Matt Eich was a participant in the 2009 Joop Swart Masterclass in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.  Eich, a former College Photographer of the Year, is a freelance photographer based in Norfolk, Virginia.

A street photograph while exploring Amsterdam, the day before Halloween. (Matt Eich)

The Joop Swart Masterclass has been organized by World Press Photo every year since 1994 and is established as one of the most prestigious events of its kind. The Masterclass is a gathering of some of the most experienced individuals in photojournalism with 12 young, promising photographers.  The goal of Masterclass is for the masters to share and pass on their knowledge and experience to the younger photographers.

Each year, independent selection committees nominate the younger candidates from all over the world.  In 2009, the participants were chosen out of 179 portfolios submitted by nominees. The selected participants are assigned a theme (this year “Touch”), which they interpret in a project created over the summer. In the fall, the participants gather in Amsterdam for a week with the 6 masters.

The 2009 masters were:

Philip Blenkinsop, UK/Australia, founding member of NOOR Photo Agency and independent photographer

Giorgia Fiorio, Italy, independent photographer

Tom Kennedy, USA, Multimedia Journalism Consultant

Dewi Lewis, UK, founder and publisher of Dewi Publishing

Celina Lunsford, Germany, Artistic Director at Fotographie Forum Frankfurt

Maggie Steber, USA, independent photographer

Simona Ghizzoni’s project is displayed next to a table of equipment. Canon generously supplied an equipment grant for each of the accepted participants. (Matt Eich)

This was the second year I was nominated for the Masterclass, so I didn’t get my hopes up when Brian Storm was kind enough to nominate me.  Being one of only two participants from the USA this year, I was excited to see what everyone else would bring to the table from their varied photographic experiences. The other photographers were from India, Peru, The Netherlands, Denmark, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Japan and France/South Africa.

The whole week was incredibly well structured by the folks at World Press Photo and was hosted at the Foam Fotografiemuseum. The first day everyone gathered at Foam to find the work that we had produced for the Masterclass printed and mounted on huge boards. It was a very humbling experience to walk through the room and see such astonishing photographs from people that you didn’t yet know. During the introduction session everyone opened up almost immediately, showing photographs, home videos and the experiences that led us to this place. There were laughs and tears shared. It’s hard to think of a time when I’ve felt so instantly close to a group of complete strangers.

The Joop Swart Masterclass participants with folks from World Press Photo, late at night while waiting for a taxi back to the hotel or another bar. (Matt Eich)

During the week the masters lectured and each participant had one-on-one time with them. While a group was meeting with the masters, the rest of us would be looking at one another’s work, talking about the way we approached things, and the struggles we faced and how we dealt with them. Much of our time there could be classified as “group therapy for photographers” and I can’t imagine a better bunch of people to go through that with. At the end of the day everyone would go out to dinner and usually a well-guided bar tour afterwards thanks to Sander Goudswaard and Sebastiaan Deerenberg. After staying up far too late, we would all gather the next morning for another day of critiques, discussion and presentations.

Teun van der Heijden discusses the process he worked through as he edited and laid out the “Touch” book this year. (Matt Eich)

On Wednesday we broke into small editing groups with two masters and usually three to four participants. At this point we would lay out prints of the projects we produced and start hacking away at them.  We discussed the shortcomings and successes while trying to come up with a selection and sequence. That afternoon each participant presented their work to the entire class and had to explain and defend the work. To me, this was one of the most daunting parts of the week as my work for this project was very different than anything I had attempted before.  My thought process had been turned upside-down after days of life-altering discussions about photography. To be perfectly honest, I probably fell flat on my face in defending my work, but the feedback I received was extremely valuable.

World Press Photo Director Michiel Munneke, left, stands for a photo with Joop Swart participant Sohrab Hura, who was honored with this year’s cover. Hura was given the first copy of the book. (Matt Eich)

On Thursday we visited the Rijksmuseum in the morning and were given a few hours to wander around and try to absorb some of the staggering paintings in their collection. This field trip was important to me because it helped us think of our work in the context of art and history and called us to further question our purpose and approach. That afternoon we met with Teun van der Heijden, the creative director who edited and laid out the book of our work. In the evening, one of the masters, Giorgia Fiorio, gave a public lecture at the Foam museum, which was followed by the book launch, where we were able to see the published work for the first time.  To see, smell and touch the results of our efforts was a thrilling moment.

Weeks after returning home I have still been trying to process all the things that were said and the lessons learned from this experience. In trying to distill all the information running around in my head to its essence, I end up with a very short list of things said that resonated with me in some way:

“Don’t project your insecurities on those you photograph. Be confident, open and honest.” – Tom Kennedy

“Don’t set out to tell stories, but to confront issues…Great stories don’t happen at random. You don’t choose a project, it chooses you.” – Giorgia Fiorio

“Photographs have to go beyond the subject matter for me. I must find it to be psychologically engaging beyond the subject.” – Celina Lunsford

“You are creating an artifact for the future so don’t rush into it.” – Dewi Lewis

“If it’s out there, how on earth can you ignore it?” “A good picture will pull you in. Once there, it should be a voyage of discovery. The longer you can hold them in the better.” – Philip Blenkinsop

“Be persistent and patient.” – Maggie Steber

In conclusion, my time at the 16th World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclass was one of the best educational experiences I’ve had in my short stint as a photographer. It made me realize that college was the embryonic stage of my development and this week was my photographic birth. There is a lot to learn from here.

A street photograph from late at night in Amsterdam. (Matt Eich)

16th Joop Swart Masterclass Participants:

Kathryn Cook, USA

Matt Eich, USA

Simona Ghizzoni, Italy

Don McNeill Healy, Ireland

Sohrab Hura, India

Benedicte Kurzen, France/South Africa

Mads Nissen, Denmark

Kosuke Okahara, Japan

Ali Akbar Shirjian, Iran

Gihan Tubbeh, Peru

Dirk-Jan Visser, The Netherlands

You can view all the Touch galleries here.

You can watch interviews with the participants and masters here.