A Student’s Post-Mortem on Foundry’s Bali Workshop

July 19, 2015. Nearly a hundred photojournalists register for the 2015 Foundry Photojournalism Workshop at Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. © Neal Jackson
July 19, 2015. Nearly a hundred photojournalists register for the 2015 Foundry Photojournalism Workshop at Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. © Neal Jackson

Washington, DC, August 31, 2015.  Now that the 2015 workshop is over, many participants are suffering withdrawal pains.  The intense work, the easy access to instructors and teaching assistants, and the closeness of other committed photographer participants are gone, and the realities of real life have returned.  Back home in Singapore, Kuala Lampur, Mumbai,  Melbourne or New York, it’s time to reflect and put the Foundry experience in perspective.

One student, Neelima Vallangi of India, gave it all a good thought and on August 9 posted a review of the workshop on her blog,  Her stated viewpoint was as an Indian photographer, but I can assure you that nearly every participant would tell the same story.  Here are her reactions, in her own words:
3 weeks ago, I, along with almost hundred other photographers from all over the world were packed in a room somewhere in Ubud, spellbound by immensely powerful and beautiful visual stories by some of the world’s top photojournalists. I was at the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop 2015 happening in Bali, Indonesia.
So what is this Foundry Photojournalism Workshop?
Few months ago, randomly scrolling through my twitter feed I stumbled upon a link to the Foundry Workshops. At the outset, the workshop is all about mentoring emerging photographers from developing nations so we can tell our own stories better. And the best part is that they get world’s top photographers, actually working in the field to mentor you as instructors for a whole week at insanely affordable cost($450). The instructors and the whole Foundry team volunteers their time to make this happen and the fees collected from attending students are just to cover the ground expenses of conducting the workshop. I took one look at the list of instructors for 2015 and I knew I had to sign up for this.
Represented by world’s top agencies such as Getty, Panos, VII and covering stories for reputed publications such as National Geographic, New York Times, TIME, etc, the list of photographers teaching at the workshop seemed too good to be true.(Anyone from developing nations who has considered or attended workshops with top international photographers knows how steep the workshop prices can be!) At that time, I had no idea how intense or inspiring that week would be.
This is how it works.
After registering at their site, few weeks before the workshop commences you get to choose your instructor(s) whose class you want to attend. You arrive at the location (changes every year) hopefully with a story idea already chalked out. Then you work on it during the whole week under the guidance of your instructor. There will be daily sessions where your work is edited, discussed, story is fine-tuned and you take the feedback and work on it the next day. At the end of the 5-day workshop, your work is edited down to a 10-image story and shown on the final night along with all other students’ work.
Along with all the shooting that you’ll do, the week is also packed with sessions – daily classes with instructors, additional classes on marketing, copyright laws, privacy, image processing etc and evening sessions where the instructors themselves showcase and talk about their work.
Despite being a travel photographer, why did I choose to attend a photojournalism workshop?
Months after registering, I was flying into Bali with much anticipation and equally anxious about le
arning the craft of visual storytelling from the best. I had chosen to attend Adriana Zehbrauskas and Paula Bronstein’s class. I was somehow very curious to know how women photojournalists worked in tough conditions. And my main motive of attending the workshop was to infuse some much needed story telling and if possible, few documentary style elements into my otherwise “just pretty” photography.

I knew I was sitting on a gold mine of important stories and had access to some insanely wonderful places and communities (a fact reinforced by discussions with few of the instructors). Going forward I wanted to be able to tell the stories of these wonderful places and communities in an insightful way and not just document them for the sake of posterity. For instance, imagine how awesome it would be if I could sensibly portray the tough life of Bakarwals, the nomadic shepherd community of Kashmir or document the mind-boggling water shortage faced in the world’s wettest place!

