I was discussing ethics and publication photography with a friend. We were e-mailing back and forth in the wake of the recent news of how the New York Times Magazine photos that were not supposed to be “photoshop-ped” actually were. He was joking that the only thing left was to ban digital cameras and force publication photographers back to using film. After laughing at the thought, we agreed that even that drastic a step would not make a difference. The history of photography is full of folks who exploited film’s perceived documentary nature to their own advantage.
Then he told me a story about Tom Peters (the business guru who co-wrote the now famous business book “In Search of Excellence.”) The story goes that Peters, who teaches managers how to be “excellent,” had an epiphany a few years ago. He realized that “excellent” managers/executives were excellent because those traits were innate within them. He came to appreciate that he could not “teach” managers/executives to ‘be” excellent, that he could only help them understand and emulate the behaviors of managers/executives who were in fact excellent.
In our discussion, we then agreed that it is equally impossible to teach people to be ethical. As a teacher, I know I aspire to educate people, but I cannot reach in and put “something” in them that is not already there, something that is innate in people who are ethical. Following Peters’ reasoning, I noted the best I can do is to teach people to emulate the practices of people who do “have it.”
We agreed that the metaphor holds true for photography. The ability to capture a striking image (regardless of whether it is fine-art, landscape, photo-journalism, wedding, travel, social documentary or photo essays, the talent is probably innate.
Part of it is certainly based on the skill component, which needs to be brought out. But, as a teacher I cannot similarly reach in and put something into students, something that people who are excellent already have. We laughed when he pointed out that this discussion begs the question of the difference between appearing to “have it” and actually “having it.”
But then I got serious and thought about my workshops. In my classes, I obviously teach a set of skills. But equally important, I practice those skills in front of the students. Further, I show them what I do to practice and maintain my level of mastery.
One thing that sometimes surprises students is that I am out photographing every morning and every afternoon of the class. I do the same thing when I travel to a destination like India, with the explicit purpose of photographing.
In workshops and on assignments, I am up early and out photographing. During the bad mid-day light I am back on the computer downloading my images, editing them and backing them up in multiple places. Then as the afternoon light improves, I am back out photographing again. At nigh,t I repeat the mid-day drill. I am back on the computer downloading my images, editing them and backing them up in multiple places. The next day I repeat the same drill.
Speaking of drills, some students have described my workshops as a bit like boot camp because the days are long and filled with lots of work. That is undeniably true, but based on the story I heard about Tom Peters, I realized that what I am doing is showing them the steps I take to maintain and improve my excellence and mastery.
For the photographers who have the innate talent that just needs to be brought out, seeing the mastery moves them closer to achieving their goals. So the next time you take a workshop or are considering a workshop, think about the Tom Peters’ insight. Yes, you are going to learn a given skill from the teacher. But the deeper question is, does he or she share the practices of their mastery of photography with their students. In my experience, F-stops can be learned from a book, but insight is often only learned by example.