50 Lessons I’ve Learned From Jacob Aue Sobol’s Magnum Workshop in Kyoto by John Hall

Photo by John Hall. Kyoto, 2015

Eric: This article is by John Hall, a photographer and human being I respect deeply. John Hall was one of my students at a week-long street photography workshop in SF, and since then he has been my zen master (he always reminds me to stay centered). He recently attended a Jacob Aue Sobol workshop in Kyoto, Japan and I loved the article so much I wanted to share it with you. You can see his original article here.

John: I just finished a week long workshop with Jacob Aue Sobol in Kyoto and it was terrific. The Leica team was also most helpful during the week as the workshop was held in their beautiful Gion Leica store. Jacob, Chloe and Albert did a super job with a diverse set of students. A highly recommended workshop!

Jacob really challenged each of us artistically to find our own voice through photography. Shooting more from the heart than the mind. Shooting and editing with emotion leads to emotional photos. The week also turned out to be a shift in my approach to putting together projects, i.e. series of photos that hang together in a portfolio. The approach is like writing poetry, writing verses that rhyme vs telling a straightforward story. Leaving the flow more open than closed so each viewer can be pulled in with their own interpretation of the theme. We worked really hard during the week on shooting and then editing down to a portfolio of 12 shots.

Please take a moment to view my project “Shijo“. Feel free to stay in contact with me here.

To start this post I will share with you some of direct words from Jacob as really hit home for me:

“This workshop aims to develop each students ability to create an unique voice within photography. How do you create a personal expression? How do you become unique? When and how do we feel and express ourselves through the pictures we make?

The ambition is to create images with a visual distinction attached to our personality. With their intimate, human and present character the pictures must be filled by the states, where everything shimmers and where we, as viewers, are invited both to deal with our own existence and with what we are looking at specifically.

It means everything that we can identify with our photographs. They are a continuing study of our close relationships to the world and the camera is the instrument by which we attempt to bring order to understand and communicate with our surroundings.

The more you give of yourself, the more you put yourself at stake, whether you photograph someone you love or someone who is a stranger to you, the more likely the pictures are to reflect your personality, so they become unique – which is fundamental for developing a personal photographical expression.”

Some personal notes from the session as we worked 1×1 with Jacob and also in small groups:

