One of my biggest beliefs in life is in transparency. Whenever I learn something potentially useful or insightful– I don’t want to simply hoard the information to myself. Rather, I want to share it with as large of an audience as humanly possible.
I wanted to share how I teach my street photography workshops— and I hope this can be used as a blueprint for anyone out there who wants to teach their own street photography workshop. I believe what I am sharing here doesn’t only apply to street photography workshops– but any photography workshops (or teaching in general).
A lot of the philosophies I will share are based on personal experience, and also from the honors pedagogy course I took at UCLA (USIE: Undergraduate Student Initiated Education). I learned a lot from the USIE course at UCLA, where I taught a 1-unit seminar (we met once a week) for a quarter. I taught a course: “The Sociology of Facebook and Online Social Networks”
where I made a blueprint for a course, gave assigned readings, assignments, and had once-a-week course discussions. I credit my mentor Kumiko Haas for all of my pedagogical training.
Take everything in this guide with a grain of salt. This is just my personal philosophy– and won’t work for everybody out there. But I think you might learn 1-2 things that you will find helpful in your own teaching (or learning).
“Facilitating” vs. “Teaching”
One of my biggest philosophies when it comes to “teaching” is that I’m actually not a teacher. Rather, I’m a “facilitator”. This is why at the USIE course I took at UCLA, I learned that we weren’t “teaching” the students anything. Rather, we were the “facilitators” of information and knowledge. The students weren’t just an empty bowl waiting to be filled with the knowledge and wisdom of the teacher. Rather, the “facilitator” (teacher) was the one who needed to be a guide for the student– to help unlock the student’s own hidden wisdom and understanding of the world.
So when it comes to my street photography workshops– I’m not trying to “teach” the students anything. Rather– I am trying to find their hidden talents, way of seeing the world– and help them recognize it and unlock it for themselves. I imagine myself as a facilitator as a person with a key, and I try to use that key to unlock a part of a student’s brain (that they might not know exists).
Engagement over content
I think another common mistake that a lot of teachers have is that they try to shove too much information and content into the minds of their students– rather than focusing on engagement (interaction).
One of the most influential teachers I had at UCLA was Terri Anderson, an incredibly warm, loving, and enthusiastic Sociology professor/lecturer. She is actually the one I credit for getting me hooked into sociology– and also guided me to also become a teacher (or “facilitator”).
She always started every course with a discussion. She had a topic that she put on the board– and for the first half of class, all the students in class were able to engage– share their opinions, their experiences, and thoughts.
I actually started to look forward to go to class (the first time this has happened in my life). She wasn’t just boring us to death with routine lectures or PowerPoint presentations. If anything I think this is the future of education– we can learn all the “content” we need to learn online via Google for free. But what I think teachers should focus on is engagement– getting students to share their experiences, getting students involved, and helping each student realize his/her own potential.
So when it comes to my street photography courses– almost everyone has read my blog (generally for at least a year) and they technically know all the “content” when it comes to street photography. They know how to use their cameras, they know what they think is an “interesting” scene– but what they want is hands-on guidance and coaching.
Many students know that to overcome their fear of shooting street photography– they should engage their subjects, that they should be open and friendly, and that they need to do it. But what they need is that little extra push– that extra nudge. And that is what I offer in a lot of my workshops– I encourage the students to push themselves outside of their comfort zones, and I will be with them physically.
So if I’m walking out and about with a student– and I see them look at a potential person that they find interesting from the corner of their eye (then quickly look away– and keep walking as if they are ashamed)
I can tell that they saw a potential great street photography opportunity, but were simply too nervous or shy to take the photograph.
I will then give the student permission to take the photo. I will say something like, “I know you think that person is interesting– why don’t you go and take the photograph? And if you are nervous, just say hello.”
The student will then say, “Oh no– that will be too awkward, it is too late.” I will then say no– and sometimes even give them a physical nudge towards the subject and reassure them by saying, “Don’t worry– I am here with you. If they try to punch you in the face, I will take the punch for you!” (usually they laugh, and walk along with me).
Then what generally happens 95% of the time is that the subject is totally cool with being photographed, and the student goes away with a heightened sense of confidence and understanding. The student then goes, “Wow– I totally expected that person to be uncomfortable being photographed, but they liked it!” Or the student might say, “That was a lot easier than I thought!”
It ultimately wasn’t me who clicked the shutter for them. They physically clicked the shutter, they approached the stranger, and they framed the photo. They did it themselves– I just was the coach (like a gym coach) that told them to push hard for one more rep (one more repetition if you’re lifting weights).
