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Wednesday, 26 September 2018

School, Race, Advertising, Mamma Mia and the sickly taste of Krispy Kreme Donuts

This French art school was in the news over the summer. It was trying to recruit US students and to make its student body a bit more diverse somebody changed the picture above to the one below. 

There's a variety of techniques in there, including what looks like the retro felt tip effect being used. It's incredibly bad.

I somehow watched Mamma Mia - Here we go Again over the summer. It begins with Donna graduating from the most incredibly diverse Oxford, something quite at odds with the reality of the intake of Oxford University which you can read about here, or here for a more nuanced analysis or here for a student perspective from Cherwell magazine. This includes the incredible statistic that  Oxford admitted more pupils from Westminster School than black students in 2017.

I found this incredibly annoying and did wonder at how and why this was included. My paranoia made me wonder if this wasn't some kind of attempt by Oxford to redefine its student body. And why not. I know people who have photographed literary festivals in the UK and been told to go for the 'ethnics'.

My wife and daughter didn't care about the Oxford element in Mamma Mia. They cared about the film starring Cher and Andy Garcia in and the pointlessness of the endgame. But we all enjoyed it after a fashion (Greek islands - what's not to like about that) and left with a rather sickly aftertaste in our mouths, kind of like the one you get after eating a 6-pack of Krispy Kreme donuts served by a 16-year-old doing an unpaid trial run, all sugar and fat and more sugar and more fat, topped off with a dribble of unpaid teenage sweat.

I was thinking of this (the French school photo) the other week when I chanced upon a copy of the Bath Magazine in the dentist waiting room. Bath is a lovely place, it's very Jane Austen in parts, it can be claustrophobic. It comes with its own stereotypes. I get people who live in 2 million pound houses in the snottiest part of Bristol telling me how wealthy, how snotty, how privileged I must be to live in Bath. It is nice, I am lucky, but fuck off already thank you very much.

Well the Bath Magazine is a reflection of that privileged perception of Bath, especially during schools month and it presents a picture of Bath that is yuck...

The schools issue is when the schools have open days and try to attract students. And it's not just the private schools. It's the state schools as well. Even state education is a market in the paradise that is Britain. Come and live here. It's great!

Anyway, this one gets the message across at the loveliness of Bath. We all live in houses like that here, honest.

This is the ad for Beechen Cliff School, a school which had an incident of a racist nature recently ("it was only bantahhhhhhh!"). It's trying to send a message.

That's one message, this is another one. You learn something from these ads; like a nine-month old baby is not a baby, but a child


Or that fencing is an real-life aspiration.

Much of the private school photography is quite flat (see above) and focussed on creating an image of the good character of the students and the opportunities that will open up for them (and remember it's not about the results, it's about the networks).

Photography is about choices. You choose what to include. You choose what to exclude. So you also get adverts where absence, not presence, is what matters, that the lack of diversity is the assurance you will be with people like you. They will wealthy, powerful and if they do have problems, they will be rich person problems not lived out in Asda track pants.

And then you get the outliers where that lowest common denominator of school advertising, Harry Potter (I had an anxiety dream last week where I was in Hogwarts filled with Chinese students in shorts and caps.) features. You get the feeling that this is one that works.

Don't forget to invest your money wisely! From the father to the son, from the son to the grandson, not the girl and definitely not the wife who has been disappeared.

There's a whole mass of articles (in journals and generally availbable) on various aspects of race in advertising - in car ads, fast food, fashion, finance, consumables, from the US, in the UK, in Canada, in Japan, etc. This is from South Africa, on the lack of diversity in the South African advertising industry and how that links to the surfeit of cliches  of dancing black people in South African television advertising.

Which isn't too different from colouring in faces with felt tip pen really.

Last month, September, was also the time when school pictures get put on Facebook and  Instagram: 'Little Josie's first day at school, hasn't she grown, I can't believe she's at secondary school already, where has the time gone,' that kind of thing. I do it, we all do it.

They did it back in the distant mists of time. These images are from my German family archive, printed from a glass plate. They show my my relatives starting school. And if you think there's anything new about a series, there isn't. They were making series back in cave-dwelling time.

I cried on my first day at school. I still do the same every year. I wish there were more pictures of kids crying on their first days of school. You're entering this government-controlled, highly regulated environment where even the most free-wheeling of teaching individuals are humdrummed in conforming to a corporatist pattern of performance targets related to the successful completion of meaningful tasks. You have something to cry about.

So we all do those first day of school pictures. We also all do school group photos. And the curious thing is how much they look the same. it almost doesn't matter what era they are taken in, your class ends up looking the same as someone else's class. I have looked through other people's class photos and had a weird kind of picture blindness where I can't differentiate between their class and my class. It all becomes a mass of undifferentiated bad haircuts, dimpled grins, dodgy collars and weird jumpers.

That's the essential problem of school pictures. It's difficult to make them look different. How do you emphasise the individual within that institutional setting. Aside from the genius of Ivars' Gravlejs' Early Works, I can't think of too many projects that really capture the individual joy, sorrow, boredom and torment of school, its lesson, its teachers - oh, and the kids themselves. 

Gravlejs' work was done from the perspective of a schoolboy and that's what makes it different. It's puerile but also a little bit savage in a surreal kind of way. It's harsh on the teachers. I'd love to see more work done from a student's perspective. 

For years I've been telling university students for years they should do a project on being a student in contemporary Britain. But nobody's quite got there. Which is a shame because it would be absolutely fascinating, sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a slow car crash kind of way, to see where their £9,000 a year is going to in words, pictures and a mix of achievement, realisation, disappointment, and joy that make up the typical student life.

And I'd love to see a project done from a teacher's or lecturer's perspective. Which wouldn't necessarily be harsh on the students, but might rather be harsh on the management. But that's terribly difficult. As a teacher or lecturer, you're either you're part-time or on an hourly contract, so live a marginal life, or you are full-time and have a comfy life. Either way, you have something to protect. Combine that with the fact that academics might be hyper-critical but will never piss in the bed they are lying in, and you can see why it doesn't happen. There are easier targets out there. But it would be nice to see from sometime who's not a coward like me. 

Back to school. I still get a lot out of Raimond Wouda's School. This looks at school with a high view surveillance perscpective that takes in both the architecture but with a focus on how the individual fits into the spaces. It's supremely effective and one which people engage with on a visual and personal level. I've sat with students who used to attend Dutch high schools and they've gone through the ethnic make-up of the people in the pictures, the way they wear their clothes, and how that feeds into the national geography of the schools. And these are non-photography students, yet all those visual elements are still in there. 

They are great pictures.

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