Eddie Adams Workshop XXIX

Every once in a while, you’ll happen upon a truly unique experience that transforms the way you look at things and the way you are. One that inspires you, gives you friends that have the same fears, motivations, beliefs and goals, and last but not least, makes you a better, more attentive, more thoughtful storyteller. That is what the Eddie Adams Workshop was to me.
I first learned about the EAW through Robert Caplin’s amazing podcast The Photo Brigade. I only subscribed at around episode 50, which was a time when Robert audio-recorded the then-latest episodes at the Eddie Adams Barn with Nick Ut and Al Bello. That was in October 2014 and since then, he interviewed lots of other great photographers, many of whom lectured, produced or portfolio-reviewed at the Eddie Adams. And since Robert kept mentioning that connection at the beginning of many episodes, I decided to find out what all the buzz was about. EAW is not nearly as popular and well-known in Europe as it is in the US, so even though I studied photojournalism at an arts university, I had no clue how much of a big deal Eddie’s workshop is. But as more and more amazing photographers kept mentioning the Barnstorm, Alyssa Adams did an episode, Mirjam Evers did an episode, I was sold.
That was in May 2016, I was just about to graduate from the London College of Communication, where I studied Photojournalism and Documentary Photography, and I felt going to New York to attend the workshop that many say is ‘one of the most coveted milestones in a photographer’s career’ would be a great way to conclude my formal photography studies. Since that was about a month before the application deadline, I felt I had enough time to do every step of the application properly. The way to get accepted is to show 15-20 pictures, and if there’s fewer than 100 applicants with better pictures, you’re in. Simple as that.
But anyone who knows what’s what in photojournalism, will understand that it’s quite competitive nowadays and if you’re looking at a global event, it’s quite likely there’s 100 people at least as good as you are. The workshop, therefore, is notoriously difficult to get accepted to, which is why I asked for help (shout out to you, Dougal). I’ll try and share some tips & tricks & DOs & DON’Ts in regards to the application portfolio in the next blog post, possibly in the form of a video. You can also have a look at Alyssa Adams’ The Photo Brigade episode in which you can definitely find some useful info. Here I want to talk about what happens at the workshop and how to make the most out of it.
How Things Work in Jeffersonville & Liberty
First of all, it’s intensive. There’s lots of things going on, and the four days at the barn are very busy. There’s detailed schedules from past editions online, so I won’t get into that much detail about what, where and when happens at the workshop, but in principle, there are three categories of ‘events’ – (1) theoretical, which means speeches, (2) practical, which means shooting an assignment somewhere in the Sullivan County, NY, and (3) portfolio reviews, which are either official and happen Saturday and Sunday night, or unofficial and happen whenever a potential reviewer has 15 minutes to spare. Besides these three main elements, there’s networking time, a symbolic memorial service, bonfire, award ceremony, and others. And of course there’s party.
Up the Hill
Before the workshop starts, you’ll be treated to what will likely be one of the most unforgettable moments of your photographic career. After introductory and orientation speeches at the B&H SuperStore in Manhattan and at the Days Inn in Liberty, you’ll be sat on a proper yellow school bus, and driven for around 25 minutes to the Eddie Adams Barn in Jeffersonville. You’ll alight at the side of the road and have a few moments to savour what will only happen once in your life and only 100 people get to experience every year. The legendary walk up the hill, towards a blinding sunset, to the sound of Paul Simon’s Kodachrome. There will be dozens and dozens of people clapping, cheering and greeting you. A lot of them photographic heroes you always dreamed of meeting. But you’ll only realize that after they high-five you, as you won’t see anything because of the sun. It’s quite difficult to describe the scene of arriving at the barn for the first time adequately, but I guarantee you will remember that minute-and-a-half for the rest of your life and it will be one of the highlights of your career.
Since there is 100 students, catering to everyone’s needs in a big group setting would be a logistical nightmare, and pretty much impossible. Smaller groups of 10 are therefore created, and each group, or each team to be more precise, is assigned a colour. Teams then have lives of their own to a certain extent, and most contact students have is with their teammates and team leaders. Besides the students, each team consists of a team producer (who deals with all student-related logistics before the workshop, and plans the assignment shoots), team leader (who usually is a top-tier photographer), team editor (a picture editor most often working for a major publication) and a tech expert (whose main responsibility is keeping whatever students bring from their shoots organized, and creating the team’s final video presentations). Team leaders of my team, Team Turquoise, were Josh Ritchie (producer), Carol Guzy (leader), Olivier Laurent (editor) and Mike Kepka (tech expert / video producer).
The official program starts with a block of speeches pretty much right after the official intro by the workshops innermost production team consisting of Alyssa Adams and Mirjam Evers. The list of speakers remains somewhat similar every year, so students of the XXIX edition were treated to truly inspiring talks by the likes of John White who talked about his incredible career, Craig Walker who talked about sticking to a long-term project, Carol Guzy who talked about documenting humanity and suffering, or Marco Grob who talked about his journey from a small town in rural Switzerland to being one of the most preeminent portrait photographers in the world. There were many others, no less inspirational photo-industry professionals, but there’s simply no way of adequately illustrating all of them, so I’m going to stop here and you just have to take my word for it. Whoever speaks the next or following year, has a lot to say. Fight the the exhaustion, stay awake and listen. You won’t get a speech block this good ever in your life again.
