My new best friends from Foundation Workshop! Photo by Miguel Serrano.
I attended Foundation Workshop last year– read about my experience!
At its core, Foundation Workshop‘s setup is simple- excellent wedding and documentary family photographers gather together in sleepy Glen Rose, Texas, to learn how to create better, more effective photos for our clients. Instead of practicing wedding photography, we are each given our own assignment to photograph for two days and asked to challenge ourselves to get out of our comfort zones to make photos that resonate, that matter. A handful of photos are then chosen from the thousands we make and are put together to make a slideshow that is showcased on the final night. It is a well-known workshop that many of my favorite wedding photographers have attended and/or taught at, and once the workshop officially entered my life in 2015 I knew it would forever remain a workshop that is near and dear to me.
Most photographers do not return for a second go around, but the workshop’s sweet siren call was luring me back before I even left Foundation 2015, so I applied for the 2016 workshop and was accepted. Even though I felt myself grow as a photographer during the year between my two Foundation experiences, I was so hungry for more that I never wavered in my conviction that I needed to return. Because, to be absolutely honest… I felt like I had failed my first Foundation workshop. I’ve always been someone who tries to achieve perfection in as much as possible in my life, and when I watched my slideshow on the last night of the first workshop all I could think about was how much further I had to go in order to make photos remotely like my favorite photographers, many of whom were in the same room and sharing their own slideshows. I was so bummed that I didn’t feel thrilled by the work I created that I found myself paying once again to attend Foundation in order to find what I was looking for.
After making new friends and reuniting with my dear friend and workshop roomie, Heidi (the only other Foundation alumni!), we started Foundation with a series of presentations by our world-class teachers. And while some of what was shared was familiar from last year, the was the concept of “yet” immediately spoke to me. Huy, our fearless director of Foundation Workshop, told us all that it was a powerful word because it allowed us to take any negative sentence (“I can’t drive a stick”) and transform it into a personal statement with potential, with agency (“I can’t drive a stick… yet.”) As someone who often feels blocked by what I cannot do, I found this idea so transformative that I found myself thinking “yet” during moments where I couldn’t figure out how to make a photo that said what I wanted it to say. Maybe I wasn’t quite sure how to create that photo right away, but I could continue to work and work and through that persistence begin to turn that can’t into a can. So, for Foundation’s five full days of learning, I did what the workshop asked for me to do as well as I could- I opened my heart, I caged my ego eagle and let myself be vulnerable and ready for change, and supported my fellow teammates as they, too, did the same. I listened, took advice and guidance to heart, and worked really, REALLY hard. And as I did this, while adding “yet” as often as possible to any negative thoughts that sprung in my mind, I hoped that it would be enough.
We gathered for a group photo and then was placed into five teams. Before I knew it, I was in a group hug with fellow teammates Jenn Nauss, Philippe Swiggers, Nick Otto, and Sean LeBlanc, Brett Butterstein, our team leader, Daniel Aguilar, our team mentor, and assistant Tim Forbes. The rest of the evening was spent getting to know each other and being presented with our assignments. I had been secretly hoping for an assignment that would let me work outside and photograph animals, and instinctually knew when Brett began to tell us about a dairy farm assignment that it was mine. I was intrigued and excited by every detail- the four-generation family that lived on the multi-acre property, the cheese shop that bore the fruits of the farm (CHEESE!), and, of course, the cows I was sure to be photographing… it was a lot to take in, and I knew I would have to sift through everything once I arrived to figure out what to focus on.
Our team! I know, we look really rad hanging out by those hay bales. Photo by Tim Forbes.
When I arrived bright and early the next morning, my contacts, Connie and Stuart, made me a delicious breakfast, showed me around their property and introduced me to their family. For the first two hours I got a behind-the-scenes view of the cheese shop, met Stewart’s parents (his father still works on the farm!), and saw lots of cows, but instinctually knew I had found who I wanted to photograph when I was brought to another house on their property where his daughter Rachel lived with her husband Bob and four vibrant kids. Even though there were other subjects I could focus on, I knew that I really wanted to stay at Rachel’s house, so I bid Connie and Stuart farewell and set to work.
Brett and Daniel showed up shortly after I began making photos and Daniel left me with a piece of advice- to shoot how the moment feels. And while I wasn’t really sure how to unpack that critique at the time, I spent most of the afternoon following the three boys, Force, Elisha, and Gilbert, as they did chores, biked around the farm, climbed on roofs, created an elaborate scavenger hunt, and showed an incredible amount of resourcefulness despite their youth. I saw a newly-born calf, I ate delicious macaroni and cheese made with the farm’s cheese, and I enjoyed the big skies, the 70 degree weather, the company of the animals, and the big sunset that stretched across the sky. I wasn’t sure if I had really created great photos, but I felt good being outside and getting to know the family.
