What I Learned from Studying Photography in a Foreign Country

What I Learned from Studying Photography in a Foreign Country

The summer after my freshman year of college, I had the opportunity to attend a 4-week study abroad program in Freiburg, Germany. Ten students were selected for the trip, and we were enrolled in two classes abroad: New Germany (from Division to Reunification) and Digital Photography. Most of our class assignments took the form of multimedia “journal entries.” We were to do something, such as riding the tram or visiting the local market, and reflect on cultural differences that we observed. We would then take photographs which helped to tell this story, write a one-page essay about the experience, and submit the completed entry for grading. Our time in the classroom was then supplemented by a number of excursions, including a week-long trip to Berlin, a chance to visit a local photography museum, and several independent assignments that encouraged us to explore Germany on our own while applying what we had learned.

exploring Germany

What this assignment taught me was how one could easily combine the art of photography with various forms of writing, description, and storytelling. Since Digital Photography was an art class, there was some degree of aesthetic value that each picture needed to have in order to fulfill the class requirements. Yet these journal photos also served another purpose – telling a story. In order to connect the photo assignments with our written essays, we needed to find a balance between aesthetic and narrative photography, making photojournalism into an art of its own.

One of the experiences we had as part of our trip to Berlin was visiting a photojournalism exhibit at a pre-reunification East Germany museum. Several members of our class got into a discussion about some of the photographs on display and whether they served an aesthetic or journalistic purpose. I suggested that perhaps they could be both. While the photos may have been originally taken for the purpose of journalism, there is no reason why a photographer could not pay attention to aesthetics at the same time. On the other hand, an artist attempting to capture a beautiful photograph may have unintentionally captured a unique moment, using their work of art to tell a story of its own.

The photojournalist has a truly unique job, as he must not only inform the public of an event or situation, but also do so in a concise and visually appealing way. True photojournalism requires capturing a critical part of the story it hopes to tell, and presenting it in such a way that it speaks for itself with no further explanation. A crucial part of learning photography is learning how to make your photos tell such a story. I know my education in photography stressed that point significantly. Through our travels in Freiburg, we encountered and used photography for purposes of journalism, documentation, nostalgia, humor, aesthetics, and communication – in any number of combinations, and sometimes even all at once. What this experience taught me is that photography as an art is extraordinarily versatile. Whether you set out initially to capture beauty or information, to craft an artwork or tell a story, you may find that doing both is easier than you think.