Being Challenged

At its best a photo workshop both challenges each participant as well as give him or her a sense of achievement. Both are important. If you are challenged and don’t feel you can handle the challenge, you will soon lose your self-esteem. On the other hand, if you are not really tested beyond your comfort zone, you will hardly develop or improve your photography.

This idea has always been the basis for any of the workshops I teach, as it is for Sven Creutzmann, my friend and colleague with whom I teach the photo workshops in Cuba. For us it’s equally important that we challenge each participant at the right level. Good photographers need to be put to a harder test, whereas with beginners or less confident participants we cannot push as hard.

When we start a new workshop, we always commence with a desire to boost both ourselves and the participants as hard as possible. It’s a matte of motivation. It’s fair to say that we are very ambitious, both with respect to ourselves as well as on the behalf of the participants. For some participants this may come as a surprise. They might have attended other workshops without having the workshop teachers pushing them much at all. In the beginning when they are met with our determination to challenge, they may actually feel a little uncomfortable, but it doesn’t take long before they start to thrive, particularly when they see some dazzling development in their approach to photography.

I think it’s reasonable to say that over the years we have become good at finding the right balance between pressing each participants beyond their comfort zones and making sure they keep a sense of achievement. I also think our feedback during daily picture critiques have become precise and immensely valuable for the participants. After all, we have taught workshops for quite some years by now.

Although I have organized workshops longer, Sven’s and my first Cuba workshop took place in 2006. Quite a few changes have seen daylight since then. This year’s workshop in May took us to a different location, for instance. In addition to Havana, we went to the beautiful, colonial town of Trinidad. We, as workshop teacher, are also more out on the street shooting along with the participants, whereas during the first workshop we went to the rural Viñales. Particularly photography one-to-one with us has become something our participants value. It gives them a change to see how we work as professional photographers as well as letting us guide them better in their own shooting.

Most notably for this year’s workshop, was a new meeting point for lectures and picture critique the days we were in Havana. At the end of last year, Sven open his own art cafe in the district of Vedado. It’s probably one of the coolest cafes in Havana, displaying a lot of Sven’s photography as well as colleagues’ and friends’. ArtCafe Belview has already been picked up by many travel guides as well as gotten ravish reviews, and is a perfect place for teaching a photo workshop.

Do you want to come to Cuba for a photo workshop? Our next one, In the Footsteps of a Revolution, will take place from Nov 24th to December 7th later this year. Or maybe you’d rather go for an extended weekend. From September 21st to 24th I teach the photo workshop Street Photography in Bath, in England.

The group with participants and teachers during the Cuba workshop this May.
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Learning to Live (with a Camera)

It’s always fun to observe participants attending our photo workshops in Cuba; In the beginning they are all quite amazed—and for the most part surprised—about how easy it is to photograph Cubans. This is whether they are being photographed on the street or elsewhere. Not the least are the participants astounded about how easy it is to even get invited inside Cuban homes and be able to photograph their intimate and private life.

For most of us, it’s quite intimidating to approach strangers on the street with the intention to photograph them. Of course, if you have never done it before, it’s almost nerve wrecking in the beginning, but also for seasoned photographers it can sometimes take some extra courage to face some stranger on the street.

The ease with which Cubans open up themselves for strangers is one of the reasons why Cuba is one of the better places in the world to practice street photography. During our workshops, we more than once experience the joy with which participants discover they can do something they never thought would be possible. As each day goes, they approach strangers more confidently and even carelessly. Towards the end of the workshop, they don’t even think about it any more. We have had participants crying in the beginning of a workshop because they couldn’t manage to face strangers on the street—or so they though—only to lose them at sight later on, whenever they ventured deeper and deeper into homes and places that no one else would think about going.

So it was with this workshop in May, too. We saw it once again, the anxiety of having to get close on the street shifting to excitement in the meeting with complete strangers and in getting to know them through the process of photographing them. As the week pass, we—my colleague and friend, Sven, and I—push them to go closer and closer and even closer.

When participants start to play along with Cuban music or dancing on the street, we are far beyond the pure photographic experience. We talk about life in all its beauty and richness.

