Adapt, evolve, achieve: inside the Canon Student Development Programme

What makes the CSDP an unmissable opportunity? Five participants discuss their experience.
Participants in the Canon Student Development programme sitting around a table with staff at the Stern magazine offices in Hamburg, Germany.

Photojournalism is a "highly competitive" field says Simon Wohlfahrt, one of five Canon Student Development Programme 2022 participants who were chosen from a group of 100 to take part in the Hamburg Portfolio Review, which included a visit to the offices of Stern magazine. "The opportunity to get critiques on my work from professionals and other students from all over the world was a huge push." From left to right: Katarzyna Ślesińska (CSDP), Katharina Niu (Picture Desk, Stern), Orsolya Groenewold (Photo Editor, Stern), Simon Wohlfahrt (CSDP), Rahel Zander (Photo Editor, Stern Crime). © Aliona Kardash/Stern

Every photojournalism student has heard Robert Capa's famous mantra: "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough." Whether this is always true is a source of debate, but what it reminds us is that photography is something, for the most part, done in person. And, for the vast majority of photojournalists specifically, it's about capturing what is happening on the ground, as it unfolds.

The Canon Student Development Programme (CSDP) offers talented young photographers from across the globe the chance to advance their careers by learning new skills from, networking with, and having their portfolios reviewed by, some of the most influential names in the world of photography. And for the first time in two years, 2022 was no longer a strictly virtual programme. In fact, it was bigger and better than ever.

“This year we offered a completely refreshed programme of activities and a renewed format in which selected students continued their journey on to the Hamburg Portfolio Review, and were awarded €2,000 cash grants and €9,000 worth of Canon gear," explains Canon Europe Pro Marketing Manager, Siobhan Gaffan.

All 100 students who took part in the 2022 programme received online mentoring, which included feedback, direction and help with their final edit. From there, 30 were offered a place on a prestigious workshop hosted in a Catalan farmhouse in Girona, Spain, where the entire venue was dedicated to the Canon initiative. Over four days, students took part in a series of practical sessions, group portfolio reviews, discussions and presentations hosted by professional photographers and key editors. On the final day, students were given the chance to attend the Visa pour l'Image Festival of Photojournalism in Perpignan, France.

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The five students who showed the most potential during the group portfolio reviews were then selected to move through to the Hamburg Portfolio Review. This stage also included four individual portfolio reviews and the chance to attend the opening ceremony, panel talks and the wrap party, which offered plenty of potential for networking. They also visited the newsrooms of Der Spiegel, Die Zeit, Geo and Stern.

"I thought it would be just another workshop, but it turned out to be a life-changing experience that fast-forwarded my career as a photographer," says Romanian-born Alexandra Corcode, a student at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague and one of the five participants who made it all the way to Hamburg.

Her fellow finalists are Vietnamese-American Chris Trinh, who is doing a Diploma in Visual Journalism at the Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines; Egyptian photojournalist Mohamed Mahdy, studying at the Danish School of Media and Journalism; Kraków-based Kasia Ślesińska, who is studying Photography at the Institute of Creative Photography in Opava, Czech Republic; and Simon Wohlfahrt, a self-taught photographer who originally graduated from Toulouse School of Journalism, France.

The finalists of the Canon Student Development Programme standing with staff from Die Zeit and Canon Europe outside Helmut Schmidt Haus in Hamburg, Germany.

"At Der Spiegel, Die Zeit (pictured), Geo and Stern, we got to meet with different photo editors and learn more about how these newsrooms operate on a daily basis," says participant Chris Trinh. "I've never worked for German media before, so this was a great opportunity for me to meet new editors and hear what type of pitches they might be interested in receiving." © Aliona Kardash/Stern

A monochrome photo taken by Mohamed Mahdy of a child holding up an x-ray of their damaged lungs in front of a curtained window.

"It's an amazing feeling to be a winner, but every stage was like winning a prize," says Mohamed Mahdy of the 2022 Canon Student Development Programme. In this image, taken from Mohamed's Moon Dust project, about the effects of factory emissions on the residential area of Wadi el-Qamar (Moon Valley) in Egypt, 11-year-old Amal holds up an x-ray of her damaged lungs. © Mohamed Mahdy

One-on-one mentoring

"You can be a great photographer but go nowhere in the industry if you don't have a network," says Chris, for whom building connections was a major pull factor in applying to the CSDP. Kasia saw the programme as a chance to get feedback and progress. "It's always worthwhile to put yourself out there for criticism from professionals," she says.

The first stage of the programme saw the students receive bespoke one-on-one mentoring sessions over a video call. Chris found their sessions with Canon Ambassador and Pulitzer Prize-winner Muhammed Muheisen deeply rewarding. "He made me feel seen and heard, and took the time to really try to understand where I was coming from in my work," they explain. "Before sharing what he thought, he'd always ask me what I thought first, creating a safe space for me to speak openly and ask questions." Mohamed, meanwhile, appreciated that his mentor, Thomas Borberg from Politiken, went through his entire archive.

Having previously shown her work to other photographers, Kasia gained key insights from her mentor, photography consultant Laetitia Ganaye from Maps agency. "My mentor helped me reduce the selection of photos and focus on showing one project," she says. "I think that for subsequent portfolio reviews I was more prepared and had much more self-confidence while presenting."

Alexandra described her mentor, editor Gabrielle Fonseca Johnson, as "the perfect match", brimming with practical insights into captioning and sequencing. "She just took my work to the next level. Together we turned the project upside down and made it professional." Simon has worked on short assignments for Agence France-Presse (AFP) and others. His mentor, Canon Ambassador Marco Longari, helped guide him step-by-step through the process of working on a longer story over the course of their sessions together.

