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Over the years there’s been more than a few bird photographers who have said, “Look at Artie, he’s getting 15 people on a tour at $999 a person — do the math. And he does three tours a row in New Mexico. I can do that too.” But with the exception of people who really enjoy being around people, they pretty much all failed. It comes back to the principle of hard work. I think the most important thing to make a successful workshop is to put your heart and soul into it and to give a damn.
Ask yourself, “Am I a people person?” “Do I want to work 17 hours a day?” “Do I want to put every ounce of effort I have into finding a good situation for these people?” I’ve seen other instructors who will go to a spot that’s traditionally good, and if it’s terrible, they stay in the same spot and waste the folks’ time. On a typical morning at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, I often move the group up to five times in the first one-and-a-half hours. If you’re lazy, workshops are not for you. Likewise, if you don’t like people, you’re not all of a sudden going to become a people-person because you’re running a workshop.
I don’t know how the template for BIRDS AS ART Instructional Photo-Tours (IPTs) came to be, but they’re not much different now than when I ran the first workshop with one person. The formula came to me naturally: tell people what they will be doing, get up early and go photograph, help them in the field, and then review the images.
We still do an introduction on the first night. We show the students what we’re going to be photographing and talk about the various techniques that we will be using. The second evening we do critiques, and the third night we take a close look at composition. Each year we put more emphasis on the photography itself. We always find time for some Photoshop lessons. Many good photographers make their images look worse in Photoshop rather than better. That’s why we came up with the Digital Basics File, a PDF that we send by e-mail.
Originally we took as many as 15 people out, but now we’ve reduced the group size to 6-10 and raised the prices. It took me a long time to realize that if I take two groups for three days I have to do all the ground work twice. Now that I’ve started doing these longer trips there’s much less pressure with regards to the weather and the really great photo ops; I feel much more relaxed throughout the trip.
People always comment that I’m one of the few leaders who eats almost every meal with the students. Most of the big-name tour companies have professional leaders whose primary job is to open the door of the van. I have my laptop on and I’m teaching pretty much all the time except when we’re chewing. An IPT is pretty much total immersion.
My mother will ask me, “Are you going to retire?” And I say, “Ma, I love what I do, I love every second of it.” Even when I’m working 16-hours-a-day, I love it. People often ask if I take a vacation without a camera and a big lens, and I just laugh. Why would anyone do that if they’re doing what they love?
I think that most folks who are starting out in photography, whether they come from another career or not, their goal is to not have to go back to their first career. There was one guy who worked for me early on, he was working for IBM and they were offering him a buyout. And I said, “I’d take it in a heartbeat. If you can make it on your own, even for a year, that’s one year you didn’t have to wear a tie and sit in a cubicle. And now, 15 years later, he’s taking people all over the world teaching photography.
You gotta be yourself. You can fool people for a little bit, but not for long. I’m opinionated, and I’m not humble. Some folks are going to be rubbed the wrong way by that. (My people skills have improved dramatically over the past decade and I try never to be arrogant.) I like to say that 80% of the people love me and 20% hate me — nobody is neutral about me. And many of the 20% have never even met me. You gotta love that. It’s commonplace for people to say, “Oh my god, you went on a tour with Artie Morris? He is arrogant and he will push you out of the way to get a picture, he doesn’t care if you learn anything.” When someone asks, “Have you ever been on one of his trips?” the person always responds, “No, but that’s what I heard.” I never take it personally.
Call me nuts: I am one of those rare folks who would rather be out photographing with a group than be out by myself. I just love leading IPTs. (P.S. Most of my seven BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year-honored images were created while teaching.)
Miki Johnson: Tell me about how this project started.
Paul Waldman: After I left my position as managing editor of Zone Magazine, I wanted to do something that hadn’t been done, and that had both global and intimate scope. The Living American Master Photographers Project (LAMPP) grew out of this. At the time, far more emphasis was placed on photographic content as opposed to the individual artist. Nobody was studying the personal content of individual photographers. Portraits of these men and women, whose images were shaping society at a basic level, were not available.
I was appalled that as a society we weren’t in touch with what I considered a living national treasure: our photographic community. I began doing portraits, interviews, and occasionally both, with photographers starting in 1991. Back then, the idea of committing to an ongoing “living study” was somewhat foreign. At times, it is still difficult to convince people of LAMPP’s value as a social tool and document.
Many of the photographers resisted initially. Some had been “hunted” by fans who wanted a shot of them. But after the first ten or so portraits, a body of work began to emerge that was well received. Although my hopes for editorial assignments and assistant jobs from these encounters never materialized, what I ended up with had a greater value: some of the most rewarding personal relationships of my life.
