Earlier this year I taught a 1-week photography workshop in Dubai. I am not fond that city, and deliberately avoid going there for as long as I can remember. It has something to do with an early childhood memory of seeing poor Pakistani laborers being beaten with sticks by security police at the Dubai International Airport. I have since associated feelings of anger and sorrow with that town. But the workshop was being organized by a good friend and I could not say no.

The workshop was meant to be for new photographers – proficient with the technical wizardry of their cameras, but only starting to learn how to create documentary work. On the first day of the workshop I found myself standing in front of 11 students from various backgrounds, and staring at some of the most sophisticated and expensive camera equipment one can buy.

Some of the students were writers and editors from local newspapers and magazines. Others were starting out in photography and hoping to pursue careers as freelance commercial and feature photographers. There were a couple of amateurs who were there just to learn a little more. And a teacher of photographer from Kuwait who wanted to get away from that country and just be amongst others like him i.e. lovers of the craft of picture making.

The workshop outline was quite simple, and I am sharing it here with you because we will talk about some of the issues listed here during out time in Ajmer:

  • Dominating Your Camera: S&M (Simple & Manual) Techniques For Controlling the Picture Making Process
    • Understanding light temperature and its impact on the picture
    • Watching light movement and mapping light
    • Measuring light and shooting only when it is right
    • Awareness of geometry and constructing images backwards
    • Out dated techniques for fast focus and proper exposure that can save you millions
  • Lost In Space: Story Frameworks And Other Crutches For The Crippled
    • Introducing the story
    • Key story line requirements
    • Developing a checklist
    • What are the themes that will define the story
    • The theory of comic book photo essays and how to graduate to book.
  • The Necessary Evil: Dealing with the Subject, Gaining Access and Developing Trust
    • List of subjects
    • Who is the subject or what
    • How do you convince them to let you shoot them
    • Arranging access to locations and individuals
    • Entering, working within and exiting situations/locations

The first day of the workshop went of fine. By the second day we had identified a series of stories the students wanted to shoot, each story contributing to an overarching theme around the issue of the economic crisis and its consequences (both good and bad) for the city. A fairly straight forward and obvious assignment with rich possibilities in this city.

But on the 3rd day things started to go awry.

I noticed that some of the students were avoiding stories that involved negotiating access and working with people! In fact, the act of packing your cameras, heading to a location, and working to negotiate entry and the right to photograph people and their lives proved to be the one thing the students struggled with most!

I had assumed that once the stories were selected, the outlines and frameworks defined, the subjects identified, it would be a relatively easy matter to simply head out, contact the right person, introduce yourself and begin loitering around their lives to find the right pictures. It proved to be the hardest thing to do.

Three students dropped out of the class rather than face their subjects as I kept insisting they had to. Four never actually overcame the process and continued to shoot from the side lines and tangentially. Only four – and its no coincidence that these were the writers and editors, actually managed to get inside the lives of their stories and come back with some surprisingly personal and human pictures.

4 out of 11!

It is one of the hardest things to do in the first few days at the start of any documentary and photographer project – to break through that invisible but concrete wall that first separates you from the stranger you are about to work with. And it can take creativity, compassion, determination and perseverance to scale it and it will test your self confidence and your conviction.

There will be moments at the start of a story, a project, when it will all appear hopeless, when  you will think that there are no images and that there is no story and that the subject will never give, accept or allow you to come close and be part of their lives for even a moment. It will all appear distant, confusing, chaotic and even self destructive as your mind works against itself and its better instincts and tells you to flee! You will feel tired, scared and lost.

The fact is that there is nothing you can do other than to keep going back, to stay longer, to resist the temptation to leave and remain, to put aside the camera and be human.

I did not expect that the last few days of the workshop would be spent encouraging the students to simply hang around, to simply wait and not rush to find the images or the story they had gone there to find. That to find deeper reserves of patience during those first 48-72 hours can be the difference between mediocrity and clarity. And that all photographers, good or bad, unknown or famous, go through this. The best work through it consistently though not necessarily with greater confidence.

We are discussing and thinking a lot about our stories and the readings and the crucial intellectual issues that inform them. But come August 10th you will be asked to start to think as a human being walking in to the lives of other human beings who are from a different class, ethnicity, culture, society, religion and come with vastly different life experiences, outlook and concerns. Suddenly all that we have read and thought about will fall to the wayside and we will be confronted with our own fears, insecurities, uncertainties and doubts.

Suddenly we will sense our frailties and our human doubts. And it will all happen in front of people who will be taking you as a serious professional and expecting you to know exactly what it is that you are looking for and need.

We need to be prepared to be tested. And to realize that it is not just a matter of scaling the wall, but of doing so such that the other welcomes you across. This is in the end a documentarian’s greatest asset; the ability to overcome the divide and get to a place where the subject offers you their hospitality, reveals to you their intimate concerns, shares with you their joys and troubles and believes that you are there to speak about and for them with integrity, honesty and humanity.

Scaling this wall is about going from being a stranger to becoming a trusted partner. And it will take perseverance and belief. That is why we have focused so much on selecting the stories and hopefully each of you has selected one your believe in and are seriously engaged with.

Those of you with more experience should be ready to help and support the others. I and Sara will of course be there, though I can confirm that I face these moments of severe doubt practically every time I go out to shoot. So you will not be alone – I will be cowering in the corners with you! 🙂

The stuff in the workshop outline above is the easy part. We will get through that without concern. And we have a fabulous 2-weeks to work through the rest. As Sara has repeatedly pointed out – this will be a unique experience and I am still impressed that the school is encouraging this level of on-the-ground work from its students. Some, not all, will jump over that wall without a thought. Others will take some more time. Regardless, it will be seen and felt by all, I promise you that. The question we will have to ask ourselves is how do we negotiate it so that it reveals what is on the other side and not damage it.