On Workshops, Scams, Manners and Foolish Ideas

On Workshops, Scams, Manners and Foolish Ideas

My friend Seshu, a photographer and owner of the Tiffinbox.org website, recently posted this article: “Gary Fong Wonders If Photo Workshop Instructors Can Handle The Truth” (link)

(An admonition to the gentle reader – this is a very long post. There are some points that simply take some time to make. I am a wordy fellow, and this time it did get the best of me. If you have no interest in contracts and workshops and the relationship of teachers to students, I beg of you to move on. It is a lovely Sunday morning!)

Seshu, in his article, referenced this tweet by Gary Fong:

Tweet by Gary Fong. This image is linked to the document that he has linked in the tweet.

The document is a very poorly constructed ‘contract’ for prospective workshop attendees to send to workshop leaders. If one is thinking of attending a workshop, one must only have to send this document to get the skinny on the real motivations of the workshop leader.

This is the document as linked in Fong’s tweet. It seems to be named “DISCLOSURE DECLARATION: PHOTOGRAPHY WORKSHOP INSTRUCTOR” and has information to be filled out and mailed back to the prospective student.

Yeah… mailed back.

I think the whole thing is probably a good idea wrapped in a terrible presentation.

We can all agree that there are terrible workshops out there. Terrible. We can all agree that instead of helping the students they can instead actually harm them; bad information, wasted time and resources and unrealistic goals.

Not a week goes by that I am not made aware of yet another workshop put on by someone who has just started photography, or has really nothing much to offer. But they do – at $1500 a head.

FULL DISCLOSURE:

I did workshops for about four years. I have recently taken a sabbatical from doing them for a multitude of reasons. At this writing I have only two workshops on the books for the rest of the year: Peoria, Ill (arranged by a third party) and my new “Emerging Photographer” workshop which is being held free for a select group of photographers from all over the country.

So at this point I have no real dog in this hunt… but I am a bit concerned.

First for some overall points:

  1. Fong’s document seems to be based on that tired old bullshit of “Those Who Can Do, Those Who Can’t Teach”. The refutation of that obviously stupid statement is everywhere. Some of our greatest teachers have not actually been that successful in their art, but have been FANTASTIC teachers. I am thinking of some of my wonderful composition teachers Ronald LoPresti and David Cohen. Tina Modotti was a most incredible teacher, and few are even aware of her work. There was a time that you simply couldn’t consider yourself a real photographer if you hadn’t studied with her. Nadia Boulangerwas considered to be one of the greatest influences on composers during the mid 20th Century… if you were a serious composer you packed up and studied with her for a few years in Paris. I ask you when the last time it was you heard her music?

    You see – TEACHING is a profession all its own. One can be a wonderful teacher, and not actually be a wonderful artist… as the gift or fascination is with the teaching. Wonderful teachers are to be respected, not humiliated with vitriol and poorly thought out ‘truisms’.

  2. The  Document is in effect a “calling out” of the workshop teacher. It is confrontational, invasive and simply put – rude. Yes, yes, I know that these days rudeness is considered cool and shit – but I am not fond of it as a lifestyle. Or a business relationship.Knowing me I would simply not respond. We do have telephones, Google, websites, portfolios, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, email, texting and a whole bunch of other ways of contacting someone. Without such a confrontational tone.
  3. The information asked for bears little relation to the actual ability of the instructor to teach a good workshop. I certainly know some very high income photographers who would simply suck the suck out of suck at teaching. Teaching is an art in itself, and not one that every “successful” photographer (or any artist) has built in. If you think someone’s income has any bearing on how well they are capable of teaching answer me this question…

    How much do the teachers where you send your children make? If income transfers to being a great teacher, we may have some serious issues with where we send our children. Of course there are marvelous teachers in schools… because they ARE TEACHERS. If we were to gauge them on their salaries and world experience most may fall terribly short – and yet inspire our kids.

Nitty Gritty:

Words mean something. Words have definitions that we all agree on.

In the legal world, words have absolute meanings.

The document asks that the photographer divulge his/her earnings with this admonition:
“be accurate, do not estimate”

Those are some absolutes there, folks. Bear this in mind as we continue… the form is asking you for an absolutely accurate number. What does absolutely accurate mean? It means to the penny.

There is also a space for the amount earned in one’s highest year. Since there is no differentiation between gross and net, we must assume that the answer is net. Fine.

If you have been a photographer and you have been one for a few decades, you will have to go back through years of records to answer this “accurately” because if you do not, you are opening yourself up to a lawsuit. (Yeah, I know… the US is not all that sue-happy and frivolous lawsuits are a fictionalize scenario… you go with that. Be happy.)

But you are asked to sign and VERIFY that you are 100% accurate. Keep in mind that in contract law, I could then ask for all documentation to support this contract. Yep – you would have to deliver tax returns and bank records for decades of your work. I can depose you again and again… all I need is a penny off. (Sure – Don is talking wild here! Yes, I am – but it is totally possible whether or not it would come to fruition.)