MJ: What does a typical interview and portrait session look like?
PW: An interview is now a prerequisite for participation but in the beginning, it was an either-or proposition. I opted for the portraits, thinking I could always go back for a phone interview. There was never a template I followed; I think this enhanced the experience for both myself and the participant. Whenever possible, I tried to sit down and talk, not as an interview, but as two people sharing a beginning. Participants saw I wasn’t trying to coerce something out of them other than their love, experiences, and accumulated wisdom garnered from an eye within the craft.
I became close with Andreas Feininger and his wife Wysse. I’d often go up to their flat on 22nd and Broadway in Manhattan for tea. Jacques Lowe and I would talk about his time with JFK, his love of jazz, and his experiences photographing its legends. I did a portrait and interview on the road to and from Seligman, Arizona, with Allen Dutton and we remain close to this day.
When I photographed Sally Mann, Patrick Demarchelier was doing a street shoot as we were approaching our portrait location. I asked Sally if she wanted to meet Patrick and introduced them for the first time. There were other strange moments, like finally photographing Duane Michals in his basement laundry room after trying to meet with him for three years.
The first session I scheduled with Gordon Parks, a big Nor-Easter hit Manhattan. I realized there was no way it could happen as planned. When we finally met, there was a blizzard tearing through Manhattan. Snow appeared to fall parallel to the ground, as if it were orbiting the city.
MJ: Do you have a favorite image or story from a portrait session?
PW: That’s a challenge. Working with Bob McNeely at the White House under President Clinton was a privilege. After we’d met and he’d taken me down to the photo office, he needed to go and pick up his daughter from school. I told him not to worry, I’d be happy to hang out. Later, Bob snapped an image of the president and I as we talked about Bob’s daughter, who was quite young at the time. He had President Clinton sign the photo for me. Since then our friendship has blossomed. I recently spent a night out at his farm upstate from Manhattan, re-photographing him with his daughter — she was graduating high school!
Most recently I photographed Barbara Bordnick at home. She was so moved by the experience, she asked if I’d record an extra track at the end of our interview. To my surprise she shared some moving words about my presence as a portraitist and her love for the LAMPP body of work. Barbara’s an amazing editorial portraitist; her unsolicited kindness was especially inspiring.
Jill Enfield was incredibly generous. She and husband Richard Rabinowitz let me stay in their home in Manhattan for an LAMPP trip. I was a stranger, having only spoken with her and Richard by phone. I arrived at 6am! Her two teenage daughters were sleeping as I quietly settled in. That kind of love and appreciation for the project’s mission has been particularly touching.
MJ: What about a good story about recording an interview with a photographer?
PW: A favorite audio recording is of AP legend Marty Lederhandler. His “Pigeon Story” from WWII’s D-Day is well known among many of the AP people, but few know it outside that circle.
Marty Lederhandler – “The Pigeon Story”
One of my favorite moments involved Sylvia Pericon, a student who volunteered to interview Steve McCurry for LAMPP. After the interview, we sat at a cafe in New York’s West Village and did a post-interview about her experience. She was so moved and energized. When Sylvia told her teachers about her LAMPP interview, they were amazed she had such an opportunity.
MJ: Where does all the content live? Where would you ideally like to see it?
PW: I am committed to the idea that this content should “live.” Because the project has been almost entirely my creation, the negatives, prints, audio, media kits, FAQs, quote selections, contributed letters, kudos, and rejections remain with me. One of my highest hopes is that LAMPP escapes my personal gravity, that other people get involved. In retrospect, I feel LAMPP has suffered in part from its perception as “my” project. I’d like to see it expand, for others to experience what I’ve been blessed with.
There’s so much undiscovered country, so many older masters and emerging masters who haven’t been tapped yet. For the past few years I’ve been trying to establish foreign satellites that would explore global perspectives through the LAMPP paradigm, the LMPP: International. As our planet becomes smaller through faster, richer, deeper communication and media distribution, methods of common experience will be instrumental in forging more meaningful international, intercultural relationships.
I’d like to see LAMPP integrated into a higher education institution or museum with robust photographic programs if it does not attain its own self-sustaining presence as a foundation. The project needs space to expand, and the opportunity for participants and luminaries to visit for “micro residencies.” I’d like to see an interactive textbook created that students can collect and have signed by masters featured for that year.
MJ: What is the biggest challenge you face moving forward?
PW: Recently I’ve approached the Annenberg Space for Photography, The Smithsonian, and the Duke Center For Documentary Studies without so much as a commitment to an open dialogue. I find it ironic and disturbing that these institutions will feature an individual artist, but neglect the impact of the photographic community as a whole. It’s like trying to understand an orchestral piece by listening to one or two musicians individually.
