Grab it by the throat, push it to the ground, kick it in the guts and smash its face. Then smile, lift it up, give it a great big hug and offer a cup of steaming hot tea. This was essentially what we were supposed to be doing with all our photography knowledge at the Emaho/IED Madrid Photobook making workshop held at Mussoorie last week. When our workshop tutor Cristina told us that she’d break us and then build us back up, we didn’t believe her. But she did.
I landed in the tiny Jolly Grant airport at Dehradun on the afternoon of 18th June wondering how to get to Mussoorie without shelling out a small fortune on a taxi. After I collected my suitcase from the carousel, I saw the airport information desk looming ahead of me and I was hoping that they would be able to provide me with a wallet friendly solution. Lo and behold, a few minutes later I was sitting at the back of a motorcycle, suitcase in my lap, camera bag slung across my shoulder and eyes wide open as I watched the lush green landscape roll by with the cold wind blowing through my hair. The assistant at the airport information desk had very kindly volunteered to drop me off at the nearest bus stop and I readily accepted his offer, hoping that it would be the first of many exciting experiences of this trip. I was not wrong.
A couple of long and twisty bus rides later, I was in Mussoorie, a town also known as the Queen of the Hills. But all I saw around me were loud tourists and food stalls. Fortunately, my final destination was beyond the hubbub of the main town and I had to get another cab to reach Devdar Woods, the quaint guesthouse in the middle of the forest that would be my home (and the venue for the workshop) for the following week.
The workshop kicked off earnestly the next day with a presentation by the two workshop tutors, Cristina de Middel and Ricardo Cases, who showed us their work and spoke about their respective photography journeys so far. As they took us through their past works, I was amazed by each body of work and the thought processes behind then. Cristina’s work on spam emails (you can view it here, click on ‘Projects’ > ‘Poly-Spam’) was a fantastic way of visualizing something that all of us take for granted, and was a reflection of the way she approached her projects by combining fact and fiction. On the other hand, Ricardo’s work on the Freedom Cruise (could not find it online) and the Florida Primary (viewable here) made us feel like we were there in those respective situations by allowing us to relive the experience through his stark and intimate photographs.
And as if that was not enough to make us feel inadequate about our work, they spoke about their experiences in various fields of photography and their evolution from a documentary photographer to a fine art photographer. As fine art photographers, they view the world differently and showcase interesting nuances and details of an event/experience that we may otherwise miss. They would shoot the obvious but with their own perspective, going against the grain of the usual media/reportage style photographs. Photography was about showing the world through our eyes, not merely reporting an event factually, they said. Indeed, factual reportage does have an important place in the world of photography but for them, it was all about exploring new and exciting ways to tell their stories.
Ricardo told us to be tourists in our towns, to make them look exotic and to not be afraid of trying out new styles of photography in the process. He was a very visually oriented person, allowing the images in his series to flow with a deep visual connection to each other. Cristina encouraged us to really push the boundaries of photography by making us question the differences between the various genres of photography (landscape, portrait, etc). We could (and should) blend the different styles and did not have to necessarily categorize our work under a genre as long as we were expressing ourselves and telling a story through our images. She told us that Photoshop was not a bad thing and people need to be less shy about using it in their work (apart from reportage work, of course). Photography was all about exploring ourselves, questioning everything and not being afraid to experiment. For our eager minds, their words of wisdom were liberating and opened up endless possibilities for new projects/ideas.
After a delicious lunch of pizzas and pastas, we all showed our work one by one before calling it a day. For the second day, we were separated into two groups, one for each tutor and I had opted to be in Cristina’s group. We were briefed as to what were supposed to do – our group was tasked with showing the guesthouse as a haunted place and Ricardo’s group was set to shoot the streets of Mussoorie. We sat down with Cristina going over the psychology of scary movies and isolating the ‘scare factor’ of various scenes. This was a good preparation task as we realized that a lot of ‘scare factor’ comes from movement or sounds and had to figure how to depict this through our still images. Subsequently, we came up with some original ideas for this task and made a final list of the various shots that we should try for this exercise.
Over the next couple of days, we spent a lot of time shooting, reviewing and shooting more. We explored a lot of techniques by playing with mirrors, setting fire to things, making double exposures, long exposures and so on. The evenings were pleasant with couple of glasses of rum and live music punctuated with a hearty Tibetean meal in the main town. I did peek on several occasions into our adjacent room to see how the other group was getting along. All the participants had been given individual assignments to capture a particular element of the town and these images were being put together in the form of a Fotoziti. Saturday was a pleasant surprise as we made our way to town in the middle of the afternoon to catch a glimpse of Ruskin Bond and even got a couple of books signed by him. He seemed like a jolly person and very cheery for his age – definitely a huge source of inspiration for everyone!
During couple of the evenings, I also got a chance to show the prints of my latest yet-to-be-published project on the elections to Cristina and Ricardo for their feedback. Both of them helped me put the images together in a sequence that made sense to them and to me, it was quite an experience to watch these masters handle my images. Both of them opted for different sequences with Cristina going for the core storytelling factor in them while Ricardo focused more on the visual aesthetics that sublimely explained the story. It was very refreshing to have some professional opinion on them and I hope finish my own sequence and publish the series soon.
On the final day of the workshop, we sat together to edit all our photos into a longlist of roughly 400 images. We then printed these 400 images and shortlisted them to a final few dozen images for the photobook. As the end of the day progressed, each one of us made our own cover for our photobook and made one dummy copy of the final photobook. Piecing together the dummy copy was both challenging and interesting as we sequenced the images together to tell a story. Cristina’s experience was an invaluable addition to this process, she taught us how a series of images can tell a completely different story depending on how they are sequenced and we can amend the impact that we want a certain image to have by altering its size. We finished the final copy by sundown and were quite happy with the outcome. The real party started at this point and I have vague recollections of dancing to the Mukkala at 1am.
In the end, the workshop was definitely a thought provoking experience and I would like to thank Manik, Emaho and IED Madrid for organizing this wonderful workshop, Cristina and Ricardo for their expert guidance and constant enthusiasm, Rahul & Negar for their continued patience, and all my fellow participants for the memorable experience. Extra thanks to Manik for picking the splendid venue of Devdar Woods which provided for the perfect ‘unplugged’ break from the regular bustle of life.
Currently listening to – Transmission by Joy Division