Celebrating the class of 2021 in print

With end-of-year shows cancelled due to Covid-19, arts students struggled to find ways to promote themselves. Here's how Canon's Class of 2021 project reinvigorated the creative graduate experience.
A young woman holds up printed A5 postcards featuring her profile and examples of her work. Behind her is a brick wall covered in framed black and white prints.

Emma Bentley was one of many students who graduated during the pandemic with limited opportunities to showcase their work. Getting involved with the Class of 2021 project meant she had a personalised postcard pack to share with prospective employers. She says the experience has changed her whole outlook: "When I find things to do online now, I'll just put myself forward – because I feel like that's where you can really find opportunities." © Horst Friedrichs

Covid-19 lockdowns had a terrible impact on student creatives, with the opportunity to collaborate effectively and in person largely taken away from their university experience. An environment of video chats, email attachments and online collaboration replaced tangible human experiences, with the pandemic also largely putting a stop to student end-of-year shows. Students normally rely on these shows to present their work, network and formally dive into the hiring pool. Most didn't happen over the past two years, while those that did were limited in their capacity and scope.

In a bid to counteract this creative anticlimax and help give students a more appropriate platform for their hard work, Canon teamed up with global media network, The Drum. Canon and The Drum invited students across the UK to submit work and take part in the scheme, which saw a broad range of student art gathered, printed and shared in a virtual exhibition, the Class of 2021.

Matching their printing expertise with The Drum's networking power, Canon aimed to reinvigorate the student graduate experience and get students excited about print as an effective medium again. Each of the 65 students who took part in the project received a pack of printed A5 postcards featuring a headshot and introduction, and four examples of their work. A few of the students were also invited to take part in a limited physical exhibition, introduced by presenter and reporter Richard Askam (who also moderated Canon's 2021 Future Promotion Forum).

Here, we find out how this collaboration helped celebrate and promote the students of lockdown.

Watch part 1 about the collaboration between Canon and The Drum in ‘The Making of Class of 2021’ here.

The power of print

In 2021, Emma Bentley was studying for an advertising BA at the University of Gloucestershire, UK. She loved her creative course, but became increasingly concerned as it came to an end in the middle of the Covid-19 lockdowns. "It was just really hard to be creative in those times – you couldn't even have your design partner in the same room," she explains.

Young creatives have to hustle to get noticed. Emma says they had been taught at university to turn up at agencies and do "stunts" – but now the best they could manage was a phone call or email. Getting work in front of people seemed like an alien concept. "We had to digitise everything and as a result we lost that really visceral feeling that print can bring to your work," she says.

Two people leaning in to look at the back of a Canon camera.

Studying photography or film?

Canon's Future Focus connects photography and filmmaking students to the professional community.

Emma says the uncertainty around whether or not her end-of-year show would happen made it extremely difficult to prepare an inspiring and creative end to her course that might pique the interest of potential employers. The only certainty was that there would be no printed portfolios to share.

"Normally, you'd have your portfolio at the exhibition and you'd be able to hold it and show it to people," she says. "But the university said to us, there's no way you can have physical things for people to touch because of Covid-19 – so everything was accessed digitally through QR codes."

Beyond the shows, this approach presented financial problems for many graduates hunting for work. Whereas the university would usually cover the cost of printing portfolios, the students found themselves having to pay for printing and even for setting up online portfolios themselves. "I feel like students do struggle," Emma says. "It's really hard to get opportunities, especially when you come from certain backgrounds and have financial issues."

Presenter and reporter Richard Askam stands in front of an exhibition wall, which shows a selection of printed artwork and text.

Sports presenter and BBC reporter Richard Askam introducing the Class of 2021 exhibition. "The idea of personalised print is something very special to the students – they found it unique," says Canon Europe's business development lead and print expert and enthusiast, Cathy Bittner, who worked closely with the 65 students taking part in the project.

Bridging the gaps

The Class of 2021 project supported the students by enabling them to upload their work to a digital hub, which was shared with people working in the creative industries. Alongside the virtual exhibition, Canon also used its vast printing expertise to produce full-colour, glossy personalised postcard packs for each of the students to show to employers as soon as restrictions allowed.