  • 1. I should not crop too much (if at all) in this poetic approach to photography. The crop forces the focus making it a closed photo. The larger view maybe be a little rough or cluttered but it let’s the viewer have context.
  • 2. Slow down my walking and shooting to see more beauty. I found a specific pace that works for me.
  • 3. Editing continues to be so important. I think it is best to use the same camera, post processing, frame size, etc. for a portfolio. The variations come from the content, the verses.
  • 4. I like shooting in black and white. I shot the Leica Monochrom with a 28m lens (THANKS Kyoto Leica) and also the Leica Q. It took a few days to dial in my range finder skills, but then when I went back to the Q it felt like a snapshot camera. I need to explore this more.
  • 5. Shoot from emotional connection not through intellectual force.
  • 6. The biggest point in class was to develop a personal connection with your subject so to capture true feeling s or emotions. This can be over an extended period of time or just a few minutes together on the street. The “shoot and run” photos don’t convey any emotion to the viewer. I am good establishing this connection but need to push my self to continue in this direction. Stay longer.
  • 7. With that said sometimes a photo shows up and you take the shot with out thinking or talking. These maybe the best as they are really events with true emotions. One shot and the moment is gone.
  • 8. On sequencing photos in a portfolio there is no logic, just feeling. A story often has a detail shot, distant (context) shot, medium shot, etc. to let the viewer construct the story. After an emotional shot it would be good to try a portrait as the viewer can transfer the emotion to the human.
  • 9.OMG Printing! Jacob’s team printed out many of our shots on inexpensive paper and it was super cool to touch, feel and organize the shots. It was a complete different experience than viewing on digital. I need to keep printing, even small 4×6 or 5×7 work well. It is also key to the sequencing project as you can step back as see how the rhythm flows. The opposite of this is FaceBook that tees up a photo in a seemingly random approach.
  • 10. A strong photo that grabs the viewer is a good start to pull them in. An open photo at the end works well. An ending photo that is open also makes sense. But there I go thinking again….
  • 11. In general there are more open than closed photos in a portfolio.
  • 12. I did a short photo session in Kyoto that was a major fail, not photographically just the entire event. Memorable but don’t need to say more.
  • 13. Overall I shot about 1,600 shots over 5 days and got plenty of exercise. As always there is no telling when a great shot will turn up so you need to be ready and on your toes. Good shoes, an early start, extra batteries and card are all the basics. And coffee, double expresso for me.
  • 14. Do not include any cliche shots in portfolio, it brings it all down.
  • 15. The week was full of ups and downs as my phone completely died, my camera broke (my back up was ready to rock = pro ) and worst of all my good friends in Tokyo had a family medical emergency that was super serious.
  • 16. Jacob is an interesting guy with a background to match. He shoots campaigns and commercial work through out the year but will take Jan/Feb to shooting personal work, about 1,000 images a day. The the rest of the year to edit the images. Interesting. He loves the dark and cold of winter, you can see this in his work. I need to think about what this means for me. I can see how getting in the shooting groove for an extended period would work well. It also makes sense for some time and space to then go back and edit/sequence.
  • 17. We had a fun closing dinner with (more than) just a couple of beers. A lot of fun as the group was diverse from around the world.
  • 18. Emotional connection during shooting results in emotional photos for the viewer.
  • 19. Photos should challenge the audience, viewer. No need for trite common shots.
  • 20. More intimate the photos the more emotions are displayed.
  • 21. Moving from snapshots to emotions. Time is a factor.
  • 22. Looking backwards lets you see what attracts you, what interests you.
  • 23. We did little if any camera tech talk during the week, but ISO 3200 is fine if it helps nail the shot. Technical perfection is not what this approach is about.
  • 24. Give more of yourself as a photographer.
  • 25. Jacob thought talent is over rated. 95% is just plain hard work, shooting 1000 shots a day for 60 days is a real workout. I agree.
  • 26. Great shots make you feel like you are there, in the shot vs. shooting from the outside as a viewer. A little hard to put this into words but cool when you can do it.
  • 27. Shoot what you see, shoot what you feel.
  • 28. Shy is good as a photographer, can result in more complex material.
  • 29. Photo poem needs to rhyme. Almost to a beat.
  • 30. Print draft shots to help sequence. This is very cool, I did this right when I got home to the printer, see below.
  • 31. Person then Place. Open then Closed.
  • 32. Gut feel for picking and sequencing photos. Like music, poetry and art. Almost has a beat to the flow.
  • 33. Edit is as important as photo.
  • 34. Ask “who am I?” when picking up camera.
  • 35. Hang on to conversations longer with subjects. Lean in.
  • 36, Projects are either B/W or color, hard to mix both.
  • 37. Close up, fade away, big picture. Details, then place.
  • 38. No tilt or gimmicks.
  • 39. Curiosity is key.
  • 40. Shooting with out thought. Shoot from emotion and gut. Get in the zone. Flow. I spent some time this summer with Rinzi Ruiz and thought of him often during this week.
  • 41. You can’t think your way to a great photo.
  • 42. Be present.
  • 43. Dance together sometimes with subject.
  • 44. Up the odds of a great photo by being present, not thinking, feeling, emotional. Pure intuition.
  • 45. You are alive, make more love. Show more love, get more love.
  • 46. Trust your gut, your camera and the shot.
  • 47. The photograph is not about the tattoos it is about the person, the connection. (VT)
  • 48.  The final photograph is not about the situations and its emotions when you took it, it is about the emotions that a final photograph makes. (VT)
  • 49. Be close not only to your subjects, but also close to yourself. (VT)
  • 50. Keep an open mind in these workshops as you are there to learn new approaches and ideas. I saw several people that came in stuck in one spot and dug in deeper vs moving ahead. Just an observation, but also so good to see so many people move their work ahead for the final project. The team helping Jacob in the Leica store were great, along with Chloe and Albert.

At age 60 my time is short, I need to shoot and publish from the heart. It also makes me think of what will my photo legacy be 20 years after I pass?

When I got back I printed off about 50 Kyoto shots and played a fun game with my family and friends I call “I, Jacob”. They each look through all the photos, select their favorite 12, then sequence to tell a story or poem. About 1/3 of the people said “stop with all the photo stuff”, 1/3 tried it and were stressed and 1/3 really loved the project. It was delightful to see what story they told and with no right or wrong answer it was all good. Fun to watch each persons creative voice come out.

Pro tip: Shoot/Edit/Sequence with emotion let’s your own voice stand out. One of my personal mantras is “don’t be better, be different”. Emotional photos do this. Not to worry about my technical skills, they are fine. Shoot from the heart.

Overall a super week that has let me mature my approach to photography = finding my own unique voice.

Thanks Jacob.

John Hall

You can learn more about Jacob Aue Sobol here.