How do I write this blogpost? How do I put into words, this experience that has opened my eyes wider, like a new pair of glasses? How can a photography workshop help you to remember what it means to be human, or to be real again? How can I do the whole thing justice in one blog post? Pretend all these words are profound, ok? Just stay with me. I’m going to try.
Let’s set the stage first.
I remember seeing the website a few years back, and viewing the video at Fearless Conference, thinking that I wanted to get there, someday. But in that scared way. The jumping off a cliff way. The are you ever ready way.
The blurb for Foundation Workshop reads,
This is the workshop your friends have been warning you about.
It mentions the world’s best documentary wedding photographers and photography teachers and they aren’t kidding about world’s best. FW is such a remarkable experience because of the talent of instructors, yes, but also because of their lack of ego, providing the immediate ease of trust in them, because of the support and joy, and because of the ratio of student to staff. Because of the hugs.
Under the guidance of experienced instructors, workshop students will explore and develop their photojournalistic skills through the process of shooting and editing a complete photo story of real subjects. Students will be challenged to approach their real assignments creatively and encouraged to shoot passionately while establishing a foundation for learning the skills and perspective of a photojournalist.
Sign me up, right? I remember applying for FW, not knowing that I would get in, not believing my luck when I did. 25 students were accepted. It didn’t feel possible that I was included. I got in. Not just the teachers and mentors at FW, but the students were and are so impressive. It was a year long wait, until we all finally flew in, from all over the world, to Glen Rose, Texas.
There’s your stage.
When I got there, we had a welcoming dinner and party. I was amazed at how easy it was to be friends with people I had only read about on websites and had seen on Facebook. Everyone was accepting. The support and love was palpable. And the hugs. Even though, I only knew one person in real life (my dear friend, Patricia). I made friends, easily. And they stuck. I loved these people right away. Kate, Heidi, I’m looking at you. By reading blogposts (and talking to Heidi), you might find out that Foundation Workshop changes lives. At the very least, it changes the way you think about photography.
I knew that people cried and walked away as a family. But I didn’t think I would cry. I thought I was a robot.
I told Kate, the first night, I didn’t think that I would cry. Famous last words. And little did I know, I would receive the value of emotion, as one of my biggest takeaways. The next day, we had a day of sessions, talks from the team leaders. It was like a mini conference, and it was inspirational. I listened and connected with the line, “why are you photographing these makeup brushes?” Asking myself, “why?” while I was taking each photo seemed important. And if I couldn’t answer, then maybe I shouldn’t shoot it. We saw timeless images and heard metaphors about playing with balls. There were practice exercises. I learned to put the word, “yet,” after any statement about things I couldn’t do.
The last session was with Verna and Katrina, our counselors and confidants for the week. We sat across from someone that we didn’t know, and we spoke for two minutes about our fears surrounding the workshop. I sat across from the loveliest, Jenn, and spoke without a filter, about how I didn’t feel worthy or good enough. I was scared about saying something or doing something wrong. And the more I spoke, the more I processed what I was saying in my head. And I realized, and verbalized, that the more we keep our fears in the dark, separate, the more we can be afraid of them. But when we talk about it, and bring them out into the light of day, we might realize, those fears sounds ridiculous. Or, at least, we realize that we’re not alone.
I saw Jenn shaking her head, fervently, while I was talking about bringing those fears out, and realizing how foolish they sound. And I knew that I wasn’t alone. When she spoke, it sounded like I could have been speaking.
So many times, that came up again. I never felt alone, during the workshop. That in itself was and is remarkable. Did I mention that it was my birthday that first day of sessions?
It was that day of sessions, on Wednesday, that we found out who would be in our small groups, the people that we would be together with, in that even more vulnerable and intimate space… the people we would be photographically naked with, in the critique room! And our mentors! We found that out too. Each of the groups held a powerhouse trio, a group leader, a mentor, and a support person. I didn’t really have a preference of groups. But I had a little premonition or inkling of where I was going to be placed. Citlalli told me “Happy Birthday!” at an earlier point in the day, and I wondered how she knew. I was drawn to her quiet and warm presence. I appreciate it when people are so ridiculously perfect, but in that quiet, confident, and intelligent way. Immediately, I liked her. And I hoped that I was on her team. And I got so lucky. Because, I also really wanted to get to know Kari. And she was our support person. She’s this beautiful person, that even from across a room, you think, “I want to know you!” And her iPhone photos are the best. I didn’t know that, at the time. But I’m obsessed now. I am so in awe and I love people that can minimize their tools and make images that resonate so deeply. And Erwin was the mentor. Erwin! He ended up having the most impactful moment with me, I think. We had the best group leaders. It felt like they could read minds. They were open with us. And that helped us, in turn, to trust them. I made a decision, in my small group, to be honest. I wasn’t going to glaze over or sugar coat anything. I wanted to give an honest depiction, in order to receive the most benefits from the workshop. And that made all the difference. My group consisted of these incomparable people: Duy (from San Francisco), Daniel (from the Outer Banks of NC), Judith (all the way from Germany), and AshVin (from the Netherlands). If you feel the pull, please check them out. I’ve linked all the names to websites. You’ll understand why I felt like I couldn’t possibly belong with people of this caliber.
