Tokyo workshop with Antoine D’Agata

A few weeks ago, I participated in a workshop on documentary photography, led by French artist Antoine D’Agata. The workshop took place in Tokyo, over six very intense days and nights, and culminated in an exhibition at the Tokyo Institute of Photography in which we students were invited to show off the work we did for the week, alongside a longer slide show and Q&A from Antoine himself. Antoine’s work, of course, made the work we did in five days look like the kind of work your parents might post on the fridge after your kindergarten art class, but nonetheless it was an honor to be part of the experience with him, and I believe it will have lasting impact not only on my approach to creating art, but also on my life generally. My goal in this post is to describe a bit what the experience was like, to share what I think the central (and powerful) lesson of the workshop was, along with some of the key lessons for me.

Couple walking, Ginza, Tokyo

The format of the workshop can best be described as “intense working” interleaved with a set of “discussions,” led by Antoine, but open to everyone in the workshop. Basic mechanics were as follows:

  • Twelve participants, all international (from Brazil to Rome to NYC), two of whom were foreigners residing in Tokyo. Most of the participants had some level of formal training or experience working in photography or a closely-related field (e.g., photo-journalism , cinematography, commercial fashion photography). I was probably the worst “photographer” of the bunch, but Antoine had a nice way of reframing that, and managed to instill the idea that we shouldn’t be looking at photography as “good” or “bad,” or as some kind of competition where X’s photos are better than Y’s. He seemed to reject judging photographs on their merits as photographs and instead focused much more on what they conveyed and the quality of the ideas behind them. It’s difficult not to think this way, but constantly comparing yourself to some other person’s standard does interfere with the process of finding photos that are meaningful to you and which capture and convey what you intend as an artist.
  • Shooting took place at night, all night, and, in fact, the only constraint given to us was to spend at least 8 hours per day shooting (preferably more), and to shoot no less than 500 images/day (preferably more). This was the single most critical element of the workshop, and almost everything I learned (and did “right” or did “wrong”) stemmed from this simple requirement. Shooting and editing against a deadline proved to be an extremely valuable learning tool. In cases where, if we were on our own, we may have given up, this small amount of structure forced us to push through. Antoine said it best, “the only way to solve photographic problems is to shoot.” Setting aside any other lesson (and there were many), this proved to be an important one.
  • Following the night of shooting, we’d catch a little bit of sleep, select and edit a set of images to bring back to Magnum the next day, grab a little bit of breakfast (and lots of coffee), and then repeat the process from the day before. We did this for five days, working our way towards the final presentation, which consisted of 20 thematically-related images from each of us that were, as I mentioned, presented to the public on the last night of the workshop. The work my classmates eventually turned in was tremendous, and it represented for most (all?) of them, a noticeable evolution and departure from the work they had developed previously. I know that my photographs improved immensely, to the point where I am kind of embarrassed at the photos I had submitted as part of my portfolio.

In a word, the structure outlined above created the conditions for an experience I can only describe as “intense.” I slept a total of 10–15 hours during five working days. I ate cheap onigiri from a convenience store with my coffee at the crack of dawn and I ate noodles under klieg lights in the dead of night. I drank to excess, and then doubled down and bought a bottle of exorbitantly priced champagne. I rode taxis, I rode trains, I rode subways and I walked. I learned of Japanese hangover cures and was reported missing by my hotel maid. I made prints at 3 a.m. in 7-Eleven. I traded prints for whiskey in a seven-seat bar in Shibuya. When setting up a meeting one day, I said I preferred “midnight” and my colleague didn’t bat an eyelash. I saw (and photographed) things in Tokyo that I cannot comfortably describe to my mom. I had my phone lifted out of my pocket (and returned to me) by a sleight of hand artist. My colleague got “slipped a Mickey” on his first night and used it as the basis for the rest of his work that week. Another colleague arrived home in a taxi one night after traveling a total distance of about 50 meters. Through it all I took photographs. We drew on each other for energy and inspiration, and we showed up every day to sift through and discuss what we’d done.

Self portrait, Day 3

Which brings us to the workshop’s central lesson.

Don’t be the photographer

Participate, be part of the action you are documenting, take a position among what you are photographing and use that position to communicate something about the meaning of the experience in the context of your life.

This was the central idea of the workshop, and it was advice that Antoine repeated, in some form, over and over again, to each of us, regardless of our “level” as a photographer. This idea was difficult to absorb, and in fact on the first day I got the impression that many of us were a bit disoriented by the discussion, which at times veered into some pretty searing criticism of the (previous) work we had brought in to present in order to “introduce ourselves.”

The workshop itself was structured to emphasize this key point, perhaps intentionally, but more likely due to the fact that this, I believe, is central to Antoine’s approach to art (and life) in general. Insofar that the workshop was meant to give us exposure to this artist and his process, as opposed to (e.g.) pointers on photographic technique (of which there were none), we couldn’t help but be exposed to this way of thinking. I found that it “unlocked” an approach to a problem I have always had with “street photography” — this idea that I was always chasing things from the outside, skulking around corners, being self conscious, trying to “capture” or “steal” a moment. I felt much more comfortable working this way (eventually), more from the inside.

In any case, as I mentioned earlier, there were two main “modes” of the workshop, shooting/self-directed process and discussion. Both served a valuable purpose in exposing us to the central lesson described here, and the combination of the experiential (working) and theoretical (discussion) aspects of this exposure was quite powerful.

