Building an online community of practice around photojournalism

A large part of my time over the next year and a half is going to be devoted to a JISC funded project to trial how online collaborative tools can be used to enhance the relationship between the academic world and that of business and the community – known as BCE for short. My project is one of 9 that JISC have funded as part of their BCE programme, and will concentrate on building an online community of practice around photojournalism. The project outline is as follows:

This proposal outlines how an online community of practice for the professional photojournalism industry can be established, using web 2.0 social networking tools and live web conferencing to provide an arena to encourage serious debate about the direction of the profession. This would bring together professionals, stakeholders and interested parties ranging from individual photographers, photo agencies, large-scale news operations like the wire services, editors, consumers of images, galleries, academics and critics, educators and aspiring entrants to the profession in the form of postgraduate students and early career photographers. A global network of institutions and individuals from a range of backgrounds and interests would thus be created, which would give unparalled access for students to the highest levels of debate from industry professionals. Our experience in delivering a fully online Masters Programme in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts London (UAL) has convinced us that successful communities of practice (Wenger, 1998) can be built online that link industry professionals with students and other stakeholders, but this requires leveraging the synergies between the engagement of real time live webinars with the more reflective, analytical spaces of asynchronous tools like blogs, social networks, wikis and forums. In the initial phase, such networks need support to maintain and develop them until they gain the critical mass within an industry to become self-sustaining, ideally through the role of a community co-ordinator (Wenger etc). The development and evaluation of such a network would provide an excellent case study for the BCE programme in how to build an online community of practice around a specialised area that combines freelance practitioners, industry contacts, companies, academics and students.
The proposal presents plans to establish a virtual network centred around a series of live webinars and discussion sessions presented by leading industry professionals to an invited audience of peers, academics involved in the critical debate around images, aspiring photojournalists from the majority world, and masters level students of photography. The webinars will be delivered using the Wimba live classroom web conferencing platform, a tried and tested delivery system that is ideal for the discussion and analysis of images in an online environment. Wimba has been used by UAL as well as by hundreds of other programs in education worldwide to successfully deliver online programmes. This will be supported by a blog, shared bookmarks on Diigo, and a social networking group run on Ning, which has proven to be a stable and easy to use platform for the building of online communities, especially in education. Together, these various tools will create an open research network. Debates will take place monthly over a one-year trial period, and will seek to ask challenging questions about the future development of the industry. All the presentations will be archived and available for later viewing online. Also, as Wimba is available 24/7, rooms can be easily made available online at short notice for any other debates, discussions or working groups that might emerge organically from the network. The network will thus grow and develop over a one year period, initially under the guidance of an editorial board but then increasingly by the network itself.

Industry Context
The landscape of professional news photography and photojournalism has been transformed in the last decade by a combination of technological changes, economic developments and ethical challenges, creating an overwhelming need for the industry as a whole to debate, discuss and open dialogue both within itself but also with interested parties who engage with visual news media, a process that is difficult to undertake conventionally because of the disparate nature of the profession, spread out geographically and economically with a large number of freelance practitioners.. A discourse between the industry and the academic world is essential to both for critical engagement with the issues facing the media but also to involve those studying photography in debates about its future role in society. One need that is absolutely key is to make the forum for debate global, and to involve practitioners from the majority world as well as from the West. What follows from this is the potential of peer and collaborative learning amongst the student group, staff and external agents and industry contacts, collectively generating a ‘community of practice’ with much learning involving ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ (Lave and Wenger 1991) as those aspiring to join the profession interact and debate with established professionals.

Initial partners

The project will begin with a trial period involving a limited number of partners who already have established a ‘real world’ network, based around already established links between the UAL, the World Press Photo’s educational programme and the Drik photographic education programme in Bangladesh. This network has worked over the last 10 years to develop the skills of photojournalists in the Majority world; a programme that has brought together highly regarded and experienced practitioners with photojournalists from countries from all over the developing world. WPP has delivered training and development to hundreds of professionals in these areas, greatly building their capacity for independent journalism and enhancing the contribution they can make to civic democratic discourse in their respective countries. Together UAL, Drik and WPP have an extensive range of contacts in the industry and related areas, ranging from academics to editors, photographers to NGO’s, critics to photographic agencies. This initial network of approximately 400 students and professionals will be the starting point for the online community, and will seek to link industry, students and academics in the West with those in the Majority world, so that an interactive collaborative dialogue can be established.