A Note from Dariusz Klemens
about GeckoWorkshops Unique Photographic Journeys TM
At the heart of GeckoWorkshops is the desire to create an ideal environment in which taking pictures goes hand in glove with exploring beautiful places and witnessing spectacular events, to inspire photographers of all levels to expand their craft and further their understanding of photography by experiencing firsthand the techniques that support the creation of meaningful images and the decision-making processes that underpin the development of photographic narrative.
To my mind, for this ideal environment to exist, several key elements need to dovetail, chief among them: purpose, opportunity, and awareness, the building blocks of what I like to call photography-driven travel, a term I have coined as shorthand to describe a specific way of conceiving travel for the purposes of photography, and the resulting process, in which, simply put, we travel to take pictures – not take pictures while travelling.
There are, famously, no universally agreed standards by which to define what makes a ‘good photograph’, much less on the means by which one may be made. There can be, consequently, no consensus on what a photography workshop should be. In photography, as in mentoring, individual choice, approach and intent are paramount in shaping both practice and outcome.
So, in describing the criteria that define my photography workshops, I make no claim to universality. They are purely subjective – the result of 20 plus years of practical, professional experience in photography, including over a decade as mentor on GeckoWorkshops Unique Photographic Journeys™.
Despite the lack of absolute agreement on the characteristics that make a photograph good, it is the ambition of most photographers to take better pictures. It is precisely this ambition that my workshops are designed to foster, support, and advance.
While my method for achieving this goal is based on experience, criteria and practices that are solely my own – (indeed, this is one of the elements that make our journeys ‘unique’) – the end product is intended to equip participants with the means by which to find and define their own photographic path – their own standards, values and aesthetics, necessary to ultimately create their own unique images.
My workshops, therefore, are geared entirely to promote the individual expression of every photographer who joins us, and to do so in an environment that is as congenial as possible to this goal. The cornerstones of this environment are:
While the common perception – and shared premise of most ‘photo tours’ – is that travelling and photography are naturally compatible activities, I believe this to be only superficially the case, when photography is incidental to travel.
Years of travelling for the purpose of taking pictures have taught me that, while travelling to new places to document the unfamiliar – or, conversely, returning to familiar places to find the unexpected – can be deeply rewarding both in photographic and personal terms, unless purposely conceived and specifically planned, travel tends to frustrate, rather than foster, the pursuit of images.
In my experience, effectively to serve the aims of photography, travel has to be molded from the start around the particular demands of photography. There is a whole host of complexities that come into play when we photograph places and cultures outside of our routine; but before these can even be considered, for the inspirational dimension of travel to have the chance of being photographically realised, every aspect of the journey has to be fine-tuned to the specific requirements of photography.
As is often the case where inspiration and logistics have to intersect, the devil’s in the details – aiming well beyond the generic handle of ‘best place at the best time’, photography-driven travel has a focus and a rhythm of its own that requires careful orchestration, particularly when it includes a learning/mentoring component.
To me, a well-crafted photography itinerary is one where focus on a particular theme gives direction to the journey and its photographic opportunities, creating a framework in which, alongside one main subject, multiple topics and narratives can be woven. For this reason, I design my workshops around an overarching theme that can usefully be mined by participants to develop informed, consistent visual narrative(s), including a complete photographic story, or essay.
I also consider it essential for each location and event in a photographic journey to lend itself to complex photographic exploration, that is to say, be naturally rich in photographic opportunities, while being supported by a travel schedule that retains the flexibility necessary to make room for the unpredictable; adjusting to the capricious nature of reality is as important to photography as it is to travel – not only is serendipity one of the great joys of any real journey: it can be the seed of great images, because it is often the unexpected that brings out the best in us.
But, if a versatile itinerary that is rich in photographic opportunities and the occasion to explore them offers the best chance of gathering significant material, during our photographic journeys, it is the opportunity to review and discuss the images that enables participants to capitalise, not only on every photographic prospect that the road may offer us, but also on every lesson that can be derived from it.
Time to edit and reflect is a central component of our photographic journeys, for which all our itineraries are calibrated to allow. A luxury of the digital era, the ability to review material as the journey progresses, provides many obvious benefits, which I encourage every photographer on my workshops to utilize to the full, both individually and as part of a group.
In support of this approach, I make myself available to participants for regular feedback throughout each journey. Sometime, these are brief, individual sessions between shoots, while at other times, they are group-wide discussions in which everyone shares their work, ideas, and impressions (often in the evening, in front of a chilled beer, or a hearty glass of wine, depending on where we are). Whichever form the feedback sessions take, they often determine the direction of the following shoot, or shoots, as participants implement the insights they have gained.
