My Magnum Photo Workshop Experience
This week I joined the Magnum photography workshop with Antoine D’Agata in Tokyo.
Magnum is one of the most prestigious photo book publishers and photography agencies in the world. The workshop promised a challenging five day educational experience in the company of ambitious and talented fellow students.
Unfortunately, I only made it part the way through the first day.
Arriving And Struggling
I arrived at the start of the workshop a little late and rather rattled. For some reason I thought Magnum’s offices were in downtown Ginza, an easy trip for me on Tokyo’s underground, one I can almost do in my sleep. Perhaps I was thinking of Leica’s offices – I’m not sure.
The location was actually in Jimbocho, an area popular with publishers and the book trade and a pretty central location as far as Tokyo’s vast expanse is concerned, but a bit of a pain to get to from my home. In the end, I had to rush in a (relatively expensive) crosstown taxi to get there in time.
Magnum’s offices are nice, but the workshop was bigger than I had imagined and the participants that had already arrived were huddled around a small desk, with Magnum’s workshop organiser working to align a projector and screen. I stood for a while wondering if I was in the right place. A few minutes later D’Agata arrived, asked for the projector to be removed and the windows opened (which made the space a lot more comfortable) and then proceeded to outline his expectations for the the next few days.
The Reality Of The Situation
The pre-workshop information pack outlined a daily schedule with 10am-2pm set aside for class time, critiques and lessons and time in the mornings and afternoons to photograph. I knew I would have some family commitments, with my wife travelling that week, but given my daughter’s after school commitments, I anticipated having time to photograph well into the evening. After my health scare a couple of weeks back, I had wondered whether to withdraw from the workshop, but looking at the schedule, I thought it could still work.
I’ve been on photo workshops before and I always produce more images than most other participants. So, even with a reduced work rate, allowing for the need to rest more than normal and be home for a few hours during the afternoon, it still seemed like I might be able to produce enough images to keep pace with the group and make it a worthwhile learning experience.
But, D’Agata soon made it clear his expectations were far more demanding than any workshop I’ve been on before. Our schedule would be more like 10am-6pm in “class” every day then shooting well into the night. The first night was to include a walking tour at 7pm (so straight there after class time finished), then a group dinner, then photographing around Shinjuku’s famous red-light district with an “optional” class meet-up around midnight, or probably later.
I was surprised but maybe I shouldn’t have been. When we look at a photographer’s work we’re drawn to the images we like and sometimes miss the broader picture. There’s a lot of D’Agata photos I find fascinating. But, also a lot that feel more troubling and potentially exploitative. Maybe I had misunderstood the workshop’s goals?
Facing the Problem
Under normal circumstances this challenge would be interesting. I’ve been on workshops were teachers seem to give the minimum possible critique and teaching possible and in doing so lull students into believing they will somehow become better photographers by spending an hour or two a day wandering around hoping something interesting happens in front of them. I hate that! I love the challenge of going out and working hard to produce good images, wrestling with the context and your own desires, and learning something about the world in the process. When I photographed Thaipusam, for example, I was out for 12-16 hours a day, having had surgery the week before. It was a hot, gruelling, thoroughly worthwhile experience.
“The only way to solve photographic problems is to shoot”
But, these are not normal circumstances for me. As I listened to the plan for the workshop I could feel my heart racing. I’d arrived feeling anxious, but calmed myself with the thought I would be home in a few hours. I couldn’t stay out till midnight. I didn’t feel comfortable with spending all night in a red-light district. I had to be home for my daughter when she came home from school. I could go out after she had dinner, but I didn’t have anyone to oversee things later on, and I would still need to be up before 7am the next morning to get her ready for school.
I excused myself early from the class around 4pm and rushed home. I had two hours to turn around and try to rejoin the group, but before that I had to organise some dinner for my daughter, help her prepare for school the next day, check on homework and make sure we had food for breakfast. Normally I do this well. It’s a fact of life for me. But, not this time.
I came home and fell to pieces.
I still don’t understand my condition, but I knew as I helped my daughter load the clothes she needed to wash for school sports, that pressing the wrong setting on the machine shouldn’t make a grown adult turn into a feeble mess. I’d felt sick on the taxi ride home, but now my heart was racing, my head felt odd, I couldn’t hold onto a deep breath long enough to calm down.
I was overwhelmed. It was like an out of body experience, watching myself become a human train-wreck, trying and failing to juggle the everyday pieces of life.
I got in contact with the workshop organisers and told them I wouldn’t be re-joining the class. That night I was asleep by 8pm. It was like my body simply switched off. The next morning, I woke at 7am, went through the motions of getting my daughter breakfast and sending her off to school, then went back to bed just after 8am and slept again almost till noon.