Talent doesn’t exist
Every student has a unique view of the world– and nobody is “talented” when it comes to street photography. It simply doesn’t exist. Each student has his/her own life experiences, and ultimately when it comes to identifying what they find interesting in the streets– it is entirely subjective. I don’t think there is any special “talent” when it comes to street photography– the most important “talent” is being able to see and identify interesting scenes, but that is something that can be trained visually (like teaching a writing student grammar). Instead, you are teaching students “visual grammar”
about composition, framing, and how to make photos. This can all be taught easily either online, via books, or in the classroom.
Ultimately one of the things I am trying to teach the students is confidence. I think one of the biggest things that street photographers lack is the confidence to approach strangers, the confidence to take a photo (without permission), the confidence to know that it is okay to take bad photographs. Some students I have are such perfectionists that they are afraid of taking “bad” photos– that they don’t end up taking any photos at all.
Rather, I try to help facilitate them to build their own confidence. Not only confidence in terms of approaching strangers, but having the confidence to not be so self-critical– and to let themselves flourish creatively and artistically.
Strangely enough– the biggest benefit I have found in street photography isn’t becoming a better photographer. I have found the biggest benefit of street photography is becoming a more confident human being.
Personally through street photography– it has given me confidence in terms of approaching strangers (even something simple as asking for directions), confidence in terms of trying out new businesses (the worst thing that people can say is “no”), and confidence in terms of knowing that failure is okay (a lot of strangers can get upset being photographed, and not every photo I take will be a good one).
The 80/20 principle when it comes to leading a workshop
I think we can apply an 80/20 principle when it comes to leading a workshop in many different things.
First of all, I think we should focus on an 80% emphasis on engagement (asking the students lots of questions, having them self-criticize their own photos, asking the students their experiences, asking the students to analyze compositions from the presentations, asking the students to lead direction). This gives the students a huge sense of empowerment– and it creates a much more engaged sense of learning.
Therefore that leaves only 20% on content (the lectures/presentations/notes you actually give to “teach” them information).
When I first started leading workshops, I thought the following, “Oh man– these students are spending a lot of money, they are flying from far away– I need to give them as much information as possible or else it will not be worth it for them.” So I tried to engage in too many presentations– which just bored them to death (and caused them to fall asleep in class).
However now with the 80/20 principle: I try to keep presentations short, sweet, and to-the-point. And to be honest, all of the “content” I share during the workshop (in terms of guidance, what to do, technical settings, theories, etc.) can be found for free on the blog. But the unique part of a workshop is being able to do things in-person that you can’t do online. The in-person (engagement) part of things include critique, shooting 1:1 with a student, spending time to get to know each student’s motivations and encouraging them, answering specific questions they might have.
An example weekend workshop timetable
So for example, a typical weekend workshop I lead has this structure:
- 5-6pm: Icebreakers (getting to know one another)
- 6-9pm: Critique
- 10-12am: Lecture/Presentation
- 12-1pm: Lunch
- 1-6: Shooting
- 10-12: Shooting
- 12-1: Lunch
- 1-3: Editing (choosing the best photos)
- 3-6: Final presentation/critique
Personally I have found this blueprint to work extremely well over the years in terms of teaching street photography workshops. I have lead street photography workshops for over 3 years now– and this is what has ended up working very well.
Even another idea I have for future workshops: encourage students to watch more lectures via pre-recorded video on YouTube before class– then use the classroom time to ask more questions (similar to what Khan Academy does).
Ultimately at the end of the day– all the “content” you provide should be available online for free. The purpose of a workshop is to do things you can’t do on the Internet– things you can only do in-person.
Giving a damn about the students
You can’t fake passion. You can’t fake love. You can’t fake attention that you give to the students.
Treat your students like your family. Share your time, energy, love, insights, hopes, weaknesses, and self-doubts with them. Be totally transparent– and have them trust you.
I know a lot of photography teachers who don’t really seem to give a damn about the students. They are just there to make some money (most photographers make a living teaching workshops nowadays as there isn’t much demand for paid assignments)
and they give basic guidance and feedback to students, then leave– and the students never hear back from them again.
Treat others how you would like to be treated.
I remember as a student in school– it seemed like half of the teachers didn’t really give a damn. This was very apparent especially at the University level. At UCLA, it was always the lecturers who were making near minimum wage that cared about the well being and learning of the students. It was always the tenured professors who only taught (as a requirement) that just “went through the motions”
and only taught courses because they were required to.
So when I am leading a workshop– I consider myself a servant to the students. I give myself 100% fully to them. I meet them early before the workshop to have breakfast or coffee with them, I engage them and ask them lots of questions over lunch, I am physically and emotionally attentive (I never answer emails, make phone calls, or check Facebook when I’m with them), and I always have dinner, drinks, and meals with them deep into the night (sometimes as late as midnight).
