“Independent learners are interdependent learners”

In starting a blog, I didn’t really have explicit ideas about what its content or purpose – I just wanted to write things down and have an excuse to make them more than a first draft. I think for now we shall call it an open journal – a place for reflection, exploring ideas, documenting process and asking questions, as well as an exercise in discipline. Ideally, if anyone were to read it, I’d hope to spark some conversation.

Recently, this post on independent learning, where Maria Popova discusses Kio Stark’s book Don’t Go Back to School appeared in my twitter feed at a timely moment. In particular, this excerpt:

“Independent learning suggests ideas such as “self-taught,” or “autodidact.” These imply that independence means working solo. But that’s just not how it happens. People don’t learn in isolation. When I talk about independent learners, I don’t mean people learning alone. I’m talking about learning that happens independent of schools.


Anyone who really wants to learn without school has to find other people to learn with and from. That’s the open secret of learning outside of school. It’s a social act. Learning is something we do together.

Independent learners are interdependent learners.”

-Kio Stark, Don’t Go Back to School

This week I embarked on the beginnings of a new photographic venture that I’m quite excited about. I was having ideas that we making me laugh, and that seemed like a good direction to head in. So on Monday, I picked one of them to capture – I prepared some props, set up some lights, and took a bunch of shots but… it wasn’t looking right. When I loaded the images onto my computer, everything about the scene was just ‘meh’ and I couldn’t pick exactly why. Frustrating.

I really haven’t had any formal training in photography. I had had some lessons in black and white analogue photography as a teenager, but it seemed that the process of developing images in the darkroom accounted for about 80% of the lesson time. We were taught a little about things like the ‘correct’ exposure, and the rule of thirds but it was all rather mechanical, and didn’t particularly engage with what makes photography art. I remember shrugging at the time and assuming that I just didn’t ‘get’ the mysteries of photography. But in hindsight, I don’t remember being taught much if anything about artistic process, or what must surely be the crucial element of photography: LIGHT.

It wasn’t until my second year of theatre school that we were taught to properly look at light, and it took at least another year of practice and active awareness for it to begin to sink in. One of things that helped a lot was documenting interesting light in the world – an idea nicked from designer James Bedell.

Only once I’d started being able to notice and be aware of light did photography start to become a little less mysterious. As my friend and fellow LD Nicola Andrews once pointed out, all we see is light.

From there, I took matters into my own hands with some experimentation to understand other basics like the aperture/exposure relationship, focal lengths, colour temperature, etc. Eventually I taught myself to edit digital images in Photoshop using online tutorials that other photographers had posted, which did a lot to open up the process. So now, after some much-appreciated encouragement from a mentor, and having done a few more conceptual shoots between my day (night?) job and design gigs, I feel like I want to step it up a bit and work on something just a little more involved.

[The results of this I’m planning to post as a whole series once I have at least six or so images to start with. I want to head towards setting up scenarios that feel quite filmic; having a still image that evokes a mood and a hint that there might be something more going on behind the image.]

This brings me back to talking about the shoot from the other day, and considering the nature of learning. Dissatisfied with Monday’s work, I was determined to give it another try on Tuesday. I set everything back up and was glaring at it, wondering what to do, when a crucial event happened: my housemate Dustin sleepily wandered downstairs to the kitchen, where I was shooting.

Dustin and I have been living under the same roof for over a year but I’d only recently begun to bring him along on my night photography expeditions after being chided for wandering around on my own. It was initially for safety’s sake and because he was around (he tends to be a night owl anyway), but his assistance is turning out to be incredibly useful. Dustin, like me, is not long out of university, however his training was in film school. And although he wants to head mostly into the audio side of things, he has a fair amount of experience with how a camera sees light, and how to frame an image – two of the big learning curves in transitioning from live theatre to photography.

So what happened on Tuesday, was that by the time Dustin left for work, we had flipped around the entire set-up, scrapped the old lighting method, tried different fixtures, experimented with focal lengths and camera heights, and hey – ended up with something that worked a lot better.

For a little while I worried about using Dustin’s help (I overthink such things) – if he’s helping with the set-up, focus and framing, can I still call it my work?! Am I just a hack? Shouldn’t I be trying to work it out by myself?

