Workshop offers photographer chance to recharge creative batteries

Journal-World photographer John Henry spent a week photographing the end of a family vineyard in St. James, Mo. In this photograph, his subjects, Eugene and Angie Jones, head home after an evening working in the vineyard.

During the Missouri Photo Workshop, John Henry spent a week photographing the end of a family vineyard in St. James, Mo. Photographers at most any stage can learn something or gain inspiration from any number of workshops. The MPW's focus was documentary photography. Here, Angie Jones picks grapes in the final days of her vineyard.

Ask anyone on pretty much any photography staff, and he or she will tell you that photojournalists have the best job on the planet. And I feel the same way.

But, like any other profession, daily journalism has the tendency to feel like a grind. No matter what you do, life just starts to feel repetitive sometimes.

A good way to break out of this grind and breathe life back into your photography is to take a workshop. In most photography workshops, attendees are always doing something. You’re either shooting, listening to lectures or talking about photography. You are mentored by leading professionals and pushed to your limits. You’re pushing yourself mentally and physically to learn and change. And you’re not sleeping.

I took the last week in September to attend the Missouri Photo Workshop, which is produced by the University of Missouri. The workshop, which focuses on traditional documentary photography, has been taking place since 1949. Each year a group of photographers descends on a small Missouri town for the week. During the week each photographer finds a human interest picture story to pursue.

My experience at the MPW was more about learning about myself than anything. And this is probably somewhat true for photography workshops across the board. I was pressured intensely the entire week to produce good work, but at the same time I was encouraged and rewarded to photograph things just how I saw it. And unless we are photographing just for ourselves, this is a luxury most photographers don’t get to experience while working on assignment. Usually, this is because a client wants a certain look, and your photography is influenced by that.

Another pretty basic concept that was really held over my head was dedication. There was a lot of talk throughout the week about dedication. Are we dedicated? What are you willing to sacrifice for your dedication? What’s important to you in life? These questions sort of define the boundary between someone who likes photography and someone who puts the art of photography above most other things in life. And I think this is something we all struggle with, which is, how much of our personal life are we willing to sacrifice to pursue what we love?

During the week I spent in St. James, Mo., I photographed Angie and Eugene Jones, an elderly couple who are facing the final year of their family vineyard. They graciously allowed me into their lives and shared their story. I focused my story on the couple’s relationship and their fading relationship with the vineyard. Their story was sad, but at the same time beautiful. I was drawn in by the dying American dream and Angie and Eugene’s strengths.

This workshop was right up my alley. Documentary photography plus small town America plus constant pressure and inspiration equals good. And these good vibes are something you bring back to your employer and hopefully is infectious. Now, this doesn’t mean the workshop will be a fit for everyone. And you don’t really need to feel the daily grind to attend workshops.

Workshops are also great educational experiences. The workshop is a very technically oriented experience, where shooters demonstrate how to approach a sports photography assignment and use different tools to achieve different looks.

If you’re more interested in advertising or editorial work, you might consider taking a lighting workshop. While there, you’ll be able to learn from top studio photographers while brushing shoulders and possibly handing out business cards. And, as with most workshops, at the end of the day you’ll have the chance to throw back a cold one with the photographers who run the workshop and hear about the business from their point of view.