I recently made a trip to Austin, TX. to attend the Foundation Workshop. I had been anticipating this journey for quite some time. The workshop is a week long study of photojournalism taught by Pulitzer Prize winning photographers. The interesting thing is that the students are all wedding photographers. The point of the workshop was to get us to think and find pictures like journalists. I have admired and been involved with this group for about 2 years.
The first day basically involved some classroom instruction, some street shooting and some team building (lets just say some crazy shit went down in Tyler’s room that night!). Unfortunately, my day ended by getting some crappy news from home.
On day 2, I awoke with a heavy heart and a slight hangover. At 9am we were to meet with our team leader so we could get our assignment. We were individually instructed on what to do when we got to our assignment and what kind of photos we were and weren’t looking for. My assignment was a skateboard park. I was told to go there and find a story if there was one and not to just shoot action, which I spent a full day struggling with! I was visited at my assignment and given some direction by my team leader Tyler Wirken and mentor Brett Butterstein. I didn’t feel like I got anything great until I said screw it and only shot action! At the end of the day and late into the night we were critiqued by our team leader and mentors. My photos sucked and I was about to end my day as crappy day as it started.
Day 3 brought a major weather change. It was 22 degrees outside and the wind was blowing 30mph. I sucked it up and headed to the skate park with stuff to work on. When I got there, it was closed. My workshop experience was getting worse! I called Tyler and told him the news and at this point I was pretty blown out! After speaking with Matt Mendohlson, Tyler had found me a new assignment. At first I felt like I was being given the only thing they could find, but my workshop experience was about to take a major turn for the better. Matt had mentioned to Tyler that when he checked in he noticed an easel with information about the cook in our hotel. Being the top notch journalist he is, he decided to help himself to the kitchen rather than checking in because the potential story about this guy seemed amazing to him. Matt was blown away by the person he was and considered covering his story himself. After clearing hurdles with the hotel, my assignment became the chef at the hotel. I went to my room for a bit and gave myself a pep talk. I decided that I had better go into this assignment with a new attitude or my $5000 investment would be wasted. I met Brett downstairs and he instructed me to go to the kitchen to introduce myself to the chef, Chi. Brett gave me some direction and told me I was mostly there to find 1 picture and to gain Chi’s trust. I spent his 6 hour shift with him and ended the day going to his house to meet his family. I had learned about him that day that he was from Vietnam and that he brought his family here only 5 months previous. When Bush and Clinton visited Vietnam, he cooked for them! He spent 20 years working for the Marriott in various locations around the world where he became an executive chef. I was amazed that this guy was the chef at our little 5 story hotel in North Austin. After spending time with his family that night, I went back to the hotel for round 2 of the critique. My pictures weren’t that great, but I found 1 picture and I gained Chi’s trust. The night ended sour once again as Tyler and I butted heads and I was exhausted so I went to my room and crashed out.
The morning of day 4 started with Brett calling me and telling me to come to the lobby asap. I gathered myself quickly and headed down. When I got there, Brett was sitting at the table with Chi’s phone number. I am generally not one to tread into someones world uninvited, but Brett wanted me to call him and ask him what he was doing and if I could spend the day with him until he came to work. I called him and mentioned to him that I would like to come and hang out with him for a few hours. He was totally cool with it, so I got my gear and headed out. When I got to his house, he greeted me and let me in. His son and nieces were with him. Out of nowhere, he started to light incense and pray to a Buddha temple in one corner of his living room. After that, he did the same to a table of food by his front door. He then told me it was my turn, so he took my camera and advised me to light some incense and showed me how to pray to Buddha! During this time he was shooting pictures with my camera. Turns out, this day was the Chinese New Year. I was pretty convinced at this point that things really do happen for a reason! He then showed me the items outside that represented that his family was celebrating the new year. If you were Chinese or Vietnamese and you left a gift, you could enter his home and help yourself to the food by the door. A gift was left, so we retrieved it and took it to his backyard where there was a 55 gallon drum. He lit the gift, which was various types of paper, and put it in the drum. He told me that you must burn the paper until its gone and when the ash comes out it signifies thanks. We then went back inside and he told me he wanted to take me to his moms house. I rode with him and Brett met us there. His mom is a sweet lady and I could tell that her and Chi were very close. They had spent many years apart as she came to the US 10 years previous with hopes of the rest of her family following closely behind. Unfortunately this did not happen. Some amazing stuff happened in the house and Brett gave me some great direction. We said our goodbyes and got back in his car. He then told me he needed to take his son and nieces to Wal-Mart so they could buy some decorations for their new rooms. I was blown away again. As we walked in with my cameras blazing, I was quickly shut down by a security guard that told me there was no pictures in Wal-Mart and that I had to leave. I promised him I would shut my camera off, so I did. After wrapping up their shopping, I knew I had to get a shot of all of them outside the store with the Wal-Mart sign in the background, which I nailed. We then headed back to his house. He then asked me if I would eat lunch with them which I did of course and the food was amazing! We spoke a little more and he showed me some trinkets from his past. Time was running out, so we headed back to the hotel. I quickly parked and got a great shot of him in front of the hotel. I then followed him into the kitchen and got some great shots of him putting on his uniform. I told him thanks for everything and that I would be back to say hi a few times. At that time, I ran into Brett again and he told me I needed one more shot. So I hung a little longer and got a great shot of him placing the food under a heat lamp for delivery to a customer. We had a more brief critique that night, but it was obvious that I had nailed it this day!
Day 5 was spent making slide shows with music that we were to present to the entire workshop group that night. We were fed at a very nice restaurant in downtown Austin followed by each team presenting their slide shows to the group. The evening and workshop at that point were basically history. Very special thanks go out to several folks. Thank you Huy Nguyen for creating the best workshop in the world. Thank you Tyler Wirken for being my friend and the best Team Leader possible, you really know your shit! Very special thanks to Brett Butterstein for making my workshop experience a successful one! This week was life changing for me and I will never forget it!!! We were told only to share a few images, so here are my favorites!