Fine art photographer and Lenscratch founder Aline Smithson will lead the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops “Cuba with Intention” workshop in Camagüey, Cuba from February 4 to 12 2018. “I often review portfolios of photographers who have made work during travel to far flung places,” Smithson says. “Often times the portfolios are beautifully shot, but ultimately there is nowhere for the work to go as they aren’t covering any new terrain or showing us something we don’t already know.” Smithson spoke to us about how her workshop, which she is co-teaching with Carrie McCarthy, will help attendees elevate their work.
PDN: Who is your workshop for and what are you hoping to teach?
Aline Smithson: I’ve been teaching a class for the last several years called “Photographing with Intention.” I realized that many photographers take all these workshops about the technical side of photography, and they haven’t really considered focusing in a profound way on what they’re shooting. I have had a number of students who have come to my classes with travel photographs that weren’t shot with intention—photographs which are of all the shiny objects they see along their journey, and it doesn’t make for a story. With this workshop, what I’m hoping to do is give photographers some ideas and ways of shooting where they could come back and perhaps then put this work out into the fine-art market, rather than just having it live in the travel photo market.
PDN: What do you mean when you talk about shooting with intention?
AS: One way to describe it is, when you take a road trip, you always bring a map. And so rather than just go out without any idea of what you’re shooting, actually begin to look for things to shoot. One way to do that is through typologies, where you are looking for something in that culture that you see over and over again and you photograph it. When you put it all together, you can compare and contrast this one object or idea. For example, Michael Wolf did this great project called Bastard Chairs, which is a typology of chairs that people [in China] put together to sit on. And that’s the kind of thing [I mean] when I say typology. You’re looking for something that is really specific to that culture that shows us something that we don’t know.
PDN: The typology of Cuba that has been so overdone is the old American cars.
PDN: How do you see beyond things like that if you’re new to a culture, and everything seems so new to you?
AS: One of my friends, Simone Lueck, [went to Cuba] and the first day she was there, she went out without her camera and just walked the streets and observed. One thing she noticed was that the front doors were open and people’s televisions were on, whether they were at home or not. She started realizing that the television is like another member of the family. So she went back and photographed people’s living rooms with the television on, and came out with a terrific body of work called “Cuba TV.” She went on to [publish] a monograph of that work. It came from looking at a culture in a new way, and seeing what was unique about it.
It is really hard to do when you are on the ground and have to work quickly, but that’s why perhaps we need to investigate some things before we go: learn a little bit about the history, the culture, the ceremonies before you go, so you have an idea of what you’re shooting. At the beginning of the workshop, I’ll spend maybe half a day having the students look at tons and tons of work made in Cuba from a more artistic point of view that will perhaps inspire them.
PDN: What kinds of exercises will you give the students to help them figure out how to photograph in Camagüey with intention?
AS: One thing is to have a day when you’re really absorbing the culture, and you come back with ideas about what you can shoot, and we can explore and expand those ideas. It’s planting the seeds in photographers that they don’t need to photograph all the classic Cuba stuff—if they want to they can, and if they went to Cuba and didn’t they’d probably be disappointed. But I want them to make work in addition to that. It’s an usual place to go, where things have stood still. But things are changing with the teenage and millenial generations, as they now have cell phones for the first time, and thinking about technology, maybe [workshop attendees] can make a small series that speaks to the change whether we understand it or not.
For example, Greg Kahn’s “Havana Youth” project focused in on the 19 to 23 year-old population and how they went from rotary phones to cell phones, and how that’s radically changing that generation. Things like that, I find way more interesting than cars and cigars. So that’s the kind of thing I want people to be looking for.
PDN: You mentioned having students explore at first—do you mean explore first without a camera?
AS: Yes, and I know that’s really hard for people, but I think it’s not a bad idea, because when you have the camera up all the time, you’re not seeing things in a deeper way. You’re not seeing the whole, because you’re always looking for the details.
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