Understand that contract law is VERY specific.

It then asks this incredibly strange question:

“Amount of Average Sales” with the same admonition: “be accurate, do not estimate” – BE ACCURATE on an Average?

I am frankly surprised there is not a space for “Show the work”.

And again – if someone decides to challenge you on this, you will indeed have to SHOW THE WORK.

Got it?

Now we get to what essentially amounts to a guarantee that if the guy takes my workshop he will make more money.

“Do You Represent That You Will Provide Training / Skills That Will Increase My Income?”

Really?

What if he takes my workshop and doesn’t do a thing I told him to do? Answer – he sues me.

Where is the guarantee that the student will do what we teach them, and hey – and – is every workshop about making money?

Now we come to the part where he asks you to break any confidentiality you may have with vendors and sponsors.

“Please List Sponsors And The Compensation You Will Receive For This Program (If Tradeouts, Disclose Fair $ Amount)”

Photographer A may have a different compensation package than Photographer B… and the sponsor may not wish for them to know that difference. So there are non-disclosure forms that you are now being asked to breach.

Yeah – that’ll happen.

One last thing – The “perjury” clause… if you falsify the document in any way you may be guilty of “Perjury”…

To who?

Perjury is lying under oath – no oath was given here. It further cheapens an already poor attempt to humiliate and belittle people who may have done nothing more than offer to teach.

There is NO PERJURY – however there is the onerous third paragraph… the one that simply states that IF anything in the form was misleading, the student can use it in civil action.

So you are opening yourself up for an exploratory “discovery” by anyone who wants to pull your tax records and accounting statements for as long as you have been in business. And, due to a terrible understanding of contract law, they can do that in THEIR city with you having to show up for depositions and court appearances in another state.

No one in their right mind would sign this in my opinion  - and my opinion is not to be construed as LEGAL ADVICE under any and all circumstances. (If you feel that there is legal merit in the form, I would simply ask that you have your attorney glance it over before signing. As you would ANY document that asks you to verify with consideration of litigation that your answers are “accurate”.)

Are there terrible workshops? Again – absodamnlutely.

I have been to a few given by some big – big – names and found them to be awful. Egos the size of lower Manhattan mixed with a total inability to transfer information. But WTF – they are super awesome on the internet and have a ton of twitter followers, so it must have been me.

SO WHAT CAN BE DONE ABOUT BAD WORKSHOPS?

Well – we have the internet, blogs, Google, Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin and a plethora of places to make our concerns known. We can ask for references. I was always happy to comply, and even put blog posts about my workshops – good or bad – online. If the photographer is really in the business of education, there will be testimonials, a guide, references and a biography.

(HINT – this may not be a good workshop:
“I started photography three years ago and now me and my fabulous wife are now, like doing these EPIC weddings, and driving, like, a new sports car and we have some awesome dogs and we are simply bubbling over with perkiness. Take our fantabulous workshop where we will do some awesome photo stuff and you can learn how to:

  • Use your camera knobs and things
  • Lighting? You don’t need no lighting – we’ll show you how to fix it all in Photoshop
  • ‘Spray and Pray” isn’t bad, but people use it for bad.
  • How to overcharge for mediocre work – hey, the clients are really to stupid to care
  • Perky and Hip – my two most important assets
  • Choosing the right accessories for photo shoots (No sillies, not camera stuff – ear rings, and heels…)
  • Using a light for a headshot… amazing results with NO knowledge of light needed.
  • Why the chicks dig me – and why they will dig you too (let me show you how to get more work with NO EFFORT on your part – just a little “Italian” lingo…)”

If a workshop is a rip off, let everyone know about it. If the instructor is late, or what is promised not delivered, let the instructor AND the rest of the photo community know about it.

It is very difficult to understand the problem when there is actually so little evidence. Yes, there are terrible workshops – but very few ever complain. In fact, at one of the “big name” workshops I attended the students loved it. The teaching was mediocre when it was good, and the information so erratic and in many cases wrong, that it had little value. No matter – the chicks were, like, HOTT.

Yeah – I am putting some of the blame right back on workshop students who do not DEMAND more. Workshop attendees who come to the workshops and leave and put NOTHING of the instructors ideas, methods, or instructions to use do not have the right to a refund.

Do you think they do?

Do you see this problem as totally on the workshop teachers with NO responsibility at all from the people who go?

Workshops are one of the best way to learn something, find a new way of doing something, increase awareness, meet others who are passionate about what you are, and come away with solid, real world, information.

To see them as a sector be denigrated over and over again troubles me. While I understand the frustration with bad workshops, I do highly question this method of dealing with them. We are capable people – and far too capable to need this sort of thing to further denigrate our industry. But I would love to hear your thoughts.

My answers to the workshop questionnaire are all over my sites… and no, I am not giving you my home phone number.

:-)