Pushing participants closer and closer is one think that we always need to do, Sven and I, in any workshop we teach. As we say, you can never get too close. In a street photography workshop, this is definitely one of our major missions. And then to push the participants to keep shooting, and the shoot some more. We see it time and again; most untrained photographers may capture one, two or at most five images of a scene or a situation. This is hardly getting started! Whenever we are out on the street with the participants, we have to keep forcing them to stay with a situation, almost to exhaustion, to make sure they capture enough frames. You simple don’t know when the best image will appear.

Get closer. Shoot a lot. And finally: don’t look at the camera’s preview screen. That’s the last of our three commandments for participants during a workshop. Too often, photographers need to check what they have captured all while the situation continues—and they lose maybe the best shot. All this is about being prepared, getting the most out of a given situation and make sure not lose “the” photo.

In the late autumn—in November-December—Sven and I will organize a new workshop in Cuba. This will be quite a different experience. We will travel all over Cuba for two weeks, following the footsteps of Fidel and Che’s revolution.

Back from Cuba

I have just rounded up my latest workshop in Cuba. As always, it was great fun, both for the participants and me. Cuba is maybe one of the best and easiest places in the world to train in street photography. Everywhere people are extremely relaxed about being photographed, very inviting and friendly. Any inhibition you may feel about approaching strangers on the street will easily evaporate in Cuba. In addition, the colours and the energy of the country make for captivating photos.

So far, I have hardly been able to recap the workshop and the whole experience in Cuba, not the least been able to process much of the thousands of photos I captured during the two weeks I spent in the country. Thus, here and now, I will only show a handful of images taken during the celebration of the international workers’ day on May 1. In later blog posts, I will get back to the workshop itself and of course show more photos both from the workshop and captured on my own.

Let me round up this post by thanking all of you who have commented previous post while I have been away. I have not been able to respond while being in Cuba, simply because internet access is very limited. However, I promise I will get back to each and everyone of you.

On my Way to another Workshop

As I am writing this little post, I am sitting in the airport of Amsterdam on my way to Cuba. I am about to start teaching yet another workshop in this fascinating country. It’s actually ten years since I did my first photo workshop here. Then as now, I am teaching it together with my good friend and colleague Sven Creutzmann.

As with the photography we do, we also try constantly to develop our workshops. The workshop starting up later this week is quite different from the first one we did ten years ago. Hopefully—and I believe it is the case—it’s a better workshop. Of course, that is for the participants to decide.

My flight is about to board, so I have left you with a few photos from last year’s photo workshop here in Cuba. As internet access is really poor in Cuba I most likely won’t be able to post anything again before I am back in Norway.

However, if you find Cuba intriguing, Sven and I are teaching yet another workshop later this year in the end of November and beginning of December. It’s going to be quite a special workshop, following the revolution of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in Cuba.

Beautiful Belize

As I wrote in my previous post last week, Belize is foremost known for its amazing nature. Last week I showed the beautiful underwater world along the coast of the very small Central-American country. In addition to diving and various water sports, we also got to spend about a week in the interior, in and around the rain forest. Of course, like any other country in this part of the world, ancient cities of the Mayans and the Pre-Mayans have been discovered throughout the country—and until last century hidden in the rain forest. It’s always something special to visit this abandoned cities with their impressive ruins and structures still standing. I have visited many of them over the years, and this time in Belize, we were able to spend time in another two ancient cities. In addition to photos from Caracol and Xunantunich, here in this post I also show glimpse of daily life in Belize. I am just going to let them stand there without further comment.

Don’t Trust Your Talent

I have always been a strong believer in talent being overrated. Over the recent holidays, I read a book that largely confirms my assumption. Yes, talent may set some limits to our abilities, for instance creatively—or for that matter and more specifically photographically, since that is the field I am working in and writing about in this blog—but I really think it’s only of marginal impediment. In particular when talking about creativity, I think it’s something everyone of us inherently possess, we just don’t use it to our full capacities. In growing out of childhood, the society, our peers and ourselves most often discourage our creative development, so much that we end up losing trust in our abilities. What may seem like a lack of creativity is never due to shortage of talent, as far as I see it.

