Photobook Education in Universities

Eren Sulamacı
More Articles

The text below is based on the conversation called "Photobook Education in Universities" we had with Aslı Narin within the scope of Istanbul Photobook Festival on 29th May 2016. Within the last 2 years, we have re-scheduled the lecture "Photography and Narration" given by Murat Germen and Melis Bağatır in Sabancı University with a focus on the production of photobooks. Likewise, Aslı Narin also gave a similar lecture in Kadir Has University. Once in every semester we worked collectively by doing professor exchanges, arranging collective sessions and exchanging ideas within the process. Although this essay focuses more on the experiences in Sabancı University, I will also include the benefits we had through our collective work into the content. Consequently, I aim to share and encourage the experiences we had within these 2 years, and forming new collectivities.

In sum, we offered the students a three-phase thinking method and asked them to answer these 3 questions confidently regardless of the book they would make at the end of the semester. The questions were: "Why do/did you make this book?", "How will/did you do it?" and "What will/do we see at the end?" And we predicted that the work which would be completed as long as they answer these questions according to their perspectives, would be enough for them to comprehend the narrative methods of photography.


So, I follow the same pattern and start explaining how we designed the class. As someone who is aware of the fact that photography might have a changing narrative depending on the features of distribution mediums and that by its embedded nature, its production and reception is dynamic, the notion of including photography inside a book has been a phenomena I was keeping track of for some time. Ed Ruscha's book "Every Building on the Sunset Strip" was as interesting as one of our contemporaries', Wolfgang Tillman's photobooks which he names "Wako." In addition to these, I have also been keeping track of books published by local collectives like Bandrolsüz and REC Collective.

If we are to return to the lecture, we didn't intend to contribute to the rising trend of producing photobooks, nor to follow the trend itself. The reason we went for it was where we ended up in a discussion with Murat Germen as to "How can we make the class more useful?" The content of "Photography and Narration" lecture, we used to convey an understanding of various "genres" like portrait, street photography, architectural photography and typology, and in light of this information we asked the students to do a photography series within 2-4 weeks. Similar to that multipartite structure, the students were coming from different fields like engineering, fine arts and international relations. Under these circumstances, apart from a couple of exceptions, the works created didn't really meet the expectations as they were not considered in the real sense or had problems in their application. Above all, the main problem was that students had difficulties in presenting a genuine narrative unique to themselves. As a result of our discussions, we decided to simplify the syllabus and reduce our expectations into a single work for the whole semester. We aimed at opening a space for the students to focus, improve themselves on a different level every week and expand their personal awareness, along with creating a structure in which we can convey the old content of the lecture within this process.

At this point, photobook seemed as an option through which students can examine the variables of the photographic narrative thoroughly, make a progress intellectually as an emancipatory medium which met our expectations as well. At first, we thought of dedicating the whole semester to a photography exhibition, but as we took the physical and financial limitations of an exhibition space into consideration, we agreed that the idea of making a photobook would provide a richer content and students could move around more freely. We intended to prepare a syllabus that would enhance the students' self-awareness and express it through photography.


So, the first topic of the class was to answer this question: "What is your problem?" (The original question as it was written on the blackboard: "WTF is your problem?") The answer to that question can spread on a scale that is unlimited. The thing you hate the most, the thing you love the most, a social incident, a memory from childhood, a moment you can never forget...It can be anything you find worth talking about in life. Every student share those inner experiences in the first class, giving references to their contemporaries; and as a result of this sharing, we ask for a draft that will tell why they want to do that specific book, how they will do it, and what it will look like at the end of the semester. That draft doesn't have to be included in the book, but we prefer it to be a fully formed text for it to outline all the technical and theoretical decisions the student will make. The same draft evolve and change every week throughout the semester, until the student starts talking about the book without referring to the text.

Surely, this process in which we they try to figure out the problem, and which changes from student to student is a terribly painful one. With talkative and outgoing students, it is easier and pleasant. But it is a harder process for students who are shy and relatively comfortable within the Turkish educational system which is mostly based on memorizing and doing home works. We especially tried a couple of methods for those who have too little or no existential awareness (when I say "too little or no" think of someone who answers the question "what do you love the most in life?" as "I don't know"). The first of these methods was the paper on which they have to write the grim realities: "What have you learned from life?" I was first subjected to this exercise in Orhan Cem Çetin's lecture on developing concepts. In this exercise, all the students take out a blank paper and fill the page writing down what they have learned from life in 5 minutes. Here, the important thing is to fill the whole paper; how novel or awesome the content is insignificant. Moreover, no one except for the owner of the paper is reading it. The next step is to think about this paper throughout the semester. I can specify the benefits of these kinds of exercises which encourage one to think about oneself is that at the end of the semester a couple of the books created were expressions of the things written on those papers.

The next topic of discussion in the lecture is constructed around photobooks the students pick out. We ask the students to find a photobook from the library, bookshops or internet. And in the next class, we want the students to explain why they pick out that specific book. This exercise, however exemplary of reverse engineering to get to the question "why?" it provides a basis for us to start talking about technical aspects with regards to design and photography. In the forthcoming weeks, as the conceptual texts students write mature, we start presenting personal advices to each student. Taking into consideration the conversations we had from the beginning of the semester, we convey the technical and theoretical information we think the student is interested or which can be an inspiration for them.