It was that night, that we received our assignments.
It is easier for me to take ten good pictures in an airplane bathroom than in the gardens at Versailles.
I feel you, Sally Mann.
This quote seems especially true, if you count the Somerville County Expo Center, during a horse barrel racing weekend, as my own vast gardens at Versailles. My assignment was to find an individual story at the horse barrel races. I was in that familiar space of nervousness and excitement. I thought I could rise to this occasion. I could find a story that was meaningful and impactful! But I’m glad I didn’t. Because what was in store for me was much more of an emotional and introspective awakening. I ran into brick wall after brick wall. It was the perfect assignment for me. I’m not sure if it was serendipitous or planned, but my roommate, Genevieve, ended up with the same assignment. This brought up feelings of intimidation, not because Genevieve is intimidating, but because I didn’t feel good enough. I became über aware of all my inadequacies, whether real or not, and I had to face them.
If I would have had a small intimate space or setting for my assignment, I wouldn’t have been so overwhelmed and stuck. And I might not have grown.
I learned a whole bunch about barrel racing, that first day. And I spoke with a lot of people. When Citla and Erwin came to see me, in the afternoon of that first day shooting, I had been struggling since I got there, with actually using my camera. I was staying upbeat, thinking I still had time, but I was floundering inside. The event didn’t actually start until Thursday night. And no one was showing up with their horses until the afternoon. So, I shot the maintenance people until around 2PM. I was lost. I was stuck. I got in a rut. I was afraid. I was overwhelmed. I was completely out of my comfort zone. It was actually awesome, in retrospect, to struggle. I did make friends with people, but not people in whom I could find a story that I was able to tell in two days. Citla and Erwin came to help. And I just couldn’t see.. yet. And they said, “Something is bothering you. What’s wrong?” I teared up. I felt like running away, trying to hold it all together, in front of people. And I didn’t even know what was bothering me. Nothing was bothering me, I thought. They ended up telling me to shoot anything, to just shoot what made me happy. I walked around, aimlessly, for the better part of that day. I didn’t even know what made me happy. It was a sad place.
When I returned to the hotel, it was in a devastated state. I came back from that first day shooting, defeated. It was the lowest of lows and the highest of highs, it seemed. And still, everyone cheered when I walked in the room to deliver my cards. I was surrounded by hugs and love.
I felt like crap. Who was I to be deserving of any of this help? But they gave it willingly and without reservation.
And here’s a beautiful part of FW, they don’t let you sulk back to your room alone to wallow. Katrina, helper, savior, witness, followed me up to my room. Supporting me. And I let it all go. I cried more than I had cried in years. And I apologized for the blubbering. And she just said that she was happy to witness it. It was cathartic. And I am grateful. And when I finally let it all out, it was almost a physical thing. So, I felt sick from crying so much. And when Genevieve got back, she took care of me, without prompting. She texted Katrina for NyQuil. And she went downstairs to get it for me. She was my hero, more than once. It was so hard to accept help. But it was the best feeling, knowing that help was there for me, unconditionally.
It was in the early morning, when I was coming out of sleep, that I had a small realization about the day before. I had made the commitment to honesty in my small group, but the day before, I was lying. People made assumptions about me, at the expo. They assumed, through no fault of their own, that I had a husband. They mentioned it. And I didn’t correct them, I just nodded my head. I was lying through omission, about my sexuality. And then, they would ask more elaborate questions. And I still did not correct them. I made things up, out of thin air. Lies. And I shrunk every time. I didn’t even know it was bothering me. But it made me feel smaller and more invisible, throughout the day. And I felt like a liar. I thought, “This is Texas. Conservative. What if I offend someone?” I didn’t know how anyone would respond. I didn’t trust them with the truth. And I wanted to avoid any uncomfortable conversations with strangers. To my credit, I woke up and told Genevieve right away. If I had learned anything, thus far, it was that talking about it, not keeping it hidden would provide illumination and relief. And it did. And in that, being open and honest, I was able to grow closer to my roommate too.
