work.
What would you say to a high school student who loves photography?
If you are a student and love photography, awesome! Keep loving it! Careers in photography are wide-ranging. If you are interested in the technical aspects of the craft, you could find work as a product photographer. If you love documentary style work and being around people and events, wedding photography could be a great opportunity to hone in on your craft or start your own business. Alternatively, you can reject “making a product” and consider how photography is harnessed within the art world, create documentary content, or support non-profit groups or activist causes. There are so many opportunities within the field, but you must be willing to hustle.
With all of the cuts to photography departments at newspapers and general lack of understanding around photography degrees, what do you see as the future of photographers?
Thinking about the future of photography is exciting! It’s such a young medium especially when we think of it on the same scale of painting, which has been an artistic expression created by humans tens of thousands of years ago. I think photography can surprise us in the art world, and forever change the way we view each other and societies across the globe. As traditional photography jobs seem to be waning, the medium has been made accessible to huge portions of the population through camera phones, and we are able to share our experiences globally with social media.
What makes a photographer “good”?
What makes a photographer “good” is a loaded question. Is it something your parents or your teachers taught you? Is it something that you feel when you look at an image? I believe we are coming into an age where traditional aesthetics are no longer held as the highest importance. What you do with your work is more meaningful. A good photographer has nothing to do with the quality of images, Instead, it has to do with the intent of the work and the ethics of the photographer. We are not creating work in a vacuum; we have a great deal of responsibility every time we pick up our cameras.
How do you feel about the future of the arts in general? Why do you think they are especially important now?
I think that the future of art is determined by those who do the work, meaning artists, critics, and organizations that hold true to their missions and consistently create. Art allows us to see beyond ourselves and our own expectations, allowing us to reach further and enter worlds we have never even dreamed of. Through this, we're able pull new ideas into our current state of being.
As you can see, the possibilities of what you can do with a photography degree are nearly endless. So get out there, find a program you're passionate about, and start changing your own life today!