The deaths of many 20th century masters was a wake up call to the community. Creating an active interest in LAMPP before participants pass has also been particularly daunting. Getting contact information for possible candidates is fraught with obstacles. With each master’s passing we loose the collected wisdom of a life and the synergy of that information within the context of an individual, gifted and trained in the art of seeing, perceiving, touching. My hope is that this will become an additional source of income for photographers, as well as a boon for our emotional, social, cultural, and political evolution.
MJ: How can photographers help?
PW: The best way to help is to get involved. Become an LAMPP evangelist. I’d love to build a proactive board that embraces fundraising initiatives. It doesn’t have to be just photographers. LAMPP was designed for the American public trust. I’ve been in a photo lab so many times when the people working there didn’t know the seminal living or past master photographers.
We’re changing. The photographic image is omnipresent. I tell people there’s probably a photograph ten feet from them; they’re probably sitting or staring at one as we speak. That’s powerful stuff.
It’s nothing to be intimidated about; not knowing photographers by name or face. There’s so much out there to get excited about, to enjoy, to participate in. But in practical terms we need grant writers, legacy donors, a LAMPP home, services, co-opt friends, associates, business partners, professional organizations, industry support, and interest from the government. That’s a wish list! Let everyone know we’re sharing vision; we’re growing sight through every man and woman’s contributed light.
You don’t always have to leave town to attend a top-notch workshop — Dane Sanders’ Fast Track Road Show Workshop might be coming to a town near you. This traveling workshop is visiting two more cities in the coming months, with more engagements added regularly. Expanding on the principles outlined in his popular book, Fast Track Photographer, Dane’s workshop helps photographers implement his Fast Track Philosophy and discover the strategies and tactics that work best for their business. Also emphasizing community, the workshop wraps up with an informal coffee talk with Dane and the other photographers in the class.
Where & when: Chicago: June 15-16; New York City: October 20-21
How much: $750
The speaker list — and the guest list — for this “luxury wedding business summit” is always a who’s who of the wedding photography world. By careful cultivating an atmosphere of effortless networking that encourages an open exchange of ideas, information, and inspiration, organizers Rebecca Grinnals & Kathryn Arce cultivate candid discussions of the issues and opportunities facing members of the luxury wedding industry.
Where: Grand Cayman Island, British West Indies
When: June 21st – June 23rd
How much: $2,000
If I Had Just One Wedding with Garrett Nudd
Garrett Nudd’s short-but-sweet workshop may only be one day long, but he promises to cover the full specture of topics that wedding photographers are most interested in, including, marketing, branding, goals and business planning, how to get published, the value of positive vendor relationships, destination weddings, identifying unseen opportunities in a challenging economy, and creating photographic art that commands attention and sets you apart.
Where: Indianapolis, Indiana
When: June 15
How much: $99
Italy Workshop with Gene Higa and Jose Villa
In the highly competitive wedding market, there is never just one right answer to any question. Students at the Italy Workshop will benefit from the synergy of two dynamic instructors, Gene Higa and Jose Villa, who will share experience from their different points of view, different shooting styles, and different marketing approaches. And as far as destination workshops go, it doesn’t get much better than Tuscany.
Where: Cavriglia, Chanti – Tuscany, Italy
When: October 27-29th
How much: $1,950
In this economy, distinguishing yourself from the competition is more important than ever. This week-long photojournalism-focused retreat in Cape Cod helps photographers become stronger visual storytellers with group exercises, editorial assignments, and a staff that nearly outnumbers the students. ShootQ has also teemed up with ROOTS (a.k.a. Emilie Sommer) to offer a $500 scholarship to one lucky photographer.
Where: Cape Cod, Massachusetts
How much: $3,200
The Wedding Summit, run by Frances Marron and Kristy Chenell, helps photographers adapt to the ever-changing market by focusing on individual business branding, vision, and goals. The Summit strives to provide students with the tools they need to generate maximum revenue in creative, simple, and effective ways.
Where: Orlando, Florida
When: Aug. 24-27
How much: $2,000
Miki Johnson: How did ILCP decide it wanted to focus more on social media like Facebook and Twitter, as well as online community building?
Trevor Frost: As a young photographer and explorer, I’ve had to spend many hours networking to get to where I am now. So when I joined ILCP as the Director of Rapid Assessment Visual Expeditions, I thought it would be great to make a online avenue for others like me to meet and work with the accomplished photographers, scientists, and explorers that make up our organization.
