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Teaching the next steps: ICP’s commitment to the future

Teaching the next steps: ICP’s commitment to the future

© International Centre of Photography

December 2015

The International Centre of Photography (ICP) in New York, USA, is about to embark on exciting changes and expansion along with a newly titled full-time certificate program in Documentary Practice and Visual Journalism, headed up by one of the most experienced photo editors around. CPN Editor David Corfield spoke to its Chair, Alison Morley, about her background, her thoughts on photography and the central role ICP plays in nurturing the upcoming talents of tomorrow...

Q: What is ICP and your role within it?

A: The International Centre of Photography (ICP) is one of the great visual cultural centres of photography in the world. ICP is a museum and school with major collections and an inspired resource centre.

Photography faces a great combination of issues today and ICP is deeply engaged in that conversation through lectures, panel discussions and symposiums. We are looking to the future and trying to guage what’s next so that people can look to us as the place to understand the world through the ever-changing role photography plays in our lives.

© International Centre of Photography
© International Centre of Photography

Entrance to the School of Photography at the International Centre of Photography in New York, USA.

My role is Chair of the Documentary Practice and Visual Journalism programme, which is a one-year certificate programme for full-time students with a 50% international student population. My programme teaches visual journalism and its expansion into multimedia, video and interactive web work as well as working on long-term documentary projects. We offer history, digital workflow, analogue photography as well as lighting, editing, portraiture, large format and thematic workshops. Each student graduates with a strong body of work in the medium that best suits it - vetted by contact with over 60 faculty and guest artists and lecturers.

Q: Is Multimedia teaching a relatively new area for ICP?

A: Actually we have been doing multimedia and video for many years but we now incorporate it into the first term in a more immersive form that allows the student to imagine a project in all possible ways - beyond stills. The world is looking at individualised imagery asking it to move. Viewers want context, audio and graphic stimulation to tell a story in a deeper way. Under the direction of our dean, Fred Ritchin, we began a new programme this year: New Media Narratives, where you only need a cellphone to learn storytelling for web platforms.

Q: The historical side of ICP and its origins is very significant. What can you tell us about its background?

A: In building our new museum, that will open in May 2016, we will look at ways in which the power and universality of photography has expanded and moved social and political activity. Other museums curate photography exhibitions and embrace similar issues but we have the ability – because we are a photography centre – to do it 24/7 by every means possible. We are photography and I don't think there is another institution that has made that claim to photography in the way that ICP has – and will continue to do – under the leadership of Mark Lubell. Through online teaching and streaming, travelling exhibitions, and workshops all over the world, we are able to reach a diverse multicultural audience. Our students hail from every continent.

Cornell Capa began ICP in 1974 in honour of his brother Robert, to celebrate documentary photography and bring photojournalists from all over the world together to have a conversation. He helped elevate the photojournalist’s role in the world and we continue to expand that vision of engaged photography.

Q: What are your thoughts on photography today and how it’s changing?

A: As a photography teacher I feel it is important to teach the technical aspects necessary but at the same time I encourage students to focus on the art of storytelling. I find myself spending a lot more time helping students imagine a story and create a narrative flow for a project. We talk deeply about empathising with subjects and understanding storytelling from several points of view. Editing and sequencing are essential components in how a story is read.

Our students make photographs; they don’t go out and stick a camera in someone’s face. We spend a lot of time learning to shoot on the street, captioning and editing. For example: perhaps the interview goes first? Perhaps you sit down and talk before even reaching for your camera? You have to be more of a concerned photographer for your subject now than really, in some ways, ever before because you are your own agency and editor. A picture can have a long life and out of context - it can misrepresent a person or place.

I do think that there is a danger that technology can get in the way of a good story. All these bells and whistles are great fun, but even my students say that it’s too much sometimes and they are more concerned with how to get real with people and get down to the core of what they are trying to communicate. It’s a process and everyone has to work at one’s own pace. It’s a very intensive one-year with very indivualized attention. I approach teaching by sharing examples of real-time news and projects, asking students to map stories with sources, archives and varied points of view as well as readings and writing that help contextualise the story’s purpose. They are not always making photographs.

Q: How did you become a teacher?

A: I transferred from a liberal arts college in Boston to Art Centre College of Design in California and when I graduated I opened a photo studio. This was in the old days and I had a beautiful 4,000 square foot studio with a full B&W darkroom! I shot mostly portraits and celebrity fashion for about ten years.

© International Centre of Photography
© International Centre of Photography

The ICP Library is dedicated to the entire discipline of photography and houses an extensive collection of photography books and other resources.

But I really hated it; concerned photography was what I really cared about and because I was doing well in the celebrity world as a woman photographer in the 1970s I got pegged for doing that kind of work. I really loathed all the requirements to make a simple photograph of another human being so I went to the Los Angeles Times and through an amazing series of circumstances, I became the Photo Editor of the Los Angeles Times magazine and I loved it. I was shooting for the LA Times and I was also their photo editor! In those days I was able to place major portfolios in 6-8 pages for people like Richard Misrach and Mary Ellen Mark as well as photographers that were just breaking ground.

