So you want to teach photography workshops?

A peer asked me how she could make money “teaching photography workshops as a business.” After picking myself up off the floor from laughing so hard, I gathered my thoughts and reflected on how I started teaching photography. Tracing the path I took from to aspiring instructor to veteran workshop teacher resulted in this blog entry.

First, keep in mind that almost all teaching is so devalued in this culture so going into it for the money is not smart. My mother worked as a teacher and later a school principal. Making a difference in her student’s lives was more important to her than making a lot of money. The only teachers who make “real money” are those teaching in medicine, computers or other technically complex specialties.

University professors, like my wife, have the next best gig, when it comes to teaching. The best university positions for photography teachers are at research universities where the research (or in the case of artists, their artwork) is considered part of the job that the professors are paid to do. This is compared to teaching institutions where the emphasis is on the teaching first and foremost, with research a distant second in terms of what the institution’s value/reward. One obvious drawback to university teaching is the requirement for a Master’s degree or higher. Institutions that once gave established professionals, like me, credit for my decades worth of work experience are becoming fewer and fewer.

In universities, colleges and high schools, photography teaching is obviously done over a long period of time, at least a quarter or semester, though often over multiple years. The workshop by comparison is usually three to five days, maybe as long as ten days but certainly not much longer. The point is that a workshop requires a teacher who is very focused on a few things that can be conveyed to the students in a few days.

What workshops lack in depth and long-term growth is usually made up for in their intensity. My wife prefers the slower paced, long-term development that comes with nurturing students in a university setting. I prefer the more focused, but short-term nature of workshop mentoring. One is not better than the other, but they are very different experiences for the student (and for the teacher.) Potential workshop teachers need to keep in mind the vast difference between university teaching and workshop teaching as they prepare themselves for one or the other.

My own progression as a workshop teacher was a combination of on-the-job-training and dumb luck. My first serious workshops were taught at the Peters Valley Craft Center in the Delaware Water Gap of New Jersey. Those focused on the basics of photographic composition. See more at http://petersvalley.org/

As the Photography Program Resident at Peters Valley Craft Center, my initial job was to run the twelve week long summer photo workshop program. I arranged for the instructors and assisted them as they taught. I also carefully studied their various teaching strategies. Watching established artists/teachers like Jill Enfield, http://www.jillenfield.com/ Harvey Stein http://www.harveysteinphoto.com/ and William Abranowicz, http://www.williamabranowicz.com/ was a great learning experience. I later started teaching workshops there. Through contacts I made at Peters Valley, I was introduced to the staff at and then started teaching at New York City’s International Center of Photography. See more at http://www.icp.org/ From there, I expanded my teaching, building on what I had learned and refined, eventually teaching classes at one of the oldest workshops, the Maine Media Workshops.

So, how do you get started as a photography workshop instructor? On one level, teaching is like any other business. Start local, especially as a way to polish your teaching skills. Word of mouth referrals are very important. You only get one chance to make a good impression, so have our web-site ready and your class outlines organized. Managing the expectations, of both the student’s and the workshop administration, is very important. Like in my assignment work, I try very hard to under-promise and over-deliver. The first few workshops were the hardest for me to get and teach. Now that I have a track record as a teacher, it is easier for me to offer my services to new workshops.

In most of the new teaching venues that I approached, the people in charge followed a remarkably similar script. First, they invited me to come to the workshop, to meet the staff and get the lay of the land. (Without pay by the way.) They also asked me to watch a few other teachers at work. Then, they asked me to come back to teach a fairly simple class, to see if I could actually deliver what I had promised. Each place that I went to I seem to have passed the test.

This “testing” is a very important and underappreciated part of the workshop business. It is not news to say that there are many famous photographers who simply cannot teach! Plenty of photographers can tell stories and speak nostalgically about their careers, but workshops need a beginning, middle and end. They also need a clear focus and achievable goals.

The workshop directors I respect the most include the man who actually canceled a class mid-way through and offered the student’s refunds after hearing serious complaints about the class. Another director I respect declined to ask a famous photographer, who was teaching at the same time and place that I was teaching, to come back the next year.

In places like the Maine Media Workshops, I started teaching classes emphasizing seeing, titled either Vision and Discovery or The Photographer’s Eye. After a few years, I moved up to so-called “master classes,” where the class is focused more on my particular expertise (and background) and less on general photography skills. One of my favorite classes to teach in Maine is the photo-essay class. To see some examples of work students did in that class in 2008. This year I am teaching a class on Street Photography. Most of what I do in India, the US or anywhere else is in essence, street photography. I will be teaching students how to work rapidly and unobtrusively in busy environments with minimal equipment and maximum adaptability. The class focuses on how to quickly analyze the quality and direction of light, how to frame and compose the image while anticipating the unfolding activity.

Though the class seems rather narrowly defined, in my experience, workshops succeed best when they have clearly defined goals. Again, in high schools, colleges and universities the approach is very different. It is a more deliberate, all encompassing and slower approach that I do not particularly like.

It is one that history has shown I am not that good at utilizing. Despite having taught at Drexel University, University of Pennsylvania, University of the Arts, Syracuse University, and Rochester Institute of Technology, I will be the first to admit I am not a stellar teacher of photography, that is, in a university setting. This is important because, if you want to teach in a university setting, you need to be a stellar teacher, a well-known artist and have a graduate degree of some kind (even if not in photography or art.) One surprise is how many professors of photography in college and university level positions have degrees in subjects other than photography.

If you want to be a good workshop teacher, as my students say I am (see: http://www.davidhwells.com/references/index.html) you need to teach a few things exceptionally well. I have come to understand that I have to love the subject matter first and then want to teach it second. The best teachers of photography I know, like Bobbi Lane at: http://bobbilane.com/workshops.html, love what they are doing as photographers, so their energy and enthusiasm comes across in their workshops. Similarly, the best teachers are aware of what they should NOT teach. I do not do studio work or food photography or fashion photography, so asking me to teach workshops on any of those topics would be a recipe for disaster.

When teaching, you also have to repeat yourself a lot. You have to go slow and break lessons down into small steps. You have use activities and critiques to make sure the lessons being imparted are actually getting into the student’s thinking. You have to remember that every student has a different learning curve, and you need to work to accommodate that. They will not accommodate you and they may not even understand how they learn, but you need to figure that out, and you need to do that in a hurry. It also helps to keep in mind the substantial differences in learning styles that vary across lines of gender, age and ethnicity. In many of my workshops, I feel like I spend half my time nurturing the group dynamic and managing interpersonal relationships.

So why do I teach workshops? That is a great question that any potential workshop teacher should ask himself or herself. It starts from the idea that I have a few topics that I know well and can easily convey to others. I have polished and refined those few classes over the years, till they shine, almost like gems.

I do not do it just for the money, though I do need that. I do not teach just to go other places and make new photographs, though that helps too. While I do get a thrill out of watching photographers grow and expand their creativity, that’s not enough.

I do love photography itself, the process with a real passion and I think that’s the core reason why I teach. Teaching enables me to do what I love as I share it with others! That’s the best reason of all for doing anything, isn’t it?

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