ILCP already does a good job at facilitating communication between members, especially our emerging league and experienced fellows. But ILCP members have little communication with others who aspire to be photographers or conservationists, yet are not quite skilled enough photographically to be a member of the ILCP. By providing a social media platform for this communication, we can link less experienced photographers, explorers, and scientists with members of our group who are very experienced. This will help support new talent, create a community beyond membership in the ILCP, broaden the reach of ILCP, and, we hope, lead to higher conservation achievements.
MJ: What online tools is ILCP utilizing to extend its communication?
TF: ILCP is focusing on Twitter and our new online magazine/blog to generate a community and to catalyze connections between conservationists, scientists, and photographers. With the online magazine/blog we hope to create a digital outlet that photographers will want to be published in, something they want to put on their resume. We also hope it becomes a platform for communication and critique, and offers a place to publish stories that have been rejected by traditional media.
On Twitter we are starting off by posting links to websites and news stories that feature ILCP or its photographers, affiliates, and partner organizations. Eventually we will expand this to include a wide range of interesting conservation topics. People only want to follow Twitterers with the most interesting updates.
One major goal of all of this is to drive increased traffic to our websites and multimedia pieces, which help disseminate conservation messages. The increased web traffic should also help us forge new relationships with corporate partners by offering an opportunity for brand exposure. At this point ILCP’s involvement in social media is in its infancy. Aside from our followers and fans increasing on Twitter and Facebook, we have not seen direct benefits yet. We do, however, expect to see benefits over the course of the next year.
MJ: Why did ILCP decide to focus its resources on social media and online tools?
TF: When people ask how they can help non-profits they almost always hear: Please donate. This is frustrating. People want to get their hands dirty. Many of the most successful conservation projects involve citizen science and participation. When people have a chance to work along side well-known scientists or photographers it, makes them VERY excited about the subject and, I believe, it motivates them to become more involved, including donating money.
ILCP membership is based heavily on one skill — the ability to produce stunning images. Thus the ILCP can seem elitist. We realize there are many photographers who take brilliant images and work very hard on conservation who are not quite to the standard of ILCP, but who could still benefit from working with ILCP in some way. Using social media, we can create an extended ILCP community without actually extending membership.
We hope that this will help our followers grow as photographers and conservationists, so at some point they can join ILCP as a member. This also fosters communication, moderated by ILCP, between emerging photographers and the extremely talented members of the ILCP. All of this empowers conservation. The bigger the army, the better!
MJ: Have ILCP members embraced this new social media initiative?
TF: I don’t have any concrete numbers or names but in the last two months I have noticed, especially on Twitter, more of our members tweeting. Even some of members with more years under their belts.
There are certainly a few of our members who are quite skilled with social media tools. Not surprisingly, most of them are our younger members or emerging members. A few names that come to mind are Chris Linder and Ian Shive. Both have helped ILCP produce the first Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition blog (Borderlands RAVE) in addition to a few other projects.
There are two upcoming Rapid Assessment Visual Expeditions (RAVE): one to the Flathead basin in British Columbia in July 2009 and one to the Yucatan Peninsula in September 2009. Stay tuned for a RAVE website with field dispatches, the ability to track expedition members, and live photos and video.
Miki Johnson: You are obviously very passionate about nature and conservation issues. Where does that passion come from?
Daniel Beltra: Really since I was a kid I was passionate about nature and photography. I was interested at first in being an agency photojournalist, and I managed to get a staff position with EFE — the Spanish national agency. I was shooting all kinds of stories, but still with a taste for nature. I never finished college but I did a couple years of forestry engineering and four years of biology. Then I got tired of the normal day-to-day photographic work –- from the press conference to the basketball match to a demonstration. I wanted to do stories more in depth. I ended up quitting my job and I started working for Gamma, which allowed me to shoot stories that I selected and to give them more time.
At the same time I started shooting for Greenpeace, which opened this whole world to me as a photographer. That was really an incredible opportunity. All of a sudden I found myself traveling to Polynesia or the Antarctic or to Patagonia. So I was really on the frontier where many of these environmental issues were happening.
I got started with Greenpeace when I was a staff photographer in Spain. I talked to their local branch and they said, we do a lot with the media, so if something is going on in your area we’ll let you know. They called me one day and said they were doing a mammal survey on the Mediterranean. So I talked with my boss at EFE and he said, “Yeah right. What’s the news? And you want to take two weeks to do it?” I ended up convincing him to let me go on my own holiday time. I went with the agreement that if the story was good enough, the agency would distribute it. I was willing to go on my holiday because I was really passionate about it and I saw that it was a great opportunity.
