Eddie Adams Workshop – REFLECTIONS by Santosh Korthiwada

to the aspiring Student,

to team White,

to team Black,

to team Red, to team Blue,

to team Yellow,

to team Orange,

to team Pink,

to team Green,

to team Mint,

to team Beige,

to team Lavender,

to team Turquoise,

to Alyssa Adams, Nancy and uncle Jim,

to all the flowers, fruits and farmers of Eddie Adams Workshop,

to Carol Guzy. 


If I have to sum-up my experience at the 29th Eddie Adams Workshop in one sentence, it is “I doubt no more that I follow my heart.” 

You see, self-doubt is a killer; for a photographer, artist, writer, performer, scientist, engineer or anybody, as a matter of fact. And I was exactly in that boat since the day I started photography. There was always a hesitation, an unconscious act of stepping back from every opportunity.

But after listening to the personal stories of the extraordinary people I met at the workshop, all my doubts were burnt into ashes and went puff in the chilly winds of Jeffersonville, New York. I ran out of reasons to convince myself that I don’t deserve to be an artist. There was one common thing I saw from everyone at the workshop and that is ‘with absolute conviction and purest humbleness, that everything they do is ‘for the love of photography’ and nothing else mattered.’ To argue that, is self-contradicting because, that’s exactly why I’m a photographer and I’m sure, it’s the same reason for you. It’s just that the our self-doubt casts dark clouds on our intellect and wisdom. 

Based on the submitted portfolios, hundred students (are currently enrolled in school or professionals with 3 yrs. or less) were hand-picked by industry professionals to be a part of the workshop. Photographers from all genres, geographies and creeds have applied.

My first reaction after getting selected was “we are all human and everyone makes mistakes and so did the selection panel who selected my portfolio.” (self-doubt kicked in you see)
NO! I was selected because they saw potential, skill, passion, curiosity and love for photography in my work. I’m saying this now but believe me, it took some time to realize this. But, I do consider myself extremely fortunate to be selected in the first attempt as many students apply year on year till they get in. It’s probably the single most important workshop a photographer must attend.

All the 100 students are divided into 10 groups and each group is assigned a color. My group is ‘Turquoise’. Each team has a team lead, editor, producer and a tech expert. A typical day starts at 6 in the morning and goes on till 3am the next day. Yes, that’s right. 6am to 3am.

Day starts with lectures from the presenters; the who’s who of the industry, crème of the crop, best of the best; whatever you may want to call them as. I’m not dwelling into the details of the speeches because no other words can explain better than the speakers themselves. I will never forget the moment when John White was on the stage showing his portrait of Mohammed Ali. Every one of us were broken and healed at the same time.For me, the speakers were the teachers who have lots of stories to tell and tonnes of knowledge to share.

After the lectures, students work on their on-field assignment. We return for dinner, hand over the memory card to the editor and attend more presentations till 10:30pm. Portfolios reviews happen, technically, from 11:30pm to 1am but we end up talking to people till 3 or 4 in the morning. Get two hours of sleep and be ready by 6am for the next day. We all got an average of six hours of sleep in 5 days of the workshop. I thought I wouldn’t make it and would need pills or gallons of Redbull to keep me awake but I didn’t really needed any of that stuff. Overall energy, camaraderie and a pure feeling of being with a huge family, kept me awake. Never before was I this awake; physically, mentally and spiritually.

As I said, my team color is Turquoise. My team lead is ‘Carol Guzy’ – a four time Pulitzer winner; one of the most sincere, brave, kindhearted, loving, and a very ‘human’ human being I ever met in my life. Editor was Olivier Laurent, editor at TIME LightBox – one of the most ruthlessly honest, quick-witted, smart and intelligent story tellers I ever met. Josh Richie was our producer, mentor and big brother, a brilliant freelance portrait photographer. Mike Kepka was our marvelous and rarely smiling, super helpful Tech expert who used to work at SF Chronicle and is now an awesome freelance photographer. My team mates, who quickly became my family, were from Mexico, Denmark, Ukraine, Sweden, Slovakia and United States. Hundred and fifty more volunteers were busy cooking, picking up trash, moving the lawn, driving us all around, setting up lights if we want, directing the traffic, managing the event etc. Every single one of them is a volunteer and is a photographer. All of them worked tirelessly for me. For my betterment. For the profit of love.


