In June 2012, I participated in Mary Ellen Mark’s legendary Oaxaca Photo Workshop, running in its sixteenth year.
My review of this workshop will be in four posts. This, the first, will detail the workshop as a whole. The second will be my personal experience, goals and results from the workshop. Then I will post the images that Mary Ellen selected, followed by the honorable mentions.
Besides a previous weekend workshop with Mary Ellen two years ago and a class when I was a college freshman, I have never received formal training or instruction. I learned photography by being on the streets, taking lessons from my contact sheets, studying the masters and of course, learning job by job.
This workshop was a chance to have the eyes and mind of a living legend focused on my work, teaching and shaping my next moves. I could not wait.
This workshop is not cheap. In the first day or two of the workshop, I did hear people griping about the cost. And at the end of the workshop, there were no complaints. I believe that every single person in my workshop felt that they got their money’s worth if not more.
The tuition does not include anything else. Flights, accommodations, meals, etc. will have to be covered by you. This is Mexico, so the exchange rate is favorable, daily life is very affordable, and there are inexpensive but quality restaurants and hotels.
For Film Shooters
Yes, you must buy your own film before you leave for the workshop. No surprise here. But you must also buy negative sleeves and photo paper for your contact sheets and work prints.
I brought 50 rolls of film. On a normal 7 – 8 day trip for me, I normally expose 20 – 30 rolls of film. I thought these 50 rolls of Tri-X would suffice but I ended up exposing all but the last roll of film and could have easily shot more than I did. For the next workshop, 75 rolls would be in order.
I also purchased a box of 100 sheets of Ilford photo paper and this barely covered my needs. You need paper for contact sheets and work prints, you will also need to have prints made for the families and subjects that you have photographed. This is not only good manners and a requirement by Mary Ellen, but returning to a subject with darkroom prints can go a long way towards helping establish trust with the people that you are shooting.
Towards the end of the workshop, I gained a huge appreciation of Fausto, the darkroom printer at the Alvarez Bravo Center. There were numerous images I had printed out for my own purposes, images not chosen by Mary Ellen but images that I wanted to see printed.
The costs of B&W film processing and developing and darkroom prints were much lower than film labs in the states, especially the ones in Manhattan. You will get a bill at the end of the workshop from the lab that may be shocking. When you are in the middle of the workshop, you can get caught up in the desire to see work prints and to take advantage of Fausto’s great touch.
For Digital Shooters
The prices of the main lab that was used by the digital shooters was also very affordable compared to US labs and I saw some quality prints. Since I did not use the digital lab, I do not know what the prices were but I think it was similar to the film lab in that the prices were cheaper than the states.
The Structure of the Workshop
Over the ten days in Oaxaca, eight days were to be spent shooting, with the ninth day a shooting day for those who needed or requested it.
Day 0 – First Group Dinner
The workshop is kicked off with an informal dinner with the whole group, including Mary Ellen and her great team of assistants. It was a great way to meet your fellow shooters, chat with Mary Ellen, and eat some great Oaxacan cuisine. You will leave stuffed, maybe a little tipsy from the Mescal, and motivated to get out and start shooting.
Day 1 – Portfolio Review
The first official day was spent at the gorgeous art institute outside of Oaxaca, the Centro de las Artes de San Agustín. For the July 2012 workshop, there were 18 students which meant for a long day and critique fatigue set in for everyone towards the end.
Each student spreads out their work and Mary Ellen makes her selects, commenting on the prints, asking questions. What do you do, what do you want to do, where are you now, where do you want to be, where do you want to go. Other students will chime in with their opinions and suggestions.
It is a good critique though we all would have liked more time with Mary Ellen on a one-to-one basis. But Mary Ellen’s critique is tight and focused. Based on your work and what you would like to tackle as a goal during the workshop, Mary Ellen will confer with her staff and suggest projects and subjects for you to shoot during your stay.
The group then heads to a local restaurant for lunch.
Days 2 – 9
These are shooting days and make up the meat of the workshop. Every student has a set time to meet with Mary Ellen for a critique of the previous day’s work. For film shooters, this means bringing the contact sheets and work prints. For digital shooters, this means editing the previous days images down to 150 or less and bringing work prints from the digital lab. Film shooters can expose up to five rolls a day on average.
Whichever project, subject or theme you have chosen, Mary Ellen’s excellent staff will help coordinate transportation and fixers for you. Whether shooting in a school for children with Down’s Syndrome, a slaughterhouse, or impoverished families that work at a local garbage dump, the workshop staff will set you up and provide everything you need to gain access to these people and their stories.
