GPP 2014 is getting close and I’ll be teaching 3 different workshop there (a hands-on and quite intensive class on portraiture, one on self portrait, one on mixed media).
I’m extremely excited about this and in the last few weeks I’ve been working hard on making sure I make the guys at GPP proud and give the students my best, and after e-mailing back and forth with a photographer friend about “what makes a workshop worth attending?”, I decided this was a subject worth talking about.
I’m mainly self taught when it comes to photography, which was great: it gave me the freedom to explore the medium without fear of “doing something wrong”. When you don’t know there are rules, you can just try and fail until you discover stuff by yourself and make this knowledge your own (only to find out everybody and their mum already knew and they look at you weird because “being over excited about the fact that if you want a white background you need to light it separately from the subject”, is not that big of a deal apparently).
But then in 2002 I got to attend RISD as an exchange student and it was so overwhelmingly awesome: I realized that having a teacher could propel me into doing things way faster and way better and when I got back I started taking photography workshops whenever I could.
Here’s what I learned:
1. A workshop is not a photography course. It’s short and intense and you don’t get to really grow within its duration. You are not going to be a better photographer because you heard a great photographer speak: as much as I wanted to, photography is not transmitted via osmosis nor diffusion1. This means at the end of the day you need to go back to your little studio/room/burrow and start putting what you learned into practice as if your life depends on it, otherwise you’ll just forget it but (and this is the sucky part) you’ll still think you know it, because you remember sitting in that class.
2. Pick what’s best for you and not what’s available or cool. There’s a bazillion workshops out there. Some are cheap, some are insanely expensive. Some are one day long, some last a whole week. Some are held by rockstar photographers, some are taught by people whose name you never heard. How do you choose your next workshop? My rule of thumb is: select something that might help you with what you are struggling with *right now*. Are you constantly screwing up your exposure when you’re working with strobes? Are you good at lighting stuff but you freeze in front of a human being? Do you feel like there’s more to photography than technique, but you can’t seem to figure out how to add meaning to your images? Use this as a compass to look for the best workshop for you, because then you’ll have questions in need of an answer, which brings me to my next point…
3. Have at least one or two specific questions before you step into the room. Stress on specific. You can’t reach a goal unless it’s defined and measurable. “I want to take better pictures” is a crap goal for a workshop: how will you know if they are better? Or better enough to justify the cost of the workshop? A better goal would be something like “I want to learn where to place my main light, because all of my portraits seem to have weird shadows and that pisses me off so much I want to punch the model in the face and since I’m a kid photographer, this might be a problem”2. Pick the workshop that seems to give you a better shot at figuring this out (e.g. in the example I used, NOT a class on storytelling). If the teacher is not addressing that specific question, ask it. Believe me, it’s not going to kill you.
Choosing a workshop because it’s available and looks cool is like the old joke about the drunk dude looking for his car keys under the street light, not because he lost his keys there, but because it’s better lit.
4. Research the teacher. If you are taking a class on fashion photography and the photographer teaching it does not shoot fashion, never published a single photo in a fashion magazine and all the photos in his portfolio are definitely not something you’d see in a fashion magazine… well… do I need to go on?
A lot of photographers in the last few years started teaching workshops as if they were ATM machines: you get a pretty girl in skimpy clothes, place a couple of lights and lure guys with cameras willing to spend money to post photos of a pretty girl in skimpy clothes on flickr and get a lot of likes from their friends. I’m not judging (too much), but if you spend thousands of dollars in this kind of education and you don’t seem to get more clients, it might not be the recession3.
Also, if the teacher is someone you loathe, does not share your values, has a sense of humor that offends you, you might want to give your money to someone else. If you are considering taking one of my classes at GPP, you might want to read my series on photographing people I wrote on strobist first, or read a couple of interviews that might give you an idea on how my head works. If you read italian, hop over to my blog: most of my stuff is there.
I’m completely fine with people thinking I suck, I’m less fine with them wasting their time to listen to me talk: remember that you could use the same time (and probably less money) to hire a model or rent some gear you want to test and shoot one-to-one for the whole day and you would learn a lot from that.
On the other hand, if you’re enrolling in one of my GPP classes because Heisler’s are filled up and you plan to stalk him the whole week and need an excuse to be there, I totally support that. Let me suggest one of the one day classes (less money, more stalking time) and remember he likes a skinny latte with 2 fake sugars in it.
5. On taking pictures. Some workshops give students shooting time, some others are more “show and tell”. There are advantages to both formats.
If the workshop you are attending is one of those where the teacher demos how he/she works, use the camera to take notes, if you need to, but don’t be the one shooting from behind the teacher’s shoulder to get a photo “for your portfolio”. That’s just ridiculous. First, that’s not your photo: it’s like photographing a photograph and claiming it as your own. I know appropriation played a significant role in art, and I find Jon Rafman’s 9 eyes project brilliant and poetic4, but what makes it different is the intention. Always have intention when operating a camera. Also, you have paid good money to watch this person work, and you’re spending your time snapping bad photos of the model. That’s not super-clever.
