From Writing Code to Learning Photojournalism with a Master

I’ve always pursued opportunities to learn. In fact, my passion for learning is one of the things that attracted me to VAWAA in the first place. I’ve studied everything from guitar to swing dancing to the code that keeps the VAWAA website running on a daily basis. 

Most of these ventures, however, were self taught. Which means that eventually, I would almost always reach a peak where I no longer knew what I didn’t know. 

By taking a VAWAA, however, I could have a more intensive experience to really dive into a skill, with a master to guide me further than I could lead myself. With all the self-teaching I’ve been doing, I was ready to give another method a try. So in December of 2017, Geetika and I traveled to Italy to spend five days in Martina Franca on a photojournalism VAWAA with Manoocher

Manoocher in his studio

Manoocher has lived an extraordinarily rich and daring life covering history across the globe through his photojournalism. He has documented political, social, and environmental issues ranging from dictatorships to violent conflicts to the revolution in his native Iran. I firmly believe there is value in spending time with interesting people who are superlative in their field, which is why I ultimately decided to spend my VAWAA with Manoocher. 

Geetika and I first flew into Bari, a small capital city in the region of Puglia in southern Italy. From there, we traveled in a rented car to Martina Franca, the little town near Manoocher in the countryside of the picturesque Valle d'Itria known for its unique trullo architecture and annual summer opera festival. When we arrived, Manoocher, his wife Ursula, and their daughter greeted us warmly, welcoming us into their home. Their home and Manoocher’s studio are in wine country on an estate where they grow much of their own food, make their own olive oil, wine, and preserves, and cook all meals from scratch whenever possible. 

Manoocher and his wife, Ursula, in their home

Learning from Manoocher in the studio

The day after arriving, our creative work began. Our routine was soon established: time in the studio with Manoocher discussing the history of photography, the importance of documenting images, and the impact of stories in photographs. Then we translated these lessons into action, traveling around the local area on assignments from Manoocher to practice our burgeoning skills. From a local Christmas play entirely in Italian to the nearby town of Alberobello and its trullo architecture, our days were filled with adventure and exploration to practice the art of photojournalism. After practicing, we would return to the studio, where Manoocher reviewed our work from the day and gave us feedback. 

Most nights back home were spent in long conversation over wine and dinners cooked by Manoocher’s wife Ursula, an archaeologist who specializes in ancient Medieval cuisine. These long evening discussions on life, current events, philosophies, and ideas were undoubtedly the highlight of the trip. Hearing Manoocher’s stories taught me the power of seeking uncomfortable experiences, as well as the strength and determination to do so, and this lesson is something I’ve carried with me since I left our VAWAA. 

A few other nights, we ventured into town for dinner with Manoocher or to try places he recommended. In true Italian style, we ate pizza and drank the most delicious house wine from bottles that cost 2€.  

One of my earlier photographs on assignment from Manoocher

An example of trullo architecture

Dinner with Ursula and Manoocher

Seeing Manoocher work in the field was the most impactful aspect of our VAWAA. Manoocher is a photojournalist, not just a photographer, and above all he emphasizes the story behind each photograph. In a nearby town, I saw how he approached his subjects, not shy at all, but always respectful. The goal, I learnt, was to establish a relationship so the subject would do things that enabled the perfect shot. I was previously nervous to approach subjects, preferring instead to take stationary shots or photographs from the back. Now I observed how Manoocher casually asked questions to initiate a dialogue and began to learn someone’s story. He taught us how to approach photojournalism: Start with a question. Establish a relationship. Get an invite through someone who can give you access to the community. Above all, ask yourself “How can I tell the story of what’s going on?” Stories were something I had never thought about in my photography before, instead focusing on stylistic elements. Now, because of Manoocher, I started emphasizing the story behind the image, and my photographs instantly improved. 

Learning from the master

Diving into Manoocher's endless resources

One of my final photographs from the field

Delving deeply into photojournalism with Manoocher taught me to be more assertive and braver in social situations. I learned the importance of opening yourself up to opportunities to meet people, no matter how daunting. Once you get to know strangers, it turns out, interesting things happen, both in front of and behind the camera. 

Every person leaves their VAWAA with different experiences and different lessons learned. Ultimately, my VAWAA with Manoocher was a whole new way of learning for me. It was shorter, of course, packed into five days instead of the months it would usually take me. But that didn’t make it any less productive. With a master artist to guide me, I learned as much in our final day as I would have in months of self instruction, and it fundamentally changed my photography for the better.

Written by Nate Mortensen 

VAWAA with Manoocher in Martina Franca

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