Dear photography workshop and conference organizers, we need to have a chat. There is a lot of nonsense going on in the workshop world, and it needs to stop. Taking someone’s money and promising that you can help their business is no joke, and it needs to be taken seriously!
Every week we hear a story of yet another workshop filled with damaging business advice, dishonest marketing, or physical safety issues, and with each new story we hear, we start to feel a personal responsibility to say something. To use our voice to try to help put an end to bad workshops, and to encourage the photography industry to demand higher standards and better workshop experiences.
In preparation for this article, we asked the photography community to anonymously share some of their experiences. Based on what we heard, we created a short list addressing the most common workshop complaints, and included a handful of real comments we received. So, let’s dive right in.
1. Act Like a Professional
Seems obvious right? Well, apparently it’s not. The following are just a few examples of some extreme unprofessionalism we heard complaints about: instructors showing up hungover or doing drugs, total disorganization and chaos during the workshop, lying or stealing, and harassment or physical violence of any kind. Guys, really, if these things are going on at your workshops, you should be ashamed. Unprofessionalism is absolutely unacceptable and should not be tolerated by anyone.
The lady running it brought guys into the house and had sex with them during the workshop, and everyone could hear it. She would also get drunk and bail on the sessions she was supposed to teach.
The mentors did not fulfill ANY expectations from our contract, she verbally harassed me, and sexually assaulted me. She yelled and threatened the other students and we were even kicked out of our shooting locations because she did not get proper permits.
The workshop was canceled and no deposits were refunded. It has never been rescheduled. This was about 2 years ago!
2. Have Something to Teach
Just because you’re famous on Instagram, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ready to teach a workshop. If you’re truly passionate about education, and have something awesome to share and then go for it, but if you’ve decided to start teaching just because you want to make a quick buck, then you need to stop right now. Putting together an awesome workshop takes LOTS of time, money, and love. They are not “easy money”, and if they are, then you’re definitely doing it wrong.
We didn’t learn anything. The instructor spent most of the workshop gossiping about his personal life, gossiping about other photographers, and sharing his conspiracy theories that other photographers were sabotaging his workshops.
3. Don’t Be a Jerk
Listen, I don’t care how big of an industry rock star you are, stop the social ladder climbing for ten seconds, and spend time with the people who paid good money to meet you and learn from you. You are not “better than them” or “cooler than them” so drop the diva act and be a decent human being.
I went to a conference where the leaders were in a huge clique, and wouldn’t even bother talking to us at all. They rolled their eyes when we approached them, and were very rude.
The entire time we were there we heard about taking care of your clients first and foremost, but at this workshop we were the clients and we didn’t feel taken care of. The instructors were mean and rude, and I felt like once they had my money, they couldn’t have cared less about me.
4. Sleeping and Lodging
Hands down the most popular complaint we heard was about sleeping and lodging arrangements, so I want to make this part very clear. If you promise your attendees a bed, you better give them a damn bed. Do not, under any circumstances, make adults sleep co-ed or share a bed with a stranger. If you do plan to do this at your workshop, it better be made crystal freaking clear to them before they sign up, and not just thrown at them when they arrive. Comfort is everything, and where people sleep matters.
The lodging we received was nothing like we were promised. The windows were broken, and there were leaves, dirt, and spiders everywhere. We had to clean and move the metal bunks and mattresses ourselves. The bathrooms and showers were all co-ed which made everyone I talked to very uncomfortable. The bathroom closest to my cabin overflowed the first day and there was feces floating all over the floor. Despite paying for lodging with the price of the ticket, myself and many other people left and got hotel rooms.
Good quality food is expensive, but hungry people are not happy people. So, if you’ve promised meals, suck it up and spend some money on real food, don’t skimp just to save a buck. Frozen Costco pizzas won’t cut it if you’ve advertised nice catered meals. Also, provide realistic alternatives for people with dietary restrictions, because vegans get hungry too.
We didn’t get dinner on either night which was not OK, because it was listed in what we were getting, so spending an extra $70 on dinner both nights wasn’t in my budget. We were in cabins in the middle of no-where, and the closest food was 45 minutes away, so we were on our own if we didn’t want to starve.
6. Advertise Honestly
I don’t care how badly you want to sell tickets, advertising dishonestly is disgusting. Your workshop is not “intimate” if there are 30 people. Advertising styled shoots as “portfolio building” and then not letting the photographers use the images they took so you can get featured is awful. Be honest so people know what to expect, and then deliver what you’ve promised, and be respectful of the time, effort and money people are spending to learn from us.
We were promised a beautiful and elaborate outdoor styled shoot. When we arrived, it was in a dark storage room. This was a portfolio building workshop but because she wanted to get it published exclusively, we were told we weren’t even allowed to use the photos. We felt robbed and tricked.
All the shoots were in national parks and we had to pay the $30 fee out-of-pocket for each shoot, we weren’t told about ahead of time. It would have been fine if we knew, but $90 extra on top of what we’d already spent felt like a slap in the face.
7. Ask for Feedback, and Then Don’t Complain About It
If you care at all, you should welcome feedback from your attendees. No matter how hard you try, you won’t please everyone, and so some feedback might be hard to hear, but check your pride for a second, and remember that all feedback is important, and absolutely necessary if you have any desire to improve. Everyone makes mistakes, but refusing to learn from them is not OK. We should always be striving to do better, because “good enough” is not good enough.
They sent out a review, but then were publicly defensive and rude to those of us who had complaints. They refused to even apologize for anything that was happening. It was just sort of ‘you guys are adults, so get over it.
For Those Who Have Attended a Bad Workshop…
We have a few pieces of advice for you. After you’ve had a minute to process your experience, try reaching out to the coordinators, and see if you can reach a solution. If it is beyond that, then I encourage you to share your experience publicly, both with the instructor, and the photography community.
If the photographer who ran the workshop has a profile on Wedding Wire, The Knot, Facebook, or Yelp, you should seriously consider leaving them a review. As consumers, we have every right to review the things we’ve spent our hard-earned money on. We also have a responsibility to the community to demand higher standards, and the only way this will happen is if people are honest and make their experiences public.
This might seem scary, and I know people may fear backlash from popular photographers, but myself, and so many others are on your side.
For All Future Workshop Attendees…
You have a responsibility too. Don’t just sign up for something because your favorite photographer is going to be there. Do your research. Read the entire website, all of the FAQ’s and testimonials. Search online for reviews, or reach out to past attendees for references.
Be careful of unrealistic sounding promises, and ask for real details and information if none can be found online. If it is a new workshop, do your research on the teacher and organizers, and put in the time to research who you are investing in. Workshop coordinators that really care about providing you with a good experience should be happy to share information with you.
Phew! I know that was a lot, but as workshop and conference organizers, we owe it to the community to do better, and as students and attendees spending lots of money, we definitely deserve as much.
About the author: Grace & Jaden are a husband and wife team of wedding and travel photographers based in the Pacific Northwest. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors. You can find more of their work on their website.