Teaching Philosophy


Six simple, pragmatic premises dictate my teaching philosophy.


Teach them what they need to know today.

Ours is a business that is changing as fast as any. I feel that in my job it is imperative that I stay on top of the trends and technologies that the photographers of tomorrow will face the day after they graduate. I want them ready to walk into whatever job they find and hit the ground running. And I want that employer to say, “Wow, that kid was prepared. Somebody at that school is doing something right.” And, I want this to apply to not only the technology, but the intellectual and philosophical skills as well. Any trained monkey can run a camera. I want to create photographers that can think, see, feel and translate that into photographs that make people sit up and take notice, that communicate. And I want them to have a social conscience and a solid view of the big picture and where and how their work fits into that picture.


Teach them in a way they can learn it.

Let’s face it, we’re not Harvard. Our kids come from Jesup and Waverly, the East side of Waterloo and maybe Des Moines Dowling. And, it’s 2008. The ipod is ubiquitous, text-messaging and Guitar Hero dominate. I need to get the information they need into their hands and heads. If I can get 20 minutes of active, engaged learning in a class period, I feel like I was successful. If they’re involved, I know it’s sinking in. I listen to a sports radio talk show host who, at the end of each show, says, “What have we learned today?” My goal is to teach in a style that each student can answer that question when they leave class each day. And I try to do it in a way that lets them see I’m still excited about photography and crazy to teach them everything I know. I think that kind of passion is contagious.


Teach them how to use it.

Once I’ve got the information in their head I want them to move along, to take that information, those skills and go outside the classroom and apply them in their photography. From executing a particularly tough exposure in a difficult lighting situation to making a photograph of a particularly poignant moment that tugs at the heart strings of the viewer without infringing on the privacy of the subject, I want them to know which skills they must call on at which time and to what degree.


Teach them to understand there are further subtleties and nuances that are very important and that it is now their job to learn to discover them and push toward perfecting them.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, the father of photojournalism said “Good photography is simple. It is just a matter of putting the head, the heart and the eye in a line.” I try to impress upon my students that truly great photography stands apart not because of the capture or the content, but because of the investment and interpretation of the photographer. To understand the ramifications of moments and be able to, in a fraction of a second, translate that to pixels is an incredible skill. First, I try to teach them that you have to care, truly care, about your subjects to make honest photos. Second, that you have to see during the blinks, those rare milliseconds where everything lines up to provide the chance for a special photo that the lesser trained eye might miss. And, finally, that you have to be able execute technically, without thinking, in a zen-like fashion. To be, as they say, “in the zone.”


Teach them to read, reflect and write.

In addition to training photographers, I strive to train active thinkers. I do my best to incorporate readings about photography that are more philosophical in nature. Students are then asked to  reflect on the topics and write about their thoughts for presentation in class. The bigger issues in life are oftentimes visited in a photographic career. I feel this kind of academic work will help them be better, more organized thinkers when challenges arise in their careers and their lives.


Teach them that it is a lifelong process.

I tell my students that by the time I quit my job as a fulltime shooter, some 20 years into a career, I was just really becoming what I considered to be a good photographer. Not to discourage them, but, by way of example, to explain to them that the desire to improve should be a lifelong endeavor. A journey, not a goal. And that they should relish every moment they have the opportunity to grow intellectually and personally. I often tell them that they are embarking on a career in a field that affords them the luxury of being able to have a creative outlet and earn a living and there are not many people in the world who can say that. Embrace that. Push yourself to grow in as many ways as possible and keep an open mind and heart to all that is out there. It all contributes to being a better photographer and a better person. My mother passed away rather unexpectedly last year at the tender age of 87. I can remember during one of my last visits with her of her telling me something she had learned that day. We should all be so lucky. I try to model that passion for learning for my students.


© Dan Nierling 2012