I told my small group, in critiques, what I had realized. I, also, was brutally honest about how I thought I did. I didn’t think I shot one decent image. It was so easy to trust what both Citla and Erwin were saying. And it helped so much, seeing the critiques of my teammates’ work. I am so grateful they trusted me to see their behind the scenes stuff. Because the critiques did not come from a negative place. They were helpful and honest. And I grew to love critiques, instead of surrounding them with fear, fear of someone seeing all that background stuff that’s hidden. It seemed that our team leaders knew exactly what we were thinking. Mind readers. I kept thinking, “They are SO smart.” And they found good things to say about my work too. I cried. I tried to hold it back. But Erwin got in my face and said, “Tell me you’re good enough.” I could barely talk. But I had to say it. And then after I squeaked it out, he said, “Say it louder.” And it was so hard. But I said it louder.
Each tear is a poet, a teacher, a healer. – Rune Lazuli
And after my critique, they told me I could go back to the expo and shoot for two hours, or I could stay and listen to the last critiques. I rushed back to the expo, a little lighter. And I shot things that made me happy. I was braver.
I’d love to say that I came back, those next two days, and rose to the occasion, knocking it out of the park. But I didn’t. Even though I was lighter and happier, I still walked through the doors without a solid story or great photos. That wasn’t the point. It was the process. I had the perfect instructors. They excel at seeing interesting lines and light, along with those moments that I love. My comfort zone is not in those beautiful and grand shots with great composition and light.. it’s in those intimate, quiet, and subtle moments. They knew that, and they pushed me. I walked away with a newfound appreciation for how hard it is to shoot composition, how making something huge and vast feel intimate, is a skill. I learned that I can find a scene and wait. I’m learning to see patterns, to provide context in my images. I learned that I need to work harder. Ciltla told me that I saw light in a unique way, that I expose for it intuitively, and I’ll be forever appreciative of that. And they told me that I belonged there. I’ll always remember how Erwin made me say I was good enough. That’s burned in my memory, like a movie. All my teammates, in turn, told me that they were feeling similar to me. They were so integral to my growth. I can’t say thank you enough. Even though, I thought I would pull something out of me but didn’t, I learned that the hard work starts now. Foundation Workshop is a jumping off point. And it starts with being honest. There’s this partnership between the photographer and subject. And my job is to get back to remembering what it means to be human.
Being human is being together, a part of things, not separate.
And I learned that through the countless support and hugs. I want to be part of it all, in a genuine way.
At dinner, before our slideshows, I was chatting with Abby. And it made me think about how resistant we are to change. Because we’re afraid of being different from that space where we’ve grown comfortable. Even people in our lives might be afraid of us changing. Foundation is unique because they’re not trying to change you into whatever style the instructors have, or mold you to a set style that some workshops might focus on. Foundation Workshop proposes a method that inches you closer into your own.. your own authenticity. And that’s the only place I want to be.
Thank you is not enough.
Thank you for taking care of me, when I felt unworthy. Thank you for believing in me, when I couldn’t say anything good. Thank you for helping me see the good in myself, in order to open myself up to others. Thank you for being open hearted, so that I could open my heart. Thank you, Sherry, for your support after the workshop. Thank you, Kate, for allowing me in so immediately, and for what I know will be a lasting friendship. Thank you, Duy. Thank you, Judith. Thank you, AshVin. Thank you, Daniel. I love you all. Sincerely. Your belief in me was so sustaining. Thank you, Kari, for holding my hand. You’re so important. And I’m so glad to be in a world that you’re in. Thank you, Katrina, for witnessing all the tears, and for your words and awareness. Thank you, to the mentors that I didn’t meet. Thank you, Huy, for making it all possible and letting this idea grow and touch so many people. Thank you, Kelly. Thank you, Verna. Thank you, Miguel and James. And absolutely 100% THANK YOU to Citlalli and Erwin. HUGEST HUGS! I’m sorry if I missed anyone. I’m so happy to be an alumni of FW. And I’m going to get back, someday. ‘Til we hug again.
We’re only allowed to show two photos. The first one that I am showing is right at the top of this excessively long blog. And the next one is below. I ended with a story about girls who love horses. I’m not the happiest with my showing. But I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything. And I loved these subjects. Huy was right, when he said that you could replicate the entire workshop, but it wouldn’t be the same. It’s the people that make it what it is.. And I am so grateful.
That inspiration and learning that I gained is priceless. It is such a gift. And it matters the most to me.
I spent the plane ride home, working three scenes from my seat, with my iPhone. Safe in my small intimate space, away from those gardens of Versailles that I found in Glen Rose, but still applying the things I’d been gifted. Inspired by and missing my new Foundation family. And the hugs! Wanting to bring that connection with others back to my home life, in a very real and honest way…
finally remembering what it means to be human, in this world, instead of separate from it.
Her whole life shifted the day she started to tell the truth about what made her happy. I never knew it could be that simple, she said. – Brian Andreas