Thesis Orals Update (On Success and Failure)

This past Saturday, I spent 20-30 minutes in front of a panel of three SVA faculty members discussing my thesis project. The work I presented was part photography book, part audio-video piece. I intended for the photography book to convey ideas that the audio-video piece (on a dvd inserted into the book) would then contradict. The oral defense was much tougher than I had imagined and I was much more nervous going into the defense than I had thought I would be. The 48 hours waiting to receive the decision were nerve-racking. I had defended the work to the best of my ability. I’ve talked about my work many times before in various settings but never in such an intense fashion.

Monday afternoon I received a letter from the department which included the following:

You have now engaged the first step of your thesis defense the orals. The department believes that this is an event that is designed to prepare you for future defenses of your work as a creative image-maker. Please know that while this may have been an arduous and trying process, it is one that has been conducted with your greatest interest at heart and with a remarkable objectivity and knowledge of a dedicated and caring faculty.

The faculty wholeheartedly believes in you and your ambitions. Indeed, we are moved by your decision to engage a whole new perspective on your traditional photographic talents. This was a bold move. The panel did, however, note a few issues, which they feel could be better addressed to a second panel on April 22nd. They feel that in addressing the following concerns, you will bring this project to maturity. classic . They are sure that by doing this you will be on a positive track to complete for this semester. You should understand that this will be a new panel of faculty, who are kindly disposed to helping you in every way. You should not see this negatively in the least. We feel that the ideas presented in your work are complex and can be better represented with a little more work. Use this opportunity to better connect the various aspects of your project.

Please consider the following:

  • The images were well done, with a clear idea and sense of subject, but did not represent the ideas presented in the paper. The paper needs to better present your intention, but also serve as a provocative counterpart to these beautiful and seductive images.
  • There was concern about the audio aspect of your project. It seemed disconnected from the piece, and was too radio. Those ideas may be better expressed as text.
  • The disconnect between the pictorial qualities of the photographs and the ultimate political considerations needs to become a more cogent experience for the audience. How do you get them to put those things together in an experience of the work that leaves them questioning the conditions of our environment?

The time before the second presentation should be used to address issues raised by the committee, to discuss your project with your advisor, thesis faculty and myself, and to work out the inconsistencies that are in question. Your fullest engagement in your thesis in these remaining weeks should allow you to successfully complete your final presentation and proceed accordingly.


My initial reactions were of frustration, anger and disappointment. I put a lot of time, energy and thought into my project and I felt I held my ground in the oral defense. As I heard from other classmates about who had to represent and who didn’t, I was only more frustrated. 16 students in our class of about 40 were asked to represent. Some students who I thought had wonderful work had to represent. And if I’m being honest, I was surprised too by a few students who were not asked to represent. I felt the process was totally subjective. What if I had presented to one of the five other panels? What if I had presented after a different student? What if I had presented first? Or last? What if…

Well…the thing is, the panel was right. After talking to classmates and faculty and some heavy introspection, I realized that the panel had been objective and considered my work within the context that I had presented it. Given that context and my claimed intention, the project was flawed.

Maybe a different panel would have passed the project, but that would have been my loss.The realizations that I’ve had as a result of the oral defense and being asked to represent have been some of the most profound that I have had in the two amazing years I’ve spent in the MFA program.

Click here to view the embedded video.

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