I spent the last week in small-town Texas at the Foundation Workshop, “the toughest photojournalism workshop for wedding photographers”.  I had first heard about the workshop a couple of years ago, but it didn’t seem like the place for me; I was happy taking my nice, safe, pretty wedding pictures.  Plus, it was a $4k investment!  Not an amount I’d ever really feel comfortable spending on a class, right?

Still, I joined the online forum as that seemed like a much more reasonable place to start exploring this photojournalism thing that so many wedding photographers talk about.  Fast forward a year and I was hooked.  The forum was bursting with talent, a special kind of talent, free of ego and eager to help (a rare find in the wedding world).

Early last spring, Foundation Workshop 10 (FW10) was announced and I closed my eyes, held my breath, and signed up.  I wasn’t really sure what I was getting myself into, but I knew it was time to open myself up to a new type of learning experience.  Plus, I’d become bored with my nice, safe, pretty pictures, and I was itching to dig a little deeper.

A week last Saturday, I found myself among friends.  Some I’d met on the forum, some I knew in real life, but also many new faces.  I knew it was a pretty special group of people, but I had no idea that I’d soon come to think of them as family.

After twenty four hours of lazing in the sun, drinking margaritas, and catching up on gossip, we split up into our teams and work began.  Each team consisted of a team leader, two mentors, an assistant and six students.  And yes, that kind of ratio is necessary for this level of learning.  At some point between Sunday evening and Monday morning we were told our assignments.  Mine: a dance studio in nearby Granbury, TX.

On Monday we photographed.  Some students spent 14 hours on their assignment; mine lasted just a few short hours each afternoon (I was thankful for the additional sleeping time, truth be told!)  Around 8:30pm, we gathered again as a team, and the critiques began.  Each student received around an hour of hardcore critique.  My team leader, the wonderful Tyler Wirken, decided we’d be Team Tough Love.  He wasn’t kidding – it was painful, but the laughter (and hugs) we shared made it more than bearable.  Bedtime was sometime after 2:30am … and some of my team mates were up before dawn to set out for their assignments.

On Tuesday morning, I broke down.  I had completely bombed on Monday.  Everything I thought I could do, now seemed impossible.  Even basic stuff like composing a frame.  I’d received incredible on-site tutoring from Tyler, and a very fair critique later that night, but suddenly my world had been turned upside down and panic set in.  My mind went completely blank.

One of the things I love most about this special community is the support in place.  There were two counselors available to talk to, as well as our team assistants.  After pacing the hotel helplessly for an hour, I gave in and called all of them.  Janine, our team assistant, was still at the hotel and she immediately found me and talked things through with me for well over an hour.  She helped soothe me, first, then helped figure out a practical plan for shooting so that I could focus on smaller tasks rather than rushing out and trying to do it all.  I cannot thank her enough for her support.

I bombed day two, too, but while at my assignment I received several hours of one-on-one tuition from both Tyler and one of our mentors, Erwin.  Between them, they taught me how to hold my camera correctly (seriously!); how to stop, focus and look for images; how to compose, then recompose, and recompose again; how to select the lens needed for the task; how to wait for the moment; how to square up to my subject … and another hundred things that I hope may eventually come back to me.  I still wasn’t getting much in my camera, but at least the learning process had really started.

Wednesday came and I woke up a different person.  I was calm, at peace with myself, and focused.  It was a strange feeling for someone with mild OCD who likes to chase metaphorical squirrels.  Strange and beautiful.  Before heading out to my assignment I recited my mantra: “Stop.  What is interesting?  Visualize the shot.  Move.  Compose.  Recompose in tiny movements.  Wait for the moment.  Then shoot the shit out of it!”

I only had two hours to photograph on Wednesday, but in those two hours I worked my ass off like I never have before.  I was seeing differently; my mind was calm.  I observed, I listened, I waited.  And then I captured some of it.  I didn’t have much, and it still wasn’t the work I’d hoped to be producing by the end of the week, but my outlook had changed and finally I was smiling.  On the drive back to the hotel, I switched off the radio so I that could focus on the feeling of elation I was experiencing.

I didn’t need to be told I’d done well that night, but when Tyler and Erwin told me how freakin’ proud of me they were, I came close to tears.  It was a good night.

The workshop officially ended on Thursday with dinner, followed by slideshows of our best work.  My presentation was one of the weakest there, but that was the last thing I cared about; I had come SO FAR.  I had learned how to see, how to calm my mind, how to focus.  We had been told over and over that the slideshow didn’t matter – and I finally realized it was true.

My turn came and I was standing against the back wall.  Tyler grabbed one of my hands, and Caroline, one of my team mates, grabbed the other.  Thank God.  Because as soon as those images came up, I started convulsing, and bawling.  With joy!

Each student has a different experience on Foundation, but many experience incredible growth, sometimes photographic, sometimes personal, oftentimes both.  I am so grateful to my teachers, to my team, to my friends.  There are no words to thank those who helped me on my journey last week, but I know that those people know who they are, and what they did for me.  I love you, family.

We can only share two images online; here are two of mine: