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The Photobook Club and Generative Pedagogy

My interest here is that of the odd marriage between online and offline in relation to an informal and voluntary project.

For the past 4 years I have been involved in open education in one guise or another, having first helped develop (with Jonathan Worth) the connected classroom that is #phonar (Photography and Narrative) and subsequently #picbod (Picturing the Body) which I am now taking in a new direction at Coventry University. During this time I established the Photobook Club, a project which seeks to promote and enable discussion and learning around the physical photobook format. The project began with open, online explorations into the most “influential” photobooks of the 20th century but soon morphed into a two headed beast: On the one hand the project continued to discuss the photobook through social media and WYSiWYG platforms, while on another, I ran and supported others in running physical, generative (Kelly 2008) events themed around the photobook.

As I write, the initiative exists as a project hub found at www.photobookclub.org, a variety of smaller, location-based community spaces primarily found on Facebook which act as a hub for individual community book clubs, and then the book-based generative events themselves, running in more than 30 cities worldwide. The networked authorship of the project can at times result in it being difficult to understand, and so in looking to bring brevity to my description of the project I have included a recent pecha-kucha presentation that I gave in Amsterdam at the annual ELIA Teachers Academy — “Preparing the Artist of Tomorrow”.

There are times in my teaching practice when I am not the best person to speak on a subject, when there are individuals who are better versed in a subject or concept than I am, or even could be, within the time (and brain) constraints I have. This may well be something that we can all recognise, yet there still remains a fear that by acknowledging this and seeking to resolve it by bringing in more suitable individuals, we question our own value as teachers within the learning environment. This concern and discourse, especially in the age of the flipped classroom and super-hyped MOOC is partially legitimate but can tend towards a deconstruction of need rather than a far more interesting exploration of the academic’s role. Through experience I strongly believe that this revision of role is not at all a threat to my authorship or integrity, but instead is a recognition that my role as an educator is to curate a journey for my students through material, experiences and ideas, regardless of the various sources.

This same open approach was fundamental in the setup of the Photobook Club. Here from the very start I was to position myself as both learner and author, a part of the collaborative community and a facilitator of discussions. These blurred lines might raise some eyebrows but my time in higher education and connected learning de-emphasised the importance of fixed times, roles and rewards, and so I understood that for me, and this project, there would be no scales on which points would sit neatly. Instead there would exist multiple points, events, roles and platforms, inhabiting different spaces and engaging different individuals simultaneously.

It is comforting now to see that others are playing with these spectrums, something highlighted by the seventeen binaries posited as discussion points in Jesse Stommel’s “Hybridity, pt. 2: What is Hybrid Pedagogy?”, such as “Garden-walled Academia / Open Education”, “Scholars / Collaborative Communities” as well as “Institutional Education / Informal Education”. In setting up, and running the Photobook Club, I have strived to embrace hybrid pedagogy in a holistic sense and am keen to share that process as well as how many of the approaches I have taken could be put to positive use in other pedagogical situations.

Self-governance and autonomy are vital to any learning community, regardless of the space in which they operate, especially so when we are dealing with subjective and creative subjects. From the outset of the Photobook Club, it was clear to me that in order to promote truly open and community-driven discourse and expression, my own authorial role would need to be either reduced or distributed.

The distribution of authorship encourages responsibility and a more genuine sort of meritocracy, but it also allows projects to be shifted and shaped in ways in which the original author could never have foreseen. My project became something much bigger than it had first set out to be. As a practical note, however, this networked authorship can morph into undesired areas and quickly become cumbersome, thus I found it helpful to create a short, and purposefully broad, project statement to refer back to on regular occasions in order to ground the work.

The Photobook Club aims to promote and enable discussion surrounding the photo book format. In particular looking at old, rare and influential photography books from the 20th century onwards.

With this in mind I have consistently encouraged autonomy and self-governance throughout the Photobook Club. Even as Jaron Lanier argues that technology and the digital is “deemphasizing personhood” (Lanier 2010), I have strived to encourage personality as well as the benefits of collaborative processes. I have consistently found in both my working within open classes and being a student of open classes, that, given the right circumstances and direction, students will assert their personalities more freely within virtual spaces, often in ways they would not within a traditional classroom.