Why do I do this? It is because I give a damn. I love my students. They support me so much from being loyal readers of this blog, and they care enough about street photography to fly long distances to come attend a workshop.
Some teachers treat teaching a workshop like a 9-5 job. Once it is 5:00pm, they “clock out”
and tell the students goodbye, they are going home.
Personally, I have found the best connections to happen during workshops is not actually during the workshop itself– but over meals and dinners. There is nothing better as a human being to share another meal with somebody. Good meals, good laughs, good coffee, and good interactions are what make us feel fully-human. This is the bond which brings us together. Apparently the reason why the Spartans were such close with one another is that for a period of time it was forbidden for people to have meals with only their families in their homes. All meals were communal– which forced them to get to know their neighbors.
In workshops I have taken in the past– the teachers leave once the “official end” is over. This made me feel sad, neglected– like the teacher didn’t care. Sure I understand that the teachers have their own obligations and “personal life”– but it didn’t make me feel special in any way.
Ask a lot of questions
So one of the most important parts of trying to gain more engagement is the importance of asking a lot of questions.
So for example, if I am doing a presentation on the composition of famous street photographs– I don’t just immediately jump into explaining why a certain composition works.
Rather, I will ask the students (or a specific student): “What about the composition do you find interesting?” Or I will ask the photographer, “Why do you think this is a good photograph? Tell me the compositional elements which you think works– and how does the photograph make you feel?”
And of course each student will reach deep inside him/herself and explain (usually quite articulately) what they find interesting about a photograph. If they are struggling, then I ask some more “leading” or “guiding” questions such as: “Do you see any leading lines in the photograph? What do their facial expressions say? What kind of emotions do you feel from the photograph? What kind of gestures do the subjects have? Do you find any distractions in the backgrounds?”
By using these kinds of guiding questions– the students then get “aha” moments and start to understand what you mean. Then they will begin to explain in their own words what they find interesting.
This is the art of learning.
What is learning really about anyways?
I think another important thing to consider when leading a photography workshop is: “What does the student want to get out of the workshop, and what does the student (in my opinion) need to learn?”
One of the biggest quotes that has stuck with me for a long time is from Steve Jobs– in which he distrusted consumer testing for new products because he didn’t believe people knew what they wanted until they saw it. For example, nobody would have expected that they “wanted” an iPhone. Before the iPhone, all the “smartphones” were quite ugly and had a million buttons. He said fuck that– and simplified the phone to a full-touchscreen, put on a single home button, and a few buttons on the side– and that was it. Similarly when he decided to put together the iPad, he didn’t try to simply give what the customers wanted in terms of a device– he created a whole new category.
So now this will sound a bit bad in the sense that I am kind of saying that the students don’t always know what they need to learn.
For example: I have some students who come into a workshop too obsessed with gear, technical settings, and such– without worrying about what their vision is, and why they take photographs (or what they ultimately want to get out of their photography). In this way– I try to give them a little more guidance in terms of what I think is the “right” way– or what I think is best for them.
However there are other cases where the students are very explicit what they want out of their photography (to make beautiful images, to inspire people through their work, and to build their confidence). In those cases I help guide them down that path– as I believe it is what I think they need as well.
So as an instructor, a teacher, or a “facilitator”
your job is to try to understand a student’s needs, wants, and try to guide them along a path– in which learning will be fulfilling, exciting, and help them grow.
What is a good way to gauge is learning is effective or “working”? It is simple: having fun.
The importance of having fun at a workshop
One of the most important goals I have for students at a workshop is to have fun. To almost be like a child again– to have that wonderment when we first picked up a camera, and realized how wonderful it was to capture moments of everyday life. The beauty of everyday life.
I think when we all started photography, we had this child-like wonder– where the world was full of possibilities, that there were no rules in photography, and everything was beautiful.
However over time, we start to learn more “rules” in photography regarding composition, framing, technical settings, camera equipment– etc.– that we lose this child-like passion, creativity, and sense of wonderment with photography.
For me personally, I have found the more technical and “professional” I have tried to treat my street photography– the less fun I was having.
Now our lives are stressful enough– with work, school, relationships, family, whatever. Why have students sign up for a workshop in which they will just be more stressed out?
Now I am not telling you to simply baby your students. Rather, I think the most engaged and productive learning happens when students are having fun making photographs. Because when you are having fun when you’re taking photos– you fall into a state of “flow”
in which you are challenged (at a comfortable level), learning a lot, and having a sense of excitement which is irresistible to control.
