It’s clear that there has been a tremendous upswing in the number of photographers across all markets. But also with that trend has seen a staggering number of people jumping into teaching and selling workshops.
Workshops can be very helpful for those that are learning but in the capricious state of the industry, it’s buyer beware.
I am aware this topic is likely to be somewhat polarizing, because nobody usually wants to talk about the elephant in the room, but let's.
I feel it’s important to note that the offering of a workshop or lesson itself isn’t qualification that the instructor should really be teaching. It’s up to the consumer or student in this case to do the legwork of making sure that you know this person really is qualified to teach. For instance, looking at learning lighting from someone whose images are always flat and plain but perhaps they get a lot of likes because of pretty or popular models, or posing workshops by folks who regularly pose subjects in a very unflattering manner to the subject’s figure.
An example of a stylistic concept and still applying my posing rules is shown here, proper technique for this dancer was a little different than the final photo but we made adjustments to flatter her figure the best. If posted without those changes, likely some folks on social media would say things about how they love the style but for me, as a people photographer the number one priority is to make sure the subject looks good, then the concept is second. So we redid this until we could achieve the concept and her figure both in one frame.
Equally, there are good workshops out there by real professionals that are super helpful, but it’s truly consumer beware which in reality is no different than any other industry. Same with tattoo artists, for example; there are some that are good, some that are awful, and everywhere in between. Photography is no different with the exception that there seems to be a socially obligated inhibition preventing people from being honest about a body of work. People have a natural opposition to perceived conflict, and a general dislike for potentially hurting someone’s feelings and as such, new photographers, retouchers, and the like do not get the real true constructive criticism they need to truly improve. This manifests itself in the way of a few social media likes and comments and it’s easy to get a false sense of where on the qualification and experience ladder one really is.
To dig into this a little bit we can look at a term the psychology world is very familiar with: social proof. The photography industry, on social media especially, is the strongest example I have seen of social proof at work. If someone is offering something and another person comments they are excited, it’s then easy for the prospective customer to assume it’s good and the instructor is qualified even if they are not.
Social proof is a natural thing we humans do when we don’t necessarily know something for ourselves. It's a factor of the automatic path to least resistance we seek throughout our lives naturally. If we stopped and analyzed every little interaction with anything we come across, there wouldn't be enough time in the day to process the millions of little things, so we look to see what others are doing and follow by example which can include undue praise. Much in the same way opera houses hire spectators to cheer and clap at certain key points in the show to elicit a similar response from the rest of the audience, albeit on social media it isn't usually intentional, but the result is nonetheless mostly the same.
When it comes to posing certain angles are less than flattering to the subject, and therefore our job is to adjust until it looks good. Minor little tweaks make a huge difference.
Obviously in the photography industry the thing that happens most when there is a criticism is that the photographer will say it’s their art and that art is subjective. Subjective is the operative word here; it’s the very thing that prevents some type of licensing or qualification process for the industry. After all, who gets to decide who is good and who isn’t? It’s certainly a difficult situation to speak of in this way. But the reality is that no matter how hard we want to believe that there is no such thing as bad art, there most certainly is. There are absolutely some photographers that are better than others. There are absolutely popular photographers that are popular simply because people like them, not because of the actual quality of work. Combine that with a few social likes and a cool concept and a mediocre photographer can have perceived quality and success, offer a workshop, and the prospective student can have their own growth greatly inhibited by trying to learn from someone who doesn’t know either.
Teaching can be also educational for the instructor as well. By that I mean teaching can help the instructor by verbalizing and labeling the things they already know and do. Labeling can really instill it and make it more real or help embed the data in the teacher’s mind. But to leverage this and prevent an inaccurate self-assessment of our own skills, a knowledge of the subject does need to be had first.
I spoke of this to a group of photographers and the reaction was very mixed, some applauded and understood this and the others were in disbelief or downright anger by the mere mention that someone teaching a workshop may not actually be qualified to do such. It's definitely a don't-shoot-the-messenger kind of situation. I feel it's important to talk about things such as this even if it's uncomfortable or you learn news that you may not wish to hear. Wishing something to be good doesn't make it so and talking about it doesn't make one responsible.
The anger at the mention of such things is much the same as when folks get angry with a weatherman for delivering the bad news of inclement weather. The weatherman didn't make the weather and I don't make someone qualified or unqualified to teach. I am only suggesting that consumers do their homework before jumping into a workshop just because it seems popular or the person giving it is popular. Make sure it's a good fit for you and that this is the best person available to you to learn the proposed skills from. It's just smart business.
I (and most photographers) am all for education and bettering everyone but let’s be smart about it and try to make a positive difference so that the overall industry will flourish and in that end, everyone wins including teachers, students and the end customer.
I'd love to hear your thoughts. Have you been to a bad workshop or perhaps been taught things that you have since learned were not accurate? When I polled some photographers, over 90 percent had experienced an educational purchase they since regret.
Lead image courtesy of Pim Chu via Unsplash.