This article is about the Foundation Workshops. It describes what Foundation is and how it works and focuses on my experience and what I learned from this workshop. If you want to know more about what happens at Foundation, how it impacts the participants and whether this is the right choice for you, please read on.

It was one of the most intense weeks of my life. “Life changing” is a strong statement, so I wanted to give myself enough time to process all my experiences at Foundation before making such statements. I’m writing this one year after attending Foundation in Spain, in 2018.

What is Foundation?

The Foundation Workshops organised by Fearless Photographers are simply the toughest workshops for wedding photographers. If our industry were the armed forces, then Foundation is the Marine Corps Boot Camp.

The workshop teaches photojournalism skills and self-analysis, and how to apply these to your photography in order to become a stronger visual storyteller. This often leads to powerful insights about yourself. And this is the main driver for improvement following this workshop. Basic technical aspects of photography, post-processing and business skills are not taught here.

A significant number of the world’s top wedding photographers have gone through Foundation and went on to become teachers and mentors in the program.

How does Foundation work?

Foundation Workshops are organised in the US and Europe, but anyone can attend, as long as their motivation is strong enough. This means only a handful of photographers from all corners of the world get to do it. Over a five-day period, you get a photo assignment, usually based on your own photographic and personal weaknesses, as established after the personal essay required to apply for the programme. You will spend one day learning from the best photographers, then spend a day shooting the hell out of your given assignment, then another day having your work torn apart in front of your team. It’s a safe space and you quickly learn to trust your mates because you’re in it together, but it’s by no means a comfortable photo critique.

After that, you shoot the assignment again based on the feedback you receive. At the end of it all, you might expect to have around 10 strong images. Fail. Try again. Fail better.

Everything sounds so easy in theory, doesn’t it?

What was my Foundation experience?

I attended Foundation in Ubeda, Spain and was fortunate to work under the guidance of some of the most amazing mentors and photographers in the industry. Both my instructors have a professional photojournalism background: Tyler Wirken, acclaimed documentary photographer and CreativeLive instructor and Candice Cusic, Pulitzer Prize winner with her team at the Chicago Tribune. The Spanish language teachers were Sergio Lopez and Citlalli Ricco. All of them are incredibly badass! :) If they’re not on your photography radar already, please check them out because they’re amazingly talented photographers and great mentors.

There was little sleep going on over the five days of Foundation, and there was much frustration. All the images I shot, all the images everyone shot, were critiqued in front of everyone else. Everything. No single mistake left undiscussed, no good photo left unpraised. But good images were few and far between and the praise was scarce.

Emotions run high for everyone. That can be your own emotional attachment to your subject or the images you worked hard to produce, an overwhelming feeling of frustration, intense bouts of laughter for reasons no-one else can comprehend, tears of love as you realise how similar your subjects are to your (insert-close-relative-here), or annoyance and disappointment at the fact that, no matter what you do, your images are not strong enough to tell the story you feel they could tell.

The thing is, Foundation is not about making prettier pictures. Foundation is a workshop for people photographers and being a people photographer is an ongoing process. You can learn to make complex and visually compelling images, but I strongly believe that your best images will not come from visual gimmickry, but from putting something of yourself out there. The relationship between the subject and the photographer is above all an inter-personal relationship. We expect our subjects to be vulnerable and honest in front of the camera, but we should also expect the same thing of ourselves behind the camera.

There is this story of a Foundation student who was assigned to photograph a big family with multiple children. The parents would often shout at the children or discipline them, and this was in contradiction to that photographer’s own beliefs about parenting. But here’s the thing – as photographers, if we want to be truthful and honest with our work, we are not there to judge. We are there to observe and document, aware that our own biases might influence the way we shoot.

On some days, we might feel tired, or hung over, or bored, but those kinds of things can easily be identified. The harder stuff to catch is the way our subconscious values, the ones we don’t even realise we have, influence our photography. I’m not telling you anything that hasn’t been said before, but this is important. I was made aware of some of my subtle biases, and how these are likely influenced by some of my core beliefs. And every now and then, these core beliefs creep up on you, without you consciously being aware, and influence what you choose to photograph and how.

But, like riding a bike, it’s one thing to watch a video about it, another thing to try it and an entirely different thing to do it every day. I’m more aware of these kinds of things now, but change is slow and the path of least resistance is strong. Self-knowledge is the key here and the only way forward as a photographer, after you’ve mastered the technical and aesthetic aspects of visual storytelling.

For me, Foundation came at a time when I was seriously considering quitting photography. After Foundation, I was ranked among the top 100 wedding photographers by ISPWP and WPJA. It’s not because my photography changed dramatically overnight. It’s because I learned patience. I learned to not be content too easily. Foundation had exposed me to something I hadn’t done in a long time – shoot with intent, stick with the shot until I’m happy with my work. It’s hard to do that on a wedding day, when you feel like a Jack Russel on amphetamines, trying to run from moment to moment, sniffing them all, for fear of missing something important. And this is a tough judgment to make: do you focus depth or breadth of coverage?

