3 Days with Abbas of Magnum

Posted on September 7th, by Danny Santos II in Articles, Inspiration, Review, Workshop. 22 comments

Workshop with Abbas / Magnum

Just recently, I had the opportunity to experience a 3-day intensive photo essay workshop organized by Leica, conducted by famed Magnum photographer, Abbas. I’ve learned about it on short notice, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to meet and learn from a master who’s been doing it for 45 years.

Abbas is an acclaimed photographer who roams around the world covering major political and social events. He has covered wars and revolutions in Biafra, Bangladesh, Northern Ireland, Vietnam, the Middle East, Chile, Cuba, and South Africa during the apartheid. He’s been a member of the elite photo agency Magnum since 1981.

photos by Abbas / Magnum

The objective of the workshop was to push our creative boundaries as we create a series of photographs that tell a story. I’ve been shooting for 3 years now and my focus has mostly been on capturing interesting photos that stands on its own and may or may not tell a story. I haven’t really tried creating a photo essay – so I guess it’s high time.

Day 1 – Show & Tell
One by one, the participants lay down 10 to 15 prints of their work on a long table. Abbas would ask everyone to critique, edit, and then sequence each set until it told a story. He’d make the final edit giving us a good peek over his line of thinking. Seeing Abbas edit and sequence my Bad Weather shots was a pretty surreal experience.

After lunch, it was time to shoot. The plan was to capture different religion and culture in Singapore. Our first location was around the Sultan Mosque and Arab Street, focusing on Islam. I decided to shoot in black & white because I heeded Abbas when he said: “The world is in color, black & white is my way of showing my sense of reality. It helps me to focus and concentrate on what I want to show.”

So I put on my 20mm lens, set my camera to monochrome, and was all set. It’s been a while since I shot with a wide-angle lens.. it was pretty liberating as I wasn’t constrained by space. And shooting in b&w is a constant surprise since the photo will always turn out better or worse :)

Day 2 – Shoot
The shoot continues… we were taken to a Hindu temple in Little India. It was my first time to shoot in a place like this and got very excited with the barrage of imagery, textures, and ceremonies in the temple. It felt like there was one photographic opportunity after another and you had to keep your eyes peeled to not lose it.

After lunch, the next destination was a Buddhist temple in Toa Payoh. This place was the complete opposite of the Hindu temple, but equally beautiful. The place was spacious and peaceful. The ceremony was quite serene with all the chanting.

Again, it was pretty surreal shooting as Abbas looks on, constantly giving tips on how to see and what to shoot.

Day 3 – Edit
I was late for an hour because I joined the Safra Bay Half Marathon Run which started at 5:15am. But still, I couldn’t miss this last day… coz as Abbas said, this is the day we start the actual workshop.

We were asked to bring 120 photos from our day-and-a-half shoot. We were grouped in pairs where our partner helped us edit the photos down to 20. These were then projected on the wall where the whole group debated and narrowed it down further. Then all final photos of the participants were printed, laid down on a long table, edited, and sequenced until it gave a pretty good essay on religion / culture in Singapore.

After everything, Abbas gave each of us a signed print of his work and brought out a bottle of Chivas Regal.

Thoughts on the workshop:
Getting to converse with Abbas was a very humbling experience. He kept a low profile and was very fatherly in his approach, but the thoughts he shared in the workshop was absolutely inspiring for me.

Overall, the workshop reintroduced me to the profound side of photography. I’ve been so focused lately on capturing beauty with a long lens, I forgot to step back and look at the big picture of serious stories happening around. While I still want to pursue portraiture, I have a new-found respect and passion for documentary photography.

Update – 12th September 2011
Mr. Abbas has commented on this article, and has added insight to the peculiar group shot which he took of us (main photo above): “i believe a photographer’s place is behind a camera, never in front of it and this is why i asked all to playfully cover their face… since this is a group photo, i am present with my left hand – holding the camera with the other, using danny’s camera.”

Thank you for dropping by, Mr. Abbas! :)

The group:
In addition to learning from the master himself, I got to meet a group of wonderfully different personalities all sharing the same passion for photography. Big thanks to Nathan, Khanh, Boon, Kim, Fun, Laxmi, and Deanna. I’m looking forward to more photo shoots with you guys!

Melisa – you’re awesome. Leonard – you rock, man.

