Exposing hidden talent
Photographer Karen Schulman brings out her students' creativity through pictures
September 1, 2001
Steamboat Springs — Karen G. Schulman will spend the next nine days exploring the druid woods and ancient abbeys of western Ireland with seven friends she’s never met before. She’ll be paid for going on her adventure in County Mayo but she’ll work for her corned beef and cabbage.
While the rest of Steamboat is reacclimating to the routine of the school year, Schulman will lead and instruct a group of traveling photographers under the aegis of the voyagers Photo Tour Network. The group will visit Ballintubber Abbey, built in the 15th century, and photograph the deserted farms and homesteads of “Barna-brawn.”
Schulman has found a way to combine her passions for photography and teaching in her own business, Focus Adventures. And make no mistake it is a business, requiring long hours of paperwork and telephone conversations for every day spent in an exotic location, with a camera around her neck.
Leading groups of amateur and semi-professional photographers on international photo tours is just one aspect of Schulman’s business. She also markets her existing images through her contractual relationships with stock photo agencies.
And she markets her hand-tinted fine art images through galleries, including Wild Horse Gallery in Steamboat Springs.
Schulman has led workshops in Steamboat for a decade and has also taken groups to South America and Mexico including an annual trip to Cozumel just for women photographers. This year, she’s achieved a breakthrough, forming relationships with adventure travel companies Voyagers International as well as Southwind Adventures. In May 2002 she is scheduled to lead a group of photographers to Peru and the ancient Inca site of Machu Picchu on behalf of Southwind.
Recommended Stories For You
The opportunity to lead tours for larger travel companies means Schulman is freed of the need to handle all of the travel logistics through her own company. In Peru she will have the luxury of a native tour guide with all of the details of lodging, meals and ground transportation handled. She’ll be free to concentrate on bringing out the creativity of her clients.
Similarly, Schulman’s clients in Ireland this month are based in a home that was handpicked by another photographer for its proximity to stirring photo opportunities. The trip is co-hosted by noted Irish musician Olcan Masterson. A veteran of many travel tour groups, Masterson can give the photographers under Schulman’s leadership access to artisans and settings that most travelers would never encounter.
It might be tempting to think Schulman has been the beneficiary of a number of lucky breaks this year, but she is nearly tireless in her marketing efforts, extending herself and taking the little steps of doing the work that puts her name in front of people in the industries of photography and adventure travel.
“It’s one of those things that starts with a dream,” Schulman said. “I’m a little guy in the whole scheme of things. But I work hard at the PR and the more your name is out there, the more things come back to you. I’m amazed at the people who tell me they’ve heard of me.”
Schulman’s marketing efforts have been rewarded with lengthy interviews about her business that have been published in two books that are familiar to all freelance photographers one a market listing of publishers and magazines seeking photos for publication and another that is a marketing guide for photographers. The exposure has done much to enhance Schulman’s reputation in the industry.
There are many photo tours available to consumers, many of them led by more famous or widely published photographers than Schulman. And many of them are backed by corporate sponsorships. But Schulman has made a reputation for her ability to boost clients’ self-esteem by showing them how to tap into a creative side many did not know they had.
“It’s about more than making great photographs, Schulman said. It’s about a journey of self-discovery. She has developed a series of specific visual exercise that help her students get in touch with emotions and creativity they may not have tapped since they were children.
The ability to find the inner child in her students isn’t coincidental; her background in education is as a fifth-grade teacher.
“When I first thought about teaching adults, I thought, ‘Ooooh, that’s scary,” she recalls. “Now, I teach the child part of the adult. so many adults are preoccupied with making a living and and raising their own children that they’ve lost” the uninhibited spontaneity that comes out of a child.
“I’ve learned that corporate executives are just as nervous about looking at their own pictures as the next person,” Schulman said.
One of the biggest obstacles Schulman and her students must overcome is the “P” word, or “program.” The program mode on many of today’s superautomated cameras signifies a setting on the camera dial that turns all of the decisions over to a couple of computer chips inside the camera.
Schulman is neither techie nor technophobe. But she wants her students to understand their camera’s controls so they can be set free of program mode, which dooms them to taking predictable left-brained images rather than rule-breaking right-brained images.
“The success comes in taking these baby steps where someone takes the camera off of ‘P.'”
The photo travelers Schulman leads vary tremendously, from the person who has just purchased a new camera, to the guy who is overloaded with expensive Nikons and Hasselblads. Over time, Schulman has learned to enjoy all types of personalities.
“When I was younger, I wanted everyone to fit my view of the perfect student,” Schulman confesses. “They’re not all followers and some are high maintenance.”
She much prefers it when she can have long phone conversations with her clients prior to the departure date, rather than speaking to them for the first time at the airport. One thing she’s learned to always ask in advance is whether they have any strong personal fears a trip to Cozumel with someone who fears boats can be a journey filled with trials and tribulations.
“I have anxiety, too,” Schulman said. “I always wonder, ‘Will I be able to give them what they want?'”
Early in each tour, Schulman asks her students to write a small goal on an index card. She places emphasis on the word “small.”
If her students say their goal is to see photos from the trip published in National Geographic, she urges them to whittle that ambition down a little bit to perhaps taking a meaningful portrait of an indigenous person.
If they reach that first goal, so much the better, they can set additional goals. But Schulman has learned people with unrealistic goals set themselves and their instructor up for failure.
Happily, Schulman has enjoyed a high success rate with her students. And although she has to take care to balance her teaching with the need to feed her own creative spirit, her personal rewards come increasingly form the breakthrough images her students make.
“I choose to devote myself to the group first, but I’ve never not taken pictures,” Schulman said. “I sometimes miss photo opportunities when someone needs my help. When I have a participant look at me with that big grin,” that comes with success, she said. “It’s at least as enriching as making wonderful photos myself. Seeing someone discover something about themselves is extremely rewarding.”