PREPARATION

Before I get into the rest of the story at the workshop, here is how the overall preparation that took place before I went to the workshop. There are few key things; 

 1. Portfolio 

2. Leave behinds 

3. Things to carry 

4. Physical and mental preparation 

Portfolio: It probably took me a month before the workshop, to prepare my portfolio exactly the way I want it to be. I carried a 11 X 14 hardcover photobook of my documentary work that was printed locally at Bayphoto. They were generous enough to give it to me for free after learning that I was a student going to the workshop. I had already prepared one photobook of my thesis project ‘Consciousness’ for the Spring Show 2016 – portfolio reviews so it came in handy and I didn’t have to reprint. Looking back, I should have gotten this done at Bayphoto as well because of the high quality they produced. Apart from these two portfolios, I carried some of my prints I had made during the digital printing class. These were carefully chosen prints from another series of images. Finally, I put together a digital version of my portfolio and made several sets for my laptop, USB stick and a flashdrive, just in case. It’s better not to rely on internet connection. Prior to the workshop, my producer Josh had several calls with our team members to guide what to bring and get prepared.

As I mentioned previously, the portfolio reviews start at 11:30 in the night and goes on till 1am in the morning. However, many students hangout and interact with other students and reviewers who decide to stay awake a little longer, probably till 3am the following day.

The reason I carried multiple portfolios is because I wanted to be ready to showcase the entire breadth and depth of my work. I eventually met photojournalists, photo editors, curators, story tellers, industry leaders and even other Pulitzer winners. People who work at Wall Street Journal, New York Times, National Geographic, Getty Images, NBC, USA Today, CNN, Boston Globe, Travel & Living, Reading the Pictures etc. Some of them were interested in looking at the photobooks and some were happy to see the digital version and some were excited to see the prints. If I had prepared only one type of portfolio, I would’ve felt very restricted. I also had an opportunity to showcase and discuss with fellow students about the printing techniques, advantages, challenges etc. Remember, every person at the workshop is an amazing artist, so you can learn and share as much as humanly possible.

I can’t stress the importance of having your professional website up to date and ready. I made mine a while ago but I updated it before the workshop. In terms of the projects and stories, there was a consistency in all my portfolios; books, prints and web. One message but different modes. There are many companies that provide web services so choose wisely, based on your need. My intention was to keep it simple and clean. For reference, take a look at my site www.santoshkorthiwada.com

It is a misconception that only documentary or photojournalists should apply to get into the Eddie Adams Workshop. It does not really matter which genre of photography you are from. If you have the curiosity to learn more and are dedicated to make meaningful imagery, that’s all it takes for you to apply. Yes, the majority of the students were from journalism background, but there were sport photographers, commercial photographers and one of my team turquoise brother chases ‘storms’. Everyone is a story teller in their own regard.

In my case, so far, most of the accolades, awards, and publishings were for my documentary work done in India. But since I moved to San Francisco and joined AAU, I focused on developing my thesis, which is more conceptual and even abstract and falls into the fine-art world. Though I believe in my thesis work, I was worried about its relevance in today’s fast paced world of photography. Every single person who reviewed my work was interested in thesis portfolio and gave such wonderful feedback that is absolutely constructive. I felt validated…really really validated, for my belief, commitment and all the hard-work that continues to go into the thesis. 

I don’t know what the future holds for us but I do know what happened to the students of Eddie Adams Workshop in 1993

Leave Behinds:  Don’t rely on your raw memory power. It’s a best practice to leave your business cards and/or post cards with people you are meeting. Entire duration of the workshop goes past so fast and you get to meet so many people that it’s extremely difficult to keep a track. But when I got back, I had a bunch of business cards, postcards, catalogues to refer and connect via email, social media etc. That way, I continue to enjoy their progress and stay in touch. I’ve realized that our industry is run on word of mouth and careers are built because of friends. 

With regards to the on-field assignments, each one of us were given a unique story to capture. A story about a farm, about a circus family, about a healer, about 90 year old twins and many more. All these stories were about the people of Sullivan County. They opened their doors, hearts and lives to us. Without their support, nothing would be possible.

My story was about a family of 5 people who left all their material possessions and now are living off-the-grid.


ON-FIELD ASSIGNMENTS

Every single participant in the workshop received a specific assignment. All the assignments are prepared well in advance by the respective producer and editor of each team. Each assignment is designed to get the student out of their comfort zone and challenge the student to overcome unexpected problems. Residents of Sullivan County have been a part of the workshop and welcomed their homes for the students for many years. Task could be to cover a village fest, document life of an 80 year old twins, story of last circus family of the town, impact of a healer, a nudist community, a conservative farming family, young caregivers, a bowling alley etc.

