My favorite part of my favorite class

I recently wound up my time in Asia with a stop in Singapore, where I gave a few short presentations to large audiences as well as some longer workshops for smaller audiences. Everyone I worked with seemed happy with what I did, so I will be going back next year. So keep an eye on the workshops page of my website to see exactly when I will be going back and what I will be doing. The very last thing I did when I was there this year was to teach my favorite class. I ended that class with my favorite teaching exercise.

Over the years I have taught classes on a wide variety of topics, but as time has gone on, I have pared back to a relative few subjects. I have learned that I do best when I emphasize things that I am good at, interested in and can successfully teach. For example, though I work a great deal with Photoshop, it is not something I love, so it is not something that I teach. I love the play of shadow and light, street photography and the business of photography, so those are topics that I stick with. Overall, my favorite kind of photography and by extension, my favorite class is the photo-essay.

By a photo essay, I mean a set of images on a theme with a strong point of view. As I note in my classes, if you break down the phrase, “photo essay,” we can all agree on what is meant by the word “photo.” The word that needs defining is ”essay,” which I have read can be traced back to French phrases, such as the word, “assay,” as in “to weigh.” Other interpretations I have read include the French word “essayer,” as in one whose job is “to try” or “to attempt” or to “put to the test for its quality.” Building on these definitions, I have interpreted it to mean that an essay, whether in photos or written, is weighing an idea/exploring an issue from the perspective of the author.

The thing that I like about teaching the photo-essay class is watching the many ways students make photo-essays that explore issues that they care about. Some approach a given topic from a political or even analytical point of view. Others can explore the same exact question from a highly personal point-of-view. Some essays are visually stylized (a series of color panoramas,) while others are unified by the repetitive inclusion of one person as, for example, that person’s life changes throughout the essay.

Since there is no simple formula for a photo-essay the best part of the class is watching how each student dreams up, defines, photographs, refines and then finally resolves their project, as they create an individualized set of images on a theme with a strong point of view. As a teacher, watching that process is fascinating and rewarding. As a working photographer it is often educational. Though I would never “steal” an idea from a student, I know that the more essay strategies I see and understand, the better my own future “essays” will be.

My favorite part of this class comes at the end. Over the four to six days that I typically teach the photo-essay class, I encourage the students to make small, inexpensive prints of their top ten to twenty prints from each day’s photographing. That means in a five-day class, a student who works hard leaves the daily edit sessions with the file numbers of at least fifteen good images to print up (usually just 4 x 6 inch machine prints.) For the final critique, they will present the class as many as 75 prints from the five days.

We take those 75 prints, spread them out on a table and edit them down to a top 15. To see this process in action, in this case with a previous class, go to:

Looking at what I call “prints on the table” is so much more compelling than on a computer monitor. I prefer editing prints over digital files because the prints are easier and quicker to handle. Also, with prints, you can quickly put a few together to weed out similar images and/or find associations between images. With prints, you start to see threads develop in the photographer’s thinking.

At the end of the editing process, we are left with 15 images. In an ideal situation those 15 images are either the completed photo essay or the starting point for what will become the completed photo essay. In either case, the students have explored a theme from their perspective, with their thinking clearly imprinted on the work.

The “ah-hah” moment usually comes for me when we get the edit cut down to about half. When I am looking at closer to thirty prints (or less,) I usually flash on some larger framework for appreciating the work on the table. As the edit gets to fewer then thirty, I try to subtly direct the group towards a top fifteen images that collectively express “some larger understanding of the student’s thinking AND their personality.” This process happened again and again when we were doing the final print edit for the recent photo-essay class in Singapore. Some students in that workshop had used the class to work on their project. Others had used the class to practice skills for a photo-essay they are planning to do in another place or time. (Those two different strategies are how most students approach the class.)

Looking at the final fifteen prints on the table, we noted how one student’s work was compelling but it was also remarkably melancholy. Once we enunciated that point, he let on that he was in fact a rather melancholy personality. He did not come across that way in class, but he said that when he slowed down, unlike when he was in class, he in fact defaulted to a melancholy world-view. Another student, whose background is in architecture, did work exploring old, disappearing playgrounds in Singapore. On one level, the work was documentary imagery of places, but looking at it closer, nostalgia for a long gone childhood haunted the imagery in a more subtle way. Another photographer, who makes his living as an engineer produced the seeds of an interesting body of work on disappearing local architecture. It was clear from looking at the work (and talking to him,) that he wanted to slow down the rapidly changing culture of Singapore. It became equally obvious after a while, that he wished his own working life would similarly slow down to more humane pace.

Such insightful moments are the best part of the class, when I almost “psychoanalyze” the photographers, by looking at their best photos. As a teacher, I feel like I have given the student(s) some new insight to build their new work on. As a photographer, I have new ways of looking at the world and framing idea for potential photo-essays. The combination of those two is what makes that my favorite part of my favorite class.

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