On the other hand, when you are given shooting time use it, milk it, make the best of it. Aim to fail: try stuff you saw or heard during the lecture or demonstration and don’t care about not getting the perfect shot. You are not there to impress the teacher nor your classmates, you’ll most likely never see those people again in your life. As a matter of fact, if you’re not screwing something up, you’re most likely just doing what you already knew how to do. Remember why you are there.
6. Go home and start working. I am the nerdy type, so I take a lot of notes, but I also bring a separate piece of paper to class to write down ideas for stuff I want to try. It might be something technical, like “place a beauty dish in front of a softbox, same axis” (thanks, Heisler) or something that might make little sense to the passerby, such as “birds hair”.
As soon as I go home, before normal life sucks the enthusiasm out of me, I start planning to make these notes happen. I make appointments with myself, as if I was a client, and I test out stuff.
At the end of the day, a workshop can be a great tool to propel yourself, but can also be a great excuse to postpone the actual work (I can’t take photos because I still don’t know everything there is to know about photography). A lot of people seem to be waiting for someone to put the hand on their shoulder and tell them “you are ready know, here’s a bucket full of money” and that’s just never going to happen. If what you need is the permission to be a photographer, here: have mine. Go take photos.
This is going to sound super random, but it’s one of those days.
I am obsessed with words, and especially words that can’t be completely translated into another language. Coming from the Venice area, I have a very specific word to define the smell that sometimes is left on washed dishes (or hands) when they came in contact with fish or eggs (“freschìn”, in case you’re wondering).
Having a word to define something this specific is enriching.
Or “Sobremesa” in spanish, which is the time you spend chatting to people after lunch or dinner, the brazillian’s “saudade”, l’esprit de l’escalier” in french (which is when you think of the perfect retort too late).
One of my favorite is the japanese “Komorebi”, which is sunlight filtering through the leaves of trees. I love the fact that there’s a specific name for it. The Japanese word “wabi-sabi” (as as “a way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and accepting peacefully the natural cycle of growth and decay”) is my most vivid memory from a weird class on traditional japanese aesthetic I took at RISD during spring break.
And I’m sure guilty of my good share of “Schadenfreude” (in german, a feeling of enjoyment that comes from seeing or hearing about the troubles of other people), but knowing that it’s a feeling common enough to have its own word makes it a shared experience, it becomes less terrible.
This, to me , is interesting from a photographic perspective.
See, I can smell my hands after washing dishes and think “ew, spusa de freschin!”1 and define something in a very specific way, some other person might just think that something smells off, unable to give a name to it. And I’m pretty sure in the same way when I look at the world around me there are things I see and recognize because they are part of my visual language and things I can perceive without being able to actually “see” them, because I have no way to define them yet.
That’s probably why two people in the same place, at the same time, with the same camera, will go home with two different photos. That’s why I’m completely fascinated by photography that I don’t get, when I sense there’s a meaning to it.
Sometimes I find an image that finally defines a very specific feeling I didn’t know I could feel, and that makes me incredibly happy.
Why I woke up thinking about this, I don’t know. Brainfarts, I guess.
Every now and then I run into a photographic project that’s not just “witty” or “cool”, but that seem to resonate a little bit deeper.
That’s what happened when I came across german photographer Kai Wiedenhofer’s work, Wall on Wall.
Based in Berlin, Kai’s work had definitely not gone unnoticed (Leica Medal of Excellence, the Alexia Grant for World Peace and Cultural Understanding, World Press Photo Awards, Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award…).
The exhibition, consists of 30 panoramic photographs of the Israeli security wall, but also includes images of the border barriers between the United States and Mexico and Northern Ireland’s religious communities. For seven years Kai travelled the world depicting the effects of border walls on the communities on both sides of these barriers, working with a vintage Fuji GX617 on a tripod (a very different way of approaching a scene, compared to what we usually see when we think “photojournalist”)
“Border walls are not a solution to political problems,” said Wiedenhoefer. “The UN said border walls are illegal. People need to take notice of this.”
Wiedehhoefer is hoping to attach his striking images to the East Side Gallery, a section of the Berlin Wall running along the Spree River. The exhibition will be open for two months, in July and August 2013, and will be open for free to everybody 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is expected that more than 200.000 people will visit that stretch of the Berlin Wall in the central months of the summer.
You can help him to do it by donating to his kickstarted campaign (only 6 days left!) or linking to it.
And even if you don’t care about the exhibition, I’d suggest just taking advantage of the campaign and getting the book: I got a preview of it during a skype call with Kai and it’s definitely something I’ll be happy to have in my library.
