I take the teaching portion of my job seriously. Very seriously, as any of my previous students will tell you. What isn’t always so obvious is the amount of thought and preparation that happens before a workshop or video. There are a lot more factors to consider than are immediately apparent – and I suspect many attempting to teach workshops don’t quite realize this until it’s too late. Unfortunately, most of the time price is not at all reflective of quality.
It seems obvious, but a teacher needs to have a deep understanding of the subject he or she is teaching. You’d be surprised how many teachers’ knowledge only goes slightly beyond the syllabus. This becomes a serious problem when you have very keen students; the chances of a curve ball question are not only high, but increase exponentially when it comes to voluntary participation. People pay good money to attend photography workshops because they really want to: it’s almost certain that they’re pretty serious about photography, which in turn implies research and some level of knowledge. You cannot teach somebody something if you can’t get them to understand something they didn’t know before, or impart knowledge they didn’t already have. And in order for that to happen, you’ve got to be not just one or two steps ahead of the game – but ten or more.
There are many other good reasons for mastery: confidence, for one, but beyond that, the ability to walk the walk under conditions that might be less than ideal due to circumstances outside your control. If you’re trying to teach people how to see and can’t pull out an image or two from any given situation, then that not only plants doubts about your ability/ competence but also devalues the material you’re trying to teach in the first place. It’s unfair to ask your students to attempt something you cannot do – and ideally master – yourself. One of the first things I do with any workshop group is take a walk for about half an hour, without cameras, pointing out the compositions I’m seeing. There are increasingly challenging variations of this exercise too, depending on the level of the group*.
*I was told by a student after an exercise – five clicks of the shutter, five images, no moving position – that watching me work reminded him of Maximus brutally and efficiently dispatching the Roman cohort in Gladiator…I made sure never to wear a skirt again after that.
In all seriousness, credibility is about the ability to deliver – consistently. And that brings me to the next point: one has to have an overall body of material and objective target to deliver to each student; ideally, each student should leave the workshop with the same level of understanding regardless of the session or level at which he or she entered. This is not easy; it requires you to be able to break down the lessons in such a way that is a) easy to understand; b) challenging enough to stimulate thought; c) remembered; d) not boring. Given that photographic technique tends to be either extremely subjective (the idea of balance) or very technically dry (e.g. calculating guide numbers) – this is non-trivial. The syllabus I follow for the Making Outstanding Images workshops and videos is something that’s been distilled down from twelve years of shooting, a solid year of thought into a quantified definition of the properties of such images – and then translated into an order of priority, and broken down into easily digestible chunks.
Even so, we still land up with upwards of 20 exercises. And assuming you can master those, it still doesn’t necessarily translate into the ability to find a unique and pleasing image under all circumstances; there is definitely an element of experience required. And we haven’t even gotten to creating light or 100% controlled compositions – that’s just finding an image.
There’s another, bigger challenge: when teaching any creative discipline, the danger is that the teacher lands up demonstrating technique and not conveying understanding of concepts – this results in the creation of clones. Although most people would attend a workshop because they like the work of the teacher, ultimately, I don’t think the students want to produce exactly the same work in the long run. Everybody who bothers to engage in a creative activity of any sort will want – arguably, need – to put their own stamp of individuality on their output. The act of composing a frame and trying to take a photograph – a representation of the world the way you see it – is an entirely self-serving one in itself.
That said, I believe that mimicry is an important step along the road to developing your own style; it requires both technical mastery and the ability to consistently apply a certain creative bias under a wide range of situations. Chasing the end goal of applying your own creative bias is impossible if you don’t have a solid understanding of the available tools/ techniques and how they work. One thing I always repeat to my students is that not only is photography subjective, but that my opinion of composition and preference is just that: an opinion. It holds no more or no less weight than that of anybody else; most important is ensuring that the ultimate gatekeeper – the creator – is happy.
I touched on this briefly earlier, but it deserves a bit more attention: adaptation of the methods to the student. This goes beyond ensuring that material is sufficiently well-explained to be easily understood, but also taking into account different learning styles and personalities. I suspect that the types of people I see in my workshops are both fairly consistent in some traits – intelligence, creativity, success in other fields, self-motivation and leadership (some call it ‘type A’) – but land up being hugely divergent in opinion. It can be both interesting and rather challenging to manage a group made up of ten highly successful and strong-willed individuals who are used to being the authority in their own circles…sometimes, I suspect my experience in the corporate world comes in very handy indeed.
I think the very best teachers – at least the ones I’ve been lucky enough to be instructed by – have something extra: true passion for their subject. In turn, they inspire that same passion in their students. Without that, merely holding attention can be a challenge in itself – let alone taking somebody from confusion to mastery. Personally, I think this is the biggest of all of the challenges – not understanding, not demonstrating, not ‘logicizing’ the material. It’s one of the reasons 2014 will be the last year I’m teaching the Making Outstanding Images syllabus; I’m afraid it’s going to get stale and formulaic for me; once you’ve done the same exercise fifteen times, that risk is rather high. The last thing I want to do is be anything less than passionate. Teaching is a conscious and deliberate choice for me; I could just as easily not do it: it must therefore stay exciting!
Putting it all together, a teacher – of anything – needs to be a master in their own right; have the ability to execute, make conscious choices, understand and explain why those choices were made; be able to deconstruct that understanding into logical and systematic chunks that others can understand; communicate those in a way that keeps a wide variety of audiences and personalities engaged and interested; inspire their students to create through the strength of their own passion and confidence; be able to manage logistics and juggle the business aspects, whilst continue their own creative development and learning in order to be able to understand, teach and be credible at other topics…not easy, is it? MT
I have several workshops planned for 2014 – the Kuala Lumpur Thaipusam Masterclass in January; Making Outstanding Images Melbourne and Sydney in March; Cuba Masterclass in May; Making Outstanding Images London in July. There is more information here. Alternatively, you can always send me an email. Additionally, the teaching videos are available directly from the Teaching Store, here.
Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop and Photoshop Workflow videos and the customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!
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