It was this day a week ago that I was en route to Glen Rose, TX (population 2,444) via Dallas, TX to attend the Foundation Workshop.  Foundation is billed as “the original and toughest photojournalism workshop for photographers” and in addition to having some of the most renown wedding photographers in the world associated with it, it’s also got a reasonably high barrier of entry at $3,900.  The high price tag and its reputation for making grown men cry limits this to a rare few each year that are willing to take this unique challenge.

“A life changing experience.  It might sound a little cliché, but there really is no other way to describe it.”

Further along I’ll recount some of my thoughts and highlights from my time in Glen Rose, but first I wanted to briefly summarize what one might expect to return home with as it relates to my clients and to all of my photographer friends.

For clients:  I’ve come home with new eyes.  Well, they’re the same, but I now use them in an entirely new way.  Prior to Foundation, the main focus with my camera at a wedding were the portraits and trying to make them a nice balance of pretty and creative.  The other parts of the day, like prep and the reception, were not really where my creative energy was directed.  Now my brain has been completely reprogrammed to see beyond my subjects whilst seeking moments, moments, moments ALL DAY and be there with the right lens, at the right angle to produce a beautifully clean composition of a once-in-a-lifetime moment.  Thank you Foundation!

For photographers:  Foundation is as tough, if not tougher, than you’ve heard about.  After a full day of shooting and hours and hours and hours of individual critiques of my team’s daily take, I was averaging about 1.5 to two hours of sleep each night.  The critique sessions are ruthless, uncompromising, and incredibly educating.  Your team leader and mentors are there to push you and push you hard.  They are teaching you a new discipline.  You’ll probably cry.  From the challenge, from exhaustion, from frustration, or in my case, from elation – The unbridled joy that washed over me when my team leader said I made a great frame or the overwhelming feeling of relief and accomplishment when my slideshow was played on closing night both opened the floodgates.

“Check your ego and your preconceptions at the door.  This is the most intense, most valuable, most unforgettable learning experience you can ask for.”

The following is a long read and I’m not sure how it will come off to you: Blathering, self-aggrandizing, etc. I could care less. In processing all that went down last week, it’s important and cathartic for me to get these thoughts out and in front of me. It’s all part of the growing process. Thar she blows…

Foundation began Saturday night for all but a few stragglers as we gathered at a local Glen Rose restaurant to meet our teams. Even on a busy weekend night we nearly took over the entire restaurant as there were 6 teams of six students that each had a team leader, two mentors and an assistant.  In addition, there were 3 coordinators, two assignment editors, 2 counselors (yes, counselors) and a dedicated photographer there to document the workshop, faculty and students.  That’s a faculty-to-student ratio of nearly 1:1 and key for the kind of concentrated, intense learning that the week would bring.

Sunday morning was pretty mellow and consisted of some co-mingling with other students before an orientation and then breaking off into teams.  Our team dug in for portfolio critiques that ran deep into the small hours of the morning while receiving our individual assignments along the way, sometime late Sunday night/early Monday morning.  Mine was Meals on Wheels and I was to report Monday morning at 8am to the Executive Director of the local the senior center 40 minutes north of Glen Rose in Granbury, TX where the meals were prepared, packaged and sent out on their routes for delivery.

8am isn’t too rough, right?  Well, our team leader, JVS, expected each of us to travel to the starting point of our respective story to capture sunrise.  He’s a firm believer that nothing represents a new beginning like a sunrise and he personally aims to see at least five per week.  This became a part of shooting each day for our entire team of six and something I’ve brought home to Seattle with me… Officially a sunrise fanboy now.

While some of the recurring mantras from the Sunday night critique were rattling around in my head as I began to work on Monday, I was pretty much approaching the task as I would any assignment, event or wedding… With no discipline or pre-assessment of what and where I wanted to focus my narrative.  The process of my assignment on Monday was to document the movement of freshly prepared meals into coolers, the loading of the coolers into a volunteer’s personal vehicle, driving a route according to a list of recipients, capturing either a hand off of the meals at the door or venturing inside in some cases, and then returning back to the senior center once the route was complete to drop off the coolers. The day wrapped up at roughly 2pm.

The two greatest challenges I faced were that the interactions were often as brief as 2 seconds and there was a nine stop shift in light between the exposure for outside (F/8, 1/2000th, ISO 200) and inside (F/4, 1/125th, ISO 3200).  Well, my greatest challenge is really that I was running around like a headless chicken just trying to get anything into my camera.

How did I fare during the critique session on Monday night?  Epic FAIL.  I was doing it all wrong:   Poor composition, consistently missing moments, exposures that were all over the place and generally not close enough to my subjects.  Tuesday’s shoot would be more of the same process, but with food prep beginning at 5:30am added to the mix and a new mental focus derived from the critique of the night before.