I had a great time, they ended up distributing the story, and Greenpeace really liked it too. They came back to me and said, if you want to work with us, we’d be really happy to have you. But I was a staff photographer and I couldn’t. Then in 1992 I quit my job and started working with Greenpeace in Spain and also Greenpeace International, which is based in Holland. Since then I’ve been really involved with them. From 1992 until I moved to the United States in 2001 I was the Spain correspondent for Gamma. And often Gamma would say, “Are you working for Greenpeace or are you working for us?” Because I always wanted to go on the Greenpeace assignments. Of course Gamma had interesting assignments, but it’s very hard to compete with someone saying, “Do you want to go on a survey of the Arctic for three months on an icebreaker?” That was a no-brainer for me.
Greenpeace is my main client by far. They don’t employ any staff photographers; they work only with freelancers. I think they are clever the way they always want to have names in the industry that are recognized. So there’s a bit of a separation between the activism and the professional journalist that comes in. And in my case I try to keep that line separated, but deep in my soul I am very loyal to Greenpeace. But they don’t tell me what to shoot or anything. Of course they tell me they want a story about the Amazon, but once I’m there they don’t say show this, don’t show that.
Things are really changing with non-profits. I get the feeling that some non-profits can afford to pay regular market fees now. Maybe not 100%, but 75%. I think Greenpeace is very clever…they decided what are the best means to reach the public and inform the most people. And good photography or good video is a great tool. So to put someone that can do a great job in a situation that is very interesting and then they expose that in the media, it tends to work very well.
I feel that my work has more impact now than when I was a photojournalist. Not because I am better, but because of the situations I’m working in. I’m not only documenting what’s happening, but there’s a really strong will to change the situation. Greenpeace has pioneered that.
Miki Johnson: Did Aina meet with any resistance at first?
Reza Deghati: To give you an image, in 2002 we announced we were going to have a photography courses. There was no telephone, no electricity, no satellite, no running water. I said, it doesn’t matter, we can do it. Two days after we announced the courses, we had 500 people who signed up. We gave them a paper to write their resume on, told them what that was, and how to write it. We spent a few weeks reading the resumes, sorting out 55 students for interviews and we posted that list. The next Wednesday we had 700 people show up. Everybody said, “I didn’t see my name, I thought maybe there was a mistake.” The people in Afghanistan are like a dry sponge. They need every single drop. You cannot imagine how fast-learning they are.
In which city in the U.S. can you bring in seven girls who have never touched anything like a camera, train them, and in nine months they can make a documentary that is nominated for an Emmy award? These are the people who can change their own country much more than we can. And the enthusiasm of those people…You have to be there to see the eyes of the women who listen to the radio. Or when we distribute the magazine, see the whole village come to thank us.
During the first ever Afghan presidential election, everyone was saying, it’s going to be very tough. People won’t show up. And to the astonishment of the whole world community, it was the smoothest election. When all the world’s communities were astonished, Afghanistan’s foreign minister in a press conference said, “One of the reason our country understands democracy, is thanks to AINA.” These are the impact the organization is having now. But for me, the real outcome is 20 to 30 years from now.
MJ: What has been the biggest challenge Aina has faced?
RD: The real challenge and real problem is how to get funding for this project. Because when you are a pioneer, and you have a new idea, many people don’t understand the idea, or they think it’s not matching their organization’s mandate.
So I thought, “Well Reza, look in the mirror, you are a photographer, see what you can bring in.” I made a big auction in 2002 of 50 of my prints and two cameras I used to have with me in conflict zones, a Leica and a Canon. I was trying to send a message to all my colleagues saying that we need to be more involved. We are in contact with this population and we know how they are suffering and we have to give back to them. So from that moment some of our projects started attracting donations. But there were times when some projects, or the whole organization, were not getting funding. So then I started putting in all my income. When that wasn’t enough, I put in 100% of my savings, and did more auctions — three auctions up until now.
The reason I was doing this was that I believed this would be one of the big things the world needs in the 21st century. I believe training these local journalists will help create the big change. The main challenge was helping people understand that giving educational tools to children is more important than just building schools. But every time I found myself explaining this to someone and another NGO was talking about building a school, at the end they were writing checks to the people building schools, not building minds.
We have done 12 issues of our children’s magazine. Every time we have money, we print 40,000 copies and distribute them free everywhere. This costs 50,000 Euros, about $60,000. Think of 60,000 dollars in front of one day of U.S. military operational cost — and then think about what the result of these 40,000 magazines could bring.
Another challenge for me is explaining the importance of what we are doing to people in other countries. They say, “Our children have bookshelves that are full of books and magazines. They don’t mean anything.” So when I tell people about these children’s magazines we print, it’s hard to imagine what their importance is. But we’re talking about our magazine being the first ever printed color material ever seen in the whole village. Once we brought a single copy of the magazine to a whole village. When I went back after three weeks, 150 people had gone through that magazine. Fifty children had learned by heart some of the stories. That’s one of my challenges, how to explain to people how important these projects are. Or how many children’s lives do we save with one radio by helping women understand what the causes of child mortality are.
