Personal Reflections: Magnum Provincetown Diary 2014

I’ve had the photographic week of my life in Provincetown with Magnum last week. I wanted to use this opportunity to reflect on some of my thoughts and experiences– and I will try my best to be as candid as I can (pun intended).

Background

I was in Australia, teaching workshops in Sydney and Melbourne when Cindy (my girlfriend) sends me an email encouraging me to apply for an “under 30” scholarship in Provincetown for a Magnum workshop. I had told Cindy that I wanted to attend a Magnum workshop for a long time (but my schedule is always so busy– which made it tough to schedule).

Cindy remembered me telling her that I wanted to attend a Magnum workshop– and somehow found the workshop on her own accord (without me asking her to find it for me).

At first when she encouraged me to apply for the scholarship, I thought it was pointless. My work wasn’t strong enough to get me into the workshop (I thought) — and it felt like such a longshot.

But one lesson I’ve learned in life so far is this: It is best to live life without regrets.

Cindy took precious time and energy out of her schedule to help me find this workshop. The least I could do is apply. So I thought, “Fuck it–” and quickly put together a scholarship application, and attached around 8 photos from my on-going “Suits” project. I also included a blurb of the project which is written below:

Suits

This project is a very personal project. It revolves around when I used to work as a “Suit” at my old job.

Although I had great friends and a boss that looked out for me, I was unhappy. I was stuck in a cubicle 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week, doing a job that didn’t fulfill me. The longer I stayed cooped up, the less creative I felt- and the work would suck the soul out of me.

I would work harder and harder, trying to get that next raise or promotion. $40,000 a year wasn’t enough for me, I wanted $60,000 a year. And after that, I wanted $80,000 then $100,000 and hopefully one day $200,000.

I wanted a nice car. A new BMW, Mercedes, or Porsche like all of the bigshots at work. I needed to show others how successful I was, which had to be symbolized through my material possessions.

After I got laid off my job and now am pursuing my street photography, I feel that I have finally “found the light”. But still, whenever I see others in suits I can feel their pain- their struggle – their loss of identity. I can sympathize with them having jobs that they hate, just to pay the bills, support the family, and hopefully one day be considered “successful”.

So anyways, I put together the application– and sent it off into the ether, and forgot about it. I ended up having a fabulous time teaching my workshop in Melbourne (my last leg of the trip)– while having great espressos, phenomenal food (albeit really expensive by American standards), and good laughs, hugs, and fist-bumps with the friends I made along the way.

I then jumped onto a flight from Melbourne to LAX, to visit Cindy’s family and to pick up our car to drive back to the Bay Area (to Berkeley). I had a lovely direct-flight (14 hours), and arrived in the morning the same time I left (4am). After 3 doppio espressos to get me going through the day– Cindy asked me to bring up some stuff back home (and emailed me a laundry list). I then open up my email– and I see the email from Magnum saying that I got accepted into the workshop.

I seriously looked at it, and had to almost give it a double take– I wasn’t quite sure what I was reading. It took me about a minute to realize that it was for the Magnum Provincetown workshop– and I was accepted as one of the scholarship students.

At that moment, I seriously jumped around in joy– giddy like a little Korean schoolgirl. I immediately called Cindy and told her the good news– it was one of the most exciting things that has happened to me since getting accepted into UCLA as an undergraduate.

But then came the tough part– I had to drive up to Berkeley, move my stuff from our old apartment (a 2 bedroom) into a new apartment (1 bedroom) while throwing away/donating/editing down a lot of personal possessions and stuff.

So the next morning, I have breakfast with my younger sister in LA, power up on (more) espressos– and begin the drive from LA to Berkeley.

Fast-forward, we get a bunch of friends to help us move our stuff, and then literally the day after I have to go to Provincetown.

Leaving home

Honestly after being on the road for about 3 months– I was looking forward to spending time at home. It is strange– my concept of “home” isn’t so much a physical place anymore. I live a quite transient life– and live like a hobo out of a backpack.

However to me, “home” is Cindy. Home is my loved ones. Home is my friends and family– and those in my community I share a personal connection to me.

Whenever I come back from a long trip abroad– I always tell myself: “Home is where the heart is.

So actually even though I was excited to go to Provincetown, I felt deep pangs inside my heart, because I had to (once again) be detached from Cindy (and our new apartment in Berkeley) to go off and do more photography-related things.

