Magnum Workshop Lessons (Illustrated): Shooting How It Feels, Not What It Looks Like

As I've been looking back through old images, I've found a pair that I think would make for a good example of what I've learned through the workshop I did in Tokyo with Magnum/David Alan Harvey. I'll just put them below and let you take a look at them first, and then tell you what I think after. 20150609-L8904861 Kyrgyzstan

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When I did the initial edit of my work from Kyrgyzstan, I chose the first image over the second, simply because the horse being cut off in the corner of the frame really bothered me in the latter photo. I seem to remember thinking at the time "it's not perfect, therefore cut it".

This workshop has really made me reconsider how I select my work. I realized not long after Kyrgyzstan that I have a really hard bend towards "perfect" composition when I shoot. As someone who is highly left brained, and had up until this point been unable to accept anything other than frames that balanced well geometrically, I had been choosing images largely based on composition first. Rule of thirds. Shapes inside the framelines. Level horizons. If it can't be fixed with a crop or rotation, toss it. However with photographs of people I find that emotion is ultimately what makes for a better photo, and that was something that I became even more aware of as the week progressed in Tokyo.

To my eyes, the second image is definitely more emotive and complex; it really grabs my attention much more than the first. Everything from the horses head driving into the snow, to the shepherds leaning into the wind, to the snow moving more right to left, communicates on a much deeper level just how rough it can be out there in the mountains as a shepherd. I feel like this image really is a better moment, and although the physical composition of the first photo is more even and balanced (what I was initially using as my criteria for a good image), it's boring in a lot of ways.

Evaluating how good a photo is really is a tricky subject. I realized in Tokyo that I had been evaluating my images based on how they looked, rather than how they felt. My left brain was grasping for something concrete and obvious to quantify the quality of the image. I grasped composition first, because it was easier to make tangible.

But in the end, that's not what photography is really all about, is it? It's ultimately about what we feel when we look at the image, not just what we see. And that small nuance is what to me separates the two images at the top of the page. The second one has a much more complex and emotive feel to it than the first, something that transcends the technical imperfections. A small nuance that I initially didn't understand when David was evaluating the work from the class and told us there was no way to explain why he was doing what he was doing. It was just the feeling that he as an individual had when viewing an image.

It's this intangibility that drives me absolutely nuts a times, but is all the more satisfying when I finally let go of that need to make it concrete. It's the thing that I feel sets a good photograph apart from a great one, and the thing that I think makes this pursuit of artistry so worth it.

Magnum Workshop In Review

Scott12 I've just returned from Tokyo and from the Magnum Workshop with David Alan Harvey. What an incredible experience first off. Second, what a challenging workshop it was! Four solid and intense days of shooting, editing, and critiquing.

I learned a ton. As I've been telling myself and others, I'm more or less hell-bent on shooting editorial work and telling stories with my photographs. I went into this workshop hoping to get real constructive feedback on my existing work and also in the work that I shot while there. I was also looking for insight on how to function within the world of editorial photography. I did, but not in the way that I expected actually.

I often find myself (as many photographers do at one point in their lifespan), comparing my work to those who are already successful shooters receiving assignments and commissions.  There is a lot of uncertainty during the stage I'm in with my photography, because I want some way to guarantee that the personal work that I do will be well received somewhere and ultimately will set me on a path towards establishing me as a photographer in the editorial world. I want some way to know that ultimately I'm not wasting my time and efforts and money working on something that has no potential to be published or won't be received positively. So I hesitate a lot with my ideas. I'd prefer to let someone else initiate the idea, because I know that if the idea is concrete, I can bring it to completion. I'm quite good with execution if I just know where I'm going or what I'm aiming for. Otherwise, I fear I'll be left throwing a ton of resources at something that has little value.

But, honestly, I think that was the beauty of this workshop. David pushed us to read literature and photo books in the future, with the goal of helping us to be visually and culturally literate, so that our work has deeper impact than just being a set of pretty pictures about a place (if our intent to make deeper photographs that is). He pushed us to understand why we should study photo books, not to copy or imitate, but simply to expand our "visual vocabulary". As a friend of mine here in Shanghai said the other night, "in order to improvise, you have to know the classics." I've got a list of books I want to buy already as a way to deepen my understanding and my images. I think I've gained a new drive to be a better idea initiator, rather than just a conduit for conveyance of someone else's concepts, and also have the courage to pursue my ideas without fear of failure. As he said throughout the workshop, the photographers who are really doing well these days are the ones who are have their own ideas and are driving them to completion.

