Sometimes the best lessons are simple, one-sentence thoughts that often seem trivial at the time but turn out to be monumental. I came across one some eight years ago; it forever changed not only my photography but also my business.
I was a student at the Foundation Workshop (FW2), an annual workshop held in Texas that shaped me not only as a photographer but also as a teacher. I was a student that year but have since been involved in every workshop since – all eight of them.
The Foundation Workshop is for wedding photojournalists who have no photojournalism experience or those who want to learn the art of visual storytelling; it is run by some of the best wedding photojournalists in world.
When I attended Foundation I had been in business for only about two years and was trying to find my sea legs in the world of wedding photography. Before then I had been a newspaper photojournalist, freelancing or interning at various papers. When we heard of colleagues leaving the paper and becoming wedding photographers, we used to think how sorry we were for them, what a shame it was that such a good shooter had to resort to shooting weddings.
Fortunately for me there was a great new style of wedding photography hitting the scene back then, rooted in photojournalism. It helped solve a common problem I have seen with photojournalists who become wedding photographers, which is their tendency to try to conform to what they think wedding photography is supposed to be. They feel the need to shoot what they feel brides want – not necessarily what they are good at. I was one of those people, too, until I attended Foundation Workshop. I knew my passion for the moment was strong, but didn’t know how to apply it in a non-newspaper shoot.
I had never been to a workshop of any sort prior to Foundation. As soon as I heard about it, though, I thought it was something I should go to. I might have hoped, though I definitely didn’t expect, that my photographic life and career would forever be changed. I honestly had no idea what the workshop was about; I saw the people who were either attending or teaching and I felt it would be good for me. So I went.
Turns out it was a workshop about learning how to see and shoot like a photojournalist – the exact thing that I had trained in. Needless to say I did not learn a ton about how to be a photojournalist. I actually did really well on my assignment, covering a firehouse for three days. What I did learn proved to be much deeper.
I remember it vividly. We were all sitting around the hotel between editing sessions and someone asked to see my work. I pulled out my laptop and started a slideshow. There was a group of maybe three or four people huddling around looking – including Huy Nguyen, the founder of the workshop and a seasoned photojournalist with the Dallas Morning News. Huy is a man of few words but when he does speak people listen. A photo of a bride and groom holding hands and running in the grass popped up on the screen. From behind I heard Huy say, “Soccer ball!” Puzzled, I asked what he meant.
He simply asked, “Why are they running?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I guess because I thought it would be cool.”
“If you are going to make them run the least you can do is put a soccer ball in there to make it make sense!” he said. And then he began the lesson that would change my life.
“Stop doing this and do what you do best,” he said. It was a very profound statement. He continued by asking me a question. He said, “Who do you shoot for? Do you shoot for you or for your client?”
“My client,” I said; they pay me good money. “Wrong answer,” he said. He went on to explain that if you shoot for yourself, making images that make you happy, you will attract clients who feel the same way. Voila! Everyone is happy.
Eight years later I can say it works. I finally feel like I am at the place in my business and my photography where I want to be. A lesson that lasted eight minutes took me almost eight years to achieve. My work on our website is finally this year completely documentary, showcasing the types of images that make me passionate about what I do – real story-telling moments.
I am very thankful for Huy’s willingness to say such a thing to someone he had just met; it’s something I take into my workshops to this day.
Keeping your mind open to criticism is the most important way to learn – assuming of course you have the opportunity for someone to be honest with you.
About the Author
Tyler Wirken is a photographer based in Kansas City, Mo. As a husband and father of two amazing boys, Tyler realizes the importance of family and preserving it. In his own words, “being able to look back on what life was, to remember tiny moments of significance in a photograph that you can hold in your hand is a gift I want to give.” Tyler draws from his background as a newspaper photographer to do just that. His mission is to be a personal photojournalist for his clients. Believing in living life to its fullest, flying by the seat of his pants, thinking outside of the box, and questioning the status quo are all hallmarks of Tyler’s approach to photography and life.