I have been named one of American Photo’s Top 10 World’s Best Wedding Photographers for 2013. Pinch me.

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“Awards don’t matter,” I tell myself. “I don’t do this job for awards.” And for the most part, I actually believe it. They’re handy signposts for my competitive spirit, but this is an industry where you are only as good as the photo you take next. After all, you will never hear a bride say “I hated my photos, but that’s OK because he’s taken really great photos for other people!”

But making the American Photo Top 10 list sweeps that aside for a moment in a rush of euphoria and amazement. Partially because this is The Big One, the list that everyone wants to be on, and which has been graced by unbelievably talented photographers who have inspired me from the beginning of my career to today. But mostly because this list is nominated by these incredible photographers. It still surprises and bewilders me that these people even know who I am, so to have them say “Yes, he belongs on a list of the best of the best,” is an honor too big for me to wrap my head around. Thank you.

It is also incredible to be named along with nine other photographers who are not only incredible, but who include personal friends such as Todd Hunter McGaw, or the man who made me laugh myself to tears this past week at the Foundation Workshop, Tyler Wirken.

But mostly thank you to my clients and their friends and families, for not only being amazing, but choosing to be amazing in front of my lens. You are awesome, and that’s what this shows. I’m just the guy that gets to document that.

But the competitive spirit in me must push me further. I can’t stop at the world. Wedding photographers of Mars, watch your back.

A Week with My New Family: Foundation Workshops

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So this is it: I’ve been named one of the world’s top 10 wedding photographers. Wedding photography has never been a stepping stone for me onto other things — I already have my dream job. So clearly I’m exactly where I want to be, and there’s nothing left to learn.

Ha. Hahahaha…

You never stop learning in a job like this, and that’s one of the things I love about it so fiercely. I love learning, and I love a job that forces me to constantly use my brain in new ways. So I made a vow to take at least one workshop or photography class every year, forever. I’ve seen photographers like Joe McNally do their thing; I’ve been through several excellent courses at the top-notch International Center for Photography, and more. I’ve been forced to leave my comfort zone in a hundred ways for classes — I’ve used new and exotic equipment, I’ve contracted pneumonia, and I’ve been stripped naked both figuratively and literally. But in some ways this was all preparation for the Foundation Workshop.

Founded more than 10 years ago by Huy Nguyen and newspaper photographers who had transferred into wedding photography, Foundation is an intense, grinding, transformative experience that seeks to ground wedding photographers in the modes of hard photojournalism, both as a shooter and as an editor. The wedding photography experience tends to be defined by people in tears saying “Oh my god, we love our photos and we love you!” while photojournalism is defined by a coffee-chugging photo editor yelling “Hey jerk, there’s a tree coming out of this person’s head! Look at this horizon … were you drunk when you took this?” A great photo editor can make you love them and hate them at the very same time.

Foundation is about change, and in many ways the defining experience is making wedding photographers — harbinger of tears that we are — break down in tears ourselves. The 8:30 mark of this video sums it up. But it’s too reductive to think of it as a place where people will try to make you cry by being extremely hard on you. That’s one reason you might cry, sure, and people do. But I’ve been through photo school and the newsroom. While learning, I’ve had people tell me that my photos made them physically ill. I knew I could take some criticism. But Foundation brought me to tears anyway. What did it for me was that magic mix of sleep deprivation and incredible waves of emotion. You are in a small room with many of the world’s best wedding photojournalists, and there’s just no ego in sight. Strangers become colleagues, and then friends, and then family. And then, when you’re at your sleepiest, your sappiest, they hit you with the results of the week, the incredible work of your fellow students. And at least one of the assignments — Mary McHenry‘s — had the tears rolling down my face.

There are so many emotions that roll through you — I spent portions of the workshop ecstatic, exhausted, even incredibly angry — but I started with terror. I knew this would be a tough week, but staff member after staff member kept coming up to me and saying “Ryan, we’re doing our best to figure out how to kick your ass.” Oh boy.

This speaks to the incredible level of individualized attention you get at Foundation. My week there were 25 students, and 27 staff members. I don’t know anything else in the wedding world that even approximates that. You can’t get away with slinking by and giving a half-hearted effort, there are too many people looking over your shoulder … literally. By the end of two days of shooting, hours and hours of tight editing and mentoring, every single student knocked their assignment out of the park. We aren’t allowed to publicly show more than two images for some very good reasons, but there are a couple assignments that I really wish could be released to the world, because the work is so strong about sensitive subjects that they are actually important.

But they staff had a different challenge in mind for me. They work very hard to tailor assignments to the specific students’ strengths and needs, and they knew that I would relish any emotional or physical challenge, that I’d be happy to roll around for two days in dirt or blood or fire for the shots. So instead they challenged me with tedium and familiarity. I was assigned a small newsroom, the kind I started my career in. With my experience, I already knew that absolutely nothing visually interesting happens in a small newsroom. My proposed subtitle for the piece was “People threw away papers, and sometimes took a smoke break.” But it allowed me to drill down on technical aspects I never had time to really focus on during the frenetic wedding day, working on skills in layering, filling the frame with relevant information, reducing visual clutter in an extremely cluttered environment, etc. I even shot most of my assignment with the 12mm on the OM-D so I couldn’t use shallow depth-of-field as a visual crutch.

I couldn’t imagine a better team leader in this than David Murray, with his decades of experience shooting for newspapers and newswires. And imagine a workshop where staff is as packed with excellence as Erin Chrisman and Daniel Aguilar are the secondary mentors. Each of them pushed me farther to make great images from the mundane than I ever had before, and I am bursting with energy now, waiting to tear into this wedding season.

Thank you to everyone in my new family. I said this to Daniel at the end of the workshop, but it also applies to David, Erin, “team mom” Cliff Brunk and so many others: “When this started I loved your work. Now, I love you.”

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Photo by Ed Atrero