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.
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.
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.
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.