For many students a major source of anxiety and stress – yes, it’s a difficult one. Team producers will have had studied your work thoroughly, and prepared a shoot to throw you off balance. And since your work will be looked at by people you’ve probably been looking up to for years, the worry is certainly understandable. My goal is not to increase that feeling but I feel kind of obliged to say that you’re also not able to delete any images, and sometimes you’re only allowed to use one lens. I’ll translate that to my particular case.
Whilst applying to the workshop, I tried to establish myself as a sports photographer. My portfolio was sports images only, and that was, at the time, really all I wanted to do. Which is, perhaps, why my team producer gave me a story in which the main subject was an elderly woman with a mental disability who more or less only sits on a couch, watches television, and is almost completely non-vocal.
Only to be shot with a 35mm lens. The photographs were looked at by the picture editor of TIME Magazine’s LightBox and a four-time Pulitzer prize winner. I had six hours on Saturday and four on Sunday. Which would normally be enough time, I think, but do remember, my subject did not talk at all. That prevented me from building a relationship with her, and in turn, made my story effectively fall through. All students were warned about this possibility, but it still hurts when it actually happens. Responding appropriately to such situation is also my biggest learning point I took away from the workshop. Whether it means changing the way I work and approach the subject, whether it means changing the strategy and starting over, or whether it means abandoning all your preconceptions and going all-conceptual for example, you have to try it.
So yes, the shoot can be nerve-wracking. But that’s the point. They want you to throw you off balance and out of your comfort zone. Which is, by definition, unpleasant, but definitely useful when preparing for a career that involves working under pressure. Josh, my team producer, used a brilliant metaphor, as he explained that the team leaders, editors and producers ‘are there to throw you under the bus, but get you outta there just in time’. And it’s important to remember that if you screw-up, nothing catastrophic happens – you might (and will) get yelled at, but you won’t lose your job. With some of the most senior people from the industry there, it’s a time that certainly can make your career, but it won’t break it.
Making the shoot work and returning with strong, visual and compelling pictures no matter what the circumstances are, is the absolute number one priority. Even when everything seems to work against you, you have to make something out of it. Somehow.
Portfolio Reviews
And now that we’re talking about pressure and anxiety, the 11:30 Club. This one, believe me, is really a once in a lifetime opportunity, as it’s quite likely that you won’t ever be in the same room with the DOPs of the National Geographic, TIME Magazine, The New York Times, Washington Post, ESPN, the managing director of the World Press Photo and dozens of very high-ranking picture editors. Besides the assignment shoot, this is the time to shine.
The ‘problem’ with that is that the reviewers are VERY hard to impress. They have seen lots of work from the best photographers in the industry and they’ll have seen lots of outstanding work done by 99 of your EAW classmates right before or after your 15 minutes with them, so it’s definitely difficult to stand out. On top of that, the review will be happening after two or three very hectic days and little to no sleep. Normally, portfolio reviews are occasions where you need to be well-rested, well-dressed, and in general just look up-to-scratch. Well, not here. No one cares how you look and everyone understands you’ve had difficult 72 hours. Have good pictures to show, be passionate about them, and enjoy the moment because you probably won’t be in this situation ever again.
I, personally, had some good reviews, some great ones, some bad ones, and of course, some ugly ones. And unless you’re the next Damon Winter, you too will have some ugly ones. They are not pleasant, especially when the person picking your work apart is a hero of yours and someone you really wanted to impress, but it’s important to not take it personally and take something constructive out of it. I got told my portfolio is ‘pedestrian’ or pictures are ‘boring, boring, boring’, and you can imagine how I felt. But then I also had wonderful reviews that felt more like a conversation than an ‘exam’. Even in the super-short time slot of 15 minutes, some people and I just clicked, and we had some great conversations about my work, where I should be headed with it, what my strengths and weaknesses are, about photography in general, about sports and so on. And I feel that’s what works best at portfolio reviews. And that’s my tip number one if you’re having one at the Eddie Adams or elsewhere – try and make it conversational, be passionate about what you shoot, if there’s a fun back-story, say it. Don’t try to impress, it never works. Have amazing pictures, make the conversation upbeat and natural, and people will like you. And again, enjoy the moment.
What to Expect & What Not to Expect
Upon my return from New York, a lot of people, mostly photographers, were asking what I have learnt at the workshop. To be honest, there’s no simple, straightforward way to answer that. Before the workshop started, we had an hour-or-so orientation at the B&H. I was super-excited about finally being there, was starting to feel the first signs of jet lag, and already met dozens of fellow-students, so I don’t really remember much from that meeting. But as Scott Allen was trying to get us, the students, into the right mental mindset with the somewhat predictable ‘be open minded’ and ‘go out of your comfort zone’, Scott told us something that struck me as odd at the time, but was absolutely spot on in retrospect. He told us not to worry if, in the days and weeks after the workshop, we’re unsure about whether we learned anything, and promised that ‘Heureka’ moments arising from our experience at the EAW would hit only after some time, but they will do so unexpectedly and for years to come. Jim Colton, the workshop program’s host said the exact same thing when he gave his introductory speech on day one, and I think I can confirm it is absolutely true.