The book I have read is Bounce, written by Matthew Syed, the British number-one table tennis player in the late 90’s, a two-time Olympian, today a columnist for The Times and a commentator for BBC. His book is challenging the prevailing idea that success—whether in sports, business, school, arts or whatever—is determined, in large part, by the skills we are born with. In doing so, Syed pulls on recent scientific studies from around the world on the subject and makes for a convincing argument (well, I guess he never had to convince me in the first place).

When we see—of if you could see—“natural talents” like Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, or for that matter Picasso or Mozart, in action, they seem to be in a different league than the rest of their equals—certainly compared to any of us regular mortal beings. What we forget and what we don’t see, is all the work they have put in to become extraordinarily good at what they do. Tiger Woods, for example, was considered a miracle golfer when he became the youngest ever winner of US Masters in 1997. Now, consider that Woods was given a golf club five days before his birthday, that by age two he had played his first round and that by five he had accumulated more hours of practise than most of us achieve in a lifetime. As Syed writes: “Far from being a golfer zapper with special powers that enabled him to circumvent practice, Woods is someone who embodies the rigour of practice.”

Practice is really what makes the difference. If you put in the work, you can excel in anything you want. Do you want to become a master photographer? It “only” takes some work, albeit a lot of hard, consistent and always pushing yourself kind of work. This much say, skills that are more based on pure physical strength may nevertheless have a component that is dependent on our heredity, such as for instance runners. However, not even the best runners in the world can compete at a top level without a lot of training. The genetic composition may have some saying, but medical science still haven’t found any “running gene”, which of course doesn’t mean it can’t exist.

For undertakings that are more complex, involving using more parts of our brain and body, Matthew Syed is adamant about how little talent matters. In achievements depending on fast reflexes, creativity, judging of multiple inputs and even intuition—without going into any definition of the word—we can only excel after hours and hours of hard work. Take a tennis player or a soccer player, he or she will not only have to be good a sending the ball over net or kicking a football and dribble, but he or she will have to be able to judge the movement of the opposition, weather conditions, the conditions of the field or the court and other variables. In many situations during a game he or she will have to make instant decisions. For instance a tennis player at the highest international level must be able to understand where the ball goes even before the opponent has hit the ball, judged upon how the opponent attacks the ball, being able to read even the smallest of muscle changes. This is not something that is God-given.

Syed calls it “combinatorial explosion”; tasks that requires a combinations of abilities and skill sets. As he writes in Bounce: “It is the rapid escalation in a number of variables in many real-life situations—included sports—that makes it impossible to sift the evidence before making a decision: it would take too long. Good decision making is about compressing the information load by decoding the meaning of patterns derived from experience. […] it must be lived and learned. It emerges through practice.”

What Syed is saying, is that in practices that require “combinatorial explosion”, our skills need to have been ingrained in our backbones. We need to be able to apply them reflexively without having to think consciously. To get to such a point takes thousands and thousands of hours of training. Take photography once again. If you are doing street photography, you need to react fast and get your settings right at first try. If you need to think about how to set the camera, how to compose, when to push the shutter button and so on, the subject will have long been gone. You really need to be able to handle your camera without having to think about it at all. Again, this is something that takes long practice. It’s nevertheless achievable—even at the highest level—for anyone who is willing to put in the work.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that being able to handle “combinatorial explosion” is not depending on some inherited talent. However, in Bounce Syed is referring to plenty of research that clearly shows that more than anything such proficiency is not a result of heredity but rather environment. I am not going to recount some of the studies; if you are interested I suggest you read Bounce. Of course there is more to excel in whatever endeavour you are engaging in than being able to handle “combinatorial explosion” and put in a lot of work, but let me stop for now. In next week’s post, I will take up the thread and reflect on other aspects of the dichotomy of talent vs. practice.

