4 Lessons I’ve Learned from the Magnum Photos Toronto Workshop

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Eric’s Note: This article is written by Neil Ta, my manager and good friend who recently attended a Magnum Photos workshop in Toronto. The project he worked on for the week was “Meat Locker.” Below is his write-up of the experience and the lessons he’s personally learned. You can see upcoming Magnum workshops and events here.

Neil: I recently had the opportunity to attend a Magnum Photos workshop in Toronto as part of the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival, which is one of the largest of its kind in the world. For the last six years, Contact has invited members of Magnum to run workshops focusing on photojournalism, documentary storytelling, and street photography.

This year’s line-up of instructors included Magnum Associate Moises Saman and Magnum Nominee Zoe Strauss. Moises is most well-known for the work he’s done in Afghanistan and Iraq and his focus more recently has been in documenting the Arab Spring. Zoe’s extensive work is more regionally focused in the community where she was born and raised – Philadelphia.

I ultimately chose to go with Moises over Zoe because I felt his work was a lot different than my own and I hoped he’d be there to guide me through a more photojournalistic project over the week.

The Workshop

The workshop consisted of an intimate group of 22 participants who were matched with either Moises or Zoe. Participants applied to get into the program and they did their best to match each photographer with their first choice of instructor.

The first day of in-class began with introductions and a quick review of each participant’s background and work. I showed my ‘One Month in Vietnam’ project that was shot and edited earlier this year. It definitely isn’t my best work, but it was the only piece in my portfolio that was edited and curated with the assistance of others (including our very own Eric Kim!).

We also formulated our initial idea for the weeklong project and spent the afternoon shooting or researching that project. Some chose more conceptual projects while others chose a more journalistic story.

I ultimately came up with the idea to document a cross section of butchers from various cultural backgrounds. Eventually that would transform into a story that was completely different – more on that later.

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Each morning, most of us met as a group to go through our image edits from the previous day. I thought this was a great process as I learned a lot from seeing the evolution, progression, and struggle others had with their story. Afternoons were spent working on our individual project.

I did get a chance to meet one-on-one with Moises for about an hour. We went through my portfolio and discussed ideas I had for long term projects. Most of my work to date has been focused on the documentation of the changing Toronto skyline from unique rooftop views or urban decay from places around the world, including the much-photographed city of Detroit.

Though I am proud of some of the work I’ve done with these projects in the past, I’ve felt the desire to make more important images that speak to a greater audience. He offered me guidance on how to move forward with the ideas I had and I’m looking forward to getting this started.

The final day of the workshop was spent with more one-on-one time culminating in a final edit of 8-12 images per participant that would be displayed on a loop the next day at an opening at the prestigious Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto’s West Queen West area. It was great to see everyone’s blood, sweat, and tears being showcased at this gallery. There were some really strong projects and even more individual images that were quite striking. I hope that some of the photographers will continue with the process and turn them into something more long term.

So after a week full of 16 hour days and copious amount of coffee, here are the four important lessons learned from this intensive workshop:

 1. Putting the ‘Journalism’ Back in ‘Photojournalism’

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The main reason why I chose to do this workshop was because I felt my images were lacking importance and depth to them. I wanted to choose a project to work on that would be ambitious but not at all impossible to complete in the timeframe. I was more concerned with the process than with the final results.

My original ‘cultural butchers’ idea eventually morphed into an artistic documentation of meat from the farm to the boutique retail butcher. More than half the time spent the first three days was working the phone, emails, and dropping in on people unexpectedly to find leads and to gain access their workplace. It forced me to interact with people (even those who would not become subjects) and to talk your way into different scenarios. It was rewarding to see persistence pay off.

With many forms of photojournalism, I understand that a lot more interaction generally takes place between the photographer and subjects – often times paying multiple visits to a subject before they feel comfortable enough with you taking out your camera. I’m not quite at this stage yet, but I feel that I have the confidence to approach subjects now that would require a more sustained effort.

