Yesterday I had an eye-opening experience. I joined a workshop on visual storytelling with Ed Kashi. For those who don’t know him, he is member of VII. One of his photos won the UNICEF Photo of the Year in 2010. Check out his website to see more of his amazing work at www.edkashi.com . I signed up for this workshop because I wanted to learn more about his work-flow and his use of stills and video in the field.
I believe that strong visuals are crucial for my design work. Part of my job is field research to inspire design. We observe and interview people in their homes to learn about their needs and behaviors. It is an interesting part of my profession and it gives me access to places that I would not see as a tourist. In 2009 I spend five weeks ‘on the road’ around the globe to interview and photograph patients in their homes.
From time to time I find myself in the field photographing people while dealing with video equipment at the same time. I would not call myself a videographer, unless putting a video camera on a tripod and letting it run for an hour would qualify me for that title. I have used video as a recording device for audio and moving images. Primarily I focus on stills. I have seen the impact of good photography in my professional work and I would like to try combinations of stills and audio as well as stills and video. So Ed Kashi’s workshop popped up in my mailbox and I immediately signed up for it. What better opportunity than to learn from professionals who do this kind of work successfully on a daily basis. And what a delight to spend more than six hours in a small group chatting and learning from each other, especially from Ed.
There are six things that I personally took away from that workshop.
1. 1. Spent time with your object. I wanted to learn how to cover a story with stills and video and use one camera only. To me it is less about the technical aspects. The important part to me is the work-flow and the decision making on when to shoot video and when to do stills. One key element is time. Often I have to visit several locations and interview people for one to two hours. It is enough time to cover the questionnaire as well as to observe people’s lives in their own homes. We usually collect around 10 interviews in order to cover a range of experiences including extremes and outliers. The diversity of their stories can be powerful for design inspiration. By contrast, Ed has a much longer immersion with his subjects. He has different goals. For his stories he spends days or weeks with people. This longer engagement can provide deep insights into a person’s life. Focusing on one story can have a stronger emotional impact than showing a diverse group. It would be interesting to combine a wider range of interviews with one deeper portrait of a person’s everyday experience.
2. Design and photography are closely related. This is not anything that Ed said but something that, as obvious as it is, stood out to me. Good design is about the idea, the execution, and the details. I know from my design work that the execution of details makes a design float or sink. Having ideas is easy. Everybody has good ideas. It is about how you execute them. What elements you use, how you compose them, where the visual focus should be, how to control the proportions, and the relations between elements. Often it is about eliminating versus adding to preserve the intent and to allow for an emotional connection between the object and the user. As a designer I look for these aspects in objects, graphics, and visuals. It is so embedded in my evaluation of everything. Every professional designer has encountered the moment when you see an executed idea weeks or months after you have delivered the design and suddenly you discover elements that got changed, misplaced, or added for production. At that moment a tiny element can ruin the entire intent. It is like a pimple on a nose. You can not stop looking at it and it will bother you every time you see it. Yesterday I realized that I have not created and evaluated my photography with the same care that I would apply to design. I took my Reenactment portfolio to the workshop because I wanted to present a body of work around one topic rather than a set of individual images. I liked this series. To me it was eye opening to see Ed Kashi looking at them and pointing out certain elements and details that did not work for him. It was interesting because some of these problems I noticed when I shot the images but they did not bother me so much because for me it was more important to take the shot, assuming that these distracting elements would not be so distracting overall. I did not care about these details. Ed did. Photographers like Ed Kashi evaluate a scene at the macro and micro-level while they are shooting. They are aware of the main elements as well as the minor details. They assess the center as well as the edges. I believe that talent and long experience allow you to evaluate a scene on various levels within a split second and then to adapt accordingly. In photography and editing I am not there yet and may never be. This leads me to my next discovery.
3. You have to be dissatisfied with your work. I am not saying that I need to be grumpy from now on when it comes to my work. What I am saying is that people evolve. Part of evolving is to see things differently. As a design student I often looked at my portfolio and reorganized it. I enjoyed the moments that I looked at past work and found it weak. It showed me that my perspective had changed and I would do things differently. The same happens when you design an object and someone stops by and says that the shape looks like…let us say a chicken. You stop, you look at it again and you see it. From that moment onwards you will see the chicken every time you look at it. This allows you to change your approach and to create stronger work (and no more chicken). Ed Kashi looked at my series and pointed out elements that I had noticed but I did not care because I thought they were not important. They are. The moment I came home I sat down and looked at the series again. I started cropping and editing the photos differently. While they are still on my website, their days are counted. I look at them and I am seeing the pimple on the nose. I see the imperfection and that is good. Ed’s advice will make me shoot differently now. He sparked my awareness. I am a bit concerned of looking at my entire portfolio and going through it with my new editing machete. Not much may survive. I am curious to see if I will succeed in shooting better images or if I will end up with less keepers. I am excited.
4. The importance of critique. Yesterday Ed Kashi showed me a skill that is essential. Not only is he a great photographer, he is a great person, too. I admire his ability to combine constructive criticism with politeness and humor. Too often people give praise but are not critical enough of each other’s work. We grow through criticism and I found Ed’s comments highly stimulating and encouraging.
5. Dream, but have attainable dreams. That is Ed Kashi’s quote and it resonates with me. Don’t have dreams that are so big that you can’t achieve them. Have dreams that are reasonable and that take you to the next step. The journey will be more gratifying than trying to conquer the impossible.
6. Spent time with experts! Thank you Ed!