Located on the east coast of the Jutland peninsula of Denmark, The Danish School of Media and Journalism has only two on-staff instructors and an array of industry professionals - and it produces more award-winning photojournalists than any other college of journalism. So what is about this small Danish photography institution that sets it apart from the rest. Bill Kouwenhoven offers a personal insight.
As they move along in the third and fourth years, the students work on individual projects and are apprenticed to various newspapers around the country, whether for the national papers or for the local free papers such as Metro, where they pursue their own stories in a workplace environment. However, they return every few weeks for group critiques and consultations.
International student Claudia Gori describes the galvanising effect this has had on her: “The multiple deadlines that drive you apparently crazy are actually a good training to the real world. More than that is learning to work in team. The sharing process, not only in the ideas but also in the actual work, is a very important part in almost every workshop at the school, and I discovered how important it is to compare your ideas with your colleagues to make them clearer and stronger.”
Posselt echoes this sense of intimacy that both offers a supportive environment and inspires students to hone their thoughts and approaches to storytelling. “We got to know each other well, both in the class and between the classes,” she says. “On our first day, Mads Greve told us that now we have started an education for a potentially tough business, and he wanted to underline the fact that the classes where the students stick together, are good friends and help each other, are the classes that produce the best and most successful photographers.”
She continues, “I have the feeling that that insight has influenced our whole photojournalism community in Denmark, both the atmosphere at the school and after graduation. We were schooled to regard each other as friends and colleagues, not as competitors. That is a very unique and essential thing, in my opinion. If we share and inspire each other, we all become stronger and happier.”
It also makes them better photographers who are determined to sink their teeth into their own stories in their own ways or, as Posselt concludes, at the school “there is not a preferred style or way of doing things: You are allowed to speak the visual language you want.” Posselt won a World Press Photo award for a long-term project on child beauty pageants in the American South with her graduate thesis.
Beyond the four-year BA programme, the school offers two intense semesters conducted in English for international students. Students work in similarly small groups of four that mix countries and cultures because, as Pagter says, “it creates so many discussions and cultural debates”. Exchanges might pair Iranians and Germans or Italian and Egyptians or Americans and Bangladeshis. Over the course of the semester, the students learn a great deal of cultural awareness, other ways of seeing, and obviously, more contacts around the globe.
The international programme, naturally, can also pick the best and most motivated students. Pagter and Greve “try to create a sense of pride in being in Aarhus” and a feeling of being a part of a great team with a sort of “self-propagating esprit du corps” that builds on passion for photojournalism, strength of vision, and self-responsibility.
Guest lecturers, who also may offer individual workshops during the regular BA programme, have included Kent Klich, another World Press Photo winner, Pieter ten Hoopen, Anders Pedersen, J.H. Engstrom, Alixandra Fazzina, Nina Korhonen, and former student Laerke Posselt, among others.
Klich, who focuses on the passionate side of engaged story telling as seen in his long term projects on a recovering heroin addict and the on-going humanitarian crisis in Gaza, notes “Some of the things that make this school special is the way Søren and Mads create an ambiance where everyone is accepted. They understand that creativity is a risk taking, there are no, ”not so good”, results but rather experiences which are necessary for both personal and photographic growth.” Risk taking” as well as “personal and photographic growth” are the touchstones of these intense semesters.