From this combination of shooting and discussion, I believe that I absorbed the following lessons (in no particular order):

  • It is not possible to get 8 hours of usable material by waiting for something to come to you, or by walking around hoping to capture meaningful (er, decisive?) moments. To get 8 hours of material, you have to go seek it out, be persistent (and solve problems) when it is not happening, and summon enough energy to keep pushing through the night. Doing this for five days, I believe I have the best set of raw material I have ever shot. Doing this for two years, I can’t help but think that there would be *something* there. It is still up to the artist to extract it, and communicate it powerfully, but it is evident that the process itself unlocks a very rich vein of material from which to draw.
  • The process of having a “central idea,” or some idea of what you want to experience, capture and convey, makes both the shooting, as well as the selection and editing of a large volume of images much easier. It is very easy to get enamored of an image (Antoine for his part, was very patient with this, although, sure enough, the images I was merely “enamored with” didn’t make my final cut). Once you have an idea in mind, it is very easy to see what images support that idea and which have no bearing on it. Of course, in the volume of work I shot in Tokyo, I feel there are many things I want to say, but, for the purpose of our workshop, I found it much easier to leave some appealing images aside for the time being and to focus on that single central idea.
Girl sleeps on the subway, Hanzomon Line
  • Technique behind the photos matters very little, except insofar as it helps to communicate the meaning of the photo. This is a tough balance. At the end of the day, the viewer has no experience except with the photo (or, in the case of a slide show, with the set of photos and any accompanying music). So, in that sense, the photo is everything. However, I believe it is the artist’s point of view on the experience that is primary, while the photo is how he or she chooses to communicate. Thus, the photos themselves are the means not the end. This is reflected in the images we all chose for the show — they are not necessarily the most beautiful, or the most well-executed, but they convey (to us) the most meaning.
  • It is easy to make a beautiful picture; it is very difficult to make a picture that is meaningful. We all made photographs with nice cameras and very high quality lenses. I shot most of the images I used in the workshop with a very fast medium telephoto prime lens. It’s an amazing lens that sees things the eye cannot see, gets closer to my subjects than I ever could, and it is extremely easy to take an image off the camera, edit it and turn it into something aesthetically pleasing. Similarly, in the days before digital photography, and, in a sense, in the days before “global travel” became relatively commonplace amongst relatively powerful and wealthy individuals in the world, it may have been valuable to go to a place where few others have been and to merely “document” or “capture,” beautifully, what the scenery was like, or what the tourist could expect to encounter in some of these exotic places. In today’s world of ubiquitous photography, capturing what you see or what you find curious is just not enough, and, in some ways, has the potential to be damaging to the people and places that are the subject of this sort of photography. This was an early political thesis of Antoine’s work — that the documentation and depiction of the emerging world was necessarily “white washed” by the Western institutions that were sponsoring the documentation. As artists, we must go beyond that and find something more compelling to say.
Lined up, Shibuya
  • Making photographs is secondary to creating the depth of experience that gives meaning to the photographs (or any work of art, for that matter). Our lives are the real art. Photography, writing, music, painting, these are just means by which we can communicate what’s meaningful about our lives to others. Antoine said a number of times in the workshop that he “rejects photography,” and by that I believe he meant that he rejects photography as an end in itself. In his words, “I don’t really believe in photography. I believe people use photography to find what they are looking for.” As a means of communication, as opposed to (for example) writing or video, it implies a certain set of constraints and a certain set of properties, some of which are useful and some of which are limiting. One part of the process is to understand and push those limitations, or to figure out a way to use the limitations of the medium to amplify our intended message. Another part of the process is to use the camera more as a means of exploration and discovery, or as a means to make things happen. This, in fact, was the advice Antoine gave me after we reviewed my work after the first day of shooting.
  • Despite how we may want to slice up the work we’ve done previously (this was an Instagram post, this is a gallery on my website, this is my portfolio, this was rejected, this was published, and so on), because of the relationship of those “artifacts” to the experiences that provide the raw material for those artifacts, it is best to think of all one’s work as a single body of material, in the same way that you tend to think of your life as a single experience that evolves and changes as you get older. Similarly, insofar as we are connected to others and the world, our work as photographers is connected to, and builds on, the body of work in photography that has come before it. This, like the medium of photography itself, can prove both limiting and useful. When we look at photographs, our knowledge of and exposure to photography has a way of leading us in certain directions, and when we arrive at exactly the place we expected to go, what we might find comfortable can be perceived by others as boring, tiring, angering, annoying. But our perspectives are like fingerprints, so I believe the way to break out of these tired habits, the cliches of photography, is to pursue every experience from our strong and singular point of view, to position ourselves in every photograph through that lens, and to continually push beyond where the artists before us have told us where to go.
Immersed in work, Kanda, Tokyo

Epilogue

The week I spent with Antoine and my classmates in Tokyo was one of the most important of my life. It’s fair to say that all of our approaches to photography were altered substantially by the experience of spending the week with him, as well as by the process of fully immersing ourselves in the sort of structured, mindful work that comes almost uniquely when you are trying to push out and learn something new. It was difficult and intense work, but, in the end, I have said it was like a drug, and, like any drug, I am left craving more. At the same time, the amount of energy required to work on that level is enormous, and leaves one with an appreciation of those that have summoned that energy and produced a large and significant body of work over a number of years.

For my part, I am inspired to continue, with the mind of a beginner. More than a means of “documentation,” photography is a language. It can be used to connect with people, to say to others what I think is important to say, and to put into “words” what we think our lives mean. I’d like to thank my classmates, and Antoine, for their kindness and generosity during the week we spent together, and hopefully we will all meet again further down the road.