So how do we deal with funding? The National Geographic mission program is one way. But who is the second? National Geographic is not for profit. It’s not a foundation with deep pockets. This year they have to cut millions of dollars out of their budget. And we want to expand to other countries, also. The whole project is like a toolbox. When we go to a country and see a government that doesn’t like one of our projects, we can have a tool that is matching every country in the world, because of our concept of a toolbox. We can go to Cuba, Syria, Burma and be accepted by the government. That’s the whole concept. And by working and living in those countries, I’ve come to realize how you can get through those problems.
MJ: What can photographers and photo industry professionals do to help?
RD: We have launched Aina photo agency. If all the magazines in the world would look first at Aina Photo’s website when they are looking for pictures from Afghanistan, or if we can find a way to promote Aina Photo’s website, it will help its operation. So I’m talking to photo buyers first. If we sold one picture per day, at say $200, it would help the whole agency to run. If we can bring magazines in the world to understand that if you buy pictures from them, you are helping, because we are training more photographers now. You just helped train more photographers. And editors don’t take money out of their pockets, they get good pictures. If you give one assignment to an Aina photographer, instead of sending one person from Paris, you save hotel, interpreter, guide, and security fee. You save a lot of money. You gain by saying : I got better pictures, the pictures I wanted. But also in other parts you have a better conscience.
For photographers to help, when I launch this whole international organization, I will need membership. I’m going to ask all my colleagues if they want to help this project by becoming a member. This is a new form of social networking internationally. Many photographers are passing through Afghanistan, so I invite them to come to Kabul and give a lecture. In return they’ll get a lot of help. One of the projects I’m thinking of launching will be an international worldwide auctioning of prints by famous photographers who want to help this project. Like I did.
Carmen Suen: Tell me about how the “I Dream To…” program works.
Amy Tierney: It is a semester long program where me and my co-instructor, photographer Emily Hart Roth, go to the participating schools every week for a one-and-a-half-hour class to teach the girls the skills that they need to be a photojournalist, including how to use a camera, how to use Lightroom to produce edits, how to conduct an interview, and so on. Each of them has to choose a woman who they want to do an interview with, usually someone in the career field of the student’s dream, or someone who inspires them.
Towards the end of the semester, they interview their subject, take pictures during the interview, and write up an article as their final projects. We then post these articles on the “I Dream To…” blog, so others can see their work. We also take the girls to a photography studio so they can see what a true working studio and a photographer’s daily work life is like.
But the highlight of the program is the exhibition. Not only do the girls get the chance to show family and friends their own work, but they can also be introduced to different people in the community. It’s a great way for them to practice their social skills.
CS: What is your role in this program?
AT: I am actually a founder and mentor of the “I Dream To…” program, which started in 2007. At the time, I was already involved with StepUp Women’s Network’s L.A. Chapter. One of the mission of StepUp is to inspire and empower high school girls in underserved communities to achieve their dreams. I believe art can help us understand the world around us. And so I decided to bring art to these high school girls. Because of my own background, photography seemed to be the obvious choice.
Through photography, photojournalism in particular, you get the opportunity to interact with a multitude of people. I think people skills is one of the most essential skills for one to succeed in life.
CS: Do you feel like the program is achieving its goals?
AT: I would say it’s very well received. Jamie Kogan, Step Up Women’s Network’s program manager really keeps us going. This year is the third year, and the program has expanded from L.A. to Chicago and New York. We got so many hugs and thank-yous at the end of each semester. Some of the girls who have participated in the program have taken a serious interest in photojournalism and have decided to pursue it as a career. That’s a very big encouragement for us.
We also have to thank our sponsors for helping us financially. Our organization is non-profit and depends largely on financial assistance from our donors. We hope that they will continue to help make this program happen.
When I started photographing 30 years ago, all the photojournalists in the world, we all had almost the same tools: one Nikon camera. When you went to cover African or Asian countries, they had the same camera. The writers and journalists had only a pen and a notebook. Everyone had the same things. But in the last 30 years, we went through an information revolution. We in the west are the first ones who have access to these new tools. We are the ones getting the best laptops, cameras, and video cameras. In the meantime, considering how expensive it is not only to buy this equipment but to be trained on it, we are leaving the whole other part of the world — non-western countries — behind.
Their journalists and artists and poets don’t even have money to buy a pen and a notebook while we have access to the top technological materials. So how can they connect to us, or their own nation, if they don’t have tools? So I thought, each country needs just a few hundred people to be trained and to get those tools. If we can help them, train them, and give them access to tools, we have connected the whole humanity of the world together again.
