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Staff profile: John Hillman

John Hillman is an Associate Professor and Head of Photography at Birmingham City University. We caught up with him to find out more about why he thinks it's important to study a degree, why Birmingham is a good place to study and what students can do to help prepare for the course...

John Hillman primary

Could you tell us about your experience and how this feeds into your course?

I have always been fascinated by images and how they come to affect us. For all my working life I've worked with some form of image-making. Before I started working in academia I worked as a commercial photographer and what I enjoyed photographing most were huge industrial manufacturing spaces. These were challenging places to get access to, they were difficult to light and generally hard to photograph. I would say I learnt most of my technical skills shooting with film and trying to make successful pictures in these kinds of places.

I became aware of a new relationship between computing and image-making with the introduction of digital photography. It is this relationship that has driven my interest in all contemporary image-making practices. Today, what interests me is not only the different ways we can make images, but also why we feel the need to make so many images. I certainly believe, in the image-based culture in which we live, that one of the most important skills we can have is to understand the role of images in our lives and in our society.

What is the philosophy of your course?

Our course philosophy comes from the collective interest in image-making that myself, my teaching team and my students all share. It is a very student-centred course and every year group approaches things differently. While we encourage our students to be experimental and creative with their image-making, at the same time we help them develop strong technical skills that they can then use to realise their ideas.

We are keen to always stress that photography is no longer just 'still images' that are framed or found in photo-albums. Nowadays, photography encompasses moving images, virtual images from 3D programmes, scanned images, found images, computer-generated images, collage, photobooks and much, much more.

If you had to name one thing about your course that makes it distinct, what would it be?

The course brings together creative ideas and technical skills with a provocation about the importance images have in all of our lives. We cannot spend a day without looking at some form of images, whether that be the photographs on the sides of buses, the posts we interact with on Facebook or when we binge-watch Netflix. All these experiences are encounters with images, both moving and still.

What makes the course distinct is how it brings together ideas of what contemporary image-making is and how our students develop their creative practice and thinking. The course challenges all of our thinking about traditional photography by encouraging our students to become the image-makers of the future. What could be more exciting than that?

Why is Birmingham a good place to study?

Birmingham is Britain's second city, which means it's a mini London without the high cost of living or the tube. There's a thriving creative community here with local photographic organisations such as GRAIN and Multistory who all work closely with the university. What's also interesting is the really unusual industrial spaces that are currently being developed as studios, galleries, cafes, music venues and bars.

Birmingham has impressive transportation links, with fast trains to London and the rest of the country and an international airport. Overall, it's a diverse, multi-cultural city that, I suspect, is one of Britain's best-kept secrets.

Why do you believe it's important to study a degree and why might students want to study your course?

To study for a degree at university is certainly a privilege. It offers students a chance to spend three years of their lives thinking, almost exclusively, about the subject they have chosen to study. In all honesty, it's unlikely there will be another time in adult life when one can focus and immerse oneself for such a sustained period. We aim for our graduates come away with a particular set of skills that mean they can discuss, present, rationalise, argue and articulate their ideas. These are vital life skills, whatever career our students pursue.

On a practical level, our students benefit from having access to some of the best-equipped studios in the region. They are taught by staff who are passionate about photography and about teaching. As part of the degree we run a series of technical master classes that cover things such as studio and location lighting; moving image and Steadicam effects; product photography; fashion photography; landscape photography; digital editing and re-touching; alternative film processes; coding images etc.

We also deliver professional practice workshops and lectures that help prepare students for working in the creative industry. They include lectures and workshops about setting up a business and writing a business plan, invoicing, accounts, funding, marketing, networking, interview technique etc. The aim is to equip our students with knowledge and skills to help them to find work. Most importantly, we teach our students to ask questions about their work and about the contexts in which their work will be seen.

Where will the students be based in their time here and what will their learning environment be?

Our students are currently based on the second floor of the Parkside building. Conveniently, our teaching rooms are next to the photographic studios, the darkroom and the print lab. The atmosphere here is always friendly and supportive. There are always staff around who can offer help and technical support to our students. To be honest, I think a lot of the best ideas are thought up around the tables in the coffee shop which is just above us on the third floor.

There are opportunities for all our students to exhibit their work either in the university or in venues around Birmingham. One year a group of students had an exhibition in a micro-brewery in Digbeth, resulting in a winning combination of photography, beer and pizza.

What can students do to help prepare them for the course?

Successful students have lots of great ideas along with the energy and commitment to realise these ideas creatively. Most of all they have a passion for the subject and for studying at degree level. A question to ask themselves is: why do I like this particular photograph? This can be very hard to answer but it's important to keep asking why. To prepare for the course students should think about the areas of photography they are most interested in.

It's always useful to start any research early. I'd encourage students to set up an Instagram account (and to follow our course Instagram). It's also important for students to go to exhibitions and talks as well as looking at different types of photography and image-making.

There are lots of artist talks and technical videos on YouTube that are worth watching. We live in a very visual culture and I think inspiration can be found almost everywhere. I would say, then, that students should come to our university with lots of questions in anticipation of their journey to find their own answers.

What's your favourite element about working in the School of Visual Communication?

We have highly creative students who never fail to surprise me and my team. It's great to be able to have conversations with them about photography and to see such a wide range of highly creative work being produced. These days there is a lot of emphasis on interdisciplinary working. I think the school is a perfect example of this. Our students often collaborate with other students and academics from the graphic design, illustration or fashion courses. This definitely prepares all of our students for after graduation when they will likely have to work with and learn from people from a wide range of different disciplines.