My efforts on Tuesday broke through on a couple of levels, but I was mired in technical difficulties:  My depth of field was too shallow, my shutter was too slow, my exposures where still all over the place, my color during food prep was being ruined by fluorescent lights, and I was missing focus on nearly half my shots.  It was almost as if I was getting worse and it DID NOT feel good.  I have to give some extra thanks to Ryan Jones, one of my team mentors, for the focus mode exercises outside the Holiday Inn Express at 3:30am Tuesday night/Wednesday morning.

“I learned about myself as a person and how I can change some of the those things to help make me not only a better photographer, but a better person.”

Wednesday, as the workshop schedule was laid out, was supposed to be a pick-up day if you still needed a few frames to round out your slideshow.  In the case of our team, each of us were sent out on Wednesday for an entire day of shooting.  And thank goodness as I finally started to overcome technical issues and began making some useful frames.  The high-five I got from JVS that night during the critique about a specific frame I made sent me over the edge and I couldn’t prevent my eyes from flooding – It was the first time in a span of roughly 50 hours of hard work that I felt like I had finally done something right. A tiny, fleeting win.

Thursday is designated to finalize slideshows for the final presentations later that night, not for shooting.  That did not prove to be true in my case as JVS sent me out to make a few more frames that he thought my story needed.  Foundation Workshop 10 had a private Facebook group and I can tell from the chatter on this day that there was only one other person out shooting on Thursday.  And from that chatter, it appears as if she had to go make one specific frame.

“The workshop is not only about photography; it’s about breaking boundaries and going beyond that what you’re comfortable with.”

Me?  I was camped out at 5:45am in the field of a derelict house adjacent to a cemetery opposite the senior center to try and get a sunrise establishing shot.  The fog was dense and it was looking like I’d be returning to Glen Rose empty handed.  At about 6am I heard voices in the cemetery and saw the heads of a couple of people in the distance… I had to check that I wasn’t imagining things. I laid low as I had to shimmy through a barbwire fence to get to my position and though abandoned, was on private property. Later and still under the foggy shroud of pre-dawn, cracking brush coming from the direction of the house (We had been warned during orientation to be extremely careful when going on to private property as the large majority of Texans are armed and WILL shoot you for trespassing) had my spine tingling a bit.

I photographed through the fog with a giant tree tree in the foreground as an anchor in my composition.  The senior center in the distance was juuuust barely visible.  The sun kept climbing higher, but there was no burning red as it crested the horizon.  We were socked in.  I lost all sight of the senior center until the fog finally began to break open at 9:30am.  The whole exercise felt fruitless and that it was a giant failure.   Grr.

The food line fires up at 9:50am, so I high-tailed it through the barb wire and raced the 300 yards across the cemetery back to the senior center for one more trip out on the delivery routes to see what I could get.  By this stage of shooting on day 4 the bullet points of the critique, the things I’d learned, and the confidence I’d gained all started to coalesce and I was now shooting with purpose and making frames that I wanted to make.  The sensation of chasing the action and reactively firing at it had evolved into seeing what was about to happen and quickly, almost intuitively, choosing how I wanted to show it.  Things had clicked.

Fast forward to the slideshow in the motel conference room after a wonderful Texas barbecue dinner catered by Hammonds BBQ.  The work of my peers was truly inspiring to witness and I’ll never forget seeing frames so amazing that the entire room broke out in cheer again and again.  People talk about Foundation becoming your family and I felt deeply connected to each and every one of these people having gone through an incredibly challenging week together.

After each slideshow was complete and the lights went up, it was all I could do to keep from falling over; I was physically, mentally, creatively and emotionally spent.  Not even Ben Chrisman nor David Murry approaching me to commend me on my hard work or the loooooong, proud hug of my dear Jenny Jimenez could rally me.  While the party raged on until sunrise, I went to my room around 8:30pm and fell over dead in the desk chair and didn’t wake until 8am the next morning.  It was finally over.

“Truly the most amazing workshop experience I’ve had in my life.  It’s life-changing and I made friends for life. Worth every f***ng penny!”

But it’s nowhere close to over. It’s only just begun.  The friends I made, the family I now have, the new eyes, head and heart in which I now approach my work will never leave me.  That week in Glen Rose was transformative, enlightening, and incredibly inspiring.

Major thanks to my team leader JVS, mentor Ray Soemarsono, mentor Ryan Jones and assistant Jan Garcia.  Your tireless effort, high standards, razor sharp critique and commitment to our team are a thing of legend.

More testimonials from FW10 will likely be sprouting up online, but my dear friend Kate McElwee does a lovely job of recounting her experience as a fellow attendee.  Also worth reading is this incredible 2-part document (Part I, Part II) by Britt Bailey of Foundation Workshop 9.

The quotes shared throughout this post are not mine.  They play in the masthead slideshow of the Foundation Workshop website.  I’ve included them here, as quotes from previous students, because they couldn’t echo my thoughts and sentiments any better.

We’ve been asked to limit the images we show online to only two.  Here are the ones that I feel best represent my commitment to working hard and being fearless to make a frame that doesn’t come easy.

Do you have questions about Foundation Workshop? Are you wondering if you really don’t have time to sleep? What is Huy really like? Hit me.

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