Workshops, teaching and the transformative power of photography.

I am heading off to Guatemala later this week. Besides getting away from the lingering winter cold in Rhode Island, I am going there to teach. That got me to thinking about workshops and teaching as well as why I do it and the transformative power of photography.

I teach because to me, the best workshops are transformative. Not surprisingly, in the ideal situation, the students are transformed, since they entered the workshop to become a better photographer. But the group experience at the heart of a good workshop can also change students. A good workshop involves sharing perspectives, old and new, familiar and yet-to-be-embraced.

As a teacher (and photographer) I am also transformed by a good workshop. In pretty much every class I teach, there is a moment when I gain a new way to look at the world. It might be something a student says or an experience we have as a group. Often, it happens when I see a student’s work and I say, out loud or to myself, “that’s cool, I wish I did that” or “ I wish I saw that.” In some classes that kind of moment happens frequently and I learn a lot from watching how the students work and grow. In another class that “aha moment” can be rare, but it does always seem to happen.

As I watch how others photograph different things, I am constantly acquiring new imagery for the “mental database” of images that I draw on when I am out photographing. All photographers draw from imagery they have seen in their past in order to make new images. Thankfully, my brain is still elastic enough to take in more images (and therefore ideas for images.)

I teach because it is a way for me to keep photographing regularly. I had a very short-lived job working for United Press International in Brussels, Belgium in the early 1980’s. Working for a major international wire service was, in theory, “cool.” But as I managed the desk, taking in images from one region of the world and then retransmitting them to the rest of the world, I could feel my skills as a photographer draining out of my fingertips. If I had been patient and willing to do my time on the desk, I probably would have acquired the skills and seniority required for the job. I may indeed have worked my way up the ladder to become a skilled wire-service shooter, but I feared I would have made it there with no skills left as a photographer.

Other kinds of work I have done along the way in my career have reinforced this idea for me. I liked doing editorial photography, but as the volume of that work declined, I realized my need to be out photographing often, even if it not on assignment. That realization and the dearth of assignment work, led me to expand my business as a stock photographer.

I teach workshops (rather than at colleges or universities) because I like having students who are completely focused on what we are doing in the class. Semester length teaching, which my wife prefers as a university professor, was not a good fit for me. I never liked grading. Frankly, what I wanted was a class full of committed and passionate students, all of whom did “A” quality work. I usually ended up with many of those, but I usually had an equal number who took the class because they thought it would be easy. The ones who I seemed to bother me the most were the ones with the lame excuses for not doing their work. Workshop students, as a rule, are there to do one thing only and I like that kind of focus (no pun intended.) Workshops students are open to being transformed in a way that I rarely found college students were.
Lastly, I teach because in a small way, teaching occasionally enables me to do some small act of transformation, to make the world a better place. When I am in Guatemala, I try to do some teaching through a fantastic organization called Fotokids, which is, according to their web-site:

A non-profit organization breaking the cycle of poverty through training in visual arts and technology, which also provides educational scholarships to students, all of whom live in some of the harshest economic conditions throughout rural and urban communities in Guatemala and Honduras.

I am not deluding myself into thinking my occasional classes transform their lives. They have much more to overcome than I could possibly change in one workshop. But, the collective experience they go through in the entire Fotokids program does transform them.

Not all of them go on to become full-time photographers, but they all gain enormous amounts of self-confidence as they learn to see themselves and the world around them in a very different way. Having worked with a few of them over a number of years, I have seen firsthand how they are transformed. I watched as a young man named Berlin, evolved as a person and as a photographer. I was only a small part of that, I know, but I was a part.

I would encourage everyone to look at the Fotokids web site and consider donating something to support the important programs. Photography, at its best, transforms each of us as we practice it. Here is an opportunity to help others transform their lives through a medium we all love.

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