Cathy Bittner is the business development lead for Canon's print endeavours in Europe. Her role is all about bridging the gaps between creatives and Canon print tech, demonstrating to clients and sectors how advancements in print can help them to progress. This made her the perfect person to work hand in hand with the Class of 2021 project.

"It was amazing to see that print was such a new concept to the students," says Cathy. "They could use this postcard pack as a kind of a business card to show somebody something tangible."

"For creatives, a nicely printed portfolio pack is the perfect thing to take with you," adds Emma. "Potential employers recognise the Canon branding, so it's definitely a good talking point."

As well as their invaluable practical application, the postcard packs also represented a fitting celebration of and culmination to the students' hard work. "Having something physically to hand, being able to show my mum, even, made me feel so proud of my work," explains Emma. "Anyone I've shown my Canon exhibition pack to has been amazed, it's such a huge brand name and the concept is lovely and supportive, so anyone that's seen it has been impressed. To have brands that want to support students and see them thrive, I think that's incredible."

A piece of artwork by student Matilde Merli, printed onto a round piece of stone and mounted on an exhibition wall.

The physical Class of 2021 exhibition included prints on plexiglass, corrugated card and more, using the Canon Arizona flatbed series of printers. This striking piece by student Matilde Merli is even printed onto stone.

Several prints of art pieces by student Matilde Merli, mounted on an exhibition wall with a quote that reads: "Print catches people off-guard".

"In a world where everything is digital, brands are always trying to say, 'How can I bring some kind of a tangible aspect into it?'" says Cathy. These works by Matilde Merli are created using a combination of digital collages and craft painting.

The physical exhibition

Canon also worked with some of the Class of 2021 students and a Canon printing expert in Munich to produce physical prints using the Canon Arizona flatbed series. This was an exciting opportunity to see how far creative boundaries could be pushed with the printing process itself.

"Canon machines are quite amazing now, because they can print on all kinds of substrates," explains Cathy. "So we printed on stone, on corrugated cardboard... we even printed on plexiglass. Our print service provider was able to consult with us on the best substrates to choose from. We took the students' work as digital files and we were able to bring them to life with print."

Three portraits on a gallery wall. The one closest to the camera shows an androgynous person wearing heavy make-up and laughing.

Getting creative with print

Fashion and portrait photographer Wanda Martin talks about the process of staging a solo exhibition and how she used different Canon printers for contrasting visual outcomes.
A young woman sits at a desk with a Canon EOS R6 next to her and some black and white photographs in frames on the wall behind her.

As part of the Class of 2021 project, Emma took part in a workshop with renowned portrait photographer Horst Friedrichs. "I feel like I'll always be able to use photography now for advertising research and concept work," she says. © Horst Friedrichs

Seizing fresh opportunities

Following the Class of 2021 project, Emma was selected to take part in a two-day photography workshop with prestigious portrait photographer Horst Friedrichs, using a Canon EOS R6. Horst showed Emma landscape skills, street photography and even took her along to a shoot of his own, giving Emma a chance to see how Canon could help her in her career as a brand strategist.

Having had time to reflect on the experience, Emma can already see how it might impact her approach to advertising strategy. Beyond the technical skills, Emma says having time with a seasoned professional who has spent years photographing subcultures in intimate environments was a great lesson in social nuance and approachability.

"I think brand strategists tend to get stuck in a bubble. It's good to go outside and talk to people – because it's people that we advertise to," says Emma. "I feel like going out with a camera, taking portraits and talking to people from different walks of life would make a really nice research series."

In terms of her career, the Class of 2021 initiative has boosted Emma's confidence in selling herself to employers and embracing opportunities. "It just really shows – get involved in things, because you never know what's going to happen from it," Emma concludes. "I've met so many amazing people, and now I've locked in connections with Canon – crazy!"

Related articles

Get the newsletter

Click here to get inspiring stories and exciting news from Canon Europe Pro