Do you remember when you were a student that couldn’t sit in class or simply would fall asleep, because you weren’t being engaged– or that the material wasn’t challenging enough? But once you were given a more difficult challenge from the teacher (that fortunately realized your potential)– you are on fire. You fall into a state of “flow” (or being “in the zone”) and you concentrate all your mental energy and physical attention to the task at hand (whether it was solving a math problem, writing an essay, or drawing something). Then you lose all sense of yourself, all sense of time, and you are literally on fire– you have having the time of your life.
A good gauge of figuring out if students are having a good time or having fun is this: are they smiling, laughing, and is there a positive energy around?
Furthermore, I find when workshops are really fun– they move so quickly (in terms of time). When I’m out shooting with my students for 6 hours, those 6 hours can literally feel like 6 minutes. We share so many great conversations, good food, good coffee, interactions with strangers on the streets, insights about photography, and a new sense of friendship.
Breaking the teacher-student barrier
While I do think that a teacher/facilitator should assume a position of authority– ultimately I think it is important to break that teacher/student barrier.
There is a saying that stuck with me: “When one teaches, two learn.”
So as a teacher, you aren’t just this golden pot of wisdom– waiting to pour your insights into the students. Rather, it is a two-way interaction. You will learn as much from your students as they will learn from you.
So be open, honest, transparent, and willing to learn from your students. The second that you think you know everything– you know nothing. You close yourself off to the possibilities of insights from your students, who also have a rich background of knowledge. This is why often “experts” and academics, and professors can be so frustrating– they think they know everything, and they close off their minds.
I have learned a lot from my students. I have learned from their analyses of images (small details I overlook), their life philosophies (inside and outside of photography), their shooting experiences (how they dealt with negative encounters in street photography), their techniques (camera settings, how they approach strangers), their artistic backgrounds and how it applies to street photography (comedy, music, writing, poetry, coding, etc.), and cultural beliefs (how it is to shoot street photography in a certain country, and what they believe is “ethical” when it comes to shooting strangers).
A lot of people ask me, “Eric– aren’t you bored teaching the same workshop over and over again?”
While the content of the workshops I teach is similar– it is always a fresh and new experience for me. The students I get are always new (although I get a fair amount of returning students), the venue is often different, the weather is different, myself as a teacher/human being is different (I am constantly learning and readjusting my philosophies in photography and life), and therefore each workshop is different.
I also make it a point to ask the students for suggestions for other ideas I can incorporate into future workshops. Their diverse backgrounds, skill sets, and insights have given me more ideas in workshops– such as shooting in pairs, arranging scheduled 1:1 time, having less lecture and more shooting time, focusing on critiques, as well as shooting routes and suggestions.
Know that learning is a two-way street. You learn from your students as much as they learn from you. This is what learning should be about. Your role as a “teacher” or facilitator isn’t any “better” or more prestigious than the role of a “student.” They are simply two different roles– in which both the teacher/student need to dance together. Dancing is always more fun with two (not just one).
Be flexible; nothing ever goes according to plan
One of the things that often stresses me out during workshops is when things don’t go according to schedule– or according to plan.
I have taught some workshops where I am such a stickler on time
that I try to shove too much content into such a short period of time, that I try to speed students along (just so we can finish all “the material”), and been so rigid that it disrupts the learning process.
So realize that nothing ever goes according to plan when teaching a workshop. Generally workshops tend to run over-time (give more buffer time when it comes to giving critiques, and feedback on photos)
and this can cause a lot of stress.
But the analogy is be like bamboo. Have a strong structure
but at the same time, be flexible and pliant.
So when it comes to teaching a workshop
it is good to have a plan, a timetable, and a structured schedule. But allow there to be 30 minutes-1 hour of buffer time in-between. Expect things to break down, things to run over (or sometimes under) time. Over-prepare for your presentations and workshop, but know when to cut back on some materials when necessary.
So for example, you might prepare a presentation with 50 slides. But maybe you are only 25 slides in, and you only have 10 minutes left. Don’t try to rush through the 25 other slides. Rather, figure out a good spot to stop the presentation, and simply move on. Remember, content isn’t as important as engagement.
Less words, more visuals
The worst things you can do if using a PowerPoint presentation is use text. Text is often distracting– as the students spend more time reading your text, rather than them focusing on you giving your presentation.
Some of my best college professors are the ones that didn’t use any over-head projections, slides, PowerPoints, whatever. The best ones are the ones that gave a spectacular oral presentation. Those were the most engaging, memorable, and best presented. This follows the oral tradition we have followed for thousands of years (before the advent of writing and reading- and is therefore more “natural”).
