Foundation Workshop: The toughest workshop I have ever loved
On February of 2015, I attended one of the most grueling photojournalism workshops for wedding photographers. My goal of attending Foundation Workshops was to get a realistic assessment of my photojournalistic ability as well as expand beyond my comfort zone. Foundation challenges us to effectively tell a story through evocative images no matter how challenging the situation may be – without filters, without fancy lighting, and without fancy post-processing. No crutches allowed.
My expectations before arriving at Foundation was that I would get some sort of an assignment a newspaper or magazine photojournalist would typically cover (e.g., conditions at a VA hospital, mental ward, or nursing home). Or perhaps covering a subject with some sort of disability or some other types of personal challenges. Although some of my other classmates did receive these kind of assignments (the ones I were secretly hoping for), I received an assignment that I wasn’t quite expecting. My assignment was covering a family of four that lived near Glendale, Texas. I really had my work cut out for me as the assignment’s description was intentionally vague. All sorts of questions were going through my head as to what my subject’s story would be.
Before we even started our two day assignments, we had a coaching session with two legendary photographers (Verna Pitts and Amy Deputy) that seemed a bit too “touchy feely” for me at the time. After some meditation time with some new age music playing in the background, we split into groups of two and did some exercises in listening and communicating. These exercises involved taking turns in speaking and listening with the aim of creating a connection with our subject. This was a perfect exercise for me given that years ago my wife had asked me to get my ears checked because she suspected that I had a hearing problem. After my exam, my doctor chuckled and told me that I had a listening problem and not a hearing problem as my hearing was nearly perfect – he also mentioned that his wife told him the exact same thing.
Amy, in her soothing and calming voice, said: “In order for your subjects to open up their lives to you, it is critical that you first develop a strong connection with them and earn their trust. You must take the first step in sharing your life with them in order to build that connection. You earn their trust by showing that you sincerely care about them.” Slowly, it all started to make sense.
The assignment consisted of two days of shooting, about 10-12 hours of documenting on each day followed by dinner and then several hours of critiques which sometimes lasted into the early morning hours. The first day was covering the birthday party of one of the children…at a roller rink. I felt like a deer in the headlights as I was just shooting and chasing just about everyone without putting too much thought into composition or context. My instructors Daniel Aguilar and Citlalli Rico gave me some sobering feedback during the critique session which took place about midnight after the first day of shooting.
I will never forget one of Citlalli’s comments: “You took this shot of a girl, who looks like she’s struggling with her balance, and she’s holding onto a rail and yet I don’t know what the story is or why she’s doing it. You framed her from the waist up so I can’t see that she’s wearing roller skates and I don’t see anything in the background that gives context to where she is – she’s supposed to be in a roller rink but there’s no information in the photo to support that.” I retorted that I was getting a closeup of her expression and she responded to me with something truly profound: “Don’t get too caught up in this notion that you always have to get real close to make a photo really interesting (referring to Robert Capa’s philosophy). Getting close, or too tight, isn’t always good if your image lacks context. This girl could be anywhere even if she’s got an interesting expression on her face.” That was truly an epiphany to me.
Feeling humbled after my first day of shooting I tried something different the second day. My approach changed to being more selective and patient with more close attention paid to composition and context. Daniel had taught me to commit to a composition and anticipate the moment happening rather than chasing moments. “Pretend your hands are a tripod and let the moment just happen – don’t chase the moment because that will likely lead to the composition falling apart” he said. After six hours of shooting on the second day, Daniel and Citlalli paid me a visit at my location to check my progress. Daniel took my camera and immediately began scanning through my images.
He showed a few images to Citlalli and said a few words in Spanish and let out a few chuckles. Initially, I thought I had bombed again on the second day and that he was laughing at my images. Time to sell my cameras and find another career an inner voice said to me. I cringed, closed my eyes and then took a deep breath – here it comes. “Dave! I have something to tell you my friend” he said. His eyes got big when he started speaking to me: “Dave, you’re a totally different photographer today than you were yesterday – I can see the difference by the images you’re taking. I was telling Citlalli that I am jealous of some of the shots you took. Look at how complex this triangular composition is (pointing to one of the photos), do you realize how Chingón (Mexican vernacular for awesome) that is?” Truly honest praise from two great photographers known for their brutal honesty – I was relieved and I can keep my cameras.
I felt that my biggest success was not so much in the photos that I was able to capture but how much I learned about myself as a photographer. Foundation Workshops was a humbling experience that revealed a lot of things that I need to work on personally but it also reaffirmed the things that I’m doing right. Although the benefits have been more intangible than tangible, I’ve already seen a stark improvement in my recent work post the workshop. Foundation not only changed the way I approach photography but also how I approach my personal and business relationships; it certainly made me a better listener and observer at the very least. I can’t wait to do it all over again in two years!
Special thanks to Ryan and your beautiful family – I really miss you guys!
Photo by Daniel Aguilar
New York City Wedding Photographer | Destination Wedding Photographer | Portrait Photographer