As a commercial photographer, there’s always something fascinating behind a project like this, something you do because you think it’s worth saying rather than because someone commissioned you the job. The questions I asked were mainly things I was curious about myself.
Naco, Arizona, USA
Q: Can you imagine a situation in which a wall would make sense?
A: If I get a show! (laughs) I’m joking, you mean a political situation? The basic idea to solve a conflict with a wall doesn’t make sense because it doesn’t show you what’s behind it. The idea you form about the people on the other side, if you don’t get to see them, just blows out of proportions, it has nothing to do with reality. And this makes the solution of a conflict much more difficult
Q: How much being from Berlin influenced your choice of subject?
A: It’s our legacy. The fall of the Berlin Wall, if you think about it, is the only german revolution that ever worked and it was completely peaceful, so I think it’s something people could be very proud of.
Nazlat 'Isa, Palestinian Territories
Q: How seeing the enlarged photos on the wall would be different than seeing them in a book?
A: the camera was specifically chosen because I knew I could make really big enlargements, the nature of this project is really big and I wanted to transport this feeling of greatness. And in a time in which photoshop is so widely used I think it was important to pay attention to the medium you use to transport the images. The photos will not be exactly life size, since every wall has different proportion, but it’s going to be easier to get a sense of the scale
Q: Did you ever feel like you were in danger, working on this project?
A: I was very familiar with the situation in Israel, it’s almost routine for me, it’s probably like waking up and going to work in your studio, for you. I lived in Gaza in ’93 and ’94.
It’s not always the same everywhere of course, in Bagdad you can’t stay long in the place, you always have to cruise around. You can’t be in the same place more than 20 minutes. There I rode with a guy ’cause I wasn’t familiar with the security situation.
In Korea I had a translator, ’cause english will not get you very far with the korean army.
You learn to read the air after a while.
In the american border I had a couple of bad encounters with the board patrol, but it was usually fine. I would usually tell them in advance who I was and that I had already talked to their PR person and what I was doing, it was mostly ok.
Melilla, Spain - Morocco
Q: Did it ever happen that you didn’t feel like you had the photo you had in mind?
A: It happened all the time!
For example there is this little village in the north of Wes Bank and when they built the wall they moved a lot of the olive trees. The palestinian would take these huge olive trees out of the ground and they’d try to rebury them somewhere else. And there was this one guy, he got a probably 2000 years old olive tree that was huge and place it in his garden, probably 5 meters from the wall. I wanted to photograph it, I think I was back there 6 times. It’s really a long drive and you have to go through several checkpoints and I never got the photo I wanted, not once. I was back there again in 2009 and the olive tree wasn’t able to settle down and had died. So there goes my photo. He eventually put some fancy painting up there, and that turned out to be a good picture, but that’s definitely different from what I had in mind.
Q: Do you work with what you find? How much planning goes into finding the shot?
A: Basically you look for places, you shoot them early in the morning, eat something, scout around and that work again in the afternoon. Very rarely you shoot in the middle of the day, usually only if it’s something very far and it’s not worth going back in a different moment. Or if security issues come along, for example working in the US- mexican border in the evening.
There was something my fixer said in Iraq: better life than light. It’s a good point.
Q: There a subtlety in your photos I really appreciate. I can see you point of view, but it’s not too blatant, you leave something to the viewer. Do you think it’s possible to be objective when you shoot? Do you even care?
A: You have to have a position, especially with a project like that.
Now the game is over. If you do reportage you need to have a point of view when you approach a situation. “Being there” is just not enough. You can look at youtube videos from Syria, they’re… let’s say unbelievable. Cameras are everywhere: what would you want to do there, as a photographer? You’re always going to be 10th in place, beaten by a fighter running around with a camera, even if technically they’re not interesting images: they’re just about being there and capturing the moment. So us photographer need to completely reschedule and think about what we’re doing.
I’ve been saying that since the first digital cameras came out.
Belfast - Peace lines
Q: Do you think photography still matters? That it can change the way people look at the world?
A: Photography can show you something and give you something to think about, but it’s still not going to change anything in itself.
Q: Then why do it? What drives you?
A: It’s a way of living. It’s how I experience the world. It’s basically how I can explain and put together things that are happening in the world. And it’s something you do firsthand. I don’t think there’s a separation between the person behind the camera and what’s happening in front of them. Photographing something shapes the way you think, it changes the point of you about what happens at home once you go back, about what actually matters.
Q: Why did you decide to use kickstarter to fund this project?
It has mostly to do with how traditional funding works compared to the potential of the Internet.
Now we have the permission to do this exhibition from the local municipality but the senate of Berlin was running against the exhibition, so next year we might not be able to do it. We have to do it now and if you go to foundations, they usually need to wait the end of the year to decide who to give the money to. It just couldn’t happen the traditional way. I’m not sure we’ll be able to reach the goal, but it’s well worth a try.
(And since I want to get my book, I strongly suggest you help)