Flipping through a (rather dusty) copy of the Observer Magazine (13.05.12), I stumbled across an advert, stretched across the bottom of two pages that particularly caught my eye, and provoked me enough to want to try to explore it in a little more depth, to see whether my initial revulsion was justified, or whether the ad actually sums up more complex developments within the teaching of art and design subjects in Higher Education.
The mode (not the quality) of this analysis is very much along the lines of Roland Barthes seminal deconstruction of an ad for the Italian food company Panzani in The Rhetoric of the Image (1977) [that can be read here], and also takes as inspiration Judith Williamson’s regular post-mortem of a contemporary print ad, always articulated so eloquently in Source Magazine. Both of these are worth becoming acquainted with.
So what do we have? A slightly intrepid-looking man, 60-ish, confidently engaging the viewer/consumer in front of a conspicuously super-imposed exotic backdrop. For those who don’t recognise the landscape as Machu Picchu in Peru, there is a discreet text informing us so (the size and orientation one might expect to see as a credit to the photographer or agency, rather than a caption). The eye (mine at least) was then drawn to the main text adjacent: LECTURER BY DAY. PHOTOJOURNALIST AT HEART. (sic).
The choice of font weight here is significant, deliberately drawing our attention to the, so it would appear to be, more impressive profession of ‘photojournalist’, which is where our protagonist’s real passion lies, and relegates ‘lecturer’ very much to playing second fiddle in the lighter-weight font.
But who is our hero? I don’t mean to sound facetious here, but he does look well-seasoned, albeit fairly well-groomed. We might imagine him in a former life; dodging bullets, sleeping under the stars with bandits or putting down his beaten-up SLR to save a helpless bystander caught up in some military coup. But he’s wiser for his experiences and has left all of that behind him now. For one thing, the beard gives this away (itchy in humid conditions, but practically standard issue in universities) but more importantly; his crisp, stain free gear, tailored by Craghoppers, specialists in adventure wear. The description to the bottom left of the ad goes into a bit more depth, lauding the enhancements afforded by Craghopper gear: “…Designed to be sun-protetive and to repel stains and insects…” Is he really all that hard-core? Who’s afraid of a spot of Malaria? It isn’t all that perfect though, and his half-opened left breast pocket is perhaps an attempt to add a touch of realism. The confidence he exudes in his slightly-cheerier-than-just-deadpan expression speaks of experience and wisdom, and presents an image of a mature man (Carl Jung might well have identified this kind of figure as an incarnation of the animus archetype).
It is likely that the actual man posing is more than just a model. It is of course common practice for companies to cash-in on the ideology, not just the eye-candy or familiarity, that a ‘real’ person can bring to an advertising campaign or brand. Usually (even with such a familiar face as a Hollywood film star) their name will feature somewhere discretely inside the ad, however, this is not the case in our example. On Craghopper’s website, this man is referred to as Leo (i.e. “…Leo wears…”). I may well be exposing my ignorance terribly, but if anyone knows who he really is, I’d be pleased to be enlightened. (Photographers are usually known by their photographs, not their actual image.) At least we have a name for him now, which is better than where we were before the last paragraph. The white space along the top and bottom of the landscape which Leo fits across the full height of (as well as discrepancies between lighting and perspective) is clearly a deliberate distinction between the two elements, rather than an attempt at a seamless photoshop job. The landscape behind Leo might stand for a latent memory (something from the “heart”) or it may serve more figuratively; a shot from his portfolio which he stands in front of, like a “lecturer” in front of his students.
We could go on dissecting the various elements all night, but what is of particular interest to me, is the discord the advert attempts to establish between the role of college/university lecturer and photojournalist/other professional. The image presented is outdated. While this may be advertising, which is of course in the legitimate business of fantasy and escapism, it is inaccurate, both in terms of the design of the ad, and the message it attempts to convey.
The choice of the location behind Leo, or rather the specific image, doesn’t have any accurate bearing upon the genre of photojournalism. As important as the site is, it is a tourist destination. Was Leo assigned to cover the evacuation due to flooding of Machu Picchu in 2010? Has he been working on a long-term investigation of the impact of tourism on the World Heritage Site? If the latter is the case, then he would probably be more accurately described as a ‘documentary photographer’ than a ‘photojournalist’, but then nobody can really quite put their fingers on what ‘documentary photography’ actual is… Not even Guardian/Observer readers.
The nostalgia of the ad is quite potent: the exotic location, and the seniority of Leo, hark back to a golden age of reportage photography. Leo embodies the glamorous National Geographic type of photographer, unforgettably characterised by Clint Eastwood in The Bridges of Madison County (1995). Most importantly, the main text Lecturer by day. Photojournalist at heart. implies that Leo’s heart lies somewhere else: Leo has been forced (perhaps through the photography market? Perhaps shrapnel wounds?) to set aside his real passion for working in the field, to just recounting his tales to waves of student cohorts in the lecture theatre.
Whilst I am pleased that Craghoppers, a brand (actually selling some pretty decent looking gear) whose target consumers I imagine to be young professionals half Leo’s age, is fielding an older model to market their products, I am troubled by the implication that lecturers (positions for which in photography are few and far between) see their activity as a routine job, or that lecturing is just what you do when you are getting a bit past it, or it’s what you do just to support your other interests and activities, however deep-set they be within your heart.
All of the lecturers I have had the pleasure of knowing, from the student perspective and as colleagues, have shown the same level of commitment to their teaching practice as they have to their research activities. If not more. My own view is that teaching is a privileged occupation, and when combined with something else you care equally strongly about, it is entirely fulfilling.
The changing climate in Higher Education, which involves increasing competition between institutions; pressure to focus learning outcomes upon employability rather than subject knowledge and personal development; and the disgraceful reference to students as ‘customers’, specify a few aspects that are challenging to newer and more experienced lecturers alike. Lecturers are firmly encouraged by their institutions to certify their competence by completing post-graduate teaching qualifications or apply for professional recognition, on top of expanding duties and responsibilities, exacerbated by decreasing budgets.
I’m very pleased to have recently passed successfully through the latter process, which I have to say, I didn’t find entirely an unpleasant experience. However, there are plenty of other ‘Leos’ out there, who have got a wealth of knowledge and infectious enthusiasm for their subject, whose lack of fluency with education-jargon, customer-service skills and general attitude towards bureaucracy, will exclude them from a career in teaching at higher levels, to all of our detriment.