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The most important thing I learned though about my images was that in the end, there really is only one way to define what is "good" work. Or rather, there is an order in which the work should be defined as good. David has a style. He has an artistic bend, and in fact, we all do. He gave his perspective on my work, but at the end of the day, that is only one perspective, and it is not necessarily the perspective that should be considered first. Satisfy your artistic drive first and foremost; you have to do this no matter if you are world renowned or a starving newbie working odd jobs to survive. Sounds elementary in many ways, but really, this is a hard concept to take to heart for someone who wants to live from their art. It requires serious humility, because the response to our work will have an impact on our paycheck. Honestly, it's more about finding the audience that likes your work than it is finding out how to make it objectively good.

David basically told me my work was very, very good for what it is: didactic, direct, and descriptive; "very publishable" and "American photography" as he put it. I showed him a selection from my time in Kyrgyzstan this past summer, and it was encouraging but also hard to hear, because I want my work to be more complex and emotive. I wasn't looking for someone to stroke my ego, and while he acknowledged that it was good work, which was actually something I needed to hear from a well respected source within the industry, it also directed me towards a path for improvement. Because I don't think we ever really arrive at mastery.

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Actually the coolest part of the workshop was that though David pushed us to study the works of others through literature and photo books and was putting his own perspective into the workshop, but he didn't try to make us like him or anyone else. Each participant really walked away with something completely different. While initially I found myself trying to copy his style of working, something that I actually didn't realize until later in the week, David really didn't spend much time talking about composition, light, or telling us how to shoot our projects. His critiques were pretty simple and subjective: "this is good, this isn't" and "this photo dissolves into that photo well".

At first, I was scratching my head wondering WHY??? but as the days progressed, I stopped asking (even to myself) and just started watching him and the others, eventually beginning to see what he was talking about. How photos dissolve into one another, why images were weak or strong in context. The expectation was, that we were presenting what we thought was best already based on our artistic preferences. He was just adding his perspective to ours and helping us see how to fit it all together. The cool thing was, as I began to understand how to sequence, edit, and critique my own work, I walked away with a deeper vision on where I could improve my own photographs while shooting.

I wasn't really pleased with the work I did in the workshop itself, but honestly, I wasn't really there expecting to make great images. I kind of look at workshops like creative spaces to learn, not a place to perform. But, I find that every time I try to shoot a project, or something that is a concept, whether a story or an idea, I learn new things about how to execute, and I'm glad that was the core of the workshop. Could I have produced something great in those 4 days? Certainly, and after doing the workshop, I realize where I didn't quite hit the mark on the execution; where I could have done it differently, and how to approach it in the future. I didn't really end up shooting what I had planned going in, which was the younger generations and how they perceived happiness. Instead, I found myself wrestling with the time that I had and a little unsure of what I wanted to accomplish, and ended up with a photo essay on Shinjuku night life more or less.

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There were many other things, like the business of photography, that we discussed. But honestly, I began to care less about that stuff as the week went on. I'm more interested in doing the work, shooting what moves me, and getting it in front of the people I want to work with. There really is no other way, even at the highest level, because this business is so subjective it runs you in cirlces sometimes. I think finally I'm comfortable with just leaving it at that for the first time, and when I'm ready to shoot full time, I'll know.

All things said, I left this workshop with exactly what I wanted, but even more so, I left with exactly what I needed; a push off the plateau I felt like I was on with affirmation that my existing work was good for where it is currently. And a direction to move in. How I view my work has shifted drastically, and will continue to as I digest everything from the workshop over the following months. I've already been reviewing my older work and finding images that have much greater pull than I had originally thought. I think this is a good sign that the time, effort, and money was very well spent.

Keep your eye on burnmagazine.org for a selection of work from the workshop participants.

 

 

Magnum Workshop in Tokyo, with David Alan Harvey

20151006-L8908980 Shanghai It seems I use Facebook more often for my blog these days. It's a good platform for quick news, things that I'm up to, etc. I guess. But every once in a while I suppose something comes along that merits a longer discussion.

