The anticipation that built in the days preceding the workshop completely overwhelmed me. There were business cards and flyers to be made. Names and faces of speakers to be memorized. Fellow students to meet. The chilly New York City air burned in my lungs. It was my first time to NYC, and the city welcomed me home with open arms. I was tired and hungry and needed rest, but Lady Liberty was offering so much more than that.
The drive to the farm was filled with buzzing introductions and excited observations. I was delighted to see upstate New York in all it’s simplistic splendor gliding by outside the bus window.
After checking in to the hotel, we gathered our cameras and boarded the buses, like a gaggle of school children eagerly awaiting the first day of class after a long, hot, boring summer break.
When we reached the farm, we ascended up the hill like an army of dutiful worker ants to be greeted by a swarm of cheering black team helper bees. They hooped and hollered for what seemed like ages. We could hear the pride in their screams. Stacy Clarkson and Molly Riley each greeted me with a giant hug. I felt like a soldier coming home from war.
John White was one of the first speakers. That man reached deep into my soul and made me believe again in the power of photojournalism. The power to give those who have been reduced to a whisper the chance to scream.
A few quotes from his presentation:
“You are going out there for those who can’t go there.”
“I love spreading my wings. I love living my dreams.”
“My allegiance is to something greater than the organization. My allegiance is to humanity… I’m not doing it for me, and I know that I don’t have forever to do it.”
I met him, briefly at some point during the weekend. He’s a humble man and was always in a well worn suit. I desperately wanted to pull him aside and chirp into his ear for awhile, but the best I could manage was a handshake.
Not just any handshake, though. A John White handshake. He held my gaze, hypnotizing me as he said “It’s really, really, great to meet you Christena.” He simply held my hand there as his eyes reached inside and saw me. I felt violated at first, I wasn’t sure if I could handle his intensity. But then I realized how delighted I was to have someone notice me so sincerely. “It’s really great to meet you too Mr. White. I love your work.”
Afterward he fluttered away down the hill.
Eugene Richards made a surprise appearance to the workshop. I had seen him speak earlier in the year and so when he walked up to the hotel with his wife I about lost it. You would have thought the newest up and coming pop star had just walked by me. At the behest of some friends standing near by, I sheepishly followed him in to the check-in counter. I made a fool of myself but he and his wife were gracious.
A little while later I caught them in the bar as they were heading to bed. His wife gave me a hug and he planted a grandpa kiss smack on my cheek. I immediately updated my facebook status.
After his presentation the next morning I talked with him briefly and scored another pop kiss. It was dreamy.
Here few other quotes from people’s talks:
“You should not want to be Eddie Adams, you are unique” Walter Anderson
“Great photographs touch the soul and broaden the mind” Gerd Ludwig
“When you’re forced outside your comfort zone, that’s when good things happen.” Stephen Wilks
“You are not going to stop a war, but you can tell people your vision.” Rodrigo Abd
“Sometimes the worst thing that can happen is when we shoot what we wanted to get.” Peter Yang
“Maybe I didn’t change the world, but it changed me.” Jodi Cobb
“I am embedded with the people.” Zalmai
“You are the platform for the people.” Deanne Fitzmaurice
Deanne Fitzmaurice gave me an amazing hour of her time to look through my work, listen to my woes and guide me on the steps forward. She told me to “build small stories inside the bigger project. Think of it like a book with chapters.” Something clicked with that. Like building a video project in sequences. Long-term photo essays have always been a challenge for me because they often lack direction, and, well, a story. Though she had many other great things to say, this was a pivotal point for me.
Mary-Anne Golon did a review which ended up being more of a tutorial on how to apply for grants and funding of personal projects or to work with NGO’s. She beamed over a few photos which gave me a calm confidence.
Elizabeth Krist did another of my reviews. She, in a very sweet Krist-like way metaphorically gave me a “keep trying kid” slug on the shoulder. I didn’t feel defeated, just overwhelmed.
Caroline Couig did an edit.
“Make people want to give a shit. These photos don’t do that.”
I met Nick Ut the first night of the workshop at the hotel bar. I figured this would be the best place to find a lot of people more focused on friendships than networking. He was sitting with a group and they all waved me over so I pulled up a chair and sat down. He offered me some nuts.
