Ok, can we talk about Photo Workshops for a freaking second??

Ever thought, “I just wish there was a workshop for photographers where I could go socialize, drink, and hear my favorite artists, and sing around a campfire, and hike” and came up empty-handed? Just couldn’t find something like that?

Yeah, no.

There’s zero chance you came up empty handed. They are like AOL discs in the 90s… volumetrically speaking.

I know I need to tread lightly here; a few of my closest friends run, organize, and speak at these workshops, conferences, collectives, camps, gatherings, trips, retreats, and whatever-else-word-makes-it-sound-unique. I feel a lot of them will agree with a lot I have to say here, though.

From the organizer/speaker point of view, they are an invaluable opportunity to expand your network, get rare face-to-face time with fans/followers and potential brands, and, if they are paid fairly, help make ends meet. Artists don’t always have time to really keep up with the amount of questions they get or have face time with people who follow their work, and these events can be a saturated time of just that.

From the participant point of view, they can be an invaluable time of connection, networking, content creation, creative encouragement, rest, socializing, common community building, and fun. But here’s what a LOT of it is: Underpaid (if paid at all) educators and artists trying their best to inspire and teach or coach large groups of directionless people who mostly showed up to drink and socialize. (Yes, that is a broad statement, maybe overly broad, but you’d be surprised how often this is true.) I’ve been a part of these workshops that do really well by their speakers and attendees… and ones that don’t, but it’s the responsibility of the attendee to ask themselves what they want, not the host.

Notice I said a LOT, not ALL. I’ve had some of my absolute best moments at these events. I’ve met people I still admire and keep up with to this day. I’ve taken pictures of Anis Mojgani who is a poetic giant and hero of mine, and who, because of a photo camp, became a friend; I’ve been able to sit around a table and make breakfast for people who encouraged me to continue while I was starting; to meet people I otherwise never would have. One thing is different about my attendance, though, I never went as an attendee.

I have never paid to attend one of these with the hopes that I would leave feeling creatively and energetically refreshed. My going was always because I was helping in some way, or shooting the event, or assisting operations. And as a people-watcher, watching other people who forked out good money to go I’ve noticed some really sad things happen.

A lot of these workshops are like Coachella; you throw some big names up there, and most people go and take selfies of themselves at the event and spend most of the time getting trashed or skipping classes, or whatever. It’s just ‘being there’. It’s saying you went.

*It’s probably worth noting that I hate Coachella and the idea of Coachella. I couldn’t imagine a place I’d feel more out of my own skin.

Here are some of the things I’ve noticed watching the attendees:

  • the ones desperate to grow or work on a specific topic leave dissatisfied
  • the ones who don’t know what they want/need typically leave being the most critical of the time spent
  • the ones that have a genuinely necessary critical word to say or suggestion or know what they need, typically stay quiet.

So, what should you do?

First, give me a break, this is just my opinion and I think there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these workshops. Like I said, a lot of my friends are passionate about education and connection so, by all means, go support them and learn from them.

Don’t get me wrong, they aren’t ALL the same. They all aren’t like Coachella. Some are a great value, with real intentional time, well-planned, well-paying for the speakers, etc… I’ve seen it really, really work. But I haven’t attended even most of them. This is meant to hit home for the people who have attended any workshop and left feeling dissatisfied. I’m wondering if that person asked any previous attendees about their experience, or if they knew what they were going for. If it’s for someone to hand them the fixit button to their creative problems, then I feel it’s a waste. Nothing will do that for you, that’s a process we are all in. If it’s because you feel in a rut, or need refreshing or a smattering of creative interaction it can be really good and super helpful for your business. It will just never be THE answer.

Second, know your own expectations if you are going. If I found a group of 50 people who I LOVED partying with once a year for a few days, regardless of the content of the event I’d likely just pay to go hang out with them for fun (hint: this is what’s happening a lot).

Third, if you are new, don’t waste too much of your money on them. You could attend every single workshop out there, go broke doing it, and leave just as creatively confused as you started. Build a small network of people you can regularly bounce ideas off and give yourself some freaking slack. Ira Glass has a great bit about ‘the gap’ (check it out) where his suggestion is to do a great volume of work when you feel creatively behind. Get out there and work (thanks Ben).

[RELATED: The Gap: An Inspirational Video For Anyone In Doubt]

The reality is, though, that not all of you have the goal to go to a workshop to improve your business. Which, if this is the case, go nuts. If your plan is to learn something specific, approach the person who you most look up to in that category and see if they do any mentoring or 1-on-1 workshops. If you need business advice it might be best to consult someone who is business savvy. These conferences are like an all you can eat snack bar and a lot of people leave wishing there would have been a medium-rare steak with mushrooms in a white wine reduction.

Maybe you want the Coachella/snack-bar though. Maybe you want Burning Man. Maybe this has nothing to do with growing your photography business but just having a yearly ritual of retreating into a safe creative space where you can mingle with like-minded people. Cool. There’s no shortage of that. But know what you want.

I’m at a point where I’d much rather have a small room, intimate acoustic show. I’m growing to really appreciate the idea of apprenticeship. I know exactly what I would want. And that’s all I’m saying is that these are flooded with people who haven’t even started asking themselves the question “what do I want?”.