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Jim Lowe is and has been, for the last number of years, the main arbiter of photographic quality in Europe. He has established and supervised a Quality System upon which the qualifications offered by the Federation of European Photographers are based.President of the Federation of European Photographers
Jim Lowe is a senior lecturer and co-ordinator of the Marine & Natural History Photography BA (Hons) course at Falmouth University. He is also a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Here he talks about his journey from professional photography to overseeing one of the most prestigious courses in its field anywhere in the world. My background is in photography. I’ve been a professional photographer for 40 years with my own studio just outside Bath in a place called Melksham. I also used to be chief photographer for the Westinghouse manufacturing company. That was based in Chippenham but it involved travelling around the world doing engineering photography. However, my real passion was actually architectural photography. I’d published a book called Architectural Photography: Inside and Out and was friends with a man called David Matthews having both been members of the British Institute of Professional Photography. David saw the book and called me up to say he’d just started a BA course in Marine & Natural History Photography down in Falmouth. This was back in 2007. The second year of the course involved students getting together in groups to work on interiors, building sets to work around. Because my book included architectural interiors, David had spotted an opportunity and asked if I wanted to come down. So I did. And it went very well. I found that I liked students and I liked teaching. It was all about the next generation, putting 40 years of experience back in so that people could learn from my mistakes! I also realised very quickly that a lot of them were really talented. It was David who started the Marine and Natural History Photography course. Initially there were some teething problems during the early stages, after which I was asked if I’d take over running it. To cut a long story short I could see what the troubles were and set about changing how things were done. I had a vision of what I wanted to achieve, but in all honesty we’ve gone way above and beyond that. The course is unique. There’s nothing quite like it in the whole of Europe and as a result we attract students from all over the world, not just the UK. We currently have a woman from Peru, a man from Colombia and two Americans with us while I’ve recently interviewed people from Romania, Bulgaria, France and Germany. What we tend to get is people who want to use the photography and film making skills that they learn on the course to highlight messages about conservation, ecology, biodiversity and global warming. They are passionate about what’s happening in the world. Our biggest recruiter, I guess, is the BBC’s David Attenborough films. Young people see them and are inspired. You hear that the next generation doesn’t care – well let me tell you, they do. They want to do something. They’ve got an interest in photography but they don’t want to do weddings or portraits. They want to do something with it. We get people who are into conservation who come onto the course to learn how to spread the message through the basics of photography and film making. The ethos of the course is ‘Know your subject’. For instance, you can’t go underwater and move your camera about if you haven’t got a clue what you’re going to film and photograph. You can’t go into Hyde Park in August looking for daffodils because they won’t be there. So we cover everything – global conservation, global warming, habitats, ecology, the kind of world they want to go into. Not all of our students end up in a marine or natural history workplace, but a lot do. We have alumni at all sorts of organisations from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds to the BBC. In fact we have cameramen, a producer and researchers who came through here working at the BBC on projects such as the latest Planet Earth series. That makes me immensely proud. So too does our National Student Survey scores which last year were up to 92%. When potential students sit their interviews they give all sorts of reasons why they’d like to come and study here. Some say they want to save the world, some that they want to work at National Geographic, some that they want to work at the BBC….and I say ‘OK, that’s do-able’. But one girl said ‘Because of your reputation’. That really got to me. You think ‘We’ve done it, we’re getting there’. Of course that will only carry on if the quality of the students we’re turning out is high. That’s the challenge. But to me that moment was a major milestone. It was David Matthews when I first came to Falmouth who encouraged me to explore my academic side. The university was running a post-graduate degree in higher education, and he said ‘You should think about doing that’. I never really rated myself as an academic. I thought of myself as a professional, although my daughter has a Masters degree so that in part made me think ‘There’s something in here somewhere’. I met colleagues from other courses at Falmouth, got very friendly with some of them, and I found that I enjoyed what you might call the academic environment. So I graduated, then did the post-graduate diploma, and after that an MA in Education and Creative Academic Practice with my dissertation being on visual plagiarism – the stealing of work such as photography by others. I was completely out of my comfort zone but it was inspiring. That’s how the HEA came onto my radar. Many of my colleagues either knew about the Academy or were Fellows themselves, so their enthusiasm rubbed off on me. Our team is a very good team and we tend to work very well together. We’ve all got strengths and weaknesses and that sharing of ideas and good practice, the kind of thing that’s at the heart of the HEA, is key. Ultimately we put the students first – that’s our mindset. We all want our courses to succeed. At the end of the day we must be doing something right, otherwise we wouldn’t have got that 92% NSS score!