I made some of my favourite photographs when I gave myself time to think before pressing the shutter, when I saw a moment starting to happen in front of the camera and shot right through it. Awards weren’t my goal when I decided to attend Foundation, my goal was to figure out my relationship with photography and, to a degree, with myself. And that story, of almost wanting to quit, of being plagued by doubt, I heard again and again from some amazing photographers I got to speak with. No-one, not even the best photographer in the world, has it all figured out. Everyone is struggling with something. It’s a process, and I will have good days and bad days, and that’s fine.

My favourite photo, my biggest failure

My assignment at Foundation was to photograph Miguel (not his real name). He was working for a small company, changing car windows. His day would start early, he would drive most of the day to the clients’ locations, do the job, come back to the office, get another assignment and do it all over again. Then again. Then again. Because he was good at it, he’d often be called in at weekends and six-day work weeks were fairly typical for him. There was no glamour or glory in his job, just monotony.

Miguel was a difficult subject: in our first few hours together I didn’t get a word out of him. He didn’t understand the point of my being there. The camera obviously made him feel awkward. But people are always more complex than our first impressions lead us to believe. By the end of the day, he invited me into his house, where I met his wife and child and I felt deeply moved by his motivation and dedication. He was doing it all for his family. Suddenly, looking at Miguel and his monotonous job, my frustrations with wedding photography and the repetitiveness of what we do became misplaced and trivial. I saw myself as the person I hate the most: a spoiled, entitled brat, who doesn’t appreciate what he really has.

The first day I photographed him, I approached it like shooting a wedding. I photographed everything with no thought given to the big-picture story of what I was trying to tell about him. A series of unconnected images that, I hoped, would tell a story by the end. The only story they told was how to change a car window, like one of those Ikea installation guides. After the critique, I learned to slow down. I felt I understood him a bit better and I wanted to work on making images that would say a meaningful and truthful story. I wanted to take my time with the shots, maybe tell multiple stories in one image and at a bare minimum shoot with intent.

I was very excited with this particular image below. One of the jobs was to change all the windows of a tractor that had rolled over. Big industrial complex, grungy textures, moody lighting – the photography gods had smiled on me on the second day.

I found a high vantage point on the tractor and I shot patiently and diligently. I noticed that the space in the top left corner was empty, so I stood there a good 15 minutes waiting for something to happen in that frame. My balance was unstable, my legs wobbly from trying to not fall over, my breath shallow and controlled. I was literally sweating this photo. When the black cat finally snuck by, I was elated. Click-click-click-click-click-click until the camera buffer was full. My patience would be rewarded, my image would be awesome!

Then the review sessions came. Not a glance was given to this image that I worked so hard for, that I was so attached to. My ego bubble had been burst. But Candice and Tyler were right – it was good that I worked so hard to make this image, but the cat is not enough to make it strong. It shouldn’t be about the cat, it should be about Miguel. And everyone is looking down in the picture, and meaningful interaction is lacking and, hell, I could have stepped down my aperture even more. They were right – I had worked hard for this shot, so I became attached to it for the wrong reasons. But at least this process had given me a glimpse into what can happen when you start truly working the scene. Fail. Try again. Fail better.

Is Foundation right for you?

The first week after Foundation, I would have recommended it to anyone. Now I’m not so sure. It has definitely made me a stronger shooter and allowed me to identify some weaknesses to correct.

That said, I don’t think Foundation is for everyone. It really depends on the kind of person and photographer you are. Most people are fully able to run very successful photography businesses without the gruelling introspection that Foundation forces on you. I don’t recommend Foundation if you’re just looking to improve your business or take prettier pictures.

I do recommend it you are looking to find or refine your voice, if you feel there is something deep inside you that you can’t quite identify by yourself, if you have a block or a barrier that is holding you back from being a better photographer – whatever that may mean for you. Sometimes you are aware of your fears as a photographer – the fear of getting closer to your subjects, both physically and emotionally, is an often-recurring one. Foundation will definitely help you overcome that. Other times, your fears are so subtle, so rooted in your core beliefs and values, that you don’t even know they’re there. And if you’re willing to be honest with yourself during this demanding week, Foundation will help you identify those as well.

Someone recently asked me whether Foundation was right for them. I honestly can’t answer that question. What I can tell you is that, in my experience, Foundation will come when you are ready for it. I think everyone gets something out of it, but everyone’s insights are unique and deeply personal. My epiphany will not be your epiphany. Consider Dorothy’s adventures in Oz. Think of the lion, and the scarecrow and the tin man. Like the trip down the yellow brick road, what awaits you at the end will be very personal and likely only truly useful to you.

While I cannot give anyone a definitive answer to the question “Should I do Foundation?”, if you are considering doing it, it might be useful to think about a few things:

  1. Are you a master of your gear and your craft? This workshop will not teach you how to use your camera or how to compose an image. If you’re not there yet, there are workshops more suited for you.
  2. Are you willing to listen to honestly brutal feedback and accept your own weaknesses? Oftentimes, as soon as our work is critiqued, we go into a defensive mode – I couldn’t get closer, my pictures were boring because nothing was happening, etc. You need to be able to silence that ego and really listen.
  3. Do you believe that photography is as much about the photographer as it is about the craft? Are you willing to change something deep inside of you?
  4. Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years? Still a photographer? What kind of photographer and person do you want to be?
  5. Are you happy with where you are now? If that’s the case, that’s great for you, and if you feel there’s nothing to change, then there’s no need for this workshop. 

All behind-the-scenes photos by Miguel Onieva