Dirk Fletcher, chair of Harrington’s photography programs, talks about their practical approach to preparing students to break into the photo industry, the school’s urban setting in Chicago, and how Harrington keeps its students on the cutting edge of imaging technology.
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PhotoVideoEDU: What is distinctive about your program?
Dirk Fletcher: We focus on the core aspects of what it takes to be a professional. When you look at the core of how people make a living in this business, it's solid business skills and solid technical skills. The tools are getting smarter, but where you put the light and the shadow is still what makes the image. Our program is purposely light on aesthetics, because you can only do so much in two years or four years. We also focus on emerging technologies—what’s out there, what’s coming, and how that’s going to affect the business.
We have classes in the evening as well as during the day. You can generally do the associate’s or bachelor’s degree at night, although we don't offer the full complement of classes every semester during both the day and the evening, so you have to plan it properly.
Our associate's program is like an 18-month boot camp. Part of our inspiration for it comes from our fantastic relationship with Brooks Institute, and as a grad of that school myself I felt strongly that a rounded education needs to embrace the business of photography with just as much rigor as our studio classes. Harrington's associate program really embraces that spirt. Once students are in the bachelor's program they really get to explore different areas and take various electives.
PhotoVideoEDU: What kinds of students does the program attract?
Dirk Fletcher: We have two distinct groups. One of them—probably about 50 percent—is the traditional high school graduates. The other group is working adults who are returning to school. They're career changers. Those students are anywhere from mid-20s up into their 50s and 60s. They're already working, and they want to get some formal education that will take them where they want to go. I've had everyone from people who work at Bloomberg, to people in marketing and accounting, to housewives who got into photography when they started photographing their own kids.
As much as you learn from the instructor and the course work, you really learn from the people sitting next to you. More often than not it’s a great situation when you’ve got younger people who don't have as much experience learning from older people in class.
PhotoVideoEDU: What kind of campus does your school have, and what is student life like?
Dirk Fletcher: We're a commuter campus. We're in a high rise in Chicago, right downtown. We don't have dorms or a huge campus.
PhotoVideoEDU: Does the program have required courses or final requirements?
Dirk Fletcher: We have a curriculum of required classes, and in the seventh semester we've got a Capstone/Specialization class. In the eighth and final semester we've got a Photographic Practicum class. It’s not as prescriptive as the other classes. You have much more time to work one-on-one with an instructor, and you can use those last two classes to go deeper into a subject. The practicum is a project that kind of pulls everything together so that students are ready to enter the market with a cohesive portfolio and a business plan.
One of our required classes is Social Practices. At the bachelor’s level, we find an area not-for-profit that has historically not been able to afford photography, and the students work on a project for them. At the associate's level, students develop a long-term project and work on it without having an actual client. It helps them build a portfolio. Associate’s students also assist bachelor’s students in their project for the not-for-profit, to get real-world experience.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do your students do internships?
Dirk Fletcher: They do. We have a career services department and a special person who just works with the photo students. We don't have a required internship. It's an elective that students can take, but we try to talk students out of doing an internship for credit. When students do it for credit, it's because they want to get through the curriculum as fast as they can. Here, and at any school, if you're getting credit for an internship, you have to pay for that credit. We often recommend that students not do an internship for credit, because then they can get the experience of the internship but use the money they would have spent on the internship to take a class.
We're very, very specific about what we let get pushed out to our students through formal chain of command. It has to benefit the student. They've got to be in a position to learn, not just do menial work. There are a couple big studios that students intern with. They really come out with such a grasp. It's so valuable for them to see things firsthand.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do you hold special events for photography students?
Dirk Fletcher: Absolutely. We have numerous "instant contests" that center around a theme or event going on in Chicago. The winner will generally receive a long-term loan on a piece of gear from the cage. Chicago also offers lots of great studios and photographers who either come to class or open their studio doors to our students.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do your students get opportunities to show their work?
Dirk Fletcher: Yes. There are two galleries at the school that show student work. Every March now is the annual digital photography show. It’s a huge juried show in a gallery on the first floor. The entire adjunct and full-time faculty jury it, and then everything goes under glass.
We do a special exhibit once a year. Harrington sponsored TEDx Midwest last year, and we got five students to do a special elective that covered all of the events. We shot probably 70GB of images for eight days, and we did an exhibit with Chicago Ideas Week.
PhotoVideoEDU: What areas do graduates of your program go on to work in as professionals?
Dirk Fletcher: Chicago has a lot to offer in terms of studios for grads to begin their careers in. Lots of students take an interest in food and table, as well as product and, of course, fashion. A good number of our students begin shooting editorial work, weddings, and PR right out of school as well.
PhotoVideoEDU: Could you name a few distinguished graduates?
PhotoVideoEDU: Does the program have any important new developments on the horizon?
Dirk Fletcher: We're starting to offer more motion and multimedia courses. There’s a lot of excitement about that.