East Surrey Volcano

As someone who taught photography for 30 years, largely to 16-18 year old female students (though there were males and many considerably older including a number in their seventies rather than seventeen) I feel very strongly in support of Simon Burgess, the lecturer at East Surrey College who faces a disciplinary hearing for suggesting one of his students looks at the photography of Del LaGrace Volcano.

I didn’t write about it earlier as I understood that those involved wanted to keep it private in the hope that the issue might be resolved.But since it has been aired in the BJP and everywhere else there seems no point in refraining comment any longer.

According to Brendan Montague on  the-sauce.org, the disciplinary hearing which was to have been on Monday has been postponed, and Burgess has further been charged with gross misconduct “for speaking to the media – despite his refusal to take calls from journalists.” Which I imagine is just the kind of thing that those involved wanted to avoid.

The context in which Burgess suggested a student look at this work isn’t entirely clear, with some reports stating that it was as a part of “gender and sexuality component to a HND photography course” and others suggesting that the student concerned was doing a project on gender and sexuality. Whichever was the case, the suggestion seems entirely sensible and apposite – it would be hard to find photography which was more relevant to such a study.

But if the course does actually contain a component on gender and sexuality, it is very hard to understand why the college managers should feel there is any basis at all for proceeding against a lecturer for teaching it. If there is any culpability it lies with the college managers for approving the existence of this module, for resourcing it with materials such as the Love Bites collection and for allowing a student who appears to lack the emotional maturity to  work with such material to register for the course.  Clearly it would seem that Burgess is being made a scapegoat for their deficiencies.

Of course if it was a project chosen by the student concerned – who apparently was the source of the complaint – the action by Burgess in suggesting the work was simply pertinent advice a a useful resource in the area. It is hard to understand why a student who had elected to make a study in the area should then make a complaint – unless as a result of external pressure. It would seem to be a case where management should be supporting the tutor rather than attempting to discipline him.

I hope that the matter will soon reach a satisfactory conclusion with the charges against the lecturer being dropped, but one of the reasons why I left teaching was the kind of new management that has come into education in the past few years.

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I was fortunate never to face similar charges during my career, largely because of a supportive head of department, but there were occasional problems. Even at my interview for the post at a sixth form college in 1980, the Principal was obviously very keen to clarify exactly what kind of pictures I was taking, and obviously very relieved to find there was no nudity involved.

It isn’t possible to teach the history of photography properly without paying a sensible degree of attention to the nude and issues of gender and sexuality are bound to arise.  With students in their late teens, gender issues are very much at the forefront of many of their lives, and some of my students chose to explore them through their photographs. At least one student’s work for an end of year public show, involving apparently nude models in chains got censored by management as not representing the image of the college they wanted to portray, but I was never criticised for allowing or encouraging students to investigate such issues.

Of course there are issues about showing possibly controversial material to students, and I think teachers need to be clear about the reasons for using particular images. Some of my students were from home backgrounds where any nudity was quite unacceptable, while at least one came from a family of nudists.

When I worked on the web, writing a web site about photography I used to get occasional complaints about material that I had written about or linked to, for example in features on Nan Golding, Jo Spence, Robert Mapplethorpe and Joel-Peter Witkin as well as in historical surveys of nude photography. Some were from educators, regretting the fact that because of such material on my site they could not recommend it to their students. At least once I sent a sympathetic reply expressing regret that the conditions under which they worked were so repressive that they were unable to teach the subject fully.

Of course I had no interest in putting pornography on the site. Although it might have boosted site visitors and thus my remuneration, it might also have got the the sack!  But the main reason I avoided it – and in particular that peculiarly seedy corner of so-called “glamour photography” was that in general I find it tedious.  Or in the case of “glamour”, gratuitously offensive.

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