Open Heart, Open Mind, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Storm The Barn – by Sara Lewkowicz

Sara LewkowiczSara Lewkowicz is a native New Yorker currently working toward a Master’s Degree in Photojournalism from Ohio University at Athens. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for her undergraduate education, where she majored in journalism with a focus in visual communication. She has shot assignments from her bedroom window, and traveled as far as the Middle East and South America for others. Her work has been published by the Baltimore Sun and various other publications, as well as by a number of Latin American non-profits and NGOs.  She loves bagels and lox as much as she loves Carolina Barbecue, and roots for the Tar Heels and the Yankees knowing full well that she will be resented for both allegiances. She recognizes that haters will, indeed, hate. She enjoys yoga, cooking, nail polish, quoting the Big Lebowski at inappropriate times, and hating the Blue Devils.

The Eddie Adams Workshop is a pretty well known event, and I kind of figure that most everything that I could think of to say has already been said, and probably by people a lot more important than me.

I’ll do my best, however, to give you, the reader, some idea of what my experience was like, as well as a few things I think are useful to keep in mind regarding the Eddie Adams Workshop.

EAW

Photo by Alex Potter

Firstly, know that attending the Eddie Adams Workshop is a little bit like being hazed.

Not in the chugging-hot-sauce-in-your-underwear sense (although who really knows what happens on the last night?), but in the sense that it’s like an initiation of sorts. A close friend once referred to it as the Skull and Bones of photojournalism. No one can deny it’s exclusivity, and the exclusivity is part of the lure.

It is, however, so much more than simply a bragging right. It’s an induction into a family. I know that sounds hyperbolic, but bear with me.

I didn’t get into the workshop the first time I applied.

I didn’t get in the second or third times, either.

With each subsequent rejection, I found myself feeling worse and worse. The third time, I actually cried. I have no shame in admitting that, either.

This year would be the second-to-last year that I could apply, and given my schedule in graduate school at Ohio University, attending next year would have probably proven challenging, as far as workload.

So this was basically it for me.

Getting accepted after being rejected so many times felt like winning the lottery. It’s kind of like when Groucho Marx said he’d never be in a club that would have him as a member. Missing out so many years in a row made it so much better when I finally did.

So lesson number one: If you get rejected the first (or second, or third) time you apply, don’t freak out. Keep on applying. Apply until you can’t apply anymore. It will be worth it when you get in, I promise. You have to taste the sour in order to appreciate the sweet.

EAW

Photo by Alex Potter

Arriving at the workshop, we were blessed with a particularly warm, golden afternoon in upstate New York. We were greeted by thunderous applause and Paul Simon’s bittersweet “Kodachrome” as we walked up the hill. Old friends embraced, new friends emphatically shook hands (and sometimes embraced each other too.) The environment was electric. Everyone was enthusiastic and everyone was excited to be there. After the first evening of meetings and presentations, I went to bed feeling ready to kick ass and take names. I was PUMPED.

This brings me to my second point.

There is no subtle at Eddie Adams. No hint of wishy-washy. When you feel good, you will feel like you could go out and get into a bare-knuckle boxing match with Mike Tyson and, at the very least, hold your own.

But to quote Mr. Tyson, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

And when things go wrong for you at the workshop, it will feel like getting a right hook from Iron Mike himself. Frankly, I happen to think if you don’t cry at least once at the workshop, you’re doing it wrong. Crying is part of the experience. ­

EAW - Lulu

Lulu. Photo by Sara Lewkowicz

My punch came on the second day. Due to some logistical mishaps, I was an hour late meeting Lulu, the woman I would be photographing. I’ve never been an hour late meeting a subject in my entire photographic career. I don’t think I’ve ever been an hour late meeting anyone. I was lucky, as Lulu was a class act with a great attitude who forgave me my trespasses. But the whole day was thrown off, and I ended up only being able to shoot for two hours. I was seriously glum, but after review, I vowed to go back the next day and knock it out of the park. As much as I wanted to, access issues prevented me from shooting most of her activity the next day. I returned to the barn feeling completely dejected. I had blown it. In the span of an hour convinced that my poor luck had ruined my career forever.

EAW - Lulu

Lulu. Photo by Sara Lewkowicz

It was herein that I learned my third lesson:

The workshop isn’t only about what you shoot. Often, how well or poorly your story turns out will be as much about the luck-of-the-draw as it is about you as a shooter. The best thing you can do is come in with, as Tim Rasmussen says, “open hearts and open minds.” Don’t give your editors excuses, don’t complain about what a crappy story you got (especially since the producers work so hard setting them up.) Work as hard as you can, have a positive and resilient attitude, but understand that sometimes it isn’t up to you how things turn out.  Your team leaders are smart cookies; they can tell the difference between bad luck and bad shooting. You’re not there to win a Pulitzer, you’re there to learn. As one incredibly kind coach from another team told me, “if this were your first assignment with National Geographic, I’d be rolling around on the floor crying for you. But it’s not, it’s a workshop. Just try your hardest and do the best with what you’ve got.”

EAW

Photo by Alex Potter

It’s worth noting, gentle readers, that having only gotten a few hours of sleep in two days probably contributed to my feelings of despair. This is another aspect of the workshop that you should be aware of.

