From ‘Yes, but what does it mean?’ to ‘Finding your photographic voice’, this year’s International Summer School of Photography in Latvia offered a diverse, vibrant and intensive programme of workshops to it’s 73 participants, selected from 23 countries worldwide.
Directed by Julija Berkovica, the ISSP was established in 2006 with the ambition of offering an annual weeklong ‘concentrated learning experience’ to a wide range of artists, from advanced amateurs to professional photographers.
Each year a variety of photographic masters are invited to deliver the workshops. Successful applicants are assigned to their masters based on their preferences during the entry process. This year the workshops were delived by Jodi Bieber, Christian Caujolle, Arja Hyytäinen, Hellen van Meene, Phillip Toledano, Bas Vroege and Hans van der Meer.
I applied for Hellen van Meene’s workshop to compel myself to ‘do’ rather than think about doing, and to allow specific focus on my practice in an intense creative environment with a photographer that I have been greatly influenced by. I was therefore both excited and apprehensive to have been accepted for Hellen’s class, ‘Portraits: A practical guide to the art of seeing’.
Throughout the duration of the week, participants were expected to produce a personal body of work ready to be exhibited on the final evening and for the month to follow, in the beautiful city of Kuldiga just a few miles from the ISSP teaching base at the historic Pelci Castle.
Our days began with optional yoga, were filled with concentrated independent and group work within our workshops, and ended with a fantastic lecture series delivered each evening by all of the masters, the participants and guest speakers including Erik Vroons (Editor, GUP Magazine) and Marta Szymanska (Director, Lodz Photography Festival). We were also offered at least two portfolio reviews with masters and guest reviewers throughout the week.
During my group’s initial meeting with Hellen, we began to understand each other as photographers and individuals through sharing our portfolios, and what we considered our least successful images. From there we began to formulate potential project ideas for the coming week.
What ensued for us was an emotional and challenging few days. I was stimulated to focus simply on the complexities of form and the use of light within portraiture. Through guidance, evaluating my own process, and particularly by observing the practice and work of others, I was encouraged to question in more depth what I was seeing; how and when to respond to it, and my own approach to work in the future.
Days and occasionally nights of shooting were accompanied by individual and collective editing sessions, where I learnt to be more meticulous and clear in choices of composition and content, and more confident in refining my visual language.
From developing film to printing, all facilities were available on site, with technicians and volunteers often working through the night to ensure the system ran like clockwork for all the participants.
On the final evening the party began with the opening of our exhibition at Kuldiga Town Exhibition Hall, and we were joined by the town officials and locals, some of who were the subjects of various participants’ projects. What struck me was the diversity and distinctiveness of the work, which included prints, books, films and installation pieces. Later that night the works were also screened in a public slideshow at Kuldiga open-air cinema.
It was dfficult to adjust to leaving Pelci Castle behind. ISSP was an extraordinary experience, made possible by the excellent planning and organisation, the teaching, the facilities, the collective encouragement, and most importantly, the energy and commitment of all the people involved. If you’re considering applying for a photography workshop next year, all I can say is look no further.