I am in Pakistan now. But in a few weeks I will be in The Netherlands. And here is why.
We hear from self-proclaimed photojournalism futurists that the media world as we know it is dead. We are told repeatedly by major magazine editors that there are no budgets for serious, long-term photojournalism assignments. We argue every week with other editors for a even the most basic of day rates for the assignments we do get. We hear and read about all the new technical breakthroughs that are making sure magazine-spread, linearly laid out photo-essays, once the bread and butter of the craft, are no longer relevant, and that more sophisticated tools are promising us non-linear, complex, multi-layered means of story-telling.
And yet, there are few photography workshops that will actually discuss and incorporate these realities and help students figure out ways to navigate them. Even the most well known, resourced and taught photojournalism workshops continue to teach students based on a pedagogy that has little relevance in the world the students hope to make a name for themselves. We continue to see people standing around a light table carefully and with exaggerated precision, laying out photos in an A-to-B sequence, as if the magazine page was the principal and only possible publishing medium. We continue to hear teachers talking about ‘sense of place image’ or ‘an opener’ or a ‘closer’ and other such anachronistic ideas that frankly suggest that there has been no digital transformation. Linearity, sequencing, start-here-then-go-there approach remain the principle method in workshops, photo festivals, gallery exhibits and even online portfolio presentations. This despite the fact that more likely than not, a new photographers work will end up on a digital platform far before it ever ends up in a printed one.
Photography workshops, much like the rest of mainstream photojournalism, are trapped in old forms and methods. I don’t mean to denigrate that method: it has been tried and remain true for decades, and has helped produce some incredible works. But with the decline in a willingness to pay for photojournalism, and to value its importance, it seems strange that we are still tied to an approach that is intrinsically connected to a medium that has largely disappeared i.e the printed page. That is, though there are more and more images online, and more and more illustrations in magazines, the value and worth of images has declined in inverse proportion, and the respect and commitment of editors to serious photojournalism has declined alongside. New students can’t simply be taught as if the world into which they are entering hasn’t changed, or is even able to sustain them as professionals. It can’t. Certainly not the number of people who would love to have a career in the field. The old methods remain sacrosanct and respected, which I also understand, but they must also now be re-worked. It isn’t enough simply to think about aesthetics, and edits, and sequencing, given that all of these are not as critical in a largely digital space as they once were. Furthermore, the very possibilities of ‘sequencing’ and ‘aesthetics’ has changed so much. And I also do not mean that we use more new technical gizmos or design techniques. What I am referring to is to experiment with new epistemologies, frameworks, perspectives and ideas for what constitutes a photo project, and how it can be constructed using a range of materials, information, approaches, methods, and concepts.
Don’t misunderstand me: this isn’t just about asking photographers to use more technology – this isn’t about a different Hackathon type approach. Of course, using animation, graphics, video, 3D, holograms and what not are the way people have been exploring the possibilities of digital media. But what is always left unsaid is the high cost of production, and the participation of teams of people. Most independent photographers can’t take this approach. Big budgets can obviously create new kinds of presentations and methods, as we have seen from so many publications and start-ups. What I am interested in is how we can come at issues, at subjects, at interests, in an entirely new way, and use commonly available digital tools, to create new ways of thinking about stories, and even about what constitutes a story. I am interesting in revealing new and unique aspects of existing work, of discovering avenues of investigation of conventional work, of creating new insights into well-worn and covered issues and subjects. And doing so by breaking away from the visual and intellectual conventions of editorial and documentary photography. This isn’t about toys or gizmos. This is about breaking away from nearly 30 years of now stultifying and fraying conventions of the craft and the subjects that obsess it, and finding something genuinely interesting to show and say.
The Amsterdam workshop will push students to produce beautiful photographs, and we will focus on the fundamental challenges of working on a complex photo project. But it will also push you to think past the photo-essay, and to strive to produce something larger, more complex, multi-faceted and layered. Unlike other photographers, I rarely use my own work as an example. My workshops are not a way for me to impose my own ideas, or hold my own work as an aim. We will explore a range of works by other photographers who are in fact trying new things, experimenting with new approaches, but most importantly, are breaking away from the repetitive and conventional subjects of mainstream photojournalism to open new worlds and new perspectives for us. Bring your cameras, and bring your mind. We will make photographs, we will read, we will explore, we will design, we will layout new structures for your project itself. This will be a shorter version of a workshop I taught in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2013. I wrote a small note about that, pointing out that:
Whether the students are able to actually live up to the excitement of the ideas remains to be seen. What however they are doing is moving past their known forms of photography, and their known conception of how photography can work. I am moving them into zones of discomfort, trying to get them see how to use the photograph to do more than simply make nice photographs. Most all the students have typical photo portfolios, and many have confined themselves to conventional story ideas – poverty, drugs and so on. Now hopefully they are playing with new ideas, and playing with photography, producing interesting stories that have a voice, a perspective, an argument, and are using various methods to do so. Those with little portrait experience are being pushed to work with it. Those who have avoided getting inside lives, are being asked to enter homes and get familiar. Its been an intense few days, but I am always happy when I can help students work on stories that I really want to see emerge. And these stories are just really very exciting and I am anxious to see how the students cope with them.
This is an opportunity to push yourself past the conventional ideas of photojournalism. My only goal in these structured sessions is to get students to liberate themselves from the strictures of commercial photojournalism, and to see magazines and editors are merely one of many outlets that their works can be featured on. By helping them produce broad, varied projects, students are able to not only create basic photo essays for magazines, but also more complex versions of projects that can have an appeal to academic and non-governmental organisations and also important foundations. That is, they can produce works that have a life and a depth that allows them to live and grow beyond the published print page or online slide-show. This is a workshop. Its a place where they can experiment, make mistakes, face fears and still have a great time doing it. Its Amsterdam. We will have a great time doing it.