The workshop I always wanted to attend

As an aspiring documentary photographer/photo-essayist there was always one workshop I always wanted to attend, but I never could. Now that I am in fact “established,” there is one workshop I really want to teach, but I wonder if other students would want to attend such a workshop.

The starting point in this post is the idea that as much as any student can learn from looking at my successful projects, they really would learn much more from a serious examination of my failures. I hardly think I am unique in this manner.  I think most photographers will tell you they learned more from their near misses than from their direct hits.

So what would I teach in such a workshop on “my failed photo-essays?”  Sadly, I have a long, ongoing list of failed photo-essays. In that class, (and this blog post,) I will share highlights from that list. I do this not to feel sorry for myself, but rather to help others involved in projects, so they can avoid the mistakes I made.

Way back in the late 1980s I was introduced to a social services initiative that was being developed in Philadelphia. The project was then called the “Homeless Families Initiative.”  The premise was that homeless families need places to live, but they also need healthcare, transportation to work, access to child-care, etc. The idea behind the project was that homelessness was a symptom of the many larger challenges these families faced.  The women who mostly headed these households needed to get their high school diplomas, they need better parenting skills and they even needed to be taught how to balance a checkbook.

If you are thinking this sounds like what became Bill Clinton’s welfare room, you are close. It was great story because, if things went well, the people involved would change and evolve over the time they were in the program. They would have “serious character development,” the thing that makes any story particularly powerful.

I had a front row seat at the very beginning AND I had the funding to enable me to dedicate time to photograph a few families from beginning to end as they went through the program.  The Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine guaranteed me $1500. The United Way of Philadelphia, the initiative’s sponsor, chipped in another $1500. At the time, $3000 was a lot of money and meant I had the freedom to pursue the story the way I wanted. We even signed a simple, one-page contract laying out the money issues and guaranteeing me complete editorial control over what I photographed and how I told the story.

So where did I go wrong?  The key player in the project was the caseworker that managed the program and selected the families to be included.  In hindsight, my failure was one of basic human relationship skills.  Not that I needed to “butter her up,” (though that might not have hurt,) but I did need to build a good relationship with her before pushing for access to the families in the program. I was very used to carefully nurturing relationships with the subjects that I usually photographed.  In this case, I was in a big hurry to get to “the good stuff” and failed to nurture a solid relationship with the “gatekeeper” who was controlling access to the subjects. Lesson number one!

For lesson number two, fast-forward to the mid 1990’s.  In 1994 I was reading about the first post-apartheid elections in South Africa. Shortly thereafter, I photographed the first elections of the newly formed Palestinian Authority, in the West Bank and Gaza.  These were both important first-time elections, amidst a wave of other important first-time elections that were happening in the nations of the former Soviet Union.

Based on what I saw in person, and read about, I researched and assembled a project proposal I called Developing Democracies.  It focused on ways that local culture was taken into account (successfully and unsuccessfully) as newly democratic nations built their developing democracies. The finished material was to be used to help the next wave of developing democracies improve the development of those fledgling democracies. It was also to be shown in the established democracies that were funding much of the work creating the democratic processes in these newly democratizing countries.

I thought it was a great idea. So did others. It made it most of the way through the process of evaluating story proposals at the National Geographic magazine.  It made it all the way to the final round of the Soros Foundation’s grant program.

In hindsight, I was probably too nervous to be convincing in the interview with the judge’s panel at the Soros foundation.  I will never know why the project did not make it all the way through the story council at the National Geographic magazine. I do know that the project died on the vine. After hundreds of hours of research, photographing and writing, nothing ever happened.

I failed to heed one of the lessons I tell my students often. If, when you apply for any kind of support for a project and you are a finalist, even if you do not “win,” it is as good as winning. That is because the evaluators “got it.” Selecting the project for the final round meant they thought that the project was viable.  In the case of this project, I suspect they were a bit gun-shy, uncomfortable spending well over $200,000 on something that they had never seen before and frankly, could not quite “get their head around.”

What I should have done, was self-fund a trip to at least one other emerging democracy so the submission I was offering to potential funders was more convincing. I would have been able to include imagery from multiple emerging democracies, so they could see that the project was in fact possible. I should have done that quickly, because once all the countries in the former Soviet Union held their first democratic elections, the historical opportunity was lost, in essence forever.

Lesson number three is just as important, but a bit more open-ended. A lot of this business of photographic projects is about timing. I cannot say I did it on purpose, but I seem to have “timed” my project on the Pesticide Poisoning of Farm-workers correctly, (as if I had any control over historical events.) The growing interest in organic food and the opposition to the use of pesticides overlapped with the time I was doing that project. So the work was exhibited and published widely. To see some of that work go to The pesticide poisoning of California farm workers.

Similarly, my project on the complex relationship between Israelis and Palestinians almost anticipated the Oslo peace accords. The hope that came with thosee accords was short lived, but during that period when peace in the Middle East looked likely, that work was exhibited and published widely. To see some of that work go to: The relationship between Israelis and Palestinians

Both of these projects were funded by forward-thinking organizations. My most recent work on globalization in South Asia, was also funded by other forward-thinking organizations. I had hoped that after the horrors of 9/11, America would be looking and reaching out to the rest of the world.

With that in mind, I hoped my work on globalization could be a small part of that dialogue.  Of course, things did not turn out quite that way, but my work on India continues, as does my hope that the final work becomes part of a larger dialogue. The ultimate lesson I have learned over the years is that one can only move forward. Learn from mistakes, but don’t dwell on them and move forward.

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