Jamie Rose is the Director of Momenta Workshops. Leica Camera AG serves as a sponsor of their Nonprofit Project Series of workshops. Here Jaime shares a story from Momenta’s recent Project India Workshop.
Most photographers are gear addicts. When someone launches a new generation of a camera or a new lens, we want to buy it, test it, play with it. If one camera is good, we want two. If someone else has a new version, our old version feels incomplete. While this thought process can lead to experimentation and creativity, it can sometimes lead to an overload of equipment and a reliance on technology to solve creative problems.
My job as Director of Momenta Workshops is to teach and lead documentary photographers on workshops all over the world. Our programs are designed to train photographers in documentary storytelling. We work with still photographers and multimedia producers during a one or two week intensive program that features nightly lectures, one-on-one editing daily and a large public final slideshow at the end of each workshop. While we host one travel-specific photography workshop a year, our lineup focuses predominately on working with nonprofits in areas of Asia, Africa and the United States.
Each workshop attendee is paired with a nonprofit assignment. Under the guidance of our instructors, the photographers work on photo stories centered around the social and humanitarian issues relevant to that nonprofit. It is a wonderful way to combine the joy of photography, the passion for social good and the experience of helping a small, underfunded nonprofit grow.
Our students come to us at all skill levels from beginners to professionals. No matter their level, one of my first points of advice when I spot a gear addict is to “lighten up!” By this I mean stop carrying around all that just in case gear and learn to get back to the basics. When most of us started out, we only had one camera and one lens. We learned that small kit like the back our hand. We learned to zoom with our feet and not the lens. Yet, as we acquire more gear, we can become unconsciously dependent on it.
When forced to use one camera or one lens, I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a student say, “But what if I need my 200mm zoom lens?” or “What if I must have autofocus?” My answer is usually, “Henri Cartier-Bresson didn’t need it, so why do you?”
We are so lucky to have Leica Camera AG as a sponsor of our Nonprofit Project Series of workshops. With this sponsorship, we are able to offer the students the opportunity to put down their huge DSLR kits and pick up an M9 system for their projects. The lightweight system, the clarity of the lenses and the inconspicuous size of the M9 helps the photographers to remember how the creative process just needs a few quality elements to tell a great story.
Sometimes, however, it is better to show this lesson than to say it.
Therefore, on our last nonprofit workshop in Northern India, we took a train from Dehradun to Delhi. While having this discussion with a student, I got the idea to do an entire photo story on the train with only the Leica X1. One camera, one focal length, one train ride.
All I can say is, “Oh, what fun!”
There was just a few train cars to work with and only a few hours. I ran back and forth looking for the elements of a photo story that we drill into our students over the course of the two weeks: an opening shot, a moment, a detail, a portrait, a closer.
At first, I just wanted to see if I could pull it off. I wanted to prove to the students that any photographer could tell a story in a few hours with one camera and one lens. Soon though, I was having a blast!
I crouched down, following a soup hawker with his shiny silver tureen up and down the cars as he yelled out, “tomato soup!” I photographed people dozing in their seats, reading the paper, chatting up their neighbors while waiting for the next stop. I hung out of the windows and tried to get people waiting at the train crossings.
As we whizzed passed another train, I put the X1 on manual focus set at five feet away, put my aperture at f/8 and just kept clicking the shutter out the window. The train was going so fast my naked eye couldn’t focus on it. I thought, “If this actually works, I’ll be amazed.” Suddenly, though, the preview flashed a photo of a man in a bright pink shirt on a cell phone perfectly sharp and once again, Leica lived up to the challenge.
While I was trying to prove a point in a fun creative way to my students, my moment of humble realization hit when I saw a young beggar boy hop on at a train stop. I followed him into the upper class train car. He would wipe the floors with a dirty rag and then beg for change. At each row, he would repeat this process. As I saw his raised hand, his plaintive look and his filthy feet, I noticed the passengers uncomfortably trying to ignore him.
I put the camera down at hip level and used the small, unassuming camera to minimize my own presence. A young boy with a pink striped hat couldn’t help staring as he passed and I snapped my shots. No one even glanced at the famously quiet snick of the Leica shutter. Minutes later, the train started to move away, the beggar boy popped up and ran for the door. In just a short few seconds, I had captured a surprising moment for my photo story.
The train chugged along. I got my portrait of a hard working train employee, a detail of the cups for Indian Railways and my closing shots of the train passengers crowding to get out with the help of the porters. In Delhi, I had to jump off, work with our fixer to get our bags and help the students get back to the final day of lectures for the workshop. My story was done and it had been a wonderful way to enjoy a train ride.
When I pulled up the images on the computer later, I realized I had reminded myself of the lesson I was trying to teach. You really do only need a great quality camera, one excellent lens and a really great moment to create a worthy photograph.
To learn more about Momenta Workshops, visit momentaworkshops.com.