I'm pretty stoked to say that I'm going to be attending a Magnum Photos workshop with David Alan Harvey in Tokyo next week. The workshop is about storytelling, both the finding of the stories and the actually work that goes into telling them. More and more, I've got this itch to tell stories with my work and I'm really looking forward to learning from David's knowledge and experience as an editorial photographer and visual storyteller. For those who aren't familiar with his images, he's shot over 40 stories for NatGeo in the last 40 years. He's has a wealth of knowledge on the subject to say the least.

It's a huge honor to get to participate in this, and I'm really looking forward for DAH's feedback on my existing work and also insight into the work I do while in Tokyo, both the images and the process behind making them. Feedback from trusted sources is growing to be more and more important for me in my work. For awhile, I have to admit I really just felt like shirking the whole thing, mostly because I felt like I wanted to just find my own voice. While that's a good thing at times, I'm realizing that there are gaps in my photography that I would really love some guidance on from a person who's work I respect and can connect with.

I'm preparing the first leg of a project that will probably last a lifetime, but preliminarily for this workshop, I'm interested in Japan's younger generations, and specifically how happiness is perceived. The ideas of each participant will be discussed with David and then we will spend each day shooting, discussing, editing (the previous days work) and repeating until the end of the workshop, which will culminate in a slideshow of the participants work being displayed at a gallery. I'm interested to hear what he has to say on the idea and how to approach the story.

I'm also quite excited to see Japan for the first time, and even more so in this context. I figured that maybe this was a push I needed to start blogging again, so while I won't be blogging from the workshop everyday, I plan to take really good notes, and share what I learn here after the fact, along with the images that I produce during the workshop. Stay tuned!

Traveling on the DL

2015-05-10_0007 It can be a big headache to spend days on a train or a bus when a 6 hour plane flight is available to the same destination. To stay in hostels, with 6 roommates and a lack of personal space, when a hotel room is available. Personally, I'd never do it any other way though, unless I'm pressed for time.

I set out across China on the train and it took me a week to get from Shanghai to Bishkek. Along the way, I made stops in Kashgar and Osh. Traveling in this way feeds my idea engine. It gives me greater opportunity to interact with locals and travelers alike in an organic way, all who have interesting perspectives on the world around them, and may have suggestions on interesting things to see and do. My project with the shepherds here in Kyrgyzstan grew out of this travel method, which in turn has inspired another project I will shoot next year. Had it not been for my friend I met in that Mumbai hostel, I would have likely never traveled on horse, and never had ideas for either that project or the one I am currently out photographing.

Travel is so much more about who I meet wherever it is I go. People and their perspectives inspire me, and for that reason, I prefer to stay on the ground as often as I can, looking for ways to interact with the world around me. It's a privilege to have the time to travel slow, but it's also a choice. I find that personally, the rewards far outweigh the discomfort and extra time.

Below is a selection of my favorite images from my stop in Kashgar on the way to Bishkek (and one from the drive across Kyrgyzstan from the Chinese border). I'm currently in the town of Karakol (Kyrgyzstan), to photograph the animal market here tomorrow. It opens at 5am before the sun rises, so it'll be an early one. Next week, I'll be setting off into the mountains for a month, to ride horses, live with shepherds, hear their stories, and photograph their lives. It's really a dream to be out here doing what I love; photography, the outdoors, adventure, travel; I'm grateful for the support of VSCO and the Artist Initiative to make this happen. I'll be putting more updates out as the summer progresses, here on the blog and also my VSCO Journal.

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Trek With Me In Kyrgyzstan

Alright, so as promised, I wanted to let you know about an trek I'm leading this summer in Kyrgyzstan in more detail. The trip is being organized through my good friends over at EPIC-ABROAD, and the travel package includes everything you need to get in and out: airfare from your departure city, housing and lodging in country and all transfers between villages and cities. All you are responsible is for is food and anything else you want to do while there! This is not a photo tour per say, but if you like photography, it is a great opportunity to see some really cool stuff. I'll be more than happy to assist you in that regard as well :) I personally will be planning the routes, leading the trek, and showing you some of my favorite spots in the mountains that I have been to. To give you an idea of what scenery to expect, check out the photographs below!

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The trip itself will be 7 days of trekking on foot through the mountains and valleys. The official dates are the 15th of August through the 23rd of August (with the trekking in the middle of it), but the airfare can be arranged anyway you'd like, if you wish to see other things in the country while you are there. What to expect and prepare for:

  • Elevations of 3000m-4000m (9,500ft-13,500ft)
  • Temperatures from -10ºC to 25ºC
  • Rain and Snow (at higher altitudes)
  • Extremely powerful sun
  • Incredible scenery!

