"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Creativity
November 11, 2011

Becoming A Better Photographer In Oaxaca

While in the Oaxaca I toured with a small band of fellow photographers on the (including David duChemin. Although we travelled together, in each location we were often off shooting by ourselves. It was a delightfully international group, with photographers from Canada, New Zealand, India, Turkey and the USA. This wasn’t a technical workshop. The […]

Costume And Parade In Oaxaca

While in the Oaxaca I toured with a small band of fellow photographers on the (including David duChemin. Although we travelled together, in each location we were often off shooting by ourselves. It was a delightfully international group, with photographers from Canada, New Zealand, India, Turkey and the USA.

This wasn’t a technical workshop. The structure was minimal and the focus was more on the place, the experience and the artistic side of photography. Some of the locations we visited were far too touristy for my liking and every day felt full of missed opportunies to slow down and explore the location. Understanding the local culture was not a high priority and although we did experience of the celebrations of Dia de los Muertos, there wasn’t as much sense of being prepared for all the events connected with the festival. As the week unfolded some of us too the chance to wander alone or hire a car and head off in search of small villages and obscure corners.

I had the privilege of going on an earlier workshop with David duChemin (and Matt Brandon) to Ladakh, India. But, in the intervening period David had a very serious accident while leading a group in Italy. His injuries were grave and several people have died falling from the same location.

David has made an amazing recovery and the gracefulness with which he has approached his injury and rehabilitation are both humbling and inspiring to see. I would encourage you to read David’s own words on the workshop (and take a look at the amazing portrait he created of yours truly).

Drafting this post on the bus back to Mexico City, I was thinking just as much about how to be a better human as I was about how to be a better photographer. It was that kind of a week.

Waiting For Business

For me, group travel is not something I normally sign up for. This is only the third time, in my adult life, that I’ve journeyed as part of a group (Ladakh was the second time). For some people group travel comes naturally. Then there are people like me.

To be fair, the way I approach photography doesn’t make it easy to fit in. I’m shooting a lot these days with a tilt shift lens, which is slow going. And, I’m prone to want to stop in obscure and unpopulated spots to shoot landscapes, often with an array of filters and weird lens attachments. For anyone who just wants to photograph people, watching me shoot a hill and some clouds must be a painful experience.

Sitting In a Field With Some Sky And Hills

However, that wasn’t the biggest source of frustration for me on this trip. The surprising thing that nagged me and, for a while, played havoc with my mind was the question – what am I doing here?

Not, what I am doing in Oaxaca – that was easy to answer since Oaxaca is an amazingly beautiful, culturally rich and vibrant place and, during Dia de los Muertos, a natural destination for photographers and travellers. You can get some sense of that from the video above, shot for a series of ads commemorating Mexico’s Bicentennial. I loved the food, the culture and the people of Oaxaca and at least once a day engaged in the fantasy of uprooting my life and moving there, maybe setting up a little studio or something.

Being in Oaxaca made sense, being on a workshop, a touristic workshop, often didn’t. I can’t call myself a beginner anymore, but I’m far from being any kind of expert or seasoned professional. I can take some decent images and find OK locations, but I still feel the need for lessons, guidance and mentorship. I often felt stranded in some kind of artistic no-man’s land.

I certainly had spells when I didn’t enjoy being part of the group, didn’t feel like I was growing, didn’t want to “join in.” Was it me, or was it the workshop? Looking back I’m inclined to think it was me.

The Weave

The simple fact is there are no simple answers. Any creative endeavour is hard. We struggle at the beginning, because, as Ira Glass says, our aesthetic sense outreaches our technical ability.

Then we grow, often brilliantly, as we gain technique and experience. It can be dizzying as people start to appreciate our work. But, the reality is that we are only better because we are getting the basics right – shooting in focus, getting our exposure somewhere close to OK, developing our images in some kind of software.

After that, things can get tough. The gap between being capable in a craft and having command and mastery of it is huge. I’m miles better, as a photographer, than I was two or three years ago. But, I’m not really much closer to being as good as the best in the field. And, it’s dangerous and foolish to assume otherwise.

Juan The Artisan

This image is of Juan, an artisan I met in the Friday market in Oaxaca. We spoke for close to thirty minutes, about Oaxaca, art, spirituality and what it means to be South American. It was only after chatting for a while that I asked to take his image. One thing I’ve learnt is that it simply isn’t possible to take these kinds of images without slowing down and engaging, person to person, with the people we photograph.

Some of the most important lessons in photography have little to do with technique; choosing the right aperture and that sort of thing. Rather, they are experiences in being human while creating images. How to speak with people we photograph, how to encourage fellow photographers on their journey, how to respect the place and culture we are trying to compress into our photos and so on.

As challenging as all that might sound, I’m thankful that I went through that experience in Oaxaca, one of the most enchanted, noble and picturesque places I have ever visited. Moreover, I’m thankful that I did so in the company of some truly amazing and inspiring photographers.

leonie 13 years ago

The thing I think that really let me down on the trip (or that I found most frustrating at least) is that my spanish was virtually non-existent.

I realise that there are conversations that are possible with people when we don’t speak the same language, but I was envious of you and your ability to converse with people on a deeper level. I would love to have known more of the stories of the people I sat with. I totally agree that it isn’t possible to capture the depth that you clearly have in the image of Juan, simply by rocking up and asking for a photograph (or by pointing a camera in his face without asking).

Thanks again for the help you gave me with some of the conversations that I had – truly it was a gift.

Fernando Gros 13 years ago

Leonie – thanks. I learnt quite a bit on the trip about the kinds of people photos I can take well and ones where I struggle. It’s left me both wanting to travel more in South America and also keen to learn more of the local language before i venture into other countries. But, most of all it’s challenged me to be a bit better and more patient with people.

I’m glad to have been some sort of help. Foolishly, I underestimated how much translation I would be doing and that got to me at times.

Fred Thompson 10 years ago

First, I love Oaxaca and have spent a good deal of time in Salina Cruz. Just thinking of the food brings back a flood of memories. I have always admired a photographer who can let us see a glimpse of who a person is in one picture. Fernando you did that very well with Juan. I am sure that was a conversation you will remember. I admire you going on this adventure with a group although I think it is something that at this stage in my life I would struggle with.

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