Students say SIAST’s photography shutdown is “bogus”
by Stephen LaRose
It was the strangest photo shoot in Saskatchewan history. Two ‘models’ — actually students from the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology (SIAST) — were supposed to be on the other side of the camera, but instead, they gave the biggest workout to the settings of the reporter’s Canon digital SLR since he got the camera from his brother-in-law two years ago.
From providing a fresh battery to optimizing the settings, the session was the photographic equivalent of Red Green stumbling around on a Mike Holmes job site.
Photography is not just Erika Hodson’s and Andrea Norberg’s passion and field of expertise — it’s what they want to do for a living. The two are amongst what will probably become the last applied photography diploma graduates from SIAST’s Wascana campus, barring a massive change of heart from the institute’s executive.
On April 16, SIAST announced that it was closing the two-year course, which trains students in the photographic arts. It was one of a series of cuts SIAST announced in the wake of the provincial budget. Along with applied photography, the beef cattle production and electronic engineering certificate programs were axed, and several other programs had their class space reduced.
In a news release, SIAST senior vice-president David Walls said the cuts were necessary, and made to allocate resources to in-demand programs.
As of now, the students say, the program is supposedly under ‘administrative review’ — a process SIAST follows to make sure its courses are graduating students with the skills needed to maintain an up-to-date curriculum, but both suspect that the process is a mere formality.
Norberg says that the provincial budget — introduced in the Legislature three weeks before SIAST announced the cuts — may have played a part in SIAST’s decision, but it probably wasn’t the whole story.
Since SIAST’s administration made the announcement, its Powers That Be have made different and confusing statements as to why the program was to fade to black, say students interviewed by prairie dog.
The first reason given was that SIAST was eliminating the duplication of programs. But of SIAST’s four campuses (Palliser in Moose Jaw, Kelsey in Saskatoon and Parkland in Prince Albert as well as Wascana) Regina was the only location offering the applied photography program.
Then SIAST said the program was suffering from a low demand of students. Really?
“We’ve always had at least three times as many students apply for the program than spaces available,” says Norberg.
Hodson says that 32 applied for the eight positions last year — and prospective students were still showing up for pre-selection interviews on the day SIAST announced the cuts. The year before, 26 prospective students applied for nine positions.
The story that SIAST is sticking with — at least for now — is that the photography program hasn’t led to employment for its grads. Because businesses and newspapers aren’t hiring the program’s graduates, why should SIAST continue running a program that Saskatchewan’s business community doesn’t seem to need?
But, as Norberg points out, most of the students in SIAST’s photography program go into business for themselves.
That’s how the photography profession usually works.
Saskatchewan and federal government departments and businesses don’t keep photographers for in-house work: they hire freelancers. To that end, almost all of SIAST’s photography program’s grads will spend much of their careers self-employed. And successful.
“Two years ago, two students took the business plans they drew up as a class project, took them to banks and were able to get start-up loans,” says Norberg. “Hell, they should be using that in their recruitment campaigns: ‘SIAST students are just that smart.’”
“I would think that if they were serious about cutting the program, that they would have actively contemplated the ramifications for at least a fiscal year,” she says.
Another person who objects to SIAST’s narrow measure of success is Focus 91 owner and photographer Larry Raynard.
“The program is integral to our industry being healthy,” says the former Saskatchewan section president of Professional Photographers of Canada (PPOC).
“I think that came as a surprise (to SIAST’s administration) because David Walls met with some professional photographers after he talked to the students when he announced this,” says Raynard. “He was really surprised at the entrepreneurial aspect of photographers.
“Part of this debate comes from the fact that this [the photography diploma course] is the last arts-based program at SIAST. They’re used to turning out plumbers and welders. With the economy the way it is, as soon as plumbers and welders come out, they’ve got a job.
“It’s a lot different with photography. I last hired someone to work in my studio 12, 14 years ago. She’s still with me,” says Raynard.
“For SIAST to use the business models for our industry that they use in other industries, that doesn’t work.”
In the real world, it wouldn’t matter who’s signing the paycheques of the grads — whether they’re working for someone or working for themselves.
“But SIAST doesn’t count that,” says Norberg. “Their [SIAST’s] manner of gathering information is bogus.
“Six months after you graduate, you are sent a voluntary survey… the results are available online,” says Norberg. But the results show that only one person filled in the question.
“The survey doesn’t take into account graduates who may think it’s none of SIAST’s business how much money they’re making,” she continues. “Nor does it factor in the costs students may have in paying back a bank’s start-up loan. According to your books, you’re a failure for the first year but if you’re making enough to pay back your loan, then aren’t you doing something right as a business?”
There’s little denying that SIAST is facing some ugly budgetary considerations. In the provincial hierarchy for post-secondary funding, the University of Saskatchewan is top dog, followed by the U of Regina and First Nations University. SIAST is left with various journeymen’s apprentice programs, fighting with community colleges for the crumbs.
With Saskatchewan’s growing economy, however, its programs are in demand more than ever. The day of this interview, more than three dozen prospective students were lined up outside the main office, in a pouring cold rain, to apply to enter SIAST’s nursing program.
Norberg says SIAST’s decision illustrates a major problem within Saskatchewan society. When Saskatchewan’s business and political leaders talk about providing jobs for youth, Norberg says, they usually mean jobs in grunt labour. “And the people working in the arts are left to fend for themselves.”
Maybe in the final analysis it’s just time for young photographers to follow Saskatchewan’s time-honoured tradition and just get the hell out.
After all, there are plenty of schools that will teach them professional photography in Alberta.