Faces of Seoul Workshop with David Guttenfelder

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending a lecture and workshop with the esteemed National Geographic photographer David Guttenfelder. If you are not familiar with his work then you should really check out his site and his instagram. David is probably one of the most interesting photographers that I have had the pleasure of meeting. His accomplishments are amazing and the stories that he told during not only his lecture but the workshop were unlike anything that I’ve heard before. I will leave the fanboy gushing for a later time and just let you read his about page to fully understand how awesome David is.

The lecture

It was interesting to see the different people that collected in the Seoul City Hall building on that Saturday afternoon. From mother’s to longtime expats like myself, it was a great collection of creative minds. It was inspiring to hear how dedicated David is to photography and the stories that he is trying to capture. What came across to me was not someone “faking it til he made it” but rather someone willing to risk everything for a cause or to tell the right story.

David mentioned about how places like National Geographic are looking for “purpose driven photographers” and those who are committed to a cause. I find that these are the types of photographers that are better equipped to tell a story than those like me who are simply after a beautiful sunset.  He noted that good photographers use composition, intent and humour to illustrate a point. That was something that stood out to me along with some very poignant photos.

One of the more interesting things that was brought up in the lecture was the use of iPhones and camera-phones. David mentioned that in recent times his iPhone has almost become his primary camera. This was something of a shock to me as I was expecting him to have his own line of Leica cameras or something. However, David related a story of how difficult it was to process film in 3rd world countries. Noting that he and his fellow photographers were overjoyed when digital cameras were made available. David remarked about how “you have to speak the same language as the subject” and often times that is as simple as just using a cellphone instead of a DSLR. He mentioned how even people in North Korea have smartphones and are more comfortable having their picture taken with them.

Adding to the digital revolution David talked a lot about how social media really opened the doors to the world. David, in the past was named inaugural Instagram Photographer of the Year by TIME magazine and also consults with the people at Instagram about mobile photography. He also chooses the photos for their Instagram Weekend Hashtag Project or #WHP.

During this lecture, David related a story about the reach of platforms like facebook and instagram. After the 2013 earthquake in the Philippines which caused mass destruction across the entire country, he was there documenting the situation. When people saw his camera, instead of crying out for food or help, they told him to put them on facebook and instagram. Sure enough, once he did, people saw the photos and offered to help. It is that kind of reach that has changed the world of photojournalism forever.

Image courtesy of Leigh MacArthur

The Workshop

I must say that this was a long day. Initially, I thought that the workshop would be just a couple of hours at a prominent Seoul tourist spot. However, we were taken around to 3 different locations and had plenty of time to talk with David and see how he takes his style of photos. It could have been the jetlag but David seemed really intense when we got out and that was an interesting thing. One of my biggest challenges is that I tend to focus more on talking than on the photos when I am out with other photographers. David was busy with the 10 of us and not to mention the Seoul City hall people. However, he never seemed to break his focus.

One of the lessons that he taught me was to try to include a human element in my landscapes. Now this is a fairly basic thing but it was something that I constantly overlooked. To be honest I sort of thought that people in the frame were a bit of an annoyance. David explained how they [people] can add in that certain something that the image maybe lacking. Sometimes this could be scale or just to fill in a gap where the eye is naturally drawn.

During a meal break, we got sit down and talk with David about pretty much anything. It was an interesting discussion as I think everyone really seemed to be choosing their words and thinking of the best questions that I could. I was trying hard not to gush too much and really learn from this experience. David’s responses were full of information, humour and focus. Some of the stories he told had the group just sitting in awe. When someone is telling you about being embedded with marines and the horrors of war, you realize that the frustrations of your daily life are seemingly insignificant.

As the day turned into evening, we changed locations from the Seoullo to the Namsangol Hannock Village. By this time, the  we were getting a little sweaty but still fired up. Many of us were cautious not to be too annoying to David. Thus, we all set out in different locations around the village. I think that this was a great move as we would capture something and then regroup to share and talk about the shots. Seeing the different images that we all took from Namsangol really showed the creative energy of this group.

We decided to head to the Hangang River near Yeouido to capture the cityscapes and life along the Hangang. Due to Seoul’s traffic we missed the blue hour but in the end we all came out with some great shots. Most of us headed directly to the bridge to try and capture the cityscape initially but the real energy came from the riverside. There were buskers and food trucks  dotted along the riverside that emitted the true energy of Seoul. It’s that mix of food, music, and people mixed into this urban environment that really makes Seoul what it is.

The Bottomline

The day finished with a short farewell outside of Seoul Station. David set off to travel around Korea and well all set off home. I was an amazing learning experience that I shall not soon forget. There were so many elements that I have overlooked in my years as a photographer. What makes photographers like David Guttenfelder the best at what they do is the fact that they are focussed and can pull from years of experience to make a great shot. While many of us read and watch tutorials we often lose focus when we are out getting the photos. We (or I) revert back to what we know for sure rather than accessing techniques that we’ve read but are not quite 100% on.

Watching David go around and effortlessly take shots that could be one the cover of National Geographic was as humbling as it was interesting. It was the focus and the intent that really stood out to me. Not to mention being able to take an amazing photograph with his iPhone was another. I left the workshop with my head spinning and less fear about being “stuck” with only my phone. I would like to thank the city of Seoul for setting this amazing event up. As well as I would like to thank David for his patience with all of our questions and taking the time to explain everything to us.

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