The course content and conveyance methods consist of the decisions we make to encourage creative thinking. In general terms, a creative idea takes shape as a result of a cycle which begins with "information." For our class, "information" is an internal experience, as I mentioned earlier, an idea, a "problem" for each student that we start searching from the very first class. Then comes an incubation period: Living with the information that is learned. It doesn't necessarily mean application of the information learned and/or its equivalent in life. What I mean by incubation period, is a period in which that learned information is processed at the back of our minds, a period that educates us in the light of that information. One measure we set for the students to have a productive period, is that there is no specific deadline for the assignments except for deadlines for midterm and final exam. A student can bring his/her conceptual text in the second week as well after the midterm. Actually, there is no specific request as to what we can call an assignment. We offered a structure for the students specifying what we can talk about, what we can ask from them weekly, but also indicated that this structure can be altered depending on their way of working, rate of progress, and that it wouldn't be a problem. The only thing we asked for the students was their "problems" and thinking about these "problems" in terms of photography; we only pointed at the methods we find relevant, and also allow them to find their own way. The next step in the process of a creative idea is inspiration. We talked about literature, cinema, music and painting depending on the students' subject matter where appropriate, emphasizing that inspiration can come from unexpected sources apart from photography, just like an apple falling on one's head. The next step is affirmation. You have scientific knowledge, and one day when you are just lying about under a tree and an apple falls on your head. Your reasoning through an inspiration you get from the apple, maybe not immediately but later on, can make you someone who define what gravity is. Conversely, if the affirmation process is missing, then you become an "idler." We tried to make an affirmation every week in the class. We created an environment in which students can discuss their ideas and desires. If the idea as a result of the information, incubation, inspiration and affirmation process doesn't make sense for you or for the world, then the whole process starts over. Until one produces a creative idea.


It is true that the architectural structure influence people's way of thinking. In this regard, instead of the computer lab the university assigned for the class where students would try to see each other behind computer screens, we did our lectures in my studio. In this manner, we created an environment where everybody is on a level position during the classes. As an alternative to the lecturer's dictating or approving position, change in place was an important factor in creating a synergy where ideas can be discussed. The second time we had the same class, we didn't used the studio and felt its absence acutely.

In the two different groups we had this class, we witnessed that students were really afraid to make mistakes. We proceeded indicating that one can capture a "good" photography only through a "good" idea and that one cannot reach that level unless one internalize the trial and error processes. We asked them to put into practice every idea that comes to their minds. Therefore, in the worst case, we could see how an idea shouldn't be conveyed in photographic terms. The best example of this organic process is Holly Flores' photobook "Borne" which she made during these lectures. Holly is a student studying International Relations in the US and who comes as an exchange student to our university. She doesn't have anything to do with photography whatsoever. The only way she is related to photography is Snapchat talks she has with her sibling which she would like to make a book out of. Holly showed us some ordinary Snapchat photos in the midterm presentation. There was no discernible project. And it keeps failing to satisfy our expectations. After she finished her presentation, she said "I have an idea." She started to tell about people she observed when she went to the airport to meet a friend at the international arrivals contour. She said everyone passing through the door had strong emotions, some excited and enthusiastic, some in bewilderment on coming to a foreign country and she likened the door to a birth canal. When we heard this, we told Holly to throw away everything she had done so far and focus on this subject and take photos of the states those people are in. First week, she went to the airport with her mobile phone. She couldn't capture the images she wanted due to the limitations of mobile's camera. The second week, she went with a DSLR camera. This time, we realized she needed a teleobjective. Surely, we knew already what she needed, but we just wanted her to find it out of her own experiences. At the end, Holly said she likes to know different cultures in the first weeks, made a photobook portraying people who are traveling internationally.

Another method to strengthen our communication was to open a Facebook page. Here, we shared events that students follow after the semester has finished like festivals, contests and exhibitions. We also shared and discussed the things which take a long time for us to cover in the classes like videos/movies. Even though we created the contents at first, it became an environment in which students make contributions frequently.

Apart from our efforts to improve the dialogue between students, we ensured that students get opinions from people who are professionals in their respective fields. We first did this by inviting the designer Melis Bağatır to our classes. Melis provided the necessary information on design both for us and Aslı's lecture in Kadir Has University, she especially spared her time to work personally with students during the printing process. We are grateful to her. Moreover, we participated in the lecture in Kadir Has, and Aslı did the same in Sabancı. In these lectures, we left the students with the visiting professors. We told the students that each of them has a specific amount of time and within this time they have to express themselves.

This aspect creates a novel area of struggle for students who are used to make presentations to familiar faces. It helps them to comprehend what they do within a general context outside of the limitations of the class. The fact that you have to explain your project to someone who has no idea in a limited amount of time, requires you to understand and have a good grasp of what you do from different angles. The next step after these unpredictable meetings, was the mixed juries in the middle and at the end of the semester. Along with students from both universities, Cemre Yeşil, Umut Südüak, Didem Ateş Mendi, Sevim Sancaktar, Murat Durusoy, Vahit Tuna, Ferah Peker and Orhan Cem Çetin participated in our juries.

As a result, the students who had this class experienced a multi-disciplinary working-learning-producing course which was mainly focused on photography and which included production design, art direction, graphic design and artistic research. We shared our experiences in the exhibition "Studies on Photobook" in Mixer in 24 July 2015 which covered the first class, and in Istanbul Photobook Festival which covered the second.

I think this lecture which we wish to develop the structure each day, can open a pleasant and fruitful space to teach the fundamental components of photographic narration and possibilities of artistic expression especially for fields which are not dedicated solely to photography and have a hybrid curriculum. Besides, it will benefit students in terms of project development, time management etc. as a studio class in master programs in fine arts and/or communication faculties. We have shared and experienced this content with students coming from different disciplines. To tell the truth, I am also curious as to what we can do with a group studying photography. I am open to your e-mails about this essay which is a bit rushed, if there is anything I failed to notice, and say hi to all who contributed.

The image above is from the exhibition "Studies on Photobook" (Courtesy of: