Art and commerce of selecting a workshop teacher

(Disclaimer, I am a workshop teacher as well as a veteran professional photographer)

I am a professional photographer. I am VERY proud of the fact that I make my living through my photography. I have been lucky in that most people who pay to use my work appreciate the skills it took me decades to master. I have, over time, expanded my repertoire to include workshop teaching. Over a period of years I have been working to master and excel in the process of helping others get better at their photography. As I have been doing this, I have been reminded again and again, that teaching is like any other skill: It involves practice and takes decades to fully master. Also, much like publication photography itself, the world of photography workshops is being flooded with people who have little or no skill as educators.

I am not saying this in order to “protect my territory” as a photo educator. Being selected by Photo District News with the honor of being named as one of “The Best Workshop Instructors” reminded me that I am, in fact, starting to master the art of teaching workshops AND that outsiders appreciate my growing expertise. I am writing this blog because I meet many students during my courses and they frequently seek guidance on how to select a workshop instructor.

As I write this, I am halfway through my annual trip to Asia where I have done a series of classes, some as long as five days and some as short as three hours. As I have been working, I am continually analyzing what I am doing, whether I am in “teaching” mode or in my “shooting” mode. In that context, a student in Singapore said something that was both ironic and profound. He told me that what “bothered” him was that as soon as I said something to him he realized that he already knew the point that I was trying to get across, yet he had never said it out loud to himself. His point was that a good teacher, at their best, helps a student understand what they may already know and/or helps them to take an idea they understand in the abstract and make it specific to their own process. Students who utilize workshops (or other kinds of instructions) usually hone their skills and techniques faster as well as get to those “aha” or epiphany moments quicker.

Another student in my class in Vietnam asked an equally important question. She wanted to hear my stream of consciousness as I walked down the streets of Hoi An, in central Viet Nam. She sought to understand my thinking (and seeing process.) In doing so, she prompted me to articulate (and make public) an otherwise intuitive (and internal) process. Doing that helped her as a photographer (and helped me grow as a teacher.) In many classes, I often learn as much from my students as they learn from me. They are regularly teaching me how to be a better teacher. Seeing the world through their eyes has also made me a better photographer.

The students I am quoting (and many of my other students) I have worked with have taken numerous workshops, sometimes also resulting in disappointment. In asking about their various experiences, I am reminded how the world of photography is changing. We know that these changes mean that, for example, photojournalists have turned from the declining world of publications to the world of weddings. They have flooded that market with ever-cheaper packages of “wedding photojournalism.” After that, many photographers attacked the video market (I am guilty here). More recently some of the same photographers have entered the education market (I am guilty here as well). I can go on and on, but the point is clear.

Moving market-to-market in order to survive makes sense up to a point. Hopping rapidly between markets does not, because such rapid moves often do not benefit the photographers. First, as photographers hop market-to-market, they clearly enrich the gear, computer and software manufacturers. It is less clear how much the photographers benefit. Photographers jumping rapidly from market-to-market also leave a path of destruction in their wake, be that disappointed clients, poorly served students or under-whelmed editors/art directors.

With that in mind, a guide to “shopping” for a workshop teacher might go something like this: Make sure that the teacher can teach the subject that is the focus of the workshop, that is, has real world experience in that topic. For example, I only teach a few topics, just like I only photograph a few subjects. Frankly, when you see me advertising a class in fashion or sports photography, you might ask me if I have gone over the edge.

Another point is to be diligent when considering the workshops offered directly by famous photographers. Some are first rate, like Jay Maisel’s classes for example. (I say this not because he is a friend but rather because students I have spoken with speak highly of the process he takes them through.) Other instructors merit a bit more caution. A mastery of photography is NOT the same as mastery of teaching. This point is something every photographer knows, but it should be repeated periodically too.

Workshops run through institutions tend to have better quality control since they usually exist for purposes other than supporting the individual teacher. The best example of this, in my mind, was when I witnessed first hand a well known workshop director firing an even more famous workshop instructor in the middle of the workshop, because the students were up in arms over the teacher’s ineffectiveness. The workshop director offered to refund the fees of all the students, at substantial cost to his institution. He had taken responsibility for his institution (and his students) at the expense of any loyalty to the big name photographer.

Another way of vetting an instructor is to try to hear them speak in any kind of venue to see how “present” they are when they show their work and to note how accessible they are to their audience. Over the years I have learned that one way that many students decide whether to take my longer classes is that they “research me” by attending a short lecture/presentation. They see me speak, encounter my work and get a sense of who I am and thus learn about my style of teaching/presenting.

Asking other photographers for references on workshop instructors is certainly a good idea. When you are doing that, don’t just ask if the teacher is “good.” You will learn more by asking, was the instructor immersed in the workshop process or distracted by other things such as assignment work, phone calls, etc.? Is the feedback the teacher gives to the students precise and actionable or vague and largely filled with praise? Is the instructor generous with their time and information?

Yes, most photographers know the concepts behind photography and they probably even know their own creative process. Whether they can actually explain that to another photographer, that is a different question altogether.

The best workshop instructor are mentors as much or more than they are just instructors. I would argue (and my experience has shown that.) A good workshop teacher is a mentor, a “sensei.” (Sensei is a Japanese word that is used to show respect to someone who has achieved a certain level of mastery in an art form or some other skill.)

I am aware that this might come off as self-serving, but that is not my intent. Rather, I hope that workshop-students-in-the making will remember that teaching, like photographing takes years to master. I have mastered a few kinds of photography and more recently mastered the process of teaching workshops in those few specialties.

Mastery is something that should be sought out and rewarded, whether that is mine or that of the master workshop teachers featured in the Photo District News article on “The Best Workshop Instructors.” Mastery also does not come cheap. Evaluating a workshop solely based on price is one of the surest ways to prove the old adage that you get what you pay for.

4 responses to “Art and commerce of selecting a workshop teacher”

  1. can i safely assume that you you won’t be moving market to market to pursue sports photography, automobile racing photography or fashion photography; or becoming yet one more wedding photographer? 🙂

  2. I actually tried all three of the former specialties as freelancer/newspaper photographer, decades ago and I was dreadful at them. I was slightly better at weddings during the brief time I did that kind of work but not much better. I am smart enough to know when to quit….

  3. You are right on. As a workshop consumer I affirm all this. And part of the challenge is to convey your gifts and skills to students in a manner they can understand and draw upon. I am fascinated with the student in Vietnam asking you to describe your thought process photographically as you walked down the street. Another piece I would add is the value of how the instructor can draw the participants into being a learning community rather than a bunch of individuals.

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