The trek itself will be intense, but fun! We will average 6-8km of walking per day, and will be truly out in the wilderness (no cell reception). Weather can swing from summer to winter in a matter of minutes, so being warm and dry is key. Mountain weather is extremely unpredictable!

We'll send you a full recommended packing list when you sign up, but here are the basics you will need:

  • Camping gear (warm sleeping bag and tent)-I can help you select the appropriate equipment if you don't have it, and we can work out sharing tents after the final list is made if you are interested.
  • Water purification tablets-you can use other means, but this is the simplest and surefire way to guarantee that you have clean water. Drinking directly from the streams and lakes is not recommended, as there is often livestock roaming in the area.
  • Camp stove and pot-I will help you purchase food and cooking gas in Bishkek. It's easy and cheap, so don't worry!
  • A good wind/rain jacket.
  • Sunblock and a hat
  • Sturdy boots
  • A good backpack that can hold what you need for the trek plus space for food.

If you are interested in some wild adventure, this is for you! If you have questions as to what to expect or pack in greater detail, please don't hesistate to contact me or the lovely folks at EPIC-ABROAD. We want to get you out there to see this incredible place! You can sign up for the adventure here.

See you in August!

VSCO Artist Initiative

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 3.00.03 PM Well, I'm really excited to finally be able to share this news, as it's been in the works for some time now. My work in Kyrgyzstan this summer has been awarded a grant through the Artist Initiative fund created by Visual Supply Company (VSCO). The announcement is posted here if you would like to read it! I'm really grateful for their support and for the opportunity to do this project fully.

Last year, I really wished that I could have spoken with the shepherds that I lived with and met along the way during my journey. This year, I'm taking a translator along with me to help bridge that language barrier, and in the process hopefully gathering first hand accounts and stories from the shepherds themselves about life in Kyrgyzstan. The grant from VSCO has made this possible for me to accomplish this piece of the project which is so essential to what I want to achieve with my work there.

For those that are not familiar with VSCO and the platform they have created for the art community, go check out the Grid and the Journal. The grid is a collection of images from artists around the globe and the journal is a platform for sharing stories. In addition to my normal outlets for sharing my journeys and travels with you (this blog and Instagram), this year I'm also going to be sharing my experiences and project updates through my personal VSCO Grid and Journal as well. Follow me there to get updates about my travels and how the project is going!

 

Summer 2015: Kyrgyzstan Round Two

scan11 I sat down yesterday and realized that I'm only two weeks away from starting my adventure this summer in Kyrgyzstan. I could not be more excited to get on the road and get after it! I've been somewhat quiet with my plans for the summer, though most know where I'm headed. But I wanted to tell you about what I'm planning to do out there this year.

The idea formed as I traveled through the mountains last year. Traditionally, the Kyrgyz have been subsistence shepherds, meaning that they have been living solely from their animals and trading them. If you haven't seen it, take a look at the article about the Afghan Kyrgyz that National Geographic published back in 2012. When the USSR fell in 1991, Kyrgyzstan fell into economic turmoil, as the country struggled to transition to post-Soviet existence.

A predominantly rural and agricultural economy, Kyrgyzstan has been slowly recovering over the past two decades. As I rode among the shepherds in 2014, I learned how they have turned their history as such into a means of living beyond pure subsistence. In many ways, while they are still self sufficient much like they have been for thousands of years, the shepherds are also small business owners, making an income through the sale of their animals and associated co-products like wool, milk, and meat. This shift to small business in addition to a subsistence living has been successful in combating some of the worst poverty within the country, while helping to sustain the legacy of the Kyrgyz as a people group.

So in early May, I'll be heading to Bishkek to start doing research on the ground, gathering data, testimonies, and first hand accounts from the shepherds themselves. From there, I'll head to the mountains, and photograph their lives as it reflects their heritage in modern day Kyrgyzstan, and the issues that exist in land management and livestock rearing as a business and economic driver for the country. Hopefully I'll get to visit many of my friends from last year, and make some new ones along the way.

Additionally, I have several other stories that I'm going to document while I'm there, including documenting an arts festival (largest in Central Asia) and a chicken farming small business initiative.

