Stepping Stones: Magnum Photos Workshop with David Alan Harvey

It’s been almost a month since I came back from Bangkok after joining Magnum Photos Workshop with David Alan Harvey. It was, as David himself warned me–no joke, a tough week but yet a life changing experience in my entire photographic journey. Now I just need to get these thoughts out of my head, hopefully would give a peek to everyone who has been curious about the workshop and maybe learn a thing or two.

I was lucky.

Couple months back, I submitted my works to a photo festival and was intended to join the workshop because I thought I need to learn more about making photo story. It was hard for me to make one story because I used to do single images back then when I was in Reuters. Long story short, I was rejected. I was like “okay… now what?”

But then it followed by unproductive and depressive weeks.

I get to Magnum Photos workshop through scholarship program from Burn Magazine which I should have attended last September in New York, but I didn’t make it–I was inside a ship just arrived in Banda Islands when Burn team sent me an email, offering me the scholarship program. I discussed with David and he allowed me to join his class in Bangkok instead.

The class was begun with a joined session–both David Alan Harvey and Jacob Aue Sobol speak about making works in a very deep personal level. Both of them agree that they need to fall in love when doing their story—either literally with your loved one, or with short encounter with people on the street.

Jacob’s story about his first book, Sabine, was intrigue me the most. The book is about his relationship with Sabine, Inuit tribe women whom he fell in love with during his visit to Greenland. The journey of traditional seal hunting cost him his professional gear, left him only several rolls of film and a pocket camera. But who knows his journey in photography was begun that way?

As the book published almost a decade later, it sparked two side of extreme opinion in the society; the one who saw it as the most beautiful and honest works of him, and the other who despise him for just exploring an Inuit women in a country where once colonized by Denmark. But later on, he realized that it is the strength of his work; an open interpretation, a freedom to the viewer to judge his works as how they see it.

“How people see my photographs is neither longer in my control, nor depict my works or myself, instead it is reflecting who they really are and how they perceive things” – Jacob Aue Sobol

Class started with portfolio reviews and what story I would be working on during the 7 days of workshop. David approached the student by building something from what we already have, from our background and pushes it to the limit. Some of the students were struggling to choose their topic until the middle of the workshop—but surprisingly come with the most personal story in the end. I was making a story about Muslim minority in Bangkok, as a contrast to situation in Indonesia where the biggest Muslim population in the world seems to be threatened with issues like Jakarta governor election. As most of my career was covering Muslim minority such as Rohingya refugee in Aceh last year, I can’t begin to understand where the fear was coming from. We have enough shelter to live, peace to pray, mosque everywhere, freedom to wear hijab, and national holiday during many Islamic celebration. So here’s to my photo-essay, yours to judge.

In class with another 13 talented students was an eye-opening experience to me. I witnessed the many different possibilities of creation on unique works during a week of workshop. Some of them were spontaneous, some were very personal. One of my favorite was Argus Paul, he was photographing about his experience in Bangkok during 30 days moratorium of the king which was published directly on Burn Magazine after the workshop was over. Looking through his photo essay was, out of mind, he literally made photograph from out of nothing—same with Duncan Wright, he has a truly aesthetic vision on things. When you compare our photo essay, you can see that we were working on totally different approach.

Same with David and Jacob—the Magnum photographers were distinctively different to each other, both in their works and their way of teaching. David is the man who will put himself on your shoes while also having his perspective when he critiques your works. As you see it clearly through his works, Jacob’s approach is through emotion. He will see how a photograph triggers certain emotion, as you can compare below, Jacob’s edit on my photo essay. He left out straight-forward pictures, instead choosing the ones that are not literal and more mysterious, which gave him certain feeling when he saw the photographs.


We can divide a photograph in two different kind of language: literal and non-literal.  Literal language often used in news photojournalism, where you can see images that describe clearly about certain event. But it cannot be denied that many times photojournalism has gone beyond that, and that is what make a photograph become iconic because it speaks beyond what you can see, give you butterfly in your stomach, or even make you think. It’s not only in photojournalism; it could be in landscape, still life, portrait, or anything you name it. When it goes beyond once it was, it becomes something more important than just a literal picture of something.

The obstacle for us to get to that level is because we used to do everything instantly. Take a picture, post it on Instagram, and get (most of the times good) appreciation directly and left out satisfied with hundreds of likes. Nothing wrong with that but when it affects the way you’re working, you’ll be doomed (like me 🙁 ). We need to work really hard, like David always reminds his student is to, squeeze the lemon dry. When you see a photo-op, work on it. Don’t get satisfied too quickly and moving to another place. Stay until it done, until you can’t photograph that anymore. You know, a picture to a photograph might just an inch away. 😉

By the end of this writing, eventually, the bottom line is our way of thinking about things. That’s what makes a photographer get to Magnum or anywhere else. It is their contact sheet. Looking to David’s and Jacob’s work then when I met them in person, I begin to understand that most of great photographers are put themselves into their picture. When Magnum saw Sabine book, they know that it is Jacob.

Look to ourselves in the mirror, and accept whoever they are with all of their flaws. They might be a hateful being, who have trust issues on people, a broken home kid who was once molested when she was young. Once I thought making a story about personal life is easier than covering issues somewhere else, because we don’t need to spend much money on travels and stuff, and it’s close to us. But it IS NOT.

It’s like looking down to your own abyss—to look back at something you were once eager to leave behind, experience it all over again, and make a story about it in an order to make peace with your past.

That is what makes us, us. That’s what makes me like I am today.


Other student’s works:

Rahid Hasan

Giovanni Ceccareli

Jacek Obloj

Priscilla Falcon

Mariagrazia Beruffi  from Jacob’s Class