"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Images
April 4, 2012

The Thing About Teaching Photography

Back in 2009, I already owned a camera. But, I didn’t really know what I was doing. So, I decided to take photography seriously. I wanted to be a photographer, not just a camera owner. In these three years, I’ve photographed nomads in Northern India, pole dancers in Hong Kong, pierced Hindu devotees in Malaysia […]

Back in 2009, I already owned a camera. But, I didn’t really know what I was doing. So, I decided to take photography seriously.

I wanted to be a photographer, not just a camera owner.

In these three years, I’ve photographed nomads in Northern India, pole dancers in Hong Kong, pierced Hindu devotees in Malaysia and families celebrating Day of the Dead by candlelight in Mexico. I’ve also spent a lot of time shooting natural landscapes, urban vistas and even a bit of live music.

And, this hasn’t just been an “amateur” experience. I’ve mounted a public exhibition, had photos featured in magazines and high profile websites as well as being contracted to shoot portraits and editorial pieces.

The Pro Thing

Today I’m standing where a lot of photographers have found themselves before; wondering what this all means and where to go from here. Perhaps it is not surprising there is a whole cottage industry built around helping photographers “go pro.”

And, in this time, I’ve carefully watched the way photographers position and brand themselves – the way they manage perception – from the subtle through to the outrageous.

For example; in the way I tell my story, I make it clear that I haven’t been doing this long and I don’t really have vast reserves of experience. However, I could tell the story a different way. After all, I did, albeit briefly, shoot a Rolleiflex as a kid. I also took some decent SLR photos on safari in Africa in my mid twenties. And, in-between, I shot a fair few rolls of Black & White. It’s not entirely untrue to say I have more than twenty years of experience in photography.

Except, of course, t’s not entirely true either. Telling the story any other way gives the impression that I know more than is actually the case. But, as a branding and marketing ploy, it could well be very effective!

The Teaching Thing

One direction I could go, is to get into teaching photography. A lot of photographers do it as a way to supplement their income. It’s not hard to find photographers out there with very little experience (and fairly ordinary portfolios) who have ebooks, videos and workshops to sell.

Not that I have any aversion to teaching. I taught guitar, on and off, for a decade. And, many of my fondest academic memories were of giving lectures, seminars and teaching in other, more informal situations. Nor do I have an aversion to chasing commercial opportunities (as long as they are the right ones).

The Kind Words Thing

I’ve been on four photography workshops now. In the last three of those I’ve wound up doing some informal teaching. It’s not been something I set out to do. But, as a consequence of isolation, either because the workshop leaders were unavailable (or unwilling to help), I’ve found myself answering a fellow participant’s questions and offering something from my shallow pool of experience.

All those fellow participants have emailed me later to thank me for my time and in conversation with them, they all suggested I think about teaching photography.

The But Thing

I have no doubt that the little help I could offer was useful, not because I’m anything special as a photographer, but because the whole photography thing hasn’t come easily to me. I’ve had to work at it and piece together my approach, from a wide range of experiences.

That’s not unusual for me – it’s been the same with everything I’m good at.

But, I still feel there’s a big gap between making sense, when I talk about my approach in photography and helping people find theirs. I don’t really have a systematic approach, there are huge gaps in my understanding of the art and I don’t feel anywhere near having technical mastery of the camera (certainly compared to the way I feel about guitar).

I’ve never been motivated to do something, just because I can. And, I have an aversion to adding my voice to the din of a noisy room. Just because I could teach photography, does not, in any way, feel like a compelling argument to actually go out and market myself as a teacher.

What I Can Offer

But, I’m not tin-eared to what my friends have said. I’ve been blessed with some very solid learning experiences, met (and photographed alongside) some amazing photographers and had the chance to try some amazing gear. It would be selfish not to share some of that.

Although, I’ve not always done a good job of sharing practical insights on this blog, I hope that you’ve found more “nuts & bolts” ideas that might help you create better images, or at least be inspired to get out there and shoot.

Honestly, I have no idea where this photographic adventure will take me. It’s already far exceeded any expectations I had back in 2009. One day I might change my mind. But, I doubt that will happen any time soon. For now, it’s “business” as usual.

Toni 12 years ago

It may or may not help, but I’ll share some advice a friend gave me. He was a photographer who managed to scrape a living doing weddings and portraits in a poor area of London.

He told me that it wasn’t about the pictures you took, but about running a business as a business.

There are too many people taking great pictures – the ‘market’ is flooded – and incredible creative photography is practically a basic expectation for most moderately skilled amateurs. My feeling is that IF you want to operate this as a business then you’ll need to use your other skills to network, contact and sell your work, and taking pictures will be just a small part.

It was this side of things as much as anything that made me realise I didn’t want to become a ‘pro’ photographer, and as my part-time business developed I found the photography becoming less and less ‘fun’ and more just a piece of work to be completed as effectively as possible.

OTOH teaching, with it’s direct personal interaction and an expectation to be creative may be just the thing. And that’s just what my friend ended up doing.

Fernando Gros 12 years ago

Toni – that’s a very helpful comment. I agree.

I’m comfortable with the idea that in a business, we spend a lot of time stuff that isn’t “art.” But, when the focus is right, that’s not a pain.

The line I’m feeling for, is the difference between the things we get into this to do and the things we do just to keep it going. What I see a lot of, is photographers going into teaching, just because it’s a way to make money. A bit like the way musicians get into playing weddings!

Of course, if you love playing weddings (and I’ve met musicians who do) that’s another thing entirely.

Leonie 12 years ago

I was very grateful to you for the help you gave me and I hope I managed to communicate that to you effectively! If I didn’t, then please know that I learned a lot from you (& had fun doing it).

There’s a lot of people just outside my orbit that have leapt on to the e-course band wagon, that have ‘fairly ordinary portfolios’. In one way I admire them for doing something they live, and encouraging others. In another way I think “what the #*?!

I take workshops (on a whole range of topics, on and offline) to learn more about things I know something about, or begin my learning of things I know nothing about. If I get learning from others attending, as well as the ‘teacher’ then that’s all good. I figure we all have something we can learn from each other and hopefully I might have taught them something too (even if it wasn’t specifically about the workshop topic).

Another thought-provoking post from you. Causing me to think abut why I do things and why I don’t want to be a ‘teacher’…

I’d simply like to always share what I know with anyone who wants to learn.

Fernando Gros 12 years ago

Leonie – thanks for your kind words. I certainly have good memories of our conversations in Oaxaca! I guess share, inspire & have fun is my default mode – that & craving good coffee!

I certainly believe that we learn from those around us. It is one of the greatest potential benefits of going on a workshop. Moreover, the best teachers know & encourage it.

When I was in Ladakh in 2010, for example, I learnt a lot from Matt Brandon & David duChemin; obviously. But, I also learnt a huge amount from sitting on many afternoons with Piet Van den Eynde and talking about processing images. In fact, many of the ideas we kicked around, about Black & White, as well as HDR, still influence the way I process images today. And, it was a huge education to me to see the images others shot, sometimes of similar subjects. I can still clearly call to mind photos by Martin Sojka, Matea Michelangeli & Yves Perreault.

Elizabeth Horn 12 years ago

Your work is truly jaw dropping, I hope to one day get on your level. Please, keep up the good work!

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