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.


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?”


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.


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.


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  1. Don, I agree wholeheartedly with your comments. In fact, I am an amateur photographer (make some $ but very little) who loves to teach what I know. I am up front about my experience, what they should expect to get from the workshop and I get feedback forms from attendees. For one of my workshops, I have an avg satisfaction rating of 3.8 out of 4. I like to do photography, but I’m one of those crazies who like to teach austin as much. And according to my students, I do pretty well. If I was judged by my answers to that form, my workshops would be empty.

    I do believe instructors should be accountable to deliver – I offer a refund for dissatisfaction (never have had to give one) and I freely share previous students comments. But can I guarantee someone will accomplish a certain level by attending my sessions? No one can make that guarantee!

    • You are right… guaranteeing outcomes is silly. And one person’s terrible workshop can be another person’s AHA Moment. So much is dependent on the student.

  2. So, how does the instructor know that their students have the prerequisites for the class? Answer: They take the student’s word – and, when the students show up shooing in “green-box-mode” because the camera knows more than they do, and they don’t even know how to change the aperture or shutter speed of their camera, what does the teacher do? They calmly take this Nikanony camera and on the fly figure out how to make it work without blinking.

    I am appalled at the gall that Fong has with this form. I can understand wanting to know more about the instructor, but at what point does the ability to TEACH equate to INCOME? I realize that this is exactly the point you are making, Don. And when I read his post and form, my jaw hit the floor. I thought it was a joke. I had to see what the day was (it wasn’t April 1).

    Just like his overpriced tupperware, this is a form that newbies will download and use, because Fong said to. And I sincerely hope that no instructor would ever return it. I’d just return the person’s deposit and say thanks, but clearly you aren’t interested in what I have to offer.

    I’ve been to a number of workshops. And I can tell you, the amount you spend has no correlation to what you learn.

    • You are quite right, Frank.

      I was also appalled but then lately, being appalled by silly photographer stuff seems to be a recurring theme. From terrible photographs being deemed ‘brilliant’ to onerous legal disasters to ways to trick people into signing model releases, there seems to be no shortage of silly out there.

      But you are right about the sycophants. They will flock to stuff these ‘gurus’ spew out with gusto.

      BTW – I cannot help but notice all the questions that are almost seemingly by design prepared to paint Fong in a good light… ya know.

      Sorry, but I find it all a bit disconcerting.

  3. If a student was to actually send that, do you really want some in your workshop that comes off as aggressive and almost threatening? I find the document hilarious. And I’m not too surprised at it coming from a guy who markets a Tupperware clone. There are other (and better) ways to do your research.

    • Yep… as I said, I wouldn’t want anyone who has that world view to even take my workshop.

      I prefer enlightened, excited, open minded photographers operating from a state of abundance to tired old confrontational litigation happy folks living in scarcityville.

      Too bad that such tactics ring true for so many people. Also kinda sad when you think about it.

      • 2nd try at posting a response. Too bad since I forgot what I wrote in the one that was rejected.

        Anyway, the Fong quensionaire is calling attention to the problem with many workshops. While students should do their homework before signing up, many are smitten with the internet stardom many of the photographers have.

        You are right in that students have the responsibility to use the forums and other areas of the internet to rate the workshops.

        What I found was most of them are geared to beginners. I chose yours because we used what we brought and we set up and shot.

        When I read “study under” it falls as different from attending a workshop. To me they are very different. One workshop may get you an audience with the mountaintop guru, but is that “studying under?”. Maybe for a few days. To me “studying under” is a longer process that takes you through stages of your craft. Beginner to intermediate, advanced to expert. Learning different techniques, views, etc.

        Like P52 Pro.

        So a question to you. Since many of the workshops tend to be geared toward the beginner, where does an intermediate or advanced go to further their craft?

        • That really is a tough question.

          In education and most ‘workshop’ types of scenarios, advanced material has far fewer people interested. There are only two upperlevel classes for every 6 lower level classes it seems.

          In the old days, assisting was the way to go. These days that is harder.

          Your point is well taken though. In my own experience, of the 6 advanced workshops I ever offered, only two ever filled. The other four were killed due to no enrollment.

          Perhaps one on one, or ‘mentoring’ or save for something more advanced that may cost a bit more.

          That being said, you surely can not base the value of a workshop on what it cost. I have heard nightmares of $4500 “Travel” photography workshops that were little more than paid vacations for the disinterested students.

          (Not sure why you first one was rejected… not something that a human did.)

  4. “Why the chicks dig me…” – That’s the class I need to attend 4 sure…LOL.

    Your post is the best ridicule of the “Here goes one for the top 10 most idiotic ideas ever” candidate. It seems that Gary F. is using this as selling point for his own workshop (I’m just guessing). How about having HIM submit to such disclosure? Would he do it?
    It would almost be worth the time and money to give the taste of his own medicine, and publish the results in a form of E-Book on iTunes. :)
    How about using twiitter (so we can limit ideas to one-linesr) to write the Why Gary F. is qualified to make light modifiers?

    • “It seems that Gary F. is using this as selling point for his own workshop (I’m just guessing).”
      Now now, there.

      Who would ever do such a thing…?


    • That is the class I’d like to attend most as well Boggy. No doubt!

  5. I am a college professor, and I cannot imagine having a student show up with a form such as this in hand. Of course, I have the advantage of having a reputation as an excellent teacher, and have the (unsolicited) documents to prove it.

    Were I to offer a photography workshop, however, and a student asked me to fill out one of these forms, I would refuse, and as one of the other respondents said, refund their money. But I’d take it a step further, and forever ban them from any future workshops. Why? Because anyone who would ask a workshop teacher to complete such a form is a troublemaker. Such a phony, mischief-making, rabble-rousing, smart alecky weasel is not now, never has been, and never will be interested in putting out any effort to learn anything.

    And that is the key — the effort a student is willing to put out to learn from their teachers. It doesn’t matter if the instruction comes in the form of a formal classroom experience like I teach, or a hands-on workshop like you teach, it is the obligation of the student to put into the class the effort necessary to actually learn something. Any student who would present a potential teacher with such a form is looking for an easy way out of the work necessary to actually get some kind of useful learning out of the experience.

    • “Such a phony, mischief-making, rabble-rousing, smart alecky weasel is not now, never has been, and never will be interested in putting out any effort to learn anything.”

      You have that right. I am sorry so many jumped on this with such glee… the “That’ll show ’em” mentality of the mob. Misdirected and mean as mobs generally become.

      While there are bad workshops, there are probably more good ones that receive little to no internet time.

      Alas – it is a sad state of affairs.

    • That first paragraph didn’t come out right. It should read:

      “I am a college professor, and I cannot imagine having a student show up with a form such as this in hand. Of course, WITHIN THE UNIVERSITY, I have the advantage of having a reputation as an excellent teacher, and have the (unsolicited) documents to prove it. But I’ve never offered a workshop.”

      • My experience has been that there are more good teachers out there than not.

        Whenever I hear a student complain about another teacher, I look at that student’s performance in my classes and in our co-curricular activities. If the student is one of our better students, I pay attention to their opinion of my colleagues. If they are not a generally good student, I tend to ignore their complaints. I am fortunate that probably 90% of my students really want to learn, and work very hard to learn as much as possible.

        But I do have a student or 2 every so often who just isn’t interested in putting out the effort necessary to actually learn. A student like that will complain about any teacher who doesn’t spoon-feed them every little thing.

  6. This from the dude that sells $5 worth of plastic for ~$180? Awesome!

  7. Gary Fraud’s at it again….