Some rules are applicable to everyone and some rules are specific to the team. The Rules (I should say Ten Commandments) I had to adhere to:

1. Be respectful of people and surroundings. Know your subjects and research. DON’T screw up the relationship with people of Sullivan County. You are here for a week and we are here every day

2. If you make any commitments with the subjects, you must fulfill them

3. Use only 35mm prime lens

4. Shoot only in JPEG

5. If you plan to use artificial lights, you can let us know in advance and we let you borrow the equipment from Profoto USA Lab and one of the professional staff will assist you

6. Don’t delete any images from the memory card and don’t post-process any image

7. At the end of the day, turn-in the memory card to the team editor

8. Editor will sit with each student and provide feedback on that day’s shoot. Don’t be late.

9. On the third day, each story will be presented in front of everyone; including the chief guests and the guests from Sullivan County

10. Most stories fall apart and only few students pull out great stories by the end of the workshop. In your pursuit to make blockbuster images, don’t you dare to take extra time or break any of the rules.

My brief was that I need to meet a family of 5 adults who are currently living off the grid. The head of the family is a middle aged Russian man and has intriguing theories of life. His wife is from Ukraine and doesn’t talk much. Their youngest son convinced the family to leave all materialistic possessions and adopt an ‘alternate’ lifestyle. They currently live in a camper. 

I felt my assignment was custom made just to make my life as miserable as possible. Most of my previous work was portraiture and I rarely had more than two subjects in a photograph and this time I need to focus on an entire family, capture their lifestyle, how it brought everyone together and so on. And all of this had to be done in less than two days. No pressure!!! To make the matter even worst, I’ve been told that they don’t like outsiders.

I’m an outsider!

You know, it still gives me chills remembering the assignment details. But I really wanted to take up this challenge and do something different from what I usually do. I never ever used artificial lights in my life before, so I asked for two Profoto B2 lights for my shoot. And I very well knew that this was the stupidest decision.

So this is how it went down…


Assignment Day 1

- After the lectures, my lighting assistant (Bryce Ebel, the studio manager for BathHouse Studios, New York – and I still can’t believe it!) drove me down to meet the family. Tar roads disappeared and the electric poles disappeared as we drove through. No phone signal either. The family was really off the grid and were literally living in the middle of nowhere. 

- We finally reached the place. I was already freaked out by the description of the assignment but I left all hopes on my life when I was loudly greeted by Shadow, their dog. I’m scared of dogs. Anyway, I tried my best to have conversations with everyone, as they were constructing a big dome kind of a structure. I interacted for a couple of hours and I didn’t take out my camera till they were comfortable with me. Maya took me on a tour of the place. Alexis, Noah and Fred continued to work on the dome. Sam was not yet home and would meet us in a couple of hours. 

- They weren’t as bad as I thought. Actually, they were some of the nicest, smartest, kindest people I ever met. Even the dreaded Shadow started playing with me. It was only a scare tactic to tell me that don’t like outsiders. Their vision is to build an integrated community for spiritual and social consciousness. Incorporate practices of healthy living, music and art education, sustainable food and energy etc.

- Oh my God! What was I thinking? This is a great story. So by the end of the day, I made pictures of them working, interacting with each other, living in the camper, how the place was and finally took portraits with the help of Bryce, my lighting assistant. Though Bryce knew everything, he was bound by the rules and was there to make sure I don’t break everything. I had to direct him on how I want the picture and tell him to make adjustments to the equipment for my desired output. 

- We went back and I turned in the memory card to my editor, around 7pm. Then I left for the remaining lectures. 

- Feedback time at 10:30pm: Before my turn, I got to see the stories of some of team members and they were awesome! Brilliant work!!! And I was super nervous. This is my editor Olivier Laurent (Time Lightbox) not mincing any words and being really direct with me… “Santosh, you don’t have a story yet. It looks like you are having trouble with showing how the entire family is coming together. So, I think you should focus on the father and weave the story around him. But the portraits look good.” My team lead, Carol Guzy reviewed my pictures as well, watched me stand silently and told me to go for situations that matter to me. 