I don’t really know what we talked about, but I was honestly just happy to sit with him. At his feet, if you will. One of the most influential photographers out there had just offered me nuts and I was delighted to partake with him.
We had many of the same quiet interactions throughout the weekend. One morning I stood with him next to the pond while he took pictures of the autumn leaves reflecting off the water. He showed me every picture, delighted, as if this, too, were a masterpiece. I nodded in agreement, in awe of his genuine love of photography that hasn’t waivered.
Towards the end of the weekend there was a Native American ceremony for the photographers that died in the Vietnam war. It was breathlessly poignant and desperately hard to describe the splendor of being apart of something with such rich history in this tight knit community. Patriotism swelled within my chest at the thought of belonging to something so magnificent.
I watched as Nick placed a sunflower on the stone tablet with the name of his brother who had died. I broke. I thought of how beautiful it was that he had carried his brother’s torch for so long. Tears streamed down my face as balloons were released into the air.
Suddenly all the pieces started to come together and Carrie Niland stepped aside with me to let me voice my countless epiphanies. I felt like I belonged somewhere, to something. I belonged to a group of transient soul-searching artists who were just as self-conscious as me. I felt an understanding that I had long been searching for. I realized how much my skin color affects my shooting in Africa. How bitter I had been that the Africa of my youth was not the Africa I now knew. I wanted to see people the way John White did. And love photography with Nick Ut’s passion. I knew what walls had to be broken down. I understood that I needed more of a community to surround me. I finally knew what to work on and was delighted to have a way forward.
Chad McNally with Nikon poured into my soul that night. He, too, talked through all these things with me and helped breath hope back into my lungs. Hope that these challenges could be overcome and that I could still become the photographer and person I want to be. He loved me well.
Everyone has asked to see the images I shot at the workshop. I’m sadly horrified at them. Our assignment was to only shoot on a 50mm lens. Sounds awesome, except when you’re shooting in a square box of a barbershop. Hardest thing ever. I was so uncomfortable the whole time and not in a good way.
Josh Ritchie pulled me aside after my first shoot and told me that he could see fear in my images. This further resounded with me later and I wondered if this was what is wrong with all my work. Fear. Fear?
But I am afraid. Afraid that people will think I’m too invasive. That they will want something in return for my pictures. That they will think I’m using them. And this fear, turns out, stems from the fact that I’m also afraid those things might be true. What if I am just using people to make a good photograph. What if I don’t really care about them?
And at some point, for some period of time this has become true. I realized that I didn’t care about the people I was shooting anymore. I was too jaded by Africa to connect with my subjects. And so I became afraid of them. And myself.
What a horrible thing to conclude.
During the student shows on the last night of the workshop, each team presents their material from the weekend. I thought everyone did an amazing job… until I saw mine. It was so bad. Four days of no sleep and the exhilaration wearing off, I could start to feel tears forming. I was so embarrassed to have this work being shown to a room full of fantastic photojournalists.
After the presentations Ben Lowy pulled me aside, wrapped a brotherly arm around me and let me lose it. He was brilliant and never once talked down to me for being upset. He said the weekend and the assignment is designed to stretch you to your limits, and if you haven’t reached that peak and fallen off, then there was no point in coming there.
I realized, again, that I was far too caught up in what others think of my work. After having a complete breakdown about how horrible my photographs were, I went on to win an award of an assignment with the LA Times. I just laughed inside at how ridiculous I was being.
After the awards we headed up the hill to a giant bonfire. 30 years earlier you would have thought we were hosting a mini-Woodstock. Singing “Bye Bye Miss American Pie” with Mary-Anne Golon was epic. A warmness and peace washed over me and I decided just to revel in it.
There are many other stories to tell. Friendships formed. Things to be worked on.
It’s already been almost two months since the workshop and there have been many highs and lows between here and there but I will forever be changed because of this experience and will always have something to look back on when I wonder why I do what I do.
Every student has a different experience there. It’s impossible for them all to be the same. But mine was undeniably more than I could have ever asked or hoped for.
Cheers to EAW Class of XXVI and thank you to Alyssa Adams, Mirjam Evers, and all of the black team for carrying on the torch this year.