But Cindy was extremely loving, supportive, and encouraging (after all– she is the one who told me to apply for the workshop in Provincetown). So after hugs and kisses, I packed my backpack with 2 shirts, 2 boxers, a laptop, two cameras (Leica MP and Fujifilm XT-1), 20 rolls of film (Portra 400), and jumped on a plane to Provincetown.

Arriving in Provincetown

The trip from SFO to Provincetown is this: fly from SFO to Boston (with some connecting flight), then take a ferry (or small plane) from Boston to Provincetown.

When I finally arrived in Boston, I was almost screwed. I only had about a 10 minute buffer time to catch the last ferry that left from Boston to Provincetown (thanks to Karl Edwards for helping me coordinate my travels). However by some lucky chance– one of my past students (Quoc Trinh who did my workshop in Toronto) sent me a Facebook message letting me know he was going to the Provincetown workshop. So I send him a message– and he offered a ride from the Boston airport to Provincetown (around 2 hour drive). Ecstatic from my good luck– I jump in his car and we drive out together.

New friendships

Little did I know, but I would create 3 new really great friends during the trip: Karl Edwards (was already friends with him, but got even closer), Quoc Trinh, and Kile Brewer (another scholarship awardee, who was also my roommate in Provincetown).

I think one of my purposes in life is to be social glue, or a “connector” as Malcom Gladwell calls it in his book, “The Tipping Point.” When I was a kid in Queens, New York– my good friend Spencer told me that I was the glue that held everyone together.

So when I first arrived in Provincetown, I already knew Karl (he attended two of my workshops in the past), and also Quoc (he attended my Toronto Workshop). I didn’t know Kile, but he seemed like a cool enough and down-to-earth dude (and was also my roommate in Provincetown).

So I introduced all of the guys to one another– and by the end of the week, we started to call each other “#ptogz” — through a Facebook messenger group chat.

Every morning we would wake up at around 5:30am (to catch the morning light), and then met at around 6am to go shooting together. I honestly never wake up that early– but the morning light in Provincetown is absolutely phenomenal (it is one of the most eastern-cities in America, and is surrounded by water). Even though mornings were extremely painful to wake up to (icy cold showers help) — I cherished all the opportunities we shared the mornings together.

We would walk around, shoot, catch some beautiful light, chat about random shit and have good laughs, take photos of each other (wide-open with BOKEHHH), take pretty sunset photos, then get some good coffee (there was this cool hipster place called “KOHI” which serves Blue Bottle coffee, absolutely amazing), and enjoy breakfast together (with more coffee, eggs benedict, pancakes, and other great goodness).

During the week, we would also have a lot of classes together. Karl and Kile was with me the first 2 days when I was in Constantine Manos’ class. And Quoc would see us during lunch or in the evenings after he was done with Olivia Arthur’s workshop (she does amazing documentary work).

I would say more or less– I spent time with these guys from 6am-midnight everyday (18 hour days together)– and never got sick of their company. We had lots of great food (fried Brussel sprouts marinated in fish sauce being our favorite), tons of coffee (we must have had at least 4-5 coffee runs a day), and lots of geeking out about photography. By the end of the week, I must have accumulated at least 100 hours of time with these guys.

Even though I only got to know them really well for a week, I felt like I knew them for a lifetime. I think my reasoning is this: It doesn’t matter how long you know somebody, but it matters how intensely you know them, the hours you spend together, and the common passions, loves, interests you share. Not only that — but these guys were great human beings (as well as passionate photographers).

To be honest, my most memorable part of the Provincetown workshop was my #PTOWNBOYZZZZ or my #PTOGZ. I can’t wait until I see these guys again.

Meeting Magnum photographers

When I first met the Magnum photographers, I was really intimidated. After all, these guys are living legends — and I have always worshipped their images, and aspired to be like them. When I first met them, I was actually quite star-struck, and giddy like a little (Korean) schoolgirl.

But by the end of the week– I realized that these guys are just normal human beings. Even though they are absolutely fanatical about photography– they enjoy their beer at the end of the day like anybody else does.