This photo kills me- Miguel, you son of a gun! Photo by Miguel Serrano.
The next day our team went over every single image that I and my four teammates had made over our long days. And as we looked at how our teammates see the world through their cameras I felt myself grow closer to each and every one of them. As Daniel and Brett teased out personal details about who we are and how we perceive just by looking at our photos, I thought about how personal photography is and how the best photos have an emotive core that reflect the photographer’s heart. And my team leaders echoed these thoughts as they reviewed my photos and urged me to be less literal in my photos and make poetry. Despite studying poetry in my undergrad degree (I have an undergrad and master’s degree in English), I wasn’t quite sure how I would do this (YET), but I was ready to try.
During an evening off with my team I attempted to play pool in a smoky bar and felt like a rockstar. Photo by Miguel Serrano.
On the second day I felt lost from the very beginning- nothing I captured seemed to be good enough and all of a sudden I felt unable to photograph anything without questioning the quality of the photo I was making. In desperation, I texted Brett and Daniel, who came to my aid right when Rachel and boys began to wash a few cars on the property. And even though it wasn’t really necessary to do so, I threw off my boots and plunked myself on the muddy pavement, and even though laying in the mud didn’t produce any great photos, I needed to do it for myself- I needed to get dirty, to feel a little less restrained. I photographed and photographed and admitted that I felt like I captured nothing of value, and Daniel and Brett told me to stop being hard on myself, to relax, to trust my instincts. And as someone who tends to trust photography “rules” more than I trust my own gut, I was once again stopped in my tracks as I realized how much I was really getting in the way of my own success.
Photo by Miguel Serrano.
I wish I could say that I made amazing photos the rest of the day, but I felt often tied down by my self-doubt as I tried to let go. I pushed that self-doubt back, but before we reviewed my photos that night, I cried, sharing that I felt like I had failed and that I was nervous to go through my photos. But, as we went through my photos, I remembered that Kirsten Lewis had told us on the first day that we need to take a lot of mediocre and bad photos to find our way to the great photos, I realized that I had to be more open to failing, and needed to be kinder to myself when I did fail in order to make the photos that my heart was dying to make. And when Danny and Brett showed me that I had made photos that showed growth, that felt evocative and poetic, I felt like I had finally broken through the doubt that had been holding me back for so long.
My slideshow wasn’t the best, but it was mine and I had created it with my own unique voice and perspective, and as it played in front of everyone I felt so proud that I had made those photos. That, in and of itself, was a giant victory. When I went up afterwards to address my new friends in the audience, I admitted to feeling like I had failed Foundation the first time around and that I had returned to redeem myself the second time around, but I had had a big realization: I had never actually failed, but was simply being too hard on myself. I don’t remember what I said, exactly, but I told the room of photographers that I was proud of what I had accomplished, and the applause that filled the room made me feel light as air. I may have never needed a redemption, but in that moment I achieved it.
If there’s one thing I’ve really realized this year at Foundation, it is how easy it is to love anyone who has allowed themselves to be vulnerable, honest, and authentic, especially in such a challenging environment as Foundation (Foundation’s website describes the workshop aptly as “the workshop your friends have been warning you about”). After all, we’re all fighting our own battles, and in our Facebook-perfect world it is so easy to forget that we are not alone in our struggles to live a good, balanced life. And when I allowed myself to be so honest and open with everyone in the room I felt like I had achieved something profound.
The BEST hug by Philippe and Katrina. Foundation love at its best! Photo by Jenn Nauss.
A few words to those who really made a difference:
Huy: Foundation Workshop has changed my life. Thank you for running the workshop so thoughtfully every year and inspiring significant change in the students that attend. You have inspired change in me!
I’m allowed to share two photos from my slideshow, so here are a couple favorites- one taken within an hour or two of arriving the first day, and the second on the second day, when I was starting to piece things together.
So, here’s to yet. Here’s to the things I haven’t accomplished… yet. Here’s to trusting my gut, shooting with my heart as much as my brain, and believing in myself and my work. Perhaps, most importantly of all, here’s to failing a LOT in order to create the photos that matter. Watch out, world- here I come. And, dear clients- I can’t WAIT to create some killer photos of your weddings this year! <3
Me! Photo by the incomparable Daniel Aguilar.