My photography has felt a little uninspired lately.
When I travel it’s easier. A new place, new people, I burst with motivation. But at home in New York City, a place I’ve lived and gotten used to for over 15 years, I go blank. In hopes of igniting a spark of creativity, I took a week-long, street photography workshop with famed photojournalist Peter Turnley, and I wanted to share the experience.
Below you’ll find an overview of the format, key lessons I learned, highlights from the week and my thoughts on the experience as a whole.
New York is filled with photography workshops, I chose Peter’s because I admire his work and versatility. As a former photojournalist for Newsweek, his powerful images of war and social injustice earned him 43 covers and world acclaim. But his pictures from years spent roaming the streets of Paris and Cuba show that he’s also adept at capturing romance, mystery and a sense of beauty in everyday life. In short, his photos inspire me, and I think that’s essential when choosing a photographer from which to learn.
Daily schedule overview
9:30am to 12:30pm
I was one of 10 participants of varying skill levels and experience. Most hailed from the States but there were also photographers from Uganda, Canada, and India. We met every morning at 9:30 am for lectures, discussions and photo critiques in a hotel conference room on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Peter screened documentaries, videos and slide shows featuring his life and photography, then led discussions about technique, framing, composition, and how to approach people on the street.
He also shared other photographers’ works such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, considered by most to be the father of street photography, and Lene Marie Fossom, a severely anorexic artist whose portraits of Syrian refugees resonated with Peter.
After our morning sessions, we photographed the city on our own. Peter escorted us on two group excursions to Times Square and Coney Island, though we shot separately once we arrived.
There were no specific assignments other than to find moments, interactions and people we wanted to photograph and then select up to 30 of our best images for review the following morning.
To help those new to New York, Peter provided a list of locations such as Harlem, Chinatown, and Grand Central Terminal, which are typically filled with people, visually interesting and a hotbed of interaction.
Each morning, Peter went through our selects as a group, screening them on a large monitor at the back of the room. He critiqued our work one at a time, starting with a quick run-through of the images we submitted. Next, he went through the photos he selected as the best, then those he didn’t, and why. His most frequent remarks were about framing and whether or not he felt a connection to the image.
From the framing perspective, he nixed photos in which feet, heads, limbs or objects on the edges of the frame were cut off in a way he felt didn’t work. He talked a lot about backing up a step to let the frame “breath”. On the flip side, he removed photos with compositions too far from the subject to inspire an emotional reaction from the viewer. “I would have stepped in more,” he’d say. “Maybe cranked (moved) right and really got in there.” A photo that found a balance between framing and connection (or at least came close) were added to his selects.
During our critiques, Peter was happy to answer all of our questions but overall he progressed at a pretty rapid pace, stopping now and then to relate a relevant example or story from his past.
At the end of the week, we met late in the afternoon on Friday for a special celebration. Peter served wine as we watched a slide show he put together with his selection of each photographer’s 15 best images.
Peter gave us enormous latitude in terms of what, where and how we photographed New York with two exceptions. He wanted us to commit to a color or black and white and a single focal length. I went with black and white the best focal length for street photography for me was my Canon 35mm f1.4.)
The reason: he wanted our final presentations to have visual consistency.
“Imagine if you were a writer and wrote one sentence in one style and the next in another, you’d lose the reader,” he said. “There’s no coherence, no flow. It’s the same thing with photography. If you’re using a zoom lens and changing the focal length all the time, you’re changing the perspective of your visual language.”
He explained that using one focal length would also challenge us to think more about our framing and compositions. “When you reduce your options you see better. When you have less choice, you work with what you’ve got.”
He wanted us to use our bodies to move in and around our subjects and not rely on the convenience of a zoom. The limitation would help us understand where our bodies needed to be in relation to our subjects to make the image we wanted.
Behave confidently and take control
Walking up to a stranger to ask for a photo can be frightening. Peter’s advice was to behave confidently and take control of the moment. If you act as if everything is fine a person usually responds in kind. If you act timid or as if you’re not sure what you’re doing is right, it only makes sense that someone would be wary. “Why would someone trust you if you act as if you’re doing something wrong?”