My other observation was that one of our main tasks is to say that democracy is the best way of having a government. We are trying to spread democracy. The only way to achieve that is to let the people themselves make democracy. You cannot force people to be democratic. And the best tool for democracy is freedom of speech, which needs free media. If there is no free media, there is no democracy.
With those three observations in my head, and running from one conflict to another, I started thinking, “What will be the 21st century’s new organization that could bring all these elements together and effectively help solve those problems?”
I had started training local photographers when I was going on assignments, in ’86 in the Philippines, and then the former Soviet Union. Then I went to Bangladesh to help Shahidul [Alam] start his own school, and I was the first teacher in that school. Afterwards I went to Beijing for three years to teach in the university and train professional photographers. This was how I began to realize the answer to my question: Create an independent media and culture center in each country, where a couple hundred local journalists and talented young people would be trained to have access to new technology. We would train local people, not as a school, but as a job training center. The idea was to start media projects immediately, like independent magazines, children’s magazines, women’s magazines, a radio station for women. Then in the meantime you have people who are trained launching their projects.
When I wrote all those ideas down, I was looking for one country that would be the pilot country, which I would use as a laboratory for the whole thing. It was 2000 and the obvious place for me was Afghanistan. First, because it was the darkest place of humanity: the Taliban were there, Russians had been there, there was civil war, and Al Qaeda fighting them. Plus, the world had totally forgotten them for 10 years. So I thought Afghanistan would be best place for a pilot project. And this was the whole start of AINA.
The official launch was in July 2001 in the north part of Afghanistan, in a rebel region, when the whole country was under Taliban. Then suddenly 9/11 happened. Everything changed. The Taliban fled and we entered Kabul and started a center there immediately. We were the first NGO that started a project there after the fall of the Taliban.
In Afghanistan during the pilot project, I realized that the people who would have an especially big impact would be the women journalist. During the conflict, my hatred of the war made me think that if women could take more control of the media and government, we could grow toward a more peaceful world in a century or two. So this was how we started saying, let’s start having much more women in the training, especially in Afghanistan.
That’s how we launched Voice of Afghan Women, which is a radio station. By doing this, I realized how important this tool is, and how it reaches millions of Afghan women in their remote homes. They cannot read. They cannot even go out. They cannot have access to magazines or books, but radio can be brought to them in their homes. So we launched this women’s station and started distributing small transistor radios to remote places, 5,000 of them. Now from just one radio, information is going to the whole village.
After wrapping up a National Geographic Photo Camp in January, teaching young Indian students to use cameras for the first time, I returned to India in March to teach a workshop for American and European adults who want to become better photographers — some to make it a profession, and others, who are already professionals, to gain a new perspective that refreshes their work and attitude. The workshop students ranged in age and background: an American in her 60s who is a retired doctor and environmentalist but has been using photography for 40 years; an Italian professional photographer in her 40s who mostly does commercial work and wants to break into photojournalism; a young American just starting out as a photographer; an Italian photography lover in his 40s who is an Alitalia pilot; a German psychotherapist in his 50s who also loves photography; a British journalist in her late 20s who wants to improve her photography to be a double threat.
Occasionally during these workshops, it can feel uninspiring and frustrating when leading a clutch of prosumers, many of whom you know will not become photographers. But I cherish the NG Photo Camps and most of them won’t become photographers either. In the end, anything that allows me to teach, to impart my experience and passions, is satisfying and ultimately useful to my students. If one truly loves photography both as a craft and a profession, whether you want to change the world or just want to learn how to better enjoy your creative process, then it’s all good in my eyes.
As with any workshop, this recent one had a distinct arc: the beginning, always rocky, with people jet lagged, not sure of who is who, what they should be doing and maybe nervous about exposing their work to strangers. Then, just like with the kids in Udaipur, the experiences, breakthroughs, and imagemaking gives them strength, confidence, and joy that reaffirms their desire to be photographers. Both groups of students also come to the initial classes with varying degrees of confidence and creativity — most with timidity and all with the need for guidance, the fear of getting close to subjects and the desire to learn and improve that marks all beginners or intermediate photographers.
Often the teens have never picked up a camera before, so the camp is new, exciting, and overwhelming. For them, becoming a photographer is not a goal, or even a possibility, while the adult students are already photographers who may want to make it their profession. The outcome of their extra experience may come as a surprise, though: The adults bring more neuroses, habits, and fears, along with their more developed talent and purpose. They are hampered, in a way, by their photographic baggage, their professional dreams, or their desire to emulate or outdo other people’s photographs.
