Alys Tomlinson has a diverse portfolio but she also happens to have shot a wide range of images around ‘Education’. In a deeply engaging interview she discusses the changing nature of ‘Education’ photography, and how photographers like Rineke Dijkstra and movies such as The Class have influenced her take on ‘Education’ imagery
IMSO: What were the three most important things you learned from your own photography Education?
Alys Tomlinson: Although I loved my PgCert at Central Saint Martins [London Art college], which was a great combination of technical teaching and theory, I probably learnt as much from my English Literature & Communications degree and from just getting out there and doing photography – therefore learning on the job and learning from mistakes!
But, there are three important things that my photography education taught me:
1. Do your research (galleries, books and films are all invaluable tools for researching ideas and methods)
2. Don’t always plan too much – allow things to happen naturally and spontaneously
3. Make sure your images tell a story
IMSO: Do you have an instinctive idea in your mind of what ‘Education’ means and does that translate into your photography?
Alys Tomlinson: Classically, education is about learning, but to me it is about much more than that – friendship, communication, community – all elements that I try to incorporate into my work.
I went to a great state school in Brighton and was lucky to have a really positive experience there, but I do think that education means different things to different people – for example, I recently took photographs at a school for children and teenagers who are blind or partially sighted.
Here, although the students attend regular lessons, it’s as much about personal development and everyday achievements (such as being able to use a mobile phone or board a bus), as it is about getting good grades.
IMSO: The imagery around ‘Education’ has changed dramatically over the last 20 Years, it’s now a global industry. What do you remember of ‘Education’ imagery in the past?
Alys Tomlinson: It used to be very staged and posed (as is the case with most stock photography 20 years ago). It’s much more natural and ‘real’ now, and also more creative and inventive, reflecting the way that the teaching approach in many schools has changed and developed.
IMSO: Are there any great ‘Education’ photographers, or Education work in commercial art, or ‘Education’ thinkers, that you have been inspired by?
Alys Tomlinson: I’m afraid that Michael Gove [UK Secretary of State for Education] has not been a great source of inspiration! However, there have been some very impassioned and inspiring speeches over the years, particularly from those on the left, regarding education and the right to a free, good education for all.
I wouldn’t say that I’ve been influenced by work that obviously depicts education, but certainly the portraits of contemporary photographers such as Rineke Dijkstra, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin and Stefan Ruiz have influenced the portraits that I’ve taken when working under the umbrella of ‘Education’.’
I’ve also been inspired by films – Half Nelson and French films Etre et Avoir and The Class are particularly memorable. The cinematography and stories that they tell have definitely been a big influence on my work.
IMSO: What are the 3 most important things you need to bear in mind in shooting imagery around ‘Education’?
Alys Tomlinson: You can’t force things, especially when working with children. Teenagers are often quite self-conscious at first, but photographing young children tends to work best once they are relaxed and have forgotten about the camera. Also, think about the environment you’re shooting in. Simple props, good use of colour and a small amount of styling can make a big difference to the final outcome. I would also say, don’t always make things too obvious. There are ways of communicating concepts that can be much more subtle and can say a great deal, for instance a small detail on a desk, or the thoughtful expression of a child in the background of a shot.
IMSO: What kinds of kit do you use on a typical education shoot?
Alys Tomlinson: I use natural light and a reflector wherever possible, although obviously this isn’t practical if we’re shooting in old, slightly dingy schools. When using lights, I use an Elinchrom 400 kit – it’s pretty lightweight and always powerful enough for my needs. I often try to bounce it off the walls and ceiling to make it softer and try to replicate the feel and look of daylight.
IMSO: Your work for CABE [Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment] is a great example of a creative blend that’s incredibly tricky to pull off – syncing the conceptual and the documentary. I’m thinking for example of: the schoolkids measuring, the contrasting surfaces; the young boy ‘reaching for a higher level’; and the cover signalling ‘curiosity’ , ‘inquisitiveness’. How did you arrive at this style?
Alys Tomlinson: These were all shot on medium format film, so the images have a particular visual style to them because of that. I worked with the designers and an Art Director to produce a series of images that were very much about learning, but also about discovery and fun.
Some of the shots were planned and storyboarded, but others happened much more organically. We wanted the pictures to seem as if we were just looking in on these children exploring the school environment and all that it has to offer, outside of the typical classroom scenario.
IMSO: What was the brief for the Royal College of Art series? It’s an unusual set of ‘things’ …
Alys Tomlinson: The Royal College of Art [in London] is a fascinating place, where there is great creativity and something happening around every corner. However, the designers wanted to represent the fragility of art and chose to photograph objects or ‘things’ that are created and have a life of their own, but then inevitably die or fade.
This was a much more conceptual approach to Education photography, all shot in Kensington Gardens and using medium-format film (not easy when photographing leaves and birds!), to give the images more depth and a less ‘perfect’ feel than digital.
IMSO: The SSAT project (a UK group “Inspiring innovation and improvement in schools”) has a very diverse range of photography. How much of your work is ‘prepped’, you’re looking for specific kinds of images, and how much is ‘found’?
Alys Tomlinson: Very little is prepped in advance and it’s often about waiting for the right moment, gesture or expression. With the SSAT images, it was very much a case of me wandering around the school and looking for ‘moments’. None of the shots were set-up or planned, I just tried to convey the youth, spontaneity and energy of schools…as well as the quieter, more studied moments and learning tools that you can find there.
IMSO: What was the thinking behind shooting the Times Education Supplement [UK education magazine] portraits in Black and White?
Alys Tomlinson: These were all teenagers who’d been expelled from mainstream schools. I was there on a commission for the TES, but also brought my old medium format Bronica sand decided to do a few portraits (shot on b/w film) for myself, as they were all such interesting characters.
I didn’t want them to appear ‘scary’ or disillusioned by life, I just asked them to look towards the camera and I tried to convey some of their personality through their gaze.
IMSO: What’s next in Education imagery?
Alys Tomlinson: ‘Real’, documentary-style imagery that communicates new ways of learning. Also, different types of schools and schooling (free schools, Montessori, the social aspect of education, groups and friendship). Home schooling is also a big thing and learning from home with new technologies, such as laptops, iPads etc. I also think there is more scope for beautiful, conceptual photography with an ‘Education’ twist, that doesn’t initially scream ‘Education’, but delivers the message when looked at in more detail.
Click to see more of Alys’ work
Click to see Alys’ work for Image Source
See also, our full collection of education photography