The photographers I met the week included the following:
– Costa Manos (almost 80 years old, a living legend of Magnum. Really influenced by his color work “American Color”, and the most passionate teacher (full of wisdom) I have ever met.
– David Alan Harvey (a rockstar living the dream. Incredibly personable, loves to connect with younger photographers, says it how it is, and incredibly giving of his time).
– Olivia Arthur (young female photographer who joined Magnum relatively recently. Has a great vision for documentary work that combines identity, personal documentary, as well as gender. Quoc took her workshop, and she was the most hands-on teacher who gave amazing guidance).
– Bruno Barbey (always been a fan of his Morroco work, comes off as a bit stand-offish, but a great guy to enjoy a Guinesss beer with. Like an onion, you need to peel his layers, but he is a genuinely nice guy).
– Susan Meiselas (famous for her “Carnival strippers” series, incredibly intelligent and articulate, and very approachable).
– Bruce Davidson (the guy is THE living legend. Just being around him made me feel like a better photographer. Oh yeah, and I got a selfie with him).

I think many of us as photographers aspire to be a part of Magnum (one day). It is an elite club of the best photographers in the world– but at the same time, that comes with its disadvantages.

For example, I could see as an outside observer the tension and rivalry that a lot of the photographers had for one another. It came through small little snide remarks here and there (a lot of the older Magnum photographers don’t like the personal documentary work of Olivia Arthur, as she prefers narrative– and they prefer stronger single images), that some of the Magnum photographers made poor editing choices with their new work, as well as this sense that some photographers felt that they were ‘has-beens’ (Costa Manos was self-depracating and told us that next year there would be more ‘famous’ photographers).

I have also read a history on Magnum– and apparently it is full of “sibling rivalries”– and it is a really big dysfunctional family. There are a lot of big egos in Magnum, and rightfully so– they are the best in the world.

But still, I realized that during my week around these Magnum photographers is the following: Photography isn’t everything in life. I think it is more valuable to have close, emotional, and interconnected relationships– a sense of community, and a support system where everyone wants to help everyone else out. I gained a lot of help and encouragement from my #ptog boys when working on my project during the week, and the opportunity to meet other passionate photographers was what meant a lot to me.

The workshop itself: Becoming a student again

I teach a lot of workshops. When I first got laid off my job and decided to teach street photography full-time as a living, I first spent 80% of my time on the road, and only 20% at home. The next year, I spent around 60% of my time on the road, and only 40% at home. This year has been around 50% of time on the road, and 50% of time at home. Next year I hope to spend only 20% of time on the road, and 80% of time at home.

But anyways for most of the year, I am in “teaching mode” — and only have the chance to be a student again when I’m researching and writing articles on the masters. I am a student via reading interviews, reading photography books, and digesting the work of the masters.

This was the first formal workshop I have ever attended as a student– and boy, was it refreshing. I loved the ability to be like a spongue, and absorb all of this photographic wisdom from these masters. I would say all these Magnum photographers combined probably have over 200+ years of photographic experience. It was like all of their wisdom was being distilled into the workshop in just a week.

I was really blessed to be accepted into the workshop, and had the chance to experience 2 days with Constantine Manos, and 3 days with David Alan Harvey.

Not everyone is as lucky as me. I therefore wanted to do my best to share everything I possibly could from my experience there– from writing notes via Evernote, recording lectures, and sharing some snapshots along the way.

Not everybody has the money, time, or resources to attend a Magnum workshop. Coming from a lower socio-economic bracket myself, I wanted to share everything I learned from the week with anyone passionate enough to learn more. And like the spirit of this blog, I feel that information, knowledge, wisdom should be open and free. I don’t believe in “charging for content” — and I have made a pledge in the past in my “Open Source Photography” article that I will never, — I mean never, charge people for content. I might charge people for books, products, and physical things– but I will always have the electronic files, videos, whatever available for free. I want to dedicate my life to serving others, rather than just trying to stuff my own pocket.

Sorry I got a bit distracted. To get back to the point, it was great being a student again– but once again I wanted to share the experience with the world. It was a lot of tough work (and late nights) trying to share all the information as “live” as I could. But honestly, it was worth it. Worth it for myself, worth it for my fellow students (so they could go back and read/watch old material from the workshop), for the teachers (hopefully you can attend one of their workshops in the future), for Magnum (their educational program is excellent), and for you (my dear reader).

I don’t think I am particularly talented or anything like that– but my strongest trait is having an insatiable hunger for knowledge. I consider myself a “learning machine” — and I feel fully alive when I consume, digest, and interpret what I learn with others. My grandparents were professors, my mom was a teacher– so I think teaching and education runs through my veins.