For these reasons my adult students are as much in need of guidance as the kids, but in certain ways they also present a greater opportunity for growth. One major challenge for the adults specifically is not being Indian. Photographing in a foreign culture reveals to them the difficulty of getting beyond the surface, and it requires the foreign adults to achieve a different level of inspiration and discovery than the teens from India. I also can be more candid in my critiques with the adult students than the teens and center my comments on their photography. If I know an adult photo student wants to make photography their profession, then I’ll take a more critical approach to their images as well as their approach, behavior, even dress sometimes (especially with females), and I try to get them to express their intentions so they become clearer and stronger about why they want to do this.
The amateur who just wants to improve their photography requires a different approach. To me it’s important to help them grow while also preserving their love and joy for the craft. We all know people who are wonderful in some art form yet drop it because they lose the joy when they realize they’re “not good enough” to “make it” professionally. In fact, many very talented people just don’t have the stomach to handle the pressures, rejection, and bullshit involved with being a professional in something that is so personal and subjective.
The teen, who is being asked to use photography by outsiders to tell their stories, requires a yet another approach. In these cases, I am not trying to cradle or soften my approach for the teens, but what I don’t want to do is snuff out their enthusiasm or courage. And given these NG Photo Camps are not designed to make the students into photographers, my role is one of support and encouragement, to help them tell their stories and open their minds to the possibilities of photography, writing, self expression, and life!
So what do I get out of these workshops? Exposure to other photographer’s concerns, ambitions, ideas, and inspirations. An income stream to make up for a loss of work for serious documentary photography. I can’t deny it also soothes my ego to be, for a short time, among photographers who respectfully listen and appreciate what I have to say. In this subjective profession, we often flourish or fail according to others’ whims and the uncontrollable fortunes of fate (others might call that luck!); the break from that provided by teaching is refreshing and rejuvenating. I also love sharing my work with others and, especially, the chance to help shape photography’s future, teaching human values and creativity by sharing my passion for the craft and my commitment visual storytelling.
In 1983, I was a photographer for TIME and LIFE magazines. At the time, Afghanistan was occupied by the Russian army and was closed to the media. There were all these refugees, and the terrain was so difficult. My first assignment was in Kabul, and it took me three weeks just to get there on foot, which is only 150 miles from the border. Then I realized immediately how important that story was, and how little the foreign correspondents could do to cover it. The country is huge — if you have to go on foot, it would take three months to reach the other part of the country. I also realized there would be no media that would accept a correspondent being there for six months on foot to do the story. TIME, CBS, and other media were giving a couple days to a couple weeks maximum.
When I came back from Afghanistan, I thought to myself, the only way to cover the whole thing would be for Afghans to do it themselves. I thought, so let’s train some photographers. I went to refugee camps, explained my idea, and started training people and giving them cameras. This was all on my own. The following years I went to South Africa, under apartheid. Again, I realized how hard it was for foreign correspondents to cover, because the government was blocking entrance to journalists. So I thought the best way would be to train younger people living in the townships. I began training them, and the whole time I was also covering the story from the inside. It gave me a totally different perspective. Because usually when I went somewhere to cover a story, I was finding myself with the same group of photographers in the same hotels. The local people would be better storytellers.
The second thing, which was much deeper, came to my mind later, when I was in refugee camps especially. I realized there are two different destructions in wars. One is material destruction: buildings and bodies. That’s what we photograph. The houses that are destroyed and the people who are suffering the loss of part of their bodies. But the reality of wars and conflicts is that there is another trauma — the destruction of the human soul, of culture, and of human connection. One day, I was reading in a newspaper that there was a shooting in a school in the United States. And what really took my attention was that all the police went to the school immediately, and then the ambulances. Then a group of psychologists was sent because people had been traumatized by this shooting. And that was just one shooting. What are we doing in conflict zones? We are only helping to rebuild the material destruction. But we don’t care about the psychologists that are needed.
In humanitarian efforts, 99 percent are just for buildings. The United Nations and NGO’s help to build schools, roads, wells, and to make the artificial legs. But where is that group of psychologists for countries that have been in conflict for years and years. Where are the psychologists and who can they be? I realized, you can’t send American or French psychologists to talk to Afghans or Cambodians. It has to be from inside. But you also can’t send psychologists to talk to people one-on-one. So I thought maybe the best tools were media and communication tools. If they were used collectively, maybe they could replace these psychologists.
At that moment, I also saw there was no opportunity in these countries for a group of people, journalists or artists, to express themselves. We need to help them to express themselves. We need to train them and give them the tools, which are all the tools we use in the West: cameras, video cameras, and computers. They don’t have access to these. This was one main thing that brought me to Aina.