I consider the feedback sessions a cornerstone of our photographic journeys and, based on participants’ comments, so do the photographers who join us. Besides generating day-to-day discussion and inspiration, the sessions create the opportunity to move beyond the specifics of a particular image or story, to consider the broader methods and techniques that can reliably be employed to produce strong images, construct stylistically consistent narratives, and make the best of any photographic opportunity/situation.
For the purpose of inspiring photographers to advance their craft and further their understanding of photography, the benefit of alternating intense practical, shooting opportunities, with ‘pauses’ for individual/collective review and feedback, where the wider principles are distilled from particular images and circumstances, are considerable. As a method, it creates a rhythm of positive reinforcement that empowers photographers to significantly improve the quality of their images, in the short as well as in the long-term.
Confronting different perspectives broadens the knowledge of all participants; many of the dialogues that are established during feedback, and of the techniques that are shored up during shoots, continue to benefit our workshops’ participants long after their journey with us has ended, and become the basis of ongoing exchanges of ideas. I believe this is one of the reasons why over 60% of the photographers who join our workshops are returning participants.
Underpinning all of the above, and every aspect of our photographic journeys, is a firm belief in the importance of ‘understanding’. While focused and timely access to the best – scheduled and unscheduled – opportunities is clearly important to the photographer’s endeavour, unless accompanied by a measure of understanding, in itself, access is of limited value.
By contrast, what informs our approach to what we portray is a determining factor in the images that we are able to produce – as the American photographer Andreas Feininger observed: “No one can do inspired work without genuine interest in his subject and understanding of its characteristics.”
If this is true of all situations, it presents a particular challenge when we photograph across borders, where ‘understanding the characteristics’ of the subject requires us to grapple with that which lies outside of our ordinary points of reference.
Since a photograph is, in its simplest terms, the record of an interaction between the photographer and his/her surroundings, the more fluid the interaction, the better the photographer’s chances of successfully rendering the scene and the moment. But being comfortable in places that are new to us demands versatility and awareness in equal amounts.
For this reason, all of our photographic journeys are designed, structured, and paced to foster a culturally-sensitive understanding of the places, people, customs and events that we photograph – I consider such understanding central to the ultimate goal of enabling every photographer on my workshops to be comfortable enough on the ground to be able to bring all of their photographic skills to bear in capturing a moment and its energy.
Basic to ‘genuine understanding’, is genuine contact and spontaneous interaction with the people and places that we photograph. On our journeys, therefore, there are no staged photo-shoots or manufactured opportunities of any kind: the workshops are for photographers who are interested in engaging with the world ‘as is’ – they are about discovering, learning to recognise, and seizing the image – not taking pre-arranged photographs.
Studio photography is a distinct photographic genre. Like film set construction, it is concerned with working within a controlled environment; as such, it is diametrically opposed to the real-life situations which our photographic journeys are designed to encounter. Nonetheless, as the practice of setting up ‘outdoor photo opps’ has become commonplace on travel photography workshops, it may be useful to make clear why this is not part of my method.
Since a manufactured situation is, by definition, limited by the producer’s means and imagination, so is any photographic record that results from it. But the problem with photographing posed location scenes is often one of misrepresentation as well as limitation, for rarely does the pretend reality staged for photo groups represent actual reality – past, or present. More often, instead, it translates into blandly idealised ‘scenes’ conforming to little more than foreign imaginings of what a place, a people, or a country should look like.
Travelling far to photograph things that don’t exist and coming back with images that are unavoidably near-identical to those taken by others, doesn’t just run contrary to the very purpose of my workshops – it strikes me as a misguided effort, if not an ill-considered use of time and resources.
I am of the view that arranging photo opportunities in which local people ‘perform’ for foreigners with cameras is comprehensively undesirable. I find turning ordinary people into costumed extras on their own doorstep ethically problematic and the images that generally result from this type of contrived interaction uninspiring. But most importantly, I consider that in the context of a photographic journey – in the broadest sense of ‘travel for the purposes of practising and learning about photography’ – devoting attention to staged situations undermines the aims of the endeavour in at least three, fundamental respects:
Firstly, by directing time and energy to fabricated set-ups, the practice of photographing posed scenes distracts from the limitless opportunities offered by the real world, and the awareness/understanding necessary to capture them. Secondly, by focusing on the ‘recreated’, it leaves the true potential of the place that one has come to photograph unexplored. And last but not least, by marking out setting and subject, it confines every photographer in the group to produce very similar pictures. It therefore thwarts opportunity, discovery and originality, equally.