And then New York called. I became the Photo Director of Esquire magazine and they moved me to New York. I worked for them and many more magazines subsequently. In 1993 an intern said, “you should teach” so I created a class called ‘Visual Thinking for Magazines’. I taught that class at ICP on a yearly basis. And in 2000 I was asked to become Chair of the then named, Documentary Photography and Photojournalism programme.

I travel all over the world teaching workshops. I have taught in Uganda and China for World Press Photo and many other countries connected by local universities and programmes. That has been a wonderful experience – reaching out to young photographers throughout the world that may never reach New York. ICP has such a large international student body, which enables a fascinating multicultural conversation that actually gives students the most rewarding experience of the year. Students tell me that they were living in a bubble before they came to ICP.

Alumni stay in touch and the reward of seeing these photographers evolve over the years is everything to me. They even marry each other!

Q: Where do you feel that the business of photojournalism is going now? More towards multimedia or will the heartland remain a stills-based approach?

A: I think it’s going through a phase. Just like painting did a few decades ago when it became so theoretical and people stopped painting and just referenced history. Photography is heading toward a similar moment. I think the still image will always exist because it has to - that is the only guarantee of the moment - the ‘decisive moment’ as Cartier-Bresson coined.

That said, many students are getting more work from video and multimedia than still work. The tricky thing is that it is a transitional time for newspapers and magazines and even web platforms, where they don't want the photographer to do too much. For example, I had a student last year who created a great interactive website on someone who had been using heroin abusively for 60 years. It was an amazing piece but nobody wanted to publish it because it was in fact published. It was done. It was a finished piece: an interactive website. And he couldn’t get any work out of it because of that. It was interactive and not linear, so that was confusing for editors as well.

Companies want to take your pictures, your audio, and your video and combine all that into their decided length for their decided purpose, using their production people to make the final piece. This is often called curating. Then they want to sell your story to multiple venues for their profit. There is still that concept that a photographer is illustrating a story for said company. This is the controlling aspect that made great photographers stop working for magazines and publish their own books and exhibitions. It is hard to understand fully whose job is what because it works differently in every place, depending on what kind of staff they have. That’s why I teach my students to take responsibility for their subjects because no-one else will protect them. You must be your own agent for your story, your picture, and your work. There are great editors out there who can make a story better by working with you on it but they are, unfortunately, few and far between these days as staff continue to be cut. Online publishing moves so quickly that you have to be ready when you give your work over to fast scrutiny - decisions that can affect your subject’s life and how their story is shared. It’s not about getting a model release.

Q: Do you teach business to your students or are you continuing to teach the craft as well?

A: We teach not only the theory and craft of photography and multimedia but we go into the business side too. I want my students to graduate, knowing how a picture or story can be sold and that includes solid reporting and captioning. We offer workshops in working with NGOs, all media outlets, and how to develop a social media presence and promote your work. We are lucky to have photojournalist Ron Haviv with us who teaches a wonderful class; a mixed bag on all aspects of the working journalist’s life, from how to find a fixer, on the ground realities, business, branding and safety.

I also teach business in my editorial concept class where we go through model releases and business contracts. Students must understand how to market the particular type of photography that they want to do. In the end, it is about finding yourself. Upon graduation, we host ‘career day’ where we invite over 100 professionals to review the work from all 4 full-time programme graduates’ portfolios (about 100). So each graduate has eight or nine portfolio reviews in one day and gets a 20-minute review. Our reviewers include photo editors as well as publishers, agents and galleries. It’s a great experience for everyone and it opens doors.

Q: At the end of the course, what do students receive?

A: They get a hat! Actually it would be cool to have a scarf... But seriously, we give them a one-year certificate in Documentary Practice and Visual Journalism. They also participate in Career Day and exhibit their final project at ICP. But most importantly, they leave with direction and guidance and a conviction that they are on the right path - for whatever kind of photography they choose to do.

Biografía: Alison Morley

Alison Morley

Alison Morley is a photo editor, consultant and educator. She has been the chair of the Documentary Practice and Visual Journalism Program at the International Centre of Photography in New York, USA, since 2000. As a photo editor, she has been the photography director of The New York Times Sophisticated Traveler, Audubon, Life, Civilization, Esquire, Mirabella, Elle, and The Los Angeles Times Magazine. Currently, she works as a consultant for photographers, agencies and magazines. She has edited several major monographs and has curated touring exhibitions for Blood and Honey: A Balkan War Journal and Afghanistan: The Road to Kabul, both by Ron Haviv; I Am Rich Potosi: The Mountain That Eats Men by Stephen Ferry and The Ninth Floor by Jessica Dimmock. Most recently, she edited Urban Cave by Andrea Star Reese, and Frozen In Time by Sarah C. Butler, soon to be published by Glitterati Inc.


Teaching essential skills such as image editing is at the heart of the ICP’s Documentary Practice and Visual Journalism programme.