I will just like to add one thing: Think about how our understanding affects our mind sets. If we believe being able to become good at something depends on talent, what will happen when we fail a couple of times with our endeavour? Of course, we will give up, thinking there is no point in continuing since we don’t have the necessary talent. Rather, failing shows the opposite, that we are on the right track. As Matthew Syed says; to be able to get better at something we need to push ourselves close to what we can possibly handle. That means failing—a lot—before we get the hang of it.

Learning for Life

The creative process goes hand in hand with a willingness to learn. The day we decide we have learned enough, we stop developing our creativity. Vincent van Gogh began painting when he was twenty-nine years old. He did not have an abundance of natural ability at the start. Hand-eye coordination did not come easily for him. But he knew how to learn.

Those who accept that learning is a never-ending process develop an ability to grow beyond whatever talents they may have. Winston Churchill, considered to be one of the greatest orators of the twentieth century, was not born with a silver tongue. He began his career with pronounced speech impediments, and he could not speak extemporaneously. In order to compensate for these difficulties, he wrote all of his speeches and practiced delivering them before a mirror. Over years of practise and work, he continually learned.

As a photograph I naturally read as many photo books as I can get my hands on. It may be about Photoshop, it may be about other technical issues or—and that is more often the case—it may be photo books by other photographers, because nothing teaches me as much as looking at other photographer’s work. But my learning process doesn’t stop with pure photography related issues, even reading a novel may teach me something I can use in my creative process. I look at all kinds of artistic work, I listen to music, I search the web, and, not the least; I read a lot of books about creativity in itself. I also attend workshops and I teach workshops – which is just as much a learning process for me as for the students. I keep my eye open for any possibility to learn. Sometimes I get nothing out of whatever it is that I immerse myself into and sometimes I find a treasure of knowledge I can make use of.

The learning process may be filled with moments of failure, disappointments, and perhaps even embarrassment. Yet each failure can lead to greater competence when it becomes a basis for learning. It is only those who don’t believe in learning who assumes that failure is not a legitimate stage of development. They do not recognize that learning often means they may be «bad» before they get «good». To those willing to learn, perfect performance is not an issue; it’s all about the final results. Furthermore, this ability to create results is closely tied to learning and be willing to learn. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well, the saying goes. One may add that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly until you can do it well.

We may all have various natural talents, but we can all learn and we can all grow. That’s why I think creativity is not connected to talent, but the willingness to learn. We all have creativity in us, as long as we are willing to look for it and learn so that we can express it.

Last Week’s Instagram

Once a week—or every so often—I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last week. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. Except for the technical details beneath the pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Panasonic Lumix LX-100 with the lens set at 34 mm (the equivalent of a 75 mm lens for a fullformat camera). The photo was transferred to my cell phone and processed first with the Snapseed app with various adjustments before uploaded in Instagram.

Last Week’s Instagram

Once a week—or every so often—I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last week. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. Except for the technical details beneath the pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Panasonic Lumix LX-100 with the lens set at 34 mm (the equivalent of a 75 mm lens for a fullformat camera). The photo was transferred to my cell phone and processed first with the Snapseed app with various adjustments and then the Kelvin filter in Instagram.

Holiday

Summer holiday is a great time. A time for reloading the batteries, obtaining new inspiration and leave all worries behind for a while. I have just returned from a week in Dubrovnik. Holiday with my two sons. Despite extreme heat and a city overload with tourists—included ourselves of course—we very much enjoyed spending a week in the beautiful Croatian city right on the Adriatic Sea.

Holiday also means putting away all the regular tasks that fill up everyday life. Among other tasks, I left all blogging behind. As some of you, my regular readers, may have discover I have been completely absent from the blog sphere the last week. I do enjoy the contact that the blog provides, but it’s also nice from time to time to not have to think about the next post or how to answer the many comments.

However, I am back. And now I look forward to start a new season of blogging. Here are a few photos from my trip to Dubrovnik before I, as of next week, once again will start writing about the creative process that all of us photographers (and other artists, too) so much thrive on. The week in Dubrovnik was holiday, but of course, I could not let go of capture a photo or two, even if it’s not with the same focus as when the sole purpose with a travel is photography. But photographing is fun and inspiring no matter under what circumstance. No?