The introduction of idiosyncratic personality and a malleable learning space results in a richer community of learners and by allowing students to take ownership they also take responsibility. One relevant example here is from #picbod, which lives primarily as a Google+ community. At the end of each Thursday class one student would film a brief ‘round-up’ to camera; this would be their interpretation of the day’s events which would be posted, along with lecture notes, tasks and recordings to the community. A small pedagogical choice like this distributed some of my own role as educator and curator to the students, and instead of my face and voice ever-present in the community space, it was students. This references the choice to remove an overseeing expert but also opens the class itself to collaboration — it is not my class, it is our class. Without this collaborative and personal approach from the ground up, it would be a struggle to suddenly instigate a collaborative element to the class.

It is because of my desire for this collaborative dynamic that when photobook enthusiasts get in touch with a plan to start their own “branch”, I refer, as above, only to a broad set of guides. I always say the same thing: yes! make it open, make it interactive, make it inclusive and don’t make money. These guides act not as a set of rules to be adhered to but rather as a loose template to be filled in any way seen fit. The flexibility offered to new branches, each able to establish itself as a unique node within the larger network, encourages creativity, removes the presence of an all-seeing supervisor and ultimately creates true ownership rather than a mere franchise. (Here it is worth citing a not-too-dissimilar project by Casey Kelbauch titled “Slideluck Potshow”. The reach and numbered success of Kelbauch’s project is undeniable and I really love the concept but also feel the governance and semi-strict rules imposed interfere with the community-centred ideas the project began with and result in something more formulaic).

More can be done though. Encouraging the production and inhabitation of online spaces is one way in which not only branch organisers but also their respective communities can move from consumer to publisher. 90%+ of new Photobook Club branches choose a Facebook group as their primary web presence and each community ultimately shapes how this space is seen and used.

In looking through the content of these Facebook pages, it becomes apparent that they each perform very different roles for their respective communities. There are some that act as a near-necessity facilitator and communicator for the generative events; that is, they’re typically managed by an organizer and feature only information about the next meeting, its theme, its date, location, and so on. On the other hand, some are communities that extend conversations beyond the generative events, the line between the online and offline blurring as they start conversations that they further develop in-person, and invite engagement on key concepts and debates. Finally, there are some communities who go beyond this even further to engage an audience much larger than the people they will see at meetings over the course of the year. These communities find a particular voice that extends well beyond physical location and lives almost as a separate entity online, for while they feature information about new events, the vast majority of their Facebook community never attend.


Autonomy and meritocracy bring up a further interest in the assignment of voluntary and adjustable roles within the Photobook Club and its distributed communities. Academia often struggles with the kind of nodal autonomy described here, but this kind of adaptability and individual agency is exactly what open communities thrive on. With each Photobook Club community comes a structure of sorts (hierarchy would be an easy word to reach for here but suggests delegation from top to bottom): there are books to select, books to discuss, meetings to organize, logos to create or recreate, and so on. Community members are able to assign themselves any number of roles and change them as necessary. It may be that one member has a particular passion for Latin American photobooks and so encourages a themed event in which they present their own collection and suggest topics for discussion. It may also be that this same person takes a more reflective role when being introduced to the work of the New Topographic movement. From teacher to learner and everything in between.

It is perhaps somewhat harder to embed this practice within institutional learning in relation to assessment but this should be no deterrent as the A-word is only a small facet of our various pedagogical approaches. In fact, in #picbod 2013, students could undertake classwork in a traditional manner and still receive good grades but those who took an active role in the tutoring of remote participants or the organization of an international event were eligible for extra credits towards other classes, something I am sure many of us have the power to implement, even if only as a short term solution.

Aside from this, here are some pedagogies from the Photobook Club that I think are widely applicable:

Questioning role: Understanding whether or not you need to be the primary deliverer of content or whether in fact your skills as an educator might have more impact as a curator and guide in addition to delivery.

Credit: Ensuring that credit is given where it is due with an emphasis on student rather than staff work and methods; taking undeserved credit in a networked project like this can really kill trust and motivation in the community.

Personality: There are times, of course, to be serious but personality can draw people in, as can faces rather than titles and low-fi snaps over highly polished photographs. The importance of personality is important for educators as well as the broader community.

Malleable spaces and materials: Encouraging the appropriation of spaces by community further distributes authorship and encourages responsibility. I am really keen to use Pinterest in this area — each student curating and sharing their own learning material in a digital space they can take full ownership of.

Over the past 2 years I have continued to relinquish control of the Photobook Club, to a point where I am not quite sure who is driving the bus; I do however know two things: that the bus is headed to an interesting place dictated by it’s passengers, and that I cannot pull the stop cord.

About the Author

Matt Johnston

Matt Johnston (@mjohnstonmedia) received his BA in Photography from Coventry University. He is the co-founder of the Photobook Club, and consults on social media and audience strategies in the UK and the US.

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