So what did I learn?
That photography is just like writing, actually it’s very stupid of me to not realize storytelling is the same no matter what the medium is. But this exact point was driven home like crazy during the one week, how to infuse your story into a compact set of images.
Beyond that, it was the complete approach that happened to be a great learning experience. Thinking of a story, finding your subjects then trying to form a narrative. And it felt so rewarding to go back to a place and shoot everyday on the same subject – trying to get more familiar with the story, predict what would happen and shoot images representing a specific idea.
Discussing daily with the instructors, I also learned how to interpret a story and individual images when I see one. Editing was an important part of the process; we had two instructors and two assistants. And everyone had their own way of seeing and editing a given set of images. I realized maintaining that individuality was pertinent to arrive at your own style.
Of course, it wouldn’t have been possible to have such a positive experience without the very patient and helpful instructors and the incredibly warm people of Bali who made me feel very welcome. I spent many hours every day in someone’s home watching and photographing them go about their work. We couldn’t communicate much because often I would be alone without my guide and my hosts would speak little or no english. But the lack of much talk notwithstanding, they always took great care of me and it felt amazing to be a part of their lives for that one week.
When I travel, this is what I look for and in many ways, I realized, working on a story leads to that exact outcome I’m after – immersive experiences that show me a glimpse of the local life and their culture. I specifically chose to document a Balian(traditional healers) who specializes in black magic. He commands unwavering faith and people take everything from him – beating, hair pulling and even spitting. It turned out to be a big challenge to first, find an authentic Balian and second, photographing the entire ritual stuck in a small box shaped room.
In the end, I’m quite happy with the story (not the result) I chose to work upon. Because any person you would speak to in Bali will have a story about visiting a Balian and this is a very integral part of Balinese culture. I will share the images from this project very soon. I found a direction and focus that I felt I was missing earlier. Hopefully, my stories henceforth will be more insightful and well thought out. *Fingers crossed*
Here are my tips to get the most out of this workshop!
  • Have a story idea ready by the time you arrive at the first class and if possible do the recce too. You will get the most out of the workshop if you get daily feedback on your shoots and image edits. Unfortunately for me, I had just one round of edit and feedback as I took long time to find my subject. Taking the feedback and heading back to shoot the next day is immensely helpful and so is the daily edit process. On an average, you’ll have classes on four out of the five workshop days before the final edit and presentation happens on the last day.
  • If there’s a particular idea or vision that you want to work on, fight for it and get guidance on how to make it work. Just doing something for the sake of doing something drastically different from your usual work won’t be helpful. Work on something that challenges you yet aligns with your end goal.
  • Do attend all the evening sessions to get massively inspired as the instructors and the assistants present and talk about their work. It’s also a great opportunity to strike a conversation with the instructors and network with fellow students who have come from all over the world. The community and the connections you make, I realized, become a very important and rewarding outcome of the whole workshop experience.
  • With a changing location every year, there are bound to be some challenges and unexpected issues. Be prepared for some minor setbacks and talk it out with your class assistants and instructors when you face any issue or feel like you are not getting enough time with the instructors.
Finally, here’s why I think Foundry is absolutely bang for buck, especially for Indian Photographers!
Storytelling and especially visual storytelling is a difficult craft that needs a lot of honing and mentoring. Above all, it needs a lot inspiration. During the 5 years that I have taken up photography, never have I been inspired so much to tell a story, any story. It was always about getting one good shot, just an independent shot that fit nowhere in the arc of storytelling. Without a purpose, I was as lost as a fish out of water. I always just thought of making pretty pictures, now I see that even a landscape can have a story to tell.
In the beginning when I had just bought my camera, I was eager to meet the photography community and go on one of those several photowalks where several DSLR-wielding people flocked a market or a slum or a busy street over the weekends. Try as I may, I could never get excited enough about the prospect of shooting in a market. They all came back with beautiful pictures but none of those images stuck with me. I forgot them as I saw. They made no sense. And when I saw a photostory, it all went above my head. Learning to see is just as difficult as telling I suppose. I related more to the traveller tribe(who always had the most outrageous stories to share) and never integrated into the photography community.
Now, it surprises me that there are so many wonderful amateur Indian photographers out there creating beautiful and strong individual imagery but so few of them actually work on a full story. I cannot even imagine the amazing work that will be produced with some guidance. I’ve noticed that many of the top visual storytellers of our country at the moment have studied in international photography schools where they possibly learnt how to tell and decode a story. Here in India, there seems to be no easy access to learn the craft and the difficult onus is completely on us if we want to find guidance, learn and understand the complex art of visual storytelling. We hardly have prominent photo festivals or a way to interact with the professional photographer community working on real stories across the country. Wish this would change in the coming years but until then, we at least have Foundry for that much-needed inspiration and learning!
P.S – Just in case you’re wondering, the entire trip and workshop was self-funded 🙂

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