But reading the Brainpicker post about independent learning work me up, and then Tuesday’s experience really drove it home.

Why was I worrying so much? We tried stuff out together and I was learning things from him that I didn’t know. We tossed out suggestions and talked over what was happening in the frame. He was questioning my decisions and made me think harder about what I was doing. It was giving me way better results than I would have achieved on my own (and saving some time – self-portraiture is largely a trial-and-error business).

We talked about this a few days afterwards and Dustin said something like “saying ‘two heads are better than one’ is really an understatement”, echoing one of my all-time favourite quotes:

“Through all this ordeal his root horror had been isolation, and there are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally. It may be conceded to the mathematicians that four is twice two. But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one.”

–       G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

Working with Dustin has been a completely lucky chance (we were complete strangers when he moved in). He doesn’t bat an eyelid at my strange schemes and calmly puts up with me being, well, me. And even though as a housemate he sometimes delights in annoying me, or HIDES THINGS IN THE KITCHEN, I’d be really pleased for this to evolve into some kind of creative co-conspiracy.

The idea of independent learning and what that means is an important idea for everyone, regardless of your vocation. Upon finishing our Production course at VCA (and being a little dissatisfied with elements of it), my yeargroup cheekily quoted Aristotle in our graduate book:

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

Reading books on light and theatre and art is one thing. Practising your craft as much as possible is another thing (the most important thing). But exchanging and learning with fellow creative practitioners is completely invaluable.

Unfortunately, it’s something that we can tend to take for granted during formal education. For many of us, school begins as early as 3 or 4, and we continue through different institutions until around 22 or later, and often by that point, school is all we know. Stepping into life as a freelancer from there is a rude shock. We don’t always realise at the time how valuable it is to have people just around to ask questions of, bounce ideas off or just idly chat to.

“The classroom is a wonderful, if artificial place: Your professor gets paid to pay attention to your ideas, and your classmates are paying to pay attention to your ideas. Never again in your life will you have such a captive audience.”

–       Austin Kleon, Steal Like An Artist

18 months out from finishing at VCA, I’m feeling the loss of having that strong creative cohort. Obviously I still spend time with the friends I made from uni but inevitably people are busy, or end up elsewhere to continue with their lives and careers and what is lost is the undirected time spent together in the same room. One can definitely see the appeal of forming some form of collective, especially for theatre, which is so necessarily interdependent. For me, being at heart an introvert, building a new creative cohort is slow and challenging. I miss that sense of belonging somewhere, and having the opportunity for chance encounters and a place to test ideas.

While I love photography because it gives me something I can do autonomously and with little budget, the thing I enjoy most about design is the discussion of ideas. The chance for collaboration is wonderful, and it’s also quite nice to have deadlines and a person to answer to, with a tangible outcome at the end. The two forms balance each other well for me, except perhaps for exacerbating the not-enough-time-in-the-day problem.

When you work with your peers, you’re all at different stages but you’re still all learning to do things from the ground up. My most fulfilling work is always work where a lot of conversation is happening – with directors, choreographers, designers, performers. Initiating the right conversations can be hard, and we can no longer rely on bumping into people around campus. So many great ideas come from spending undirected time together. How do we make that happen in “the real world”?

As a designer, I’ve learnt (the hard way) that attending rehearsals as much as possible can be far more valuable than it seems on the surface. Often a good deal of what happens in the rehearsal room wont’ be inherently useful to a designer (so multitasking is key here). But what it does do is put you in a room with your collaborators. And once you’re there, dialogue tends to open up more. (I’m still at the point of working gigs with people I haven’t worked with before, so this is important.) The director might share little thoughts with you as they happen. Questions can be asked. You are more involved and you unconsciously imbibe more of the feel of a piece. I really notice the difference when I work on shows and the dialogue just isn’t happening: the design suffers.

So as freelancers, how to we begin and maintain dialogues? With our would-be collaborators, with those doing what we’re doing, with people who seem to be unrelated but are doing Cool Stuff? How do we form creative peer groups and enable chance encounters?

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