While I don’t have a lot of issues approaching strangers when I travel, I do get intimidated in New York. I took his advice and vowed not to let my fears distract me or talk me out of asking for a photo. I approached people confidently (whether I felt it or not), and it worked. The more I did it the easier it became.
Share your photos with your subjects
Peter is very generous with his photos and always offers to send a copy to the people he photographs. He keeps a stack of business cards in his pocket and he hands them out liberally, asking people to email him if they want their picture.
In the past, I’ve never sent photos unless I was asked, and now I regret it. Using his example as a guide, I began to offer people their images and I found it instantly brought down any walls they might have had because we both benefited. It made photographing them infinitely easier and enjoyable and led to some great conversations. Seventy-five percent of the people I shot emailed me within a couple of hours.
I’m going to print a nice-looking cheap card with my name and email address on it to use just for street photography.
If someone says no, try to change their mind
This question is not unique to this workshop but it became a subject of contention in one of our morning meetings. What do you do if you ask a person if you can make a photo and they say no? Do you still take it? I’ve always been of the mind that you do not.
Peter, who admits he rarely takes no for an answer, said he tries to change their mind. He tells them why he’s interested and is strong in his conviction that it’s a good idea and it typically works. Conversely, he also said that people on public streets really don’t have a right to say no and you should do whatever you think is right. Make the shot if you want it.
As a conflict photographer, I get how Peter would have this opinion. As a journalist, sometimes taking an unwanted photo is necessary to bring an important story to the world. Though it makes no sense really, I have more wiggle room in my ethics for a journalist making a shot on behalf of exposing the truth.
I do not agree it’s right when the reality is that you simply want a picture. My rights as a photographer do not override those of another human being just because I want something. It’s not as if people can avoid going out in public.
That said, after our discussion, I decided that next time someone said no I would try to change their mind. I told a woman I thought she was beautiful (which was the truth), and she immediately said “Ok.” I told a couple I thought they looked adorable (another truth), and they let me make the above. Lesson learned. But If they continue to say no, I drop it.
(What are your thoughts on the subject? Please let me know in the comments below.)
Photograph on a regular basis
During the workshop, I shot 3-5 hours a day. I won’t pretend I loved everything I did, I didn’t. But as the days passed, I felt more in sync with my camera. Since I’m not independently wealthy I can’t dedicate 35+ hours a week to photography and still pay my bills, but I can put a higher priority on making images.
Consider a single focal length
I won’t belabor this point since I discussed it above, but it was an important takeaway from the experience.
Find a project
A really great narrative takes time. That’s true whether it’s in writing or on a wall. I’ve listened to many photographers speak about their personal projects and how much they loved them and how they were a catalyst for growth. For some, a project even led to professional opportunities. Peter encouraged us to find something we could sink our teeth into and develop over time. “Do something that’s close to home and makes you happy, you’re more likely to finish it.”
Finding a project of my own is on my list of to-dos.
Highlights of the week
At the end of the week, Peter invited New York Times photographer Todd Heisler to our morning get together. He shared his award-winning photography including images he made in 2006 for a special feature called Final Salute. The story focused on U.S. Marines killed in Iraq and the impact on their families when they were returned home. Both beautiful and heart wrenching, the photos earned him a Pulitzer Prize.
Another highlight, though it had little to do with photography, was on the second night of the workshop, Peter hosted a dinner at El Paso, a delicious Mexican restaurant in East Harlem. A huge fan of Mexican cuisine, I was in heaven. I highly recommend it.
Overall, the workshop was helpful. I feel motivated to shoot more regularly and to come up with a personal project that excites me. Two big pluses moving forward.
I would have loved at least one private review of my images with Peter. An opportunity to ask more thoughtful questions about my work, my abilities and the next steps. I had one-on-one meetings during my Santa Fe workshop two years ago and I wrongly assumed it was the norm. In the future, I’ll ask upfront.
Group critiques are good but I can’t go as deep as I’d like because there’s a sense of urgency to get to the next person and not every question is meant for a public forum. I also feel private meetings are more honest and can go beyond the broad strokes critiques a group setting engenders.
Lastly, I realized I want to find a mentor. Someone whose work I admire that can guide me and help me grow. I’m tired of working in a vacuum. Easier said than done I know, but I’m going to work towards that goal.
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