Photo above taken by Fun

I remember when everyone first brought out their cameras – lo and behold, half of the group sported Leica M9‘s! Meanwhile, Abbas and Melisa had Leica M9-P‘s. I was starstruck. After briefly handling one (thanks, Nathan), I wanted one! But I know I can’t for obvious reasons. Maybe someday, who knows :)

The Photos:
The theme we covered during our 1½ day of shooting was 3 of the prevalent religions in Singapore: Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Abbas has always considered religion as culture rather than faith. With this in mind, we focused not only on the temples and ceremonies, but also on the streets in its periphery – hopefully giving a peek of the people within and outside of their place of worship.

Below are the keepers I got. View these photos larger to see the details, please click here.

View these photos larger to see the details, please click here.

22 thoughts on “3 Days with Abbas of Magnum

  1. Nice read, Danny! It must have been a really great experience going through this workshop with Abbas! I particular enjoyed how u related ur perspective on experiencing documentary photography as opposed to your usual street portraits of strangers! Looking forward to your next series of photos!

  2. Good sharing. I can feel the experience by reading to yoir article. Fantastic captures and seriously you really got hawk eyes :) i love the presentation of all your takes in black and white. Some sort of punch in all pictures. Amazing!!

  3. Pingback: Disciples and the Master… « Mysafari

  4. Great post Danny..

    It must have been a wonderful spending time and learning with someone who has spent majority of his lifetime behind the lens…

    I have a few photo essays in my blog.. Could you please look through them and pass on some tips if you don’t mind?

    Here are the links:
    1. About children playing spintops in the back alley http://georgiemathew.wordpress.com/2011/09/04/spin-it-to-win-it/

    2.About the Bengali community in Vellore. an outsiders’ view..


  5. Thanks for sharing this experience Danny. Your street portraits inspired me to focus on portraits for a while, I am thoroughly enjoying it, I believe I am learning as I go and I almost find it addictive to keep going with the portraits of 100 strangers project. This encourages me to look at the broader perspective.

  6. fatherly?… really?… danny i am glad you learned in the workshop

    maybe you should have explained why the workshop participants have their faces covered : i believe a photographer’s place is behind a camera, never in front of it and this is why i asked all to playfully cover their face… since this is a group photo, i am present with my left hand – holding the camera with the other, using danny’s camera


  7. Mr. Abbas! Thank you for dropping by in my blog :) Yes, I thought you were ‘fatherly’, and yes, I’ve learned in the workshop… in fact, it opened my eyes to a broader aspect of photography.

    And thank you for adding your insight to our peculiar group shot :) It’s definitely one of the more creative and curious group shots I’ve ever been part of. Thank you again! :D

  8. How I envy you so much for attending this workshop! How terribly lucky you are, I would love to be in your shoes :-) I am sure a 70 minutes flight to Singapore is worth every penny if I had the chance. Great writing too. Thoroughly enjoy reading it. Love Abbas’ quote regarding shooting in B & W. That’e exactly what I feel too. Thank you for such sharing your experience with strangers!

  9. @tutun: It’s not about changing ‘styles’… in fact, I don’t think it’s about styles. For me, it’s being open and flexible for other ways of seeing and capturing things. I strongly believe that’s how we evolve and grow.

  10. Must have been a fascinating experience, specially to have someone like Abbas guiding and teaching you all the time. I am sure there are some great lessons learned.

    Thanks for the photographs as well.

  11. Thanks Danny for sharing this with us. Great read. Loved the group shot photo. Magnum did a similar shot for their annual meeting many years ago where they held their cameras up to their faces. I’ll be back again and again to your blog.


  12. you do some amazing work man, no kidding. I’m a photography enthusiast myself, and do a tad bit of street photography.. seeing your work was a total treat. Please do keep up the gorgeous work :)

  13. Thanks for sharing this. I recently attended a workshop with Alex Webb in Munich. We had an intense portfolio feedback session as well on the first day. Very helpful. For me it was a great honor to meet a Magnum photographer in person. So much experience, so much to learn.
    I would really like to meet a great reportage photographer like Abbas. Hopefully some more workshops to come – maybe in Germany one day?

  14. hey Danny,

    great work man! people who talk about style are quite clueless and
    I think you’ve shown another side to your thought process with this series.
    strong reportage and will get better as your eye and experience matures.

    I would have left out 5, 6 and 11 from above–
    and it’s not to say they arent good in their own rights, I felt it didn’t
    connect visually quite as easily as the others. still, it’s a fantastic departure
    from your portraits.

    greetings from Canada.

  15. The term Hinduism also occurs sporadically in Sanskrit texts such as the later Rajataranginis of Kashmir (Hinduka, c. 1450), some 16th-18th century Bengali Gaudiya Vaishnava texts, including Chaitanya Charitamrita and Chaitanya Bhagavata, usually to contrast Hindus with Yavanas or Mlecchas.;;”-


    All the best

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