A photo taken by Canon Student Development Programme participant Simon Wohlfahrt of a figure standing in a ruched gown in a field on a cloudy day.

The group portfolio at the workshop in Girona was a great opportunity to work on presentation skills, according to Simon. "We had to showcase our work and justify our choices, such as composition or the editing of the pictures. It was challenging, but a fruitful way to get peer-to-peer feedback," he says. Transgender model Prince Ngarambe poses for the camera in this image from Simon's striking series, The Prince Of Catwalk. © Simon Wohlfahrt

A photo taken by Canon Student Development Programme participant Kasia Ślesińska of a chicken, its wings outstretched behind it, standing in a living space.

A photograph from Kasia Ślesińska's Fantastic Animals And How To Pet Them series about the ever-developing relationship between humans and the natural world. "The atmosphere was very friendly through every stage," Kasia remembers. "People were just genuinely nice, sharing tips, reviewing each other's work. Hamburg was a very interesting experience, showing your work to editors from newspapers, agencies or organisations, and listening to different points of view." © Kasia Ślesińsk

Inspiring in-person workshops

Having become accustomed to using video call platforms since the pandemic, the participants found it easy to build a rapport with their mentors online and, as Chris points out, doing this element virtually "meant we got to choose from a huge selection of mentors from all over the world" without the limitations of travel costs or visa applications.

That said, the opportunity to come together with fellow photographers for physical workshops in Girona was a revelation. Participants attended a lighting masterclass with Canon Ambassador and Agence VU's Paolo Verzone, gained insight from prominent industry professionals including designer Bonnie Briant, Canon Ambassador Marco Longari (AFP), Fiona Shields (The Guardian), Dimitri Beck (Polka), Thomas Borberg (Politiken) and Lindokuhle Sobekwa (Magnum Photos), as well as photography legend James Nachtwey of TIME Magazine.

Though she found the group portfolio reviews challenging, Kasia also came to see that they were great training for developing her future career. "Exposing yourself to such situations strengthens your ability to present yourself and your work to an audience," she explains. The Visa festival of talks, screenings and tours was also "eye opening," adds Alexandra. "What impressed me was that all the professionals in the industry and all the big names were there right in front of me, so the possibilities were endless."

"Know your audience" was Chris's biggest takeaway from their time at Visa. "I learned not to bring prints to a portfolio review with a wire agency editor. Wire photography values speed, metadata skills and spot news. With a wire agency portfolio review you want to show you're quick on your feet, can frame photos well and know your equipment. This means doing quick edits if needed and having your Adobe Lightroom albums in order. It's hard to convey that with prints," they explain. "Every editor sees your work differently. And just because one doesn't like it doesn't mean your work is terrible – it just might not be a good fit for their needs."

A photo taken by Canon Student Development Programme participant Alexandra Corcode of a hooded figure holding a rake and shrouded by mist.

"What really stuck with me from the mentoring was the fact that you should adapt your project to the situation in which you're presenting it," says Alexandra Corcode. "You can't show it in the same way to an editor/curator as you show it to teachers or peers." Alexandra's work to date has focused on themes of immigration, loneliness, death and lost traditions, as well as physical deterioration and the traces of human absence. In this image from her I Was Made To Die But I'm Here To Stay With You project, Susana, a nonagenarian Romanian widow and assault survivor, rakes her garden with some difficulty. © Alexandra Corcode

A photo taken by Canon Student Development Programme participant Chris Trinh of a person in a unicorn costume and with a megaphone slung over their shoulder hanging from a steel fence.

A photograph from Chris's Black Snake Killers series, which documents the Anishinaabe-led fight against the Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline. Chris hopes the programme will lead to new opportunities. "I've been freelancing for a while now and I hope that being connected to more editors and having had the chance to show my work in new spaces can help me elevate my name." © Chris Trinh

Hamburg: the reviews and looking to the future

Being one of the five chosen for the Hamburg Portfolio Review was an impressive achievement in itself, but the experience brought further benefits. "It was so amazing to see my work be part of the opening night projection", says Chris. "This was not only an honour for me as a photographer, but for those who have trusted me to document their stories. To see photos of indigenous land defenders taking up space in a European photo event is something I hope to see more of in the future."

While Alexandra was similarly excited to see her work exhibited, she also commented on the close friendships formed within the group. "It felt like family," she says.

Back focusing on their studies now, the students are all looking ahead to life beyond the CSDP. Mohamed is planning a forthcoming exhibition of his social justice-focused documentary photographs in Cairo. Chris is in Vietnam working on a new project with the financial and in-kind support they were awarded. "There was no way I would ever be able to afford the Canon EOS R5," they say. "But as a lifelong Canon user, I've been eyeing it for such a long time! The Canon equipment sponsorship and grant is an incredible opportunity for me."

 A woman lies across a sofa with her hands draped above her head, a face mask pulled down to her chin. In the corner of the grey room is a small planted tree with bright orange flowers.

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Without hesitation, the participants would urge other students to throw their name into the ring for 2023. "Apply with a project you believe in," Chris advises. "Your work is a piece of who you are. When people see it, they should get an idea of who you are as a photographer. Don't try to be someone you're not or copy a style you think will help you 'make it', because people will see through that."

Alexandra encourages potential applicants to focus on the process. "Embark on this experience not with the goal in mind but the journey," she says. "Then magic happens!"

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