Lessons Start Early at Missouri Photo Workshop (MPW.64)
This will be the first of many blog posts documenting my experience with the Missouri Photo Workshop. Last week, I received some of the best news of my photographic career when I was formally invited to attend Missouri Photo Workshop – one of about 40 or so photographers from around the globe to be accepted. MPW.64 will take place September 23-29 in Troy, Missouri. Troy is a vibrant yet growing semi-rural/semi-suburban town located about an hour northwest of St. Louis.
I didn’t realize how competitive this workshop was when I originally applied – I just knew that I wanted to hone my visual storytelling skills in small-town America, and MPW looked like the perfect vehicle to do this. My ultimate goal over the next few years will be to create a new coffee table photography book called, “Americana Lost: Chasing Dreams in Small-Town America.” I’m hoping MPW.64 will provide some much-needed clarity.
Widely considered to be the holy grail of photojournalism workshops and international in scope, the Missouri Photo Workshop has been proudly documenting small towns in Missouri with a camera since 1949 (it is the first and oldest documentary photojournalism workshop).
Our workshop faculty for the week will include some of America’s leading newspaper and magazine photographers and editors, including mentors from National Geographic Magazine, the Missouri School of Journalism and Pictures of the Year, International – just to name a few.
Trust me – the week I spend in Troy won’t be a cakewalk. MPW.64 is not one of those cushy workshops where you get shuttled to some scenic part of town, and are lectured on composition and available light portraits. These people are dead serious about photojournalism.
Heck, the workshop staff is the size of small army – with a base of operations that closely resembles a CNN media command center. MPW even has its own band of reporters documenting the entire experience, culminating in a daily newsletter. This year’s HQ will be located in Troy’s city hall building.
The schedule will be vigorous and the advice hard hitting. Essentially, each student has a week to find a compelling story to document. Students are then given the opportunity to pitch their story ideas to faculty for approval. Many of the story ideas either get turned down or are thrown back for further development.
If things aren’t challenging enough, you can only shoot a max of 400 images the entire week (JPEG not RAW), with no deleting or self-editing. Yes, about the only thing RAW this week will be the photographers themselves.
Tracking down “the right” story (not just A story) will require a tremendous amount of in-the-field research and “pound the pavement” persistence. As a matter of fact, I’ve already learned my first important lesson and it hasn’t even started.
Once I found out that I was accepted, I immediately started conducting intensive research into Troy. I’ve done extensive Google searches, studied local newspapers, scoured through Troy-specific Topix forums – and have even gone so far as reaching out via email to some of Troy’s more prominent movers and shakers.
I wrote to some of these movers and shakers hoping that they might help point me in the right direction with a story lead or two that could be developed when I arrive. Who better to ask than the very people that are considered the heartbeat of this community?
I basically asked them the following questions:
Do you know someone, who through extraordinary service and sacrifice exemplifies the best of Troy?
Do you know someone who is tackling personal hardship, tragedy or adversity head-on with a positive attitude and a strong sense of courage and bravery?
Do you know someone from Troy who has an extraordinary talent that needs to be recognized?
Do you know anyone from Troy who is directly impacted by today’s most pressing social issues (lack of healthcare, unemployment, injured war vet, etc.)?
Are there any residents, whose life story is about redemption, new beginnings, chasing a dream, facing a personal demon, finding hope, seeking justice, being different, etc.?
Are there any “larger than life” Troy residents whom you’d consider to be very unique, quirky or eccentric?
Are there any stories in Troy that speak to small-town Americana or Americana lost?
Lastly, are there any mysteries, legends, folklore or bizarre happenings in Troy that might be interesting to document?
Surprisingly, I did get one response from a Troy Chamber of Commerce executive who eagerly indicated that she might have some great story suggestions. We’ll see where that one goes.
But seriously, who am I fooling? There are no shortcuts to finding “the right story” – especially one that is emotionally and photographically worthwhile. Although advance research can help, and maybe I’ll land a solid name or two – the real magic happens when you knock on doors, pick up phones, shake hands and speak to people face-to-face.
Photojournalism is all about building trust and establishing intimacy. You just can’t do this when you’re 700 miles away tapping on a computer keyboard. If I’m going to be successful, I need to dive into the trenches head first. Photojournalism is a war best won on the ground, not through a blind air assault.
I’m honored to have been selected for this prestigious workshop, and will do my best to live up to the high standards originally set by Clifton C. Edom, founder of Missouri Photo Workshop. His credo was all about showing truth with your camera while exhibiting the highest degree of personal integrity.
Adding to his credo, my personal philosophy will be to showcase my photographic subjects with grace, dignity, sensitivity and true-to-life character. Everyone has a story to tell – and I hope to do this in an honorable way that will make the residents of Troy proud. Coming from a small Pennsylvania town myself, I know all too well how important these attributes are – especially in this age of media sensationalism, exploitation and altered reality.
I have read and enthusiastically absorbed many of the excellent stories that have been created by talented students from past MPW workshops, and quite a few are vignettes about people that own businesses, such as farmers, shop keepers, etc. There is a lot to be said about these important stories – and they are all part of the small-town narrative.
But I want to push myself creatively (and spiritually) by finding a story that inspires us all to become better people. I know this is a lot to ask of any one story, but there are heroes all around us. The term “hero” is a very subjective thing – and means different things to different people for numerous reasons. For some, the single mom “holding it all together” may be their hero; for others it may be the passionate piano tuner who has elevated his or her craft to an art form. MPW challenges us to find our own hero and to compassionately tell their story—as seen through their eyes, not our own.
I’m not quite sure what my final story will look like, but hopefully I’ll know it when I see it. For now, I’m just strapping myself into the MPW roller coaster, checking my expectations and pride at the door, and seeing where this soulful journey takes me.
Mind you, this is not just an ordinary workshop about photojournalism, but a life-changing experience that I predict will forever shape who I am as a photographer and human being. Sure, attending MPW may help open doors and is a wonderful feather in the cap for the budding photojournalist. But I sense that MPW is much bigger than this.
Like the old adage, some experiences are so precious in themselves as to prove that not everything is a means to some end other than itself. I sense that MPW is just such an experience.
More details on Missouri Photo Workshop can be found at: http://www.mophotoworkshop.org/