- There was no story. I felt happy that some pictures turned good but there was no story. I had to quickly put this behind because it was already 11:30pm and time for portfolio reviews with editors from National Geographic, Washington Times and Reading the Pictures. 


Assignment Day 2 – The Last day of shooting

- After two hours of sleep, I got ready by 6:30am, had breakfast and was on my way to meet the family by 7:30am. I was determined to conquer the story. I had to get back to the barn by 2 pm so I must do everything I can in 6 hours. 

- I spent a lot of time with the father, Alexis. He took me to his book collection and showed me a small book that inspired him with all this. I was astonished and a bit in shock. It was a 60 page book titled ‘Holy Science’ written in 1894 by Yukteshwar Giri from India. It is the same book that got me into spirituality and inspired my interest in theology. How was this even possible? I very weird coincidence. But then, our interactions transformed after that moment. They welcomed and cared for me as family. I spoke more freely and made some really good connection with them and hence made good photographs that day. 

- I promised them to send the images and visit them with my wife and son (and I did send the pictures after I came back to San Francisco). Bryce came to pick me up and our goodbyes were really testing. 

- I turned in the memory card to my editor, around 2 pm. I was the last one to submit the pictures so will be the last one to be reviewed. He asked me to come back in a couple of hours. 

- It was a sight to see my team mates come out of the review meetings really happy and excited for the presentations the next day. Every single one of them produced a story they can be proud of. I was so happy for them. 

- Feedback time at 6:00pm: Conversation with my editor ended in just about 2 minutes. Olivier said ‘I’m sorry. Your story fell through. There were some good pictures but I could not make a narrative out of it. Don’t worry, this is common. You did your best.”

- Devastated! I was totally devastated. My team mates heard the news and hugged me, tried to console me but I just couldn’t forgive myself for ruining the story. I had one opportunity to prove to the best of the best in the industry and I blew it. I was really disappointed at myself. Honestly, I could not concentrate on the remaining lectures that night. 

- At the mid night portfolio reviews, one of the reviewers offered me a beer and damn it felt good. I finally relaxed and focused more on the reviews and meeting people. I made at least 5 new friends. But to tell you the truth, I was silently cursing myself for royally screwing up the shoot.

- It was really difficult to sleep those two hours that night.


Day 3 – Team Presentations: Someone from my team came to me and said team editor Olivier is looking for me. I didn’t know what the meeting was about. I already did an excellent job of screwing up the story. But, was really surprised to see him smile. He said “okay, I got an idea. I think it works and works really well. I went back to all the discarded pictures from you and reworked the narrative. With everyone else, I went horizontal but with you, I’m going vertical. It’s going to be a ‘tik-tok-tik-tok’.” Looking at my blank face, he probably grasped that I didn’t understand a thing he said.

So, it sounded like I do have a story. The abstract photos and the portraits worked really well. My attempt to use artificial light actually worked! I DID NOT ruin the story. My entire team was standing there, sharing my joy. I couldn’t believe my senses. I was totally blank. It was a moment of absolute joy (and a couple of tears). Olivier showed me the sequence he’s put together and I was really surprised.

Oh! btw the family loved their portraits.


LAST WORDS

The reason I did not include any pictures/videos in this post is because, I want you to read and imagine. And whatever you imagine, will be true at the Workshop.

In that sacred space, since that time, am I just a nobody? NO! I’m an image maker whose responsibility is to carry forward the lineage and legacy of extraordinary visual storytellers. And who gave me that responsibility? No one will give that; you have to take it on yourself. That’s what my heart, mind, conscience and consciousness univocally tell me to do and I oblige. But it took; 38 years, a dozen Pulitzers, 150 mentors and 100 siblings to make me believe in it. So be it.

You meet a person, you read something, you go somewhere, you listen to something and you feel inspired. Then you say, ‘what an inspiration!’, ‘you are an inspiration’. Sure. But you must not forget to give some credit to yourself. Because, it is ‘you’ who recognized that there is something to get inspired from and then actually got inspired. The ones who inspired us only did what they do every day and that’s their kindness and humbleness. And I was blessed to meet so many of such people. All I need to do is to be open and get inspired. And I did just that. If you go to the next workshop, I bet, you will do the same. 

I’m Santosh Korthiwada born in 1978, November 29th and reborn at the 29th Eddie Adams Workshop. 


 “If it makes you laugh, if it makes you cry, if it rips out your heart, that’s a good picture.” – Eddie Adams  

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