I feel there is so much wisdom in photography (and life) that I want to share with the world. I still have a lot to learn, so being like an open bowl and taking in all the wisdom from others has been extremely fulfilling.

I definitely plan on attending more Magnum workshops in the future, and I highly encourage you to as well.

Working on my project

During the week in Provincetown, I decided to shoot it all on film (Kodak Portra 400) on my film Leica MP.

Why?

I figured I might never have the chance to visit Provincetown again, and I might be able to get a few keepers for my “Only in America” series. Honestly the workshop wasn’t so much an opportunity for me to make great photos. Rather, the workshop was an opportunity for me to learn wisdom, insight, and tips– and after the workshop I could use these lessons to continue to build up a body of work.

So anyways, I brought 20 rolls of film for the week there (which ended up being enough) and shot lots of interesting people, situations, and urban landscapes while there.

However around on Wednesday I realized I was fucked: There were no places to get my film developed in town. I had wrongly made the assumption that there would be at least one place in Provincetown that could do C-41 film. I was wrong.

I started to panic a bit. I was told I could mail off my films to New York and get them processed over-night. I didn’t want to come empty-handed for the Friday student slideshow, and I didn’t want to disappoint my teachers (and you, my reader– and the rest of the street photography community).

I ended up shooting a lot of urban landscapes with my phone, but neither Costa Manos nor David Alan Harvey was impressed. Damn it.

So thank God I brought the Fujifilm XT-1 and 27mmm f/2.8 lens as my backup camera. I had no idea what to work on for a project, and thought to myself– “Man, I am screwed. I am not going to be able to make an interesting project in 2 days. I am going to disappoint Costa Manos, David Alan Harvey, and everyone else out there. I am going to be a laughingstock and a joke. People are going to judge me negatively, and I will disappoint myself.”

Feeling a bit dejected– David Alan Harvey said one thing that gave me encouragement: When he works on his photography projects, he works hard but at the same time has some sort of zen-like serenity. He told us of the cover photo of a girl in a bikini and a lollipop of his Rio book (based on a true story) — in which he was lying in a beach chair, beer in his left hand, and Panasonic GF-1 in his right hand. He told us the best photos he took were often when he was partying, having beers, and with friends.

So I thought to myself: hmm– maybe I can just hit up a local bar and do a project of the people there?

Quoc was already doing a week-long documentary series at the “Old Colony Bar” — and I decided to tag along and be his wing-man (of sorts). I put the XT-1 to ISO 3200, turned it into black and white (I prefer black and white on digital), and put my camera into my pocket and headed to the bar with him.

The first time I went there, I was awkward– stiff, and nervous. I saw nothing (or nobody interesting) to photograph. Then I ordered a beer, started to loosen up– and started to chat with some people at the bar.

People started to share their life stories with me– and I really cherished hearing their experiences. Towards the end of their conversations, I asked if I could take some portraits of them. They were totally cool with it– and I started to fire away.

After a few nights there, Quoc and I became ‘locals’ in a sense– and got to know a lot of people in the bar, and befriended many of them.

I thoroughly enjoyed this more “documentary” approach– where it wasn’t just snapping photos of random strangers in the street. Rather, the joy of getting to know one place really well, getting to know the people very well, and sharing that story with your viewer.

Anyways, I ended up making a tight edit of my best portraits, and surprisingly– David Alan Harvey really liked them (as well as others). I was happy– everything ended up going well in the end.

Back home

Now I am back home, writing these lines on my iPad — looking out of my new apartment into the trees. I feel a nice cool breeze, the nice and tart taste of the coffee in my mouth, and the smooth feeling of the new wooden desk I have. I feel like I am on top of the world.

Home is really where the heart is. I think a lot of people romanticize traveling– and see it as an an end itself. However no– I see traveling, exploring the world as a means to an end. I have found through my travels, I appreciate home more (now being abroad).

I have purposefully tried to restrict my intake of junk foods (social media, blogs, and negativity from the outside world) — and plan to cocoon myself and write a lot of articles I’ve been wanting to on the masters. I also have a lot of philosophical articles on photography I would like to publish. Hopefully the next month or two I’m here in Berkeley can be productive.

Thank you so much for reading this long-winded post– it was as much as a chance for me to personally reflect (as you to experience it as well) :)

Love,
Eric

9/24/2014
Berkeley

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