 2. The Original Story May Not be the Story

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As mentioned, my original idea for the week only lasted a few hours as it transitioned from documenting a cross section of butchers to focusing on new-age young hip butcher culture. However, after a visit to a cattle farm, it was obvious at that point that I would be seeing the process of how meat is sent to market – from the farmer to the retailer.

You can see that the original idea I had for the project took on a couple of variations as the week progressed. Even during the editing process, we photographers have the power to tell very different stories with the images we choose to show and which ones to withhold.

3. Imperfection is Perfection

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I never realized how technically inclined I was as a photographer until this week. I used to be the sort of person who wanted everything tack sharp while shooting at F/1.4, shooting at the lowest possible ISO settings, and appropriate shutter speeds. Softness in images really bothered me…or so I thought.

One evening this week, Moises had a free drop-in lecture at Ryerson University. His images are inherently intense, but many have a softness to them both in a technical and aesthetic sense. I saw Afghan landscapes shot from tanks, candid moments of local people, and other tense situations in photos that were slightly out of focus or with a slow shutter speed resulting in blur. My technical side said ‘that isn’t sharp!’ – but the images worked. They’re perfect in their imperfection.

One of the main issues I am struggling with right now is the fact that digital photography is extremely sanitized. We apply noise reduction to everything and we want everything to be technically perfect. We trade technical perfection at the expense of capturing the essence of a moment. It sounds a little silly but I actually want to become less technical with my shooting. My OM-D didn’t leave auto ISO the whole week and I loved it.

 4. Editing is Absolutely Everything

I cannot stress this point enough: editing is absolutely everything. When trying to tell this story, I thought my first two edits were pretty strong. I had included 11 photos in the first draft, then 12 in the second. The second edit was a result of getting feedback from at least five other photographers, so I felt pretty confident. Prior to my one-on-one meeting with Moises to discuss the final edit, I felt as though I had a fairly strong story with some memorable images. I was pretty confident that he’d make a few changes and send me on my way. I was so wrong.

For whatever reason, I made poor choices of which images to include. I am blaming the long hours, stresses from the week, and the fact that I’m generally not very good at determining which images of mine are the strongest. Take this is an example:

My Edit, Eventually Discarded
My Edit, Eventually Discarded
Moises' Edit, Included in Final Project
Moises’ Edit, Included in Final Project

As you can see, it is pretty evident that Moises’ edit is much stronger than my original pick. It is less cluttered and compositionally more appealing. When we look at our images over and over, it is sometimes difficult to objectively choose the most compelling images. That is why it’s essential to have people you trust to review your work.

Not only should you allow them to offer advice with the images you’ve short-listed, you really should show them a larger edit of your photos because you may have actually missed the images that are the strongest. In my case, only one image from my second edit actually made it to the final eight for the project.

So not only did I choose the wrong images,  I also sequenced them in a way that was very linear. My project literally went from the farm to the processor to the truck to the retailer to the consumer. Moises’ edit told a stronger story in a more concise and striking way. The images were sequenced more conceptually and I found it incredible that the moment he saw a certain photo, he automatically knew where in the project to sequence it.

View my final ‘Meat Locker‘ project here.

Conclusion

Though the workshop was quite expensive ($1350 USD excluding food, travel, accommodations), I felt as though it was an incredibly worthwhile program to be a part of. I already have my eyes set on a couple of long term projects and one shorter term one that I hope to start this year. Moises is a great instructor and I felt as though he had a real vested interest in his students succeeding and learning. For me the workshop was well worth the investment and I haven’t heard any other participants complain about the quality of the workshop either. For those looking at participating in this annual event, I would highly recommend it. I’d finally like to give a special thanks to Moises, Zoe, Song (the workshop coordinator at Magnum), as well as the student helpers that were there to provide support to us all week. Now it’s time to go out there and make important photos.

Follow Neil

A portrait I shot of Neil
A portrait I shot of Neil in Michigan, 2013.

Neil Ta is a Toronto-based photographer, urban explorer, rooftopper, traveler, and gentle lover. He is also Eric Kim’s Babysitter Manager. You can view his portfolio or follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Flickr.

By ERIC KIM

Artist-Philosopher