This is also southern Mexico, so do not be surprised if things run a little late or a scheduled event does not take place.
Every day, film must be dropped off by a certain time, digital files dropped off at the lab, to be printed out for the following day’s meeting with Mary Ellen.
Each evening, a short event is planned for the students. It might be a presentation of Mary Ellen’s work or that of great Oaxacan photographers, watching films, or visiting art galleries. A group dinner follows at a a local restaurant. Attendance is not mandatory but it is nice to review the days challenges and success with the other students. Head to a bar afterwards for some Mescal after dinner and hang out with some locals. There is a great bar scene and plenty of expats to chat up.
One of the best bars / venues is Café Central but I did not get a chance to check it out.
The final day of the workshop, this is where all the work by each photographer is presented for the first time to the whole class. Up to this point, no one has seen anyone else’s work the entire time.
Selects are made by Mary Ellen with lots of healthy opinions from the other shooters. Mary Ellen’s appraisal of the shooters progress and creations during the workshop are offered.
The final images are selected which will be included in a book which students can order online afterwards.
There is a final dinner for the workshop that night closing out the experience with food and drinks. It’s a great time to close out the workshop, celebrate with new friends and get buzzed to help with the packing that awaits.
Photographing in any new locale and foreign city always presents new challenges and opportunities. With the mandate set by Mary Ellen and the charge she will give you creatively, you will find yourself richly rewarded and challenged
The Range of Subjects to Shoot
- Old age home
- Ballet school
- Boxing gym
- Bus station
- Tattoo convention
- Lucha Libre (Mexican wrestling)
- Special needs school for children with Down’s Syndrome
- Municipal garbage dump (and the families that work there as salvagers)
- Livestock auctions
- Local families in nearby villages
- Street shooting in Oaxaca
- Street shooting in the Zocalo
Other Tips and Thoughts
Just some other tidbits and miscellany.
Flying with Film & Photo Paper
If you are connecting in Mexico City, your carry-on bags will be scanned again. I had some difficulty with my film though I had done my usual job of placing it in ziploc bags, clearly labeled. After a fair amount of explaining and showing them examples of my work (always carry a business card and some work examples if you can), I was able to get through security without having my film scanned.
The box of photo paper, however, was not as lucky but I decided to pick my battles and it was hard enough to get past the X-Ray machine as it was. If there was damage to the paper, I did not notice it in the prints or the proof sheets
For those flying straight to Oaxaca with film, there will no such issues.
One of the most amazing things about the workshop is the fact that, unannounced in all of the program’s literature, is that Mary Ellen will be shooting a portrait of you for the resulting book. For me, this is worth the price of admission alone. She is a living legend and a hero. To sit before her lens was an unimagined treat.
Mary Ellen surrounds herself with a group of young Mexican photographers that help coordinate and manage the workshop. They do a wonderful job and all are artists, so they can relate to you and your work or struggles. Several of them live in the states and some live in Oaxaca.
They will be willing to help you at any time of day with taxis, suggestions or to help coordinate a shoot.
There is a vibrant artist community in Oaxaca and the city has many great galleries from the high end upscale to the low brow hipster offerings. Definitely make some time to visit these galleries and you will find also that you may even get to meet some of the local artists.
In addition to the art for sale in Oaxaca and all of the traditional crafts, including the Day of the Dead dolls, do not leave Oaxaca without checking out some of their famous textiles and of course, the chocolate, the source of the seven varieties of Oaxacan mole sauce.
Amazingly, Oaxaca must have more photo labs and camera gear stores per capita than any city I have traveled to. I did not need to make any emergency purposes but it was good to know that gear was available just in case.
This workshop is expensive. It is an eleven or twelve day trip and adding on the cost of the workshop and all the other expenses that you will incur on a daily basis makes for pricey trip. So, was it worth it? Absolutely.
Regardless of what your experience or skill level is at, if you are a working photographer or someone who just bought a camera, you will gain so much out of this workshop. For some of us students, this was a lot of money and out of the 18 students in attendance, every single one of them had an amazing time and there was not a single regret voiced. A few students have taken the workshop several times, with one woman making her sixth appearance. Some of the new students also signed up for Mary Ellen’s Iceland workshop which immediately followed.
Go. The math is simple: you will not regret it, but you will always regret not attending.