It’s extremely important to me that each and every photographer on my workshops enjoys a genuinely unique experience – not a series of manufactured encounters – as well as the most favourable conditions in which to photographically render/record such experience. The workshops are called ‘Unique Photographic Journeys’ because that is exactly what they are intended to be: unique voyages of photographic, cultural and personal discovery that enable participants to discover new places with new eyes, while assembling a body of images documenting their own, unique journey.
I find reality continuously more surprising than fiction and my workshops hinge on giving photographers who join them the opportunity to engage with the places and people that we photograph freely and directly. At the basis of this approach is the consideration that, in my experience, the more unrestricted the access, the better the chances of understanding and relating to what appears in the viewfinder – and consequently, the greater the opportunity to gain confidence in visually rendering it.
As may be expected, a number of practicalities flow from this approach and determine the character of our photographic journeys on the ground.
Since every aspect of our journeys is shaped by the pursuit of images, the course and tempo of every workshop is set by photographic considerations: where and when, how and why, is all entirely determined by what, in my experience, provides the best openings for photography and the best chance of capitalising upon them.
This basic principle determines what we do, as much as what we don’t – in particular, the journeys are never built around ‘highlights’. Instead, each workshop is conceived as a process based around in-depth exploration of equally singular, photography-rich environments, all of which have the potential of becoming the high point of the journey for individual participants.
We also never stay in anonymous accommodation. Instead, where we stay is, like all else, attuned to photographic necessities – that is to say, strategically positioned in relation to shooting locations (the closer the better), but also, equally importantly, in keeping with the atmosphere and visual traditions of the places that we explore.
It is not just considerably more pleasant to relax and convene in surroundings that are genuinely representative of local histories and aesthetic values than it is to do so in unremarkable settings – it is significantly more inspiring and therefore, conducive to our aims.
Since each itinerary is different, and some take us to more remote areas than others, accommodation on our journeys varies significantly; on occasion, we photograph in areas where basic guesthouses or tents are the only available alternative. But in general, where options are available, we favour using small, privately-owned hotels, housed in original buildings, in preference to larger, chained-brand hotels where, however opulently, standardization tends to prevail over character and where, inevitably, tourists tend to congregate.
Embedded in the historical landscape, smaller, original properties, tend to be better-placed for direct and unrestricted access to shooting locations than larger hotels, frequently, of necessity, built in newer areas, further away from where our interest lies (this is particularly true in historical centers but applies also elsewhere).
Lastly, we never rush though locations. Instead, the travel schedule is determined by photographic opportunities, ensuring that we do not travel at the times when we should be taking pictures, or vice-versa. Since such times are entirely dependent on subject and location, the ability usefully to determine them depends entirely on experience.
It is for this reason that I only lead workshops to places and events which I have extensively photographed independently (i.e. without a group) and with which, consequently, I am amply familiar. This experience informs both the detailed planning of each journey and its running – it allows me to give participants the benefit of my experience in photographing particular subjects, and enables me to focus on their needs during the workshop.
In fact, this is fundamental to my own enjoyment of leading a workshop. While my professional experience informs the make-up of our photographic journeys, my role on the workshops is distinctly separate from my professional activity as a photographer (I could no more imagine leading a workshop while fulfilling a commission, than I could the reverse).
To me, the greatest satisfaction in leading a workshop comes from helping the photographers who join us bridge the gap between the pictures they take, and the pictures that they would like to take. To this objective, I therefore devote myself with both pleasure and enthusiasm on each and every workshop that I lead.
As you might expect, this approach and its related practicalities, narrows the suitability of the workshops to photographers with a keen sense of adventure.
Although all our journeys are suited to photographers of all levels, they are not for everyone – a genuine passion for photography, eagerness for improving one’s work, alongside curiosity for diversity and a relish for exploration, are key prerequisites to participate, as are flexibility and a good level of physical fitness.
As each workshop is different, itineraries require different levels of stamina – some Expeditions are more intensive and involve more rugged travel than others – but all involve extensive walking while carrying your own equipment, so you need to be in good health and reasonable physical form to enjoy them.
Where equipment is concerned, there are few requirements (see individual trips) and I am always happy to discuss specifics with participants beforehand. What matters most, is real enthusiasm for discovery – in its widest sense: cultural, photographic, personal – adaptability, and a desire to be part of a collaborative creative experience.
So, if you like predictability – fixed schedules, timed photo opps, standardised accommodation etc. – I’d suggest a different photography workshop. On the other hand, if you enjoy travel as much as you do photography, welcome the thrill and challenges of both equally, and would like to share the adventure with a small group of like-minded people, then my workshops might be for you and I hope that you will join me on our next Unique Photographic Journey.