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Finally, late in August I'm going to be leading a week of trekking out in the mountains. I do this kind of stuff because I love it first and foremost, and Kyrgyzstan is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to. If you are interested in seeing this incredible country, this is a great opportunity. I'll share more on this a bit later, but if you are interested, don't hesitate to contact me for more information.

(PS-it seems that I'm using Instagram more and more these days as my blog. If you're interested in what I'm up to on a more regular basis, I'd recommend adding me there using @stturn. I keep it up to date with my whereabouts, micro adventures, and thoughts. Add me there!)

Gear: A Blessing and a Curse

2015-04-04_0001.jpg I think every photographer goes through phases with gear. We spend hours surfing the internet looking for something new, something different, something that will satisfy this never ending craving to play around with new techniques, styles, etc. It's what we do really, play that is.

I'm at a point with photography, where I flat out hate gear. Don't get me wrong, I love cameras. I'm just at a point where I hate thinking about them. I hate worrying about how to shoot something and I want to just shoot. I shot a lot of film in 2014 for this reason.

I traveled with 35mm film cameras for almost 6 months hoping to disconnect with the digital world a little bit, and spend more time focusing on what was in front of me. I think it was the best exercise photographically I've done yet, and I'd highly recommend others to try it out. Commit to film for an extended period of time and see what happens. It will change the way you shoot I think. But something about the restrictions of film really bothered me. How hard it was to shoot in low light. How I really had to watch what I was photographing, because I could run out of pictures!

So I've got digital cameras again, and I've swung back to the world of pixels. But then today, I finally sat down with some of my old medium format images from my Mamiya 7 rangefinder camera, and I started rethinking. I had originally put the camera up for sale, thinking I was just going to go digital and stay there. But man. Just look at these. There is something in them that digital just cannot match:

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There is something in the tonality that just steals my breath. That and the extra lens compression afforded by a larger format. And now, they have me thinking...what if I took this camera to Kyrgyzstan this year???

I was in a hostel last year in Bishkek, when a friend of mine who I met there (also a photographer) handed me his Nikon D4 to play with. After shooting my manual film cameras for so long, I actually did a double take when I looked at the back of the camera. What was all this for??? As I sat there stunned, just looking for the on switch, I realized something very profound: Less gear=more for me. Less gear means less for me to think about, which means more time spent paying attention to the world around me.

Sometimes, I think it's more about knowing your limitations than actually having them. Having to work within them makes you more creative. And that is a plus of shooting old film cameras I think. It's just shutter speed, aperture, light, and what ever you can put in front of the camera.

So now I'm torn. I hate having gear to think about, and I'm struggling. Having to decided between cameras is a blessing and a curse. I'll probably bring both with me.2015-04-04_0009(As a side note, I'm not criticizing people who shoot fancy cameras. In the case of my friend, he shoots time lapses for the Discovery Channel, so he needs what those cameras offer. In the long run, I suppose it's whatever helps you get the image your after)

 

Learning To Ride-Maptia

Screen Shot 2015-02-11 at 1.23.31 PM One of my goals for 2015 was to write more, and along with that, contribute to something greater. As I've traveled this year, I've found a love for story telling, through the use of both photographs and words, and coincidently, I also just stumbled on an amazing platform to share both, called Maptia.  It has a great editor that allows you to tell stories in a clean and organized fashion, and with a community that is passionately sharing their experiences. Not to mention contributions from big names in the photography, writing, and adventure world as well.

The thing I really like about Maptia the most is the passion for story, and the belief that stories matter. That stories can make a difference. That they can inspire and empower. That they can change the course of one person's life or history. I've found these things to be true for myself, and I'm really excited about finding something I can use to combine both my writing and photography effectively and share my experiences in a more complete way. I can think of a couple more stories I want to share already!

I'd been looking for a way to share my experience from Kyrgyzstan, and well, I think Maptia is a great way to do it. So my journey through Kyrgyzstan is now up on the site in one complete story! This experience has really taught me that I'm capable of any thing I put my mind to, and that at the end of the day, it's not as much about doing it correctly as it is simply going and doing it in the first place. That first step to GO is the hardest sometimes, when fear of the unknown grips tight, but the reward for taking that step is often a beautiful journey we didn't expect.

If you are at all interested in travel, story telling, great photography, or just interesting thoughts and experiences across the globe, you need to check this site out. It is inspiring and thought provoking.