Speaking Spanish: SomosFoto

I sit in a 500-year-old patio where Pissarro prepared to conquer a chunk of South America. Classical music plays from speakers. Morning coffee and jugo de naranja just arrived. Palms jiggle in the morning breeze like a hula skirt.

This is good.

I’m waiting for Randy Olson or Melissa Farlow, Loup Langton or Lelen Robert or Maggie Steber, Todd Heisler, Brenda Ann Kenneally, Janet Reeves, Kathleen Hennessy or Justin Sullivan, Pablo Corral or Mark Edelson to join me for breakfast. Wait. Mark doesn’t get up this early.

Ah, Todd just greeted me: “Morning, Mr. Comfortable.”

It’s Thursday of a week that has passed too quickly in the company of these good friends in the Dominican Republic. We’re here because of Lelen and Loup Langton and a workshop they created called SomosFoto. Sponsored through the University of Miami, where Lelen and Loup teach, it brings together photographers from Central and South American countries and a faculty largely from North America for a week-long picture story workshop that is similar in concept to the Missouri Workshop.

That’s as far as I got in writing about the week. More friends arrived that morning for a lingering breakfast and demands of the workshop swept the rest of the week along like a Dominican street cleaner.

So now I’m back in Portland, pushed along by the flow of work and catching up with friends here.

There is much to learn in teaching. Bringing words to focus that convey a new meaning for a workshop participant usually means that I advance my own understanding – especially in this case because many of the words were in Spanish.

I was fortunate to team up with Randy Olson and Kathleen Hennessy in leading a group of seven students to new understanding. Our responsibility in such workshops inevitably follows whatever route it takes to connect a photographer to someone’s life as completely as possible.

Why one person, as opposed to an essay or a story about a place or an event? Because in settling into someone’s life we have to become part of it.

Along this path to knowing someone intimately with photographs are the lessons that mean the most: How you decide who will be the subject, how you navigate the conversations that allow you into their lives, how you make photographs that convey a sense of the person and their lives that goes beyond simply showing what they do, how you gain trust. It is a process of self confrontation.

Photographs are an expression of the person who made them. So making pictures of an extended part of another person’s life shows what the photographer is made of – their strengths and weaknesses, fears and joys, everything. It’s like putting a road that has many difficult passages in front of a photographer. How they navigate this road shows who they are.

Going into this workshop, I wondered if photographers from Latin countries might be different from those from North America. This wasn’t the first time I’d done a workshop in a Latin country – Lelen and Loup organized a similar workshop in Quito, Ecuador three years ago – but nonetheless it always fascinates me to see how people see. And a longtime curiosity has been whether where we’re from affects how we make pictures.

This group was different from those I’ve worked with at Missouri Workshops and Mountain Workshops, as well as many, but not all, students at universities in the U.S.

They were different in two ways: They unlearned very quickly and they tended to see deeper into situations than U.S. photographers.

Part of learning is leaving behind what we think works but doesn’t. I call it unlearning. You could also call it accepting new ways of seeing, new information, new approaches, ideas, thoughts, perceptions. These photographers were, largely, like sponges. They took every concept and applied it, they received feedback on their work and went back and made better pictures.

For instance, Randy would talk about geometry of pictures and they would see differently. Kathleen would talk about relating to subjects and giving of yourself and many of them would connect more to their subjects. I would talk about triangles in pictures and how to make more dimensional images and they would see more varied and interesting planes and relationships in scenes.

U.S. photographers tend to make pictures that are about just one plane of activity. You can tell whether you are this kind of photographer by looking at your pictures critically: Is what is happening beyond the first plane important? Are there visual relationships between what is happening in the foreground and the middle ground and back ground? Can you draw an oval in your pictures and nothing outside the oval is critical?

I often tell photographers that the success of any image hinges on the smallest element in the frame that is critical to holding the whole image together. Todd Heisler described that thought as making a house of cards, where if you pull so much as one card from the mix, the whole image collapses. It’s true of individual images and the same approach is true in sequencing images.

These are purely compositional/geometrical concerns. But in this house of cards, composition, and every other decision involved in the making of an image, is derived from what you as the photographer intend to convey about a given scene.

This is part of a longer conversation, so I’ll not linger here. Suffice it say that this group of photographers grew more and saw more dimensionally than those I’ve worked with in the U.S. Not without exception, but there were certainly more successes than is typical.

This is exciting.

One thought on “Speaking Spanish: SomosFoto”

  1. Thanks Mike for this good read. I’ve got some thinking to do amongst my assignments this week. I’d hate to be a ‘U.S. Photographer’ :-)

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