Roots Workshop 2014 – Uprooted in Maine

May 23, 2014 | For Photographers

A few weeks ago, I had a very last minute opportunity to go to Roots Workshop – or rather “Uprooted”, as Roots moved this year from Cape Cod to Maine.  I’d been looking on and off for a workshop for 2014 and not had much luck.  Sam Abell’s class at the Maine Media Workshops had already filled by the time I saw that it was being offered, and a couple of others just didn’t work out due to timing.  So when I saw a post go up on Facebook saying that a student had dropped out of Roots last-minute, I figured it must be fate.

On Sunday morning, after a long wedding the day before, I packed up my bags, jumped in the car, and made the five hour journey up to French’s Point.  I was thankful that I’d made the decision to go just a few short days before – I’ve done something similar before (Foundation Workshop in 2012) and already knew that no matter what, it would be a tough week.  It was a relief not having months for the anxiety to build up!

Arriving at the cutest farmhouse you can imagine, I was greeted by smiling faces, some familiar, many not.  There were welcome bags, snacks and drinks.  There was a happy buzz.  We chatted, unpacked, chatted, ate, chatted some more, then enjoyed a blustery evening around a camp fire toasting s’mores.

Monday came and so did classes.  We learned about the tradition of photojournalism, how to navigate our assignments, what to look for in a story.  The afternoon was spent doing a super fun activity in our separate teams – I don’t want to ruin the surprise for future students, but it was a great way to shake off the cobwebs and get to know our team mates better.  Plus we got to eat the tastiest lobster rolls I’ve ever had.  Late that evening we were finally dished out our assignments.  I was last to find out my assignment: Front Street Shipyard in Belfast, ME.  My team leader Jenn Domenick and mentor Eric Laurits immediately told me, “this is going to be challenging”.  Followed by: “and we don’t want you shooting with your portrait lenses”.  Yikes!

Those that know me well know that I could happily shoot an entire wedding with my beloved 85mm lens.  It’s a pretty lens, it makes pretty pictures, and it feels like an extension of my body at this point in my career.  I love the compression, I love how easy it is to compose with a longer lens, and it just feels … well, comfortable.  And now I’d be shooting an entire assignment without the one piece of equipment that feels like a true extension of me.  It wasn’t until an hour or two later that I also realized that a huge shipyard with vast spaces is one of those places where you could really do with the compression of a longer lens to make good images.  Oh well!

I got up at 5:30 Tuesday morning for a 7am start.  I spent my first morning wandering the shipyard, completely overwhelmed by the enormity of the place.  I felt like I should be seeing stories everywhere, but I couldn’t see the wood for the trees.  I finally found a really interesting guy called George, a star carpenter at the shipyard, who built his own boat by hand from materials that you can buy at the boating equivalent of Lowes.  He was sweet, a little shy, and had these wonderfully worn hands that so painstakingly crafted each boat that he worked on.  Perfect, I thought: I have a story!  I excitedly texted Jenn and Eric, then set about documenting the story of George.

Thirty minutes later I got a call: “Kate, we’ve been chatting, and we’ve decided we don’t want you to photograph George … We think you should focus on the culture of this place as a whole.”  Oooookay then.  I asked why, and had my suspicions confirmed: photographing a single character could be interesting, but it wasn’t going to challenge me as much.  They really wanted this to be hard!

I spent the next couple of hours wandering slightly less aimlessly but still feeling totally overwhelmed.  I started photographing little snippets of life at the shipyard, but my pictures sucked.  I wasn’t finding moments, I wasn’t getting close enough, and I was giving up too quickly.  The sight of my mentor Eric arriving was a huge relief – and although I was embarrassed about my lack of progress (and lack of images) I was so ready to get some help.  To my surprise, he spent a good couple of hours intensely mentoring me in the field, first diagnosing my problems, then offering suggestions on how and what to photograph.  Anticipating action, getting into the right position, getting closer … and closer still.

After shooting all day, we returned from our assignments, grabbed a quick dinner, then settled in for a night of critiques.  I loved getting to see my team mates’ assignments, and together we worked through our trials and our failings.  Then it was off to bed around 3am, and up again at 5:30am (yes … ouch!)

The second day I had a clearer idea of what to search for in terms of story, and what to focus in on.  I lost my inhibitions and jumped in, CLOSE in.  I’d been allowed to use a 50mm alongside my 35mm but I decided to ditch it on day two.  I was there to work my wide angles, and I even stepped WAY outside of my comfort zone and used a 24mm lens … the first photo above was shot with the 24, and it may well be my favorite.  I worked hard on day two, but maybe not hard enough.  I came so close to making the images I really wanted to, but fell slightly short.  It was frustrating, but I still felt proud of myself.  I was making images that before Roots I wouldn’t have even thought to try.

Thursday was slideshow day.  There’s an official slideshow that you can see here, but I wanted to share some of my personal favorites on my blog.  Because for me, Roots workshop wasn’t about creating a story that flowed, it was so much more basic than that: it was about breaking down the barriers I had in my own head, and taking those first steps in overcoming both my habits and my fears.

Huge thanks to Emilie for creating this wonderfully safe and supportive environment for us each to come and battle our photographic demons.  You are an amazing host Emilie!  To my mentors Jenn and Eric: thank you so, so much for your incredible generosity, for boosting me up when I needed it, for pushing me harder than I could ever push myself, and for the hilarious comic relief during those tough, tough critiques.  I will never be able to look at an alpaca in the same way again …  And finally to my team mates Amanda, Tim, and Lawrence.  I miss you guys like crazy, and am so thankful I got to spend this precious week with you.  I adore you all and hope that we remain life-long friends.


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