Week-long workshop to help Thai photographers find their focus

Magnum Photos pros share their secrets for creating compelling images

Photo from Jacob Aue Sobol's book, The River Of Kings. Photos © Jacob Aue Sobol / Magnum Photos

Almost every budding photographer's dream is to be a member of the legendary Magnum Photos agency. So it was an exciting moment for Thai photo-geeks in early August when the organisation announced that two of their renowned members, Jacob Aue Sobol and David Alan Harvey, would visit Bangkok to lead a seven-day photography workshop.

From Oct 23 to 29, participants will be mentored by the two celebrated photographers, whose photographic styles are on complete opposite ends of the spectrum. Danish photographer Aue Sobol is known for his soulfully raw, intimate and emotionally charged black and white photography. He studied at the European Film College and Danish School of Documentary Art and Photography. His unique aesthetic started from very personal events. He pinpoints Sabine, his former Greenlandic girlfriend, as the starting point for his renowned raw, snapshot style.

"In the autumn of 1999 I went to live in the settlement of Tiniteqilaaq on the East Coast of Greenland," he said. "I lived with my girlfriend [Sabine] and her family, living the life of a fisherman and hunter but also photographing.

"I wanted to document their life in Greenland and initially worked with a heavy SLR camera. It became apparent that I was useless to the family as a photographer. As a member of the community I needed to hunt and get food for the family. One day I lost the big camera out in the ice, and I decided to focus on being a provider instead.

"Then one morning when Sabine was getting ready to go to a family christening, she was very excited and dancing around the house. She lifted her skirt ... and I grabbed my pocket camera to take a shot. This is when my new focus and photographic style began out of my love for Sabine."

After his relationship with Sabine ended, Sobol's projects started out with an interest or fascination for a place or people instead. "They don't begin from the same intimate relationship as Sabine, but do end up being very personal in the end."

He's been to Bangkok before in 2008, capturing the slums and the city's impoverished street kids, published in his photo book By The River of Kings.

"I found my interest in the sois, the narrow streets that surrounded the muddy river, the Chao Phraya, the street kids in Sukhumvit and the families who live by the old train tracks that run through the slum of Klong Toey," he said.

"This is where people caught my attention -- people I felt a connection with, or an attraction towards, and who were willing to communicate with me or just share a brief moment or closeness."

Sobol works from instinct. To him, taking photos resembles an improvised game. The more a photo is spontaneous and unplanned, the more it becomes more alive -- moving from showing to existing.

"There is no particular formula or gear that you can buy to achieve this," he said. "It's more about the connection with the subject."

For the workshop, the 40-year-old plans to help participants be the best that they can be.

"My workshops are always a place for new encounters, as well as a journey to one's own self," he said. "The ambition is to create images with a visual distinction -- one that's connected with our personality so when we look at the picture, we want to know and feel who the author is."

American photographer David Alan Harvey, the other professional who will lead the workshop, is known for his keen eye and ability to turn the vernacular into spectacular cinematic-like shots and narratives.

Painted dancers in Brazil's largest Carnival street parade in Salvador, in 2002. David Alan Harvey

Having worked at National Geographic for the majority of his career, Harvey, now 72, is a veteran photographer and founder and editor of Burn Magazine. His love for the art form began when he was 11 years old.

His first projects as a youth were simply capturing in black and white his family and everyday life. But everything changed when he self-published his first photo book Tell It Like It Is in 1967, in which he documented the lives of a black family in Northfolk, Virginia -- a family he decided to live with during a summer while in graduate school. He even sold copies of the book to raise money for the African-American church in the community. "It was a time of racial turmoil," he said. "I felt I should do something positive with my camera. I had a sense of social justice early on. I did not want to capture 'poverty'. I wanted to capture everyday life -- to show that black people were the same as everyone else."

At 25, Harvey started experimenting in colour photography that later braced the pages of National Geographic for many, many years. "My colour work is very monochromatic. Not much colour," he said. "Only one colour, usually. So I think black and white even when I am shooting colour."

What's unique about Harvey's photographs though, is its narrative nature, something he does by "just feeling it".

"Shooting what something looks like is the same as looking at a map or any didactic material," he explained. "A map explains where you went on a trip … but it has no 'feeling' for the trip itself. I immerse myself in the subject. I feel it. I just don't see it. You must get dirty, sweaty, feel pain, feel joy, get wrapped up in the subject for your photographs to sing. Feeling is the key."

The Trinidad Folkoric Ballet in Cuba rehearses in an empty courtyard. Photos © David Alan Harvey / Magnum Photos

Harvey, like Sobol, hopes workshop participants will find their own voice and style. "It's not easy," he added. "You have to think something. Feel something. Have something to say besides just light, shadow and composition. If you do not have any opinion, nothing on your mind, or nothing to say, you cannot be a serious photographer."

There will be a pop up exhibition of Jacob Aue Sobol and David Alan Harvey's photographs from Sunday to Oct 29 at the RMA Institute in Klong Toey with an artist's talk on Saturday from 6-8pm.

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