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The School's Open House in 2017. Photo courtesy of SPAO.

Students can attend Ottawa’s private photography school for free this fall

By Erika Ibrahim on August 16, 2021

Aspiring local photographers rejoice: the School of the Photographic Arts in Ottawa (SPAO) is offering free tuition to all students for the upcoming fall semester.

This bold new step was taken for a number of reasons, says creative director Jonathan Hobin. “I think a lot of people have been reflecting on what coming back to life is going to be,” he says. “You get an opportunity to sort of ‘re-debut,’ in a way.”

To help cultivate a burgeoning arts community in the city, the school will also be offering bursaries that cover the two-year duration of the program for students in financial need, with special priority for those from marginalized communities.

Hobin says the move in part was made to signal to the Ottawa community that the school is ready to resume, and “that we’re ready to turn the corner on the pandemic, at least when it comes to arts education.”

SPAO Creative Director Jonathan Hobin and Roger Ballen’s 2010 photograph Threat from the Asylum of the Birds series. Photo by Danny Globerman.

He cites another reason for the decision. “A lot of people refer to the pandemic as being the great equalizer, which is absolutely absurd,” says Hobin. “Because it really was the people who are coming from less stable financial footing that carried the major burden of it.”

He says that in the school’s effort to critically “reimagine who we are and what we really want it to be,” they looked at the greater arts community in the city. “We just felt like there might be some people left behind here,” says Hobin, explaining that he and his team noticed a discrepancy between the people attending the school’s events and those enrolled as students.

Guest Lecture in SPAO Studio. Photo courtesy of SPAO.

“We might have a diverse audience,” he says, but given that financial costs to attend school may pose barriers for many groups, “it doesn’t mean that everyone can participate.”

Since the SPAO is a private school with their operations self-funded, dipping into their financial reserves to offer these programs free of charge may seem like a risky move. “Even though we are a vulnerable, small arts institution and a charity, it doesn’t mean that we’re off the hook from taking a leadership position,” Hobin says.

“We’re still in the hustle,” says Hobin. “A lot of people would use that as an excuse not to do what we’re doing or say that it’s for big organizations to figure out this stuff. But I don’t know if that’s true, or is that just an excuse?”

“I just think that this is the year we’re reevaluating a bunch of things. And this whole year has been about risk-taking,” he adds.

Hobin says the school also recognizes that in order to engage different parts of society to take part in the artistic life of the city, they have to take longer-term action.

“We realize if you want representation from any marginalized group, including the Black community, you have to start planting those seeds well in advance and nurture that,” he says, adding that those tangible gestures are more valuable since photography classes and resources in high schools have been limited due to budget cuts.

Addressing prospective students who might be on the fence, Hobin says, “If you ever thought about doing it, now is the year to apply for sure.”


The deadline to apply for the upcoming fall semester is Aug. 24.