What are the speeches about then? As Leda Costa Larson, a fellow EAW XXIX alumn wrote, the point of the speeches is to provide a safe space for ideas, address common photographers’ insecurities, but also show what visual journalism is, and what it could be, on a deeper, more philosophical level.
Lectures or speeches very rarely take form of technical tutorials. It makes sense to not talk about standard practices of composition or sequencing when it is safe to assume that all students are at a level where speaking about it in theoretical terms is pointless. The time and place for that is in a more intimate setting, where students and their tutors talk about specific issues with their work and apply the photojournalistic DOs and DON’Ts on their work. I’m glad that EAW speakers understand this, and don’t try to make the speech blocks into a 101 course.
Every single insecurity, doubt, and fear I’ve ever had toward my work was at one point or another addressed and/or shared by my heroes in the industry. Which, if you’re an angsty mess of emotions, is a big deal. I could finally relax.
Being told what kind of pictures it takes for a picture story to be complete is certainly of utmost importance for a photographer, but there’s lots of places where to get lectures on that. But there’s very few places where John White or Carol Guzy relate to your doubts and fears, bare their souls, and reveal their inspirations. I’m yet to find one outside of the Eddie Adams barn.
What Is Responsible For All This
First and foremost, Mr. Eddie Adams. A great photographer whom most people know through a single photograph, had this idea to host a gathering of top professionals from the photography industry along with 100 most talented students, just outside of the photography capital of the the world, the New York City. To do this, he purchased a barn in the Catskills, and with the help of dozens of like-minded people, established what today is a principal event shaping the photojournalistic industry of tomorrow. Eddie passed away in 2004, so unfortunately, I wasn’t able to talk to him and thank him personally. I was, however, able to talk to and say thanks to Alyssa Adams, who co-created the workshop in 1988, serves as its executive director, and most importantly, very generously opens the door to her home in Jeffersonville for the photographic industry every October.
Next, Mirjam Evers for her enormous effort to make the workshop happen every year and make everything run smoothly, Jim Colton, in the Eddie Adams family more commonly known as Uncle Jimmy, for somehow (and I really don’t know how) making us feel at home at a place most of us have never been to. Also, Mark Suban’s Nikon team, Clifford Hausner’s Profoto team, Gabriel Biderman’s B&H team, and all other sponsors for helping both the workshop itself, as well as us, the students, with anything that we needed.
Last but not least, and perhaps the most important ‘thank you’ of them all, to the black team and the white team. For donating your time, your money, your effort, and your skills. The black team consists partly of EAW alumni and they help with everything from mowing the lawn at the barn to helping with transportation.
Perhaps one of the most surreal experiences I had at the barn was whenever I had a chance to interact with the white team, who were responsible for food and catering. The thing is, these guys, who were busting their butts preparing delicious food for 200 people weren’t catering professionals, but some of the highest-ranking photo industry professionals in the world. I kid you not, getting served food by people you look up to, and dream of meeting, such as the picture editor of the Wall Street Journal, the Senior Photo Editor at Getty Images, and others, is a very peculiar kind of fun experience.
This is something that’s just not possible to have at other, more commercial workshops. If EAW was produced as a commercial endeavour, tuition fee would be worth thousands, possibly tens of thousands of dollars. And it’s safe to say that not many photography students would be able to afford that. Which is why you are reading this section. All of this is possible thanks to volunteering and thanks to probably hundreds of people donating their time, money, effort, and skills. A team turquoise compatriot, Santosh Korthiwada summed this up far better than I ever could:
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.
So again, everyone involved, thank you. Thank you for putting on a great event that pushed me and 99 other photographers forward immensely. It’s really been an experience I will never forget.
What I’m Trying to Say
My hope for this blog is to show you what an amazing experience The Barnstorm is. You will learn to light farm animals in the morning, try a $10,000 kit in the afternoon, take a selfie with your photographic hero in the evening, and then have a drink with a four-time Pulitzer prize winner at night. Given that the application process for EAW 30 is open for a few more weeks, I’ll try and put together a short video to explain the thought process behind the portfolio that got me in last year in hopes you’ll get in as well.
If you’re thinking of applying, do it. Apply. If you don’t get in, apply next year. I promise the $50 it takes to apply is absolutely worth it. It’s probably the best photojournalistic workshop in the world, so 50 dollars is a steal. Go for it!
And if you’ve got any questions about anything, do get in touch with me, and I’ll try to help you as much as I can.
To conclude, I’ll, once again, borrow a few words of my team-mate Santosh:
Although I have tried to explain what the workshop is like, the best way is to go and witness it in person.