Several months ago I heard that Eric Kim was coming to Vienna to hold a street photography workshop. Unfortunately it was only for beginners but given that I am still a beginner in many aspects I thought it would be a neat thing to attend. My biggest issue with street photography is how to deal with approaching strangers to ask for a portrait and also just generally how to shoot effectively on the street. I’m already quite proficient at composition and often experimenting on my own but I thought it would be nice to get some personal coaching on the more personal aspects and truly force myself out of my comfort zone, which the course really did. I had already watched countless videos, read pages upon pages of guides but for the most part it wasn’t always sticking because of my own anxiety, hence the need for a course to help get the ball rolling.
Day 1: Meet & Greet and Critique
Prior to meeting on the first day, everyone was asked to select three of their personal street photography photos for which they wanted to be critiqued. I knew I had some pretty good shots already but I went ahead and chose some of my weaker images that I was personally unsure about and for which I wanted some honest feedback.
The course itself was hosted at High Performance Vienna by Martin Foessleitner, who attended one of Eric’s previous workshops in Europe and who could not have been a better host. Water, coffee and wine were in abundance, which helped to loosen everyone up at the start. There were actually three couples at the workshop but for the most part none of us knew each other. The class was also nicely international with Austria, Italy, England, Slovakia, Hungary and the USA all represented.
During the critique session it was nice to hear my own personal critiques of my images critiqued not only by the group but also by Eric, which helped confirm that I’m actually quite accurate with my own critiques. After going through everyone’s images (we had about 12 people in the group, which made for 36 images just among the participants), Eric gave us a crash course in composition using some pages out of his Street Photography Composition Handbook. Anyone that’s watched Adam Marelli’s presentation, Bridging the Gap: Classical Art Designed for Photographers, or read the book already (I’ve done both) will have already seen all of this but again, this is a beginner’s workshop, so for many this was all quite new and a nice refresher for myself. We were also told that at the end of the weekend we would have the opportunity, for only the cost of materials, to print our best image of the weekend, which certainly raised the stakes a bit – no one wanted to see a bad image get blown up on a print.
We had already met at 5pm and we were finished in the classroom a little after 9pm and although there were a few snacks during the first meeting, most of us were pretty hungry, so we all headed down to MQ to rustle up some grub and continue chatting before parting for the night to get some needed rest – we were meeting at 9am the next morning and were going to hit the streets almost immediately.
Day 2: Street photography and dealing with rejection
Bright and (relatively) early, we met back at the classroom to pair off into groups of two to hit the streets. Eric tasked everyone with getting ten random people to agree to a portrait and ten rejections, which turned out to be harder than I expected. I went into the workshop expecting Vienna’s natives to be completely against street portraits and only tourists or expats to be game. While I was partially right to an extent, I wasn’t as right as I thought I would be. Finding people to agree to a portrait was relatively easy among tourists and expats but not nearly as bad among Viennese as I had expected. All that was required was the right delivery, which made for quite a few rejections at the start before finding the right choice of words.
Unfortunately the skies were extremely clear, which made for some warmer temperatures and some bad light. My partner, an American expat who has also been living in Europe for a large chunk of his life, and I traversed the 7th and 1st districts, staying where there was the largest number of people, always looking for interesting subjects. In the beginning we both had some issues overcoming our anxiety (or otherwise deep-rooted politeness since my partner and I are both from the South) before warming up and getting into the swing of things. In total, the two of us each walked about 24km before calling it a day, tired and sweaty. We had a number of interesting subjects, especially when we had our time with Eric in the afternoon and he was really forcing us to talk to people, which helped us both out of our shells. In fact, my best digital photo of the day was from our time with Eric.
By the evening most everyone trundled back into the classroom with a look of exhaustion but satisfaction on their face. We started trading stories from the day, showing each other some of our better photos and then picking up some pointers from Eric. Once we’d all had something to drink, we set off for dinner together, heading to a different place in MQ this time. After filling our bellies with beer and schnitzel, we all made our way to our respective homes and hotel rooms to curate our photos from the day.
Day 3: Switching to film and saying goodbye
I decided on the last day to bring my trusty Nikon FE with me and a roll of Tri-X that will likely be my first roll that I’ll develop myself. We met that morning at the classroom and then walked into the 1st district, stopped at a café for coffee and then again hit the streets until the afternoon. Around 2pm we got back to the classroom after grabbing lunch along the way to process our images together and receive our final critiques from Eric and the group before handing off the files to be printed (the image I had printed is featured at the top of this blog).
Since I shot film this day and haven’t developed the roll yet, I can’t show any of my images from the day but hopefully that will change once I buy the last odds and ends that I need to get started.
My favorite part about the group was meeting other street photographers from in and around Vienna. Although we were a smaller group, I'm looking forward to meeting up with this great group of people in the future and seeing what work and inspiration comes out of it. We've already got ourselves a little Facebook group to help keep pushing each other and stay in touch, so hopefully I'll have more to report from this space soon.
All in all, I was quite happy with the workshop although I remain unsure about some things. As far as the workshop is concerned, there were some aspects such as the amount of personal coaching time that I missed on Saturday but for which he compensated on Sunday, offering to take anyone aside that wanted more one-on-one time. It would have been nice if there had been more scheduled instruction on the street but with only a weekend, there’s really only so much you can do, even with a small group like we had.
With regard to street photography workshops in general, I’m not sure that street photography lends itself well to instruction in workshops greater than a handful of people if there is only a weekend available. Most streets are small and large groups of people walking around with cameras can disturb a scene too much. While you can stake out a spot and wait for the right person to come around, if you’re constantly remaining on the move you don’t have time to analyze a scene because you’re continuously hunting fleeting moments. Staking a spot most definitely lends itself well to instruction but then you’re confronted with a situation like an expensive safari hunt: all the work has been done and now all you have to do is click the shutter. There’s no creativity on the part of the photographer and I think that cheapens the experience for everyone involved and isn’t really what street photography is about.
Street portraiture is obviously something different and this is what Eric really focused on with his workshop the most. This is something that can be taught well and consistently while other aspects of street photography need to take place on a low-key, personal basis, which would obviously require more time from the instructor and therefore also cost much more than what Eric charges. This would also be in conflict with Eric’s teaching philosophy as he’s very much about making knowledge available for all and removing as many barriers to entry as is feasible. Street portraiture instruction also goes a long way, I think, to forcing you to realize that street photography isn’t as scary as it first seems and most fears and concerns are generally unwarranted.
One other criticism I heard from within the group that I didn’t agree with but would like to address is the lack of instruction on post-processing. I disagree because there are countless free videos on Lightroom and Photoshop processing out there and a number of excellent guides that can be bought. Adding more time here I think would cut into actual shooting time and the course is about street photography, not post-processing. Eric seems to prefer to have the beginners rely more on presets, also, and focus more on shooting, which I think is a very good approach.
Would I recommend an Eric Kim workshop? Yes, but I would remind anyone that is thinking about attending to make sure to appropriately adjust their expectations. Street photography isn’t like commercial, fashion or even portraiture photography where you generally have time for preparation on your side. You are forced to work with what you are given and you have to make something happen out of nothing. As Greg Heisler said in his 50 Portraits presentation on photographers that couldn’t deliver because of a poor situation, “you gotta cough it up, man!