Of course in photography we need visuals. So my suggestion is this when preparing a presentation: Include lots of images, and no text. The only text you might need is to break down each section (like a blank black slide that says “Composition”) to prepare a new section– or text captions for a photograph (with a photographer’s name, location, and date).
We are a visual creature
so don’t bore people with text. Use photographs to augment the meaning of what you are saying, and remember: less is more. It is better to have 10 really great street photographs to analyze what makes a great photograph (and spending 10 minutes on each one), than having 100 photographs (and analyzing each photograph for only 30 seconds each).
The importance of 1:1 time
Regardless if you have 10 students or 100 students– whenever you are having an interaction, give that student your 100% un-divided attention.
I often feel guilty when interacting with a student– and I am “ignoring” all the other students who are trying to interact with me.
However I think it is better to give a student your 100% undivided attention for 5 minutes, than giving a total of 30 minutes to your student (while being distracted doing other things).
So the rules are: when you are interacting with a student, you can kindly tell the other students you will get to them– but give that student your whole focus. Turn off your smartphone (or set it to mute), and be a good listener. Don’t interrupt them– let them talk. I have a problem doing this often (completing the sentences of my students). But I have learned a “2 second rule”
have a 2 second pause before you respond. Let the students speak their mind, and don’t let your mind wander on the schedule of the workshop, what you guys plan on having for lunch, or any other logistical issues you might have.
Also when it comes to shooting, it is so crucial to give students 1:1 time. So what I do is the following:
Let’s say I have 14 students. What I will do is divide them into groups of 2 (pairs)
and then pre-arrange shooting times with them throughout the day.
So for example on a Saturday:
- 1-2pm: Group 1
- 2-3pm: Group 2
- 3-4pm: Group 3
- 4-5pm: Group 4
- 5-6pm: Group 5
And on Sunday (the next day):
- 10-11am: Group 6
- 11-12pm: Group 7
So during each hour, I will give each group or pair my undivided attention. I will tell the other students to go off and shoot in pairs, and simply meet us as a pre-specified “meeting spot” at the top of each hour. In academia– they often do “office-hours.” This is the same thing with a workshop– create certain “office-hours” with your students.
Also on the last day of the workshop (Sunday from usually 2-4pm) I will sit down with each student (after they have made a pre-selection of all their images, down to around their best 10 photos)
I will give them ample 1:1 time, to look, review, and critique their images on their laptop.
During this 1:1 critique time, I will give them my honest feedback on their work– and also ask them to field me any specific questions they had– whether it comes to critiquing shots they were unsure about, camera settings, composition, or perhaps looking at un-related photos (shot from before the workshop). This time is absolutely golden– I give each student my 100% undivided attention, and try to not rush this time together (but at the same time trying to get to everyone else in a timely manner).
As an instructor, imagine yourself as a sun. You can either spread all of your light on a field of flowers– which is nice. Or you can really focus all of your ray’s suns into one spot– to become strong and focused like a laser.
Be like a laser when you’re with each student. There is nothing more warming, loving, and caring than giving someone your 100% soul, being, focus, and attention.
Conclusion: See what works for you
Ultimately this is a guide in terms of what has worked personally well for me when it comes to teaching workshops. I am constantly learning, evolving, and tweaking my approach as a teacher/facilitator– and no two workshops I teach are ever the same.
I recommend you to simply take tidbits of this guide
which you think will be helpful to you. If there are certain things you don’t agree with– totally cool with me. Take what you want, and leave the rest.
Behind-the-scenes Videos for my workshops
Shooting the streets of Downtown LA, 2014
Critique session in Sydney, 2014
Downtown LA Testimonial Video, 2014
Behind the Scenes: Dubai Street Photography Workshop GoPro
Presentations on street photography
I know some people who want to teach their own street photography workshops (or give presentation at a local club, school, whatever). Here are some of the slides I have used in the past. Feel free to use any of these, modify them, edit them– or use this for reference material. You don’t need to give me credit, or ask for my permission. Just go forth and spread the love, knowledge, wisdom, and insights you have with those willing to learn:
This is the Intermediate/Advanced Street Photography Workshop presentation I give my students. In each section, I encourage the students to analyze the composition of each image, the story behind each image, the emotions– and what makes each photograph great.
I try to do only 20% of the talking, while the students do 80% of the talking.
I hope this can be a good guide for you to know some great street photography projects– and also share with other students (if you are a teacher)
A good outline for beginners in street photography — learning via subtraction (not addition).
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A good primer on street photography and composition.
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Great examples of solid urban landscapes– a good subject matter for street photographers.
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Some strategies on overcoming your fear of shooting street photography.