You. Will. Not. Sleep.

Just accept it. You’ll get maybe 2-4 hours a night. It’s ok. You’ll sleep when you’re dead. Drink some coffee and power through.

That said, on the last night, if, like me, you are so fried that your thoughts begin to materialize and take the shape of a giant insect, GO THE HELL TO BED. Not before 2 AM, but eventually, go to bed. You’ll have earned it, I promise.

In addition to shooting our stories and editing, we listened to around eight presentations each day. Each one was better than the last. We heard from Dan Winters about using a brush to style the microscopic hairs on a bee, Bill Eppridge about photographing the assassination of Robert Kennedy with only three rolls of film, and Darcy Padilla about how she spent the better part of 20 years photographing Julie, who eventually died of AIDS-related illness. We heard from visual storytellers who are at the top of their game, each one more powerful than the next. We were also fortunate enough to hear from Kim Phuc, the young girl in Nick Ut’s famous “Napalm Girl” photograph. Listening to Ms. Phuc tell her harrowing story brought home the importance of what we, as visual storytellers, do, and a great many of us (myself included) were reduced to tears within minutes.

EAW

Photo by Alex Potter

Sometimes, participants find their tearful moment at Barnstorm not during a powerful speech or shooting a trying story, but at what is known as “the 11:30 club.” This is the networking segment of the workshop, where students are able to meet with editors and photographers for the top publications, wire services, and galleries around the world. It is easily one of the most nerve-wracking experiences I’ve ever been through. I thought my stomach was going to come careening out of my body before my first review. Or that my head was going to explode, like that guy in Scanners. You will probably react this way too; it’s normal. Showing your images to editors from National Geographic and Getty Reportage should make you sweat; if it doesn’t, again, you’re probably doing it wrong.

The thing you have to remember about portfolio reviews (or about being edited in general) is that when someone criticizes your photographs, they are NOT criticizing you as a person. These are people who have probably been doing this for longer than you have. They are critiquing your work, in the hopes that you will learn and become a better shooter. You are not your work; you create your work. Go to reviews with a willingness to listen and learn. Be gracious, be humble, be open. Say thank you. DO NOT try to Shanghai someone into reviewing you if they are clearly ready to enjoy the rest of their evening. Remember that these people are here of their own volition. They aren’t doing this for a paycheck, they are doing this because they care. Accept the critiques you get with gratitude and humility, even when you aren’t hearing platitudes about how you’re the next Nachtwey. Chances are, that’s probably not what you need to be hearing anyway. Make friends, not just contacts.

EAW

Photo by Alex Potter

And WRITE THANK YOU NOTES. I cannot stress this enough. E-mails are probably fine, but a handwritten note is a rare and wonderful thing to receive in this day and age. Furthermore, write your subjects thank you notes. They agreed to have some nerd with a camera shadowing them for two days, they deserve just as much of your gratitude.

Last bit of advice:

THANK THE BLACK TEAM. THANK THEM PROFUSELY.

These are EAW alumni who return, and they make the whole show run. They work incredibly long hours, do the grunt work of keeping the workshop going and receive no pay. They are the glue that holds Barnstorm together, and they come back, year after year, because they want to ensure that you have as special an experience as they did. They deserve all the gratitude you can muster on six hours of sleep in five nights, so for God’s sake, buy them a beer if you have the disposable income. Without them, there wouldn’t be a workshop.

EAW

Photo by Alex Potter

On the first day, Jimmy Colton told us that Eddie Adams is a family. There’s incredible truth in that statement, and the weight of it didn’t really begin to sink in until I was getting on the plane. Roll your eyes if you want, I would probably roll my eyes at me too. Doesn’t make it any less true. Going through that kind of emotional rollercoaster will bind people together. This is why I refer to going through the workshop as “hazing.” It’s not about being beaten up on. It’s about going through an intense experience that leaves you feeling elated at some moments, and utterly crushed and drained at others. It’s that experience that binds you to the folks you meet there.

Lastly, I just want to say this: if you never get into Eddie Adams, it’s ok. No, seriously. IT’S OK. It doesn’t mean your life is over, and it doesn’t mean you will never make it as a shooter. It’s an absolutely wonderful experience, but it’s not the only experience out there. Some of the best photographers I have ever met never attended. What makes Barnstorm so special is that it ultimately is a celebration of a truly incredible discipline. Being a visual journalist is a privilege. There’s a genuine sense of community and support, and if you seek out genuine relationships, you will find some of the most talented, driven and caring people you’ll ever know. These are the folks who will push you, keep you driven and inspire you.

EAW

Photo by Alex Potter

All the advice I’ve just given about attending the workshop is also just advice about being in this business, period. Taking pictures is only part of the equation. Caring about people, being passionate about relationships with subjects and colleagues and friends, that’s what it’s really about. Eddie Adams is certainly a family, but photojournalism, as a whole, is a family, too.

So apply, go, shoot, work, sweat, laugh, cry, learn, and expand.

And if you make it into the Six O’Clock Club, give yourself a high five. You’re way tougher than I am.

 

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