A humbling photography degree interview

Eight of us waited at the university reception, secretly relieved everyone’s portfolio folder was at least A3 and we weren’t going to look like terrible show-offs. A photography lecturer collected us exactly on time and after a brief introduction we were given a tour of the university facilities by a third-year student, followed by a slide presentation on the history of the course. Both of these were similar to the open-day introduction, but interesting enough. We were sent off for lunch, everybody worrying about the afternoon’s presentations.

I chatted to a couple of the other applicants and was happy to find they’d also prepared portfolios in a hurry after receiving the invitation letter. This was a relief, and as we walked to the interview rooms I was confident things would go well. We split into two groups of four, each with two teachers, and were invited to present our portfolios. I’m normally happy to go first in these situations, but somebody got in before me. He’d taken an obviously-advanced photography course, and presented two very impressive projects – one b/w, one colour and both hand-printed – throughout describing his intentions and stylistic choices. He was obviously already a highly accomplished photographer. The woman on his left was invited to go next, and she opened her folder. I started to worry.

She’d travelled extensively, obtained sneaky passes for photographing the red carpet at film premieres and supplied shots of sound/video installations for product catalogues. The incidental work was stylish and cool. I didn’t have one picture in my entire collection to match the pin-sharp, well-composed and completely incidental shots she threw in at the end. She really knew what she was doing.

I was next. I was worried by the quality of the previous presentations, but forced myself to act confidently – there was no point second-guessing what the teachers would think. I showed my pictures of people jumping, shots from dances I’d attended, and two pieces of A-level coursework. The main lecturer asked me whether I’d seen the famous Halsman jumping pictures of the 1950s. I’d vaguely heard of them, and thought he might have been behind the famous Dali picture, but certainly wasn’t sure enough to say so. There were no other questions, in contrast to the other presentations. I sat down.

The next girl presented a series of personal projects. There were beautifully printed images of bands on stage, shots based around birds that recreated famous paintings, and a lovely collection (printed on rare paper she’d imported from Japan) of two plastic owls, gorgeously photographed at various locations around the world, that I’d be happy to buy and put on my walls (I told her so later). I felt increasingly stupid.

We were thanked, given a personal interview slot, and sent to wander the university. I was embarrassed. I’d forced myself to ignore the worries during the presentation, but now they started to fester. Had the others in my group just been particularly good? That seemed unlikely. Every way I looked at it, my pictures and knowledge were amateurish in comparison to theirs. Was this just the blues and I couldn’t appreciate my own work?

The personal interview began with “why do you want to do the degree rather than continue this as a passionate hobby?”. I don’t think it was directed at me – it seems like the kind of question that they’d ask everybody – but it hit home. The rest of the interview took only a few minutes. Who are my influences? What do I see myself doing after the degree? I fumbled answers, staying cheerful throughout, thanked them and left. On the way out I passed the other portfolio group showing their photos to members of mine. There was some great stuff. I wished them good luck and went home, knowing I wouldn’t be back.

I’m not putting myself down: I am ok. I know my way around a camera and can take a decent-looking snapshot. But the other applicants were in a whole other league. I struggled with and made up answers to pre-interview questions regarding my influences and aims – the others had no problem with this because they actually have been influenced and are trying to do or say something with their photography. I haven’t visited many exhibitions. I haven’t read anything of the history of photography since my A-level. I haven’t created personal projects, or branched out into areas in which I have little experience. I just like carrying my camera and documenting the things I do, and most of my good results come about by chance rather than planning. I expected that everybody would be a hobbyist like me – that the degree would be a natural progression from the A-level – but I was completely wrong. It’s at a much higher skill level, one I’m not even close to achieving.

I’m not feeling bad about the whole experience. I’m abashed, my pride is wounded and I’m very glad I’ll never see any of the people in the portfolio group again, but I’m not hating myself. I think it extremely unlikely that I’ll be offered a place, but I couldn’t in good conscience accept one anyway. I’m clearly not ready for it, and at best would be playing catch-up for a long time. In hindsight I was naive, but there’s nothing I should have done differently. I just didn’t understand that I’m not a passionate amateur, I’m somebody who enjoys a hobby. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

There’s no mystery about how to improve: I need to start taking photography more seriously. Personal projects, studying the history, experimenting without being scared to fail, playing with different styles and (shock) maybe even using film. Maybe next year I’ll be ready to apply again. But not this time.