Turkish program offers photographers a future

Photo caption: A photographer shoots backstage during New York Fashion Week, Feb. 16, 2010. Anadolu university thinks it has found a way forward for both the amateurs and professional photographers. (Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Every day we are bombarded with images — on roadside billboards, in newspapers and magazines, and on TV. And every other week, a new tool or medium (look no further than camera phones and YouTube) allows amateurs to become self-publishing quasi-professionals. It's little wonder that universities report a tough struggle in reassigning value to the study of photography.

One university, Anadolu in Turkey, thinks it has found a way forward for both the amateurs and professionals.

Gone are the darkrooms and printing labs of a traditional photo school. Gone, too, are the classrooms. The degree program, established last year as a part of the school’s innovative distance-education system, is using the same technologies that created the rampant proliferation of images to reinvent the way in which they are taught.

“Our lives, more than ever, are intertwined with photography,” said Yakup Karapolat, a student in the Photography and Camera Operation Associates degree program based in Ankara. “The trick is to teach people how to use it.”

The course is based around a digital-learning platform that allows students from around the country to interact virtually, uploading work and hosting discussion groups without ever having to leave the privacy of their own home.

“At the beginning I thought it would be very difficult,” confessed Gulsen Elmas, a student living in Adana, in south-central Anatolia, a day's drive from where the university is located in the industrial powerhouse of Eskisehir. “But then I realized I could follow the lessons while sitting on my comfortable sofa ... It was getting easy.”

The two-year course includes standards of photography education such as the "History of Photography" and "Film and Video Production," as well as some uniquely Turkish offerings like "Ataturk’s Principles" and "History of Turkish Revolution."

For decades, photographers would cram into workshops and conferences as they discussed the important values of their craft. But at a time when the technology, nomenclature and just about everything else involving photography is changing so rapidly, virtual classrooms seem to fit the trend.

Distance education, whether delivered online or in real time, is quickly becoming one of the most significant growth areas in higher education. Major academic institutions around the world are investing human and economic resources into developing high-quality distance-learning programs.

For a country like Turkey, where access to higher education is still fairly limited, such courses can help even out the educational playing field. According to Turkey’s Council of Higher Education, the country’s participation rate for higher education, excluding distance learning, is still only about 25 percent — the lowest of the OECD countries.

“When the capacities of standard schools fail to meet the needs of the population, distance education is the new modern model to provide efficient education by using communicational technologies,” said Huseyin Eryilmaz, a professor in Anadolu University’s Faculty of Fine Arts, who helped to create the Photography and Camera Operation Associates degree program.

Anadolu University has long been a pioneer in distance learning, establishing the first distance-education system in Turkey in 1982. Today, more than 1 million students are enrolled in that branch of the university’s programs.

Students who prefer distance learning range from those continuing their education while maintaining full-time jobs, students in the military and those stuck in a prison cell. For all of them, the course provides an opportunity to further their education that would not be there without these technologies. The photography degree program, first offered this past fall, is the university’s newest addition to their distance-learning platform.

Evrim Kaya Yildiz is an Ankara-based lawyer with a thriving practice, but in her youth she dreamed of being a photographer, collecting stacks of photo magazines and regularly attending exhibitions. Now, a decade later, the degree program has given her a chance to renew her passion without having to sacrifice her career.

“The fact that the study is run via a remote education system is a big chance for a person like me,” she said. “I can determine my own hours of study, at my own initiative.”

For those concerned that the photographic standards of the golden era aren’t being handed down, Eryilmaz argues that distance-learning programs like this are helping to bring an education to those with the interest but not the means.

“Visual literacy is essential for a well-equipped society … and so we have to give this educational opportunity to people,” Eryilmaz said. “After all, art and aesthetics are the specialty of modern humanity.”