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Miki Johnson: Tell me about how the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop started.
Eric Beecroft: I was thinking a few years ago, I’d been doing photography for about seven years and I wanted to take a workshop. I looked around and there were some great ones, but they were all impossibly expensive, particularly for students. I’m also a teacher, and they were too expensive for teachers too. Then I wondered, how could a local photographer from Latin America or Asia take one of these workshops? They could never afford it. So I thought, let’s just put one on ourselves. I teach photography and history at a small high school where I lead a lot of international trips, so the organization wasn’t that hard.
What has been really amazing is that it wasn’t hard to find people to teach for free. I think instructors are drawn to the notion of doing a workshop for people who are passionate and who they normally wouldn’t reach. The students aren’t all young — last year they ranged from 16 to 65 — and they’re not all trying to be professional photographers, but they’re passionate.
Another of our original ideas was to bring a lot of instructors together for one workshop. Most workshops are several thousand dollars for just one instructor. By having a dozen or so, we can offer a range of classes, lower the cost, and, best of all, create a mini-community that is almost like a festival on top of the workshop.
It was really important to me to create a community where everybody is really accessible. I remember reading a blog by a student last year. She wrote, “I walked into the opening party, and I went, oh my word, there’s Andrea Bruce, there’s Stanley Green, there’s Ron Haviv, and they’re all sitting there just drinking a beer and talking like human beings.” There’s a lot of God factor in photojournalism, and we want to take that away. We want to remind students that photographers are just people.
One thing I’d tell students is, don’t come to the workshop with preconceived notions. And don’t be scared to talk to the instructors. They don’t want to give autographs; they don’t want to be on a pedestal. We start the workshop off with an opening party where everyone’s just hanging out. That always blow student’s mind. If they can get past being star struck, they have the opportunity to build relationships that will last long after the workshop.
This year is going to be even more intimate because we capped the number of students at 100. But slots are still assigned on a first come, first served basis. I want it to be open rather than something you have to apply to. I thought, if a photographer is at a level where they’re going to Eddie Adams or they’re getting chosen for World Press Master Class, then they’re already pretty advanced. There’s this intermediate ground where you’re a beginner or you’re intermediate, you’re coming along, maybe you’re a hobbyist. And there’s nothing out there for that level of photographer that’s affordable.
MJ: So what kind of schedule can a new student expect at the Foundry?
EB: You’re taking one intensive class that is six days long. There are several specific classes students can choose from, and the end goal is to show your work to everybody at the final Saturday night show. That might be an individual story or it might be a collaborative effort, like Stanley Green’s class last year that created an amazing group project called Blood on the Floor.
We tell all the students to research stories before they arrive. Bring pictures if they’ll help; get access if you need it. It’s really hard to show up cold-turkey without any story ideas. Some people do anyway, and we try to help them. But the most successful ones either arrive a couple days early, or they get online and do a lot of research to develop a well-honed idea.
I don’t know how they did this, but two women got access to the women’s prison in Mexico City last year. I could not fly from Mexico to the United States and say, I want to go to the prison, give me access. And we had other people riding around with the ambulance drivers.
We like students to think of the workshop as an international photo assignment. A lot of people have this dream of being an international photojournalist. So we say, okay, here’s your shot. Come in, internationally, and do a story. Some students say, well, if I was professional, I’d have a $5,000 budget, and I’d stay in a five-star hotel. We have photojournalists like Andrea Bruce, a staffer for the Washington Post, and Mike Chavez for the L.A. Times, and they just stand up there on the panel and laugh. They tell the students, “I’m lost half the time. I don’t know what the heck’s going on. People won’t talk.”
Or the students will say, “You’re Ron Haviv, people never say no to you. Ron says, “Are you kidding me? People say no to me all the time.” It’s so important for aspiring photojournalists to see the reality versus their ideas of glamor. You know, we’ve ruined a few photographers. People have said afterward, I don’t want to do this.
But if you’re serious about becoming an international photographer, the Foundry can be like a halfway house. We’re here to help you with the first steps. Student who haven’t traveled, or they’re scared of travel, or they’re scared of shooting internationally — this can bring them to the next level.
As an example, last year some of the students struggled with story ideas. They came in wanting to shoot things like the president of Mexico. You can’t just show up one day and get that kind of access. So we said, let’s ask around. We met a man from Syria who was an orthodox monk stationed at a Catholic monastery in Mexico, because I think they’re running out of monks. He wasn’t even Catholic; he was Eastern Orthodox. It’s a great story. And he let four students stay at the monastery and document their lives. They ended up producing a great piece from that.
MJ: Why was it important for you to bring in a significant number of local photography students?
EB: This year we’ve got a lot of South Asian photographers coming, and last year we had quite a few Latin American photographers come — that’s what we want. We want them to get access to inspiration, to communities, to slideshows, to classes they normally wouldn’t get. And we also want non-local photographers to learn from the local ones. We tell all students, bring business cards, share them around. I know the connections students made at last year’s workshop haven’t stayed online. People have made friends. People have started dating. There’s kind of a huge web of people now.
We also wanted to help photographers understand what it’s like to work in an area, South Asia this year. We have panels with different photographers and points of view. So if someone is thinking about becoming a stringer there, they can find out what it’s like to work there, what challenges they might face.
We’ll also have one night where we show only work by South Asian photographers, where we try to get them some exposure that they wouldn’t normally get. We had a lot of good things come out of that last year. One amazing photographer ended up getting work with some major agencies, because of meeting people, networking, and showing his work at the workshop.
Then we had a couple young Turkish photographers in their early to mid 20s. They’re amazingly talented, so I won’t say the Foundry made all the difference, but since then, one is shooting for the Wall Street Journal, others are freelancing for the New York Times. One is in Afghanistan right now. They’ve met a lot of people and they’re jump starting their careers.