The Task And The Critique
For the workshop, we needed to choose a theme or idea, and photograph it in Tokyo. This is something I’m not good at, something I wanted to learn to be better through this workshop, but sitting in that sun drenched room at Magnum’s offices, it was just making me panic.
The other students had such eloquent, artful ways to describe their approach to photography, to unpack their creative themes. Maybe they would just end up photographing drunk salarymen and club hostesses (these are popular themes for some photographers) but they seemed to have such an artistic take on it all.
Or maybe they were just better bullshitters than me?
My idea was to photograph the predatory nature of street photographers. It was shot down pretty quickly. Maybe that was a telling hint I was in the wrong place? I’ll admit it’s not an artistic concept (actually I don’t know that, I’m just guessing, maybe it’s very artistic). I was finding it hard to think straight.
After introductions and some discussion of D’Agata’s approach to photography, which if I were being generous I would describe as bold and provocative, we got onto critiques of each student’s work. Because of the size of group, we had a strictly policed 10 minutes to look at and discuss a set of images, then five minutes to decide a theme for the week.
When my turn came I sat at the computer and opened the file with my name. Instantly I knew I’d made a mistake. We had all submitted a set of 10 images with our applications and also been asked to bring a different set, of 15-20 images, to present for critique. The images I choose for the application were intentionally dark and moody, with quite a few black and whites (I mostly shoot vibrant colour) my thinking being that I would try to pick images that matched Magnum’s style and were close to D’Agata’s themes. However, the 15-20 I brought for the critique were a broader selection.
Anyway, I decided to press on. It was a mistake. A lot of the criticism was valid. My work is often eclectic, retro, prone to moments of touristic exoticism. One student compared it to Steve McCurry, and that wasn’t meant to be a compliment. I was wished the earth would open up and swallow me and my poor creative choices whole.
I felt stupid. I felt lost.
D’Agata suggested my work was about sex and death and I should explore that.
Maybe. I’ve never heard that before or since. And I’ve had a lot of photographers and photo editors look at my work. Building a bridge from a theme like sex and death to the body of my work felt impossible.
To be honest I was more interested in the experience of doing a Magnum Workshop, the implied prestige that goes with that, than D’Agata’s photography itself.
What I Might Have Photographed And Why I Gave Up
During the afternoon and in the taxi home I thought hard about what I could photograph. D’Agata wanted us to face our fears, to push outside our comfort zone, to explore the reality of our existence through photography. I thought about the time I had, the schedule for the next few days and where I had access and only one idea came up.
Photographing my daughter’s volleyball team. I mean, really photographing her team.
From time to time I get asked to do things like photograph school events and to be honest when I do it, I usually just phone it in. Parents, teachers and students just want in focus, nice photos, they don’t want art. I turn up, make good enough photos, and leave. What I don’t do is take my kind of photos, I don’t explore what’s really going on for these kids in their lives, let alone my own issues about being a male parent and caregiver.
I could try to produce photos that transcended their sporting context to say something about the fragile adolescence of girls growing up in a huge technopolis, all of them holding dual citizenships in the real and virtual worlds of Tokyo.
Thinking about it now, it feels like a viable idea. Rough and in need of polishing, for sure, but viable nonetheless. But, at the time, sitting on my laundry floor sobbing, it felt stupid. How could I turn up with a few photos of schoolgirls playing sport, when everyone was going to be making mountains of edgy photos of Tokyo’s nightlife?
And here’s the thing – the idea had didn’t involve sexualising my subjects.
So, I contacted the workshop organisers and withdrew. If I couldn’t navigate this first step and keep it together, how could I make through the week without dragging the group down? The organisers were kind, understanding and offered to try and accommodate me (but didn’t offer any kind of refund of course). But, I knew I was in a bad place and needed to admit defeat.
Although I only spent a day on the workshop I still learnt a lot. D’Agata had a lot of interesting things to say about art and photography. My next post (a part of the This Week I Quit series), will expand on this (with more quotes from D’Agata).
“I don’t really believe in photography. I believe people use photography to find what they are looking for.”
But, I also realised that although I’m physically better after the panic attack of a few weeks ago, with my heart rate and blood pressure back down to normal, emotionally I’m not there yet. I need to take it a little easy, for a while yet, hard as that is for me to admit.
As it happens I went and photographed my daughter’s volleyball game the next evening. I took a very different, more creative set of images. During the game she hurt herself, so we spent the following morning together at the clinic. Another morning of the workshop I would’ve missed anyway.
This week was a failure. I lost money spent on a workshop I didn’t finish. I underestimated my condition. I overscheduled myself. And I picked a workshop that was poorly suited to my artistic practice.
But, more importantly, I am not a failure. And maybe, I’m not completely lost either.