Don't say cheese

31st May 1996 at 01:00
There's nothing worse than a cliched school photograph says John Kirkaldy. The truism that a picture is worth a thousand words is one that people in education all too often seem to have missed. A casual flick through educational brochures, leaflets and press releases soon produces examples of how not to present pictures. Even those which are professionally produced are often little better than insipid.

What are the biggest cliches to avoid? There should be a total life ban from a camera for any organisation producing a picture of the leader of any group talking to an imaginary person down the phone; an outsize cheque being presented to a good cause and any two people shaking each other's hand, especially if both are looking not at each other but at the camera (the so-called "spaghetti handshake").

Taking really good photographs needs training and a touch of genius. But understanding what makes good publicity photographs takes only a bit of aggressive common-sense. Education is all about people, yet they are often absent or in the background. Whenever possible, the people concerned should be doing something, rather than standing still, gazing at the camera.

A good photograph has a simple story which is easily grasped and which complements and enhances the text. No press photo is complete without an accurate caption, usually identifying the people presented.

Technically, there are a few basic points which need to be considered. Most amateur photographers tend to take pictures at a distance, producing holiday-snap style results without any clear detail in the faces of the subjects. Too many pictures are over-crowded, with better results often emerging from studies of one or two people. And beware of undermining your pictures with confusing or distracting backgrounds.

In practice, taking better photographs means taking a little more care and showing some imagination. When you're setting up the scene that you want to capture, ask yourself the question - if I did not know the people in this picture would I be interested? If instead of a predictable picture of a member of staff being handed a retirement present, think of a more lively and more original way in which you could visually portray the event.

Every educational institution should review its picture policy. All senior staff should have a picture taken of themselves, making them look like a friendly and interesting member of the human race, rather than somebody wanted by Interpol. Why not, as some institutions do, have a prominent display, identifying everybody teaching in the school or department? And while we are at it - why not the students as well? Pictures of facilities, equipment and buildings should not look as though they are from some estate agent's brochure but have people in them doing interesting and lively things.

The content of the pictures should reinforce marketing policy and the philosophy of the establishment concerned - if you want to recruit more women on plumbing courses, there should be women in promotional pictures to make the point.

All staff and students should be encouraged to think of taking pictures. The geography field trip, the ski party, the school play and sports day are all examples of education in action. There are literally hundreds of other ideas.

If you are using professional photographers, encourage them to think creatively. Some, numbed by years of wedding photography, will need nudging. Most will be only too delighted at a more imaginative approach. New developments in photography make it much easier for amateurs to take really worthwhile pictures. If you run photography courses, get staff and students involved. Visual images dominate our life - education must get fully into the picture.

John Kirkaldy is media officer at Salisbury College

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