Alec Soth looks back at his Socially Awkward Summer Camp

Photographer Alec Soth says he is still mulling over his Summer Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers. As you may recall, the internationally acclaimed photographer mounted an audacious experiment, offering a week-long camp in July to explore new forms of telling tales. It attracted hundreds of applications from around the world, which Soth and his staff winnowed down to 15.

“It went so much better than I could have ever expected,” he said from the office of his St Paul studio. “I had low expectations but it really exceeded them to such an extent that I feel like I am not supposed to repeat it because it will never be the same.”

Alec Soth listens intently to a participant at the Summer Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers in July (MPR photo/Euan Kerr)

Soth and longtime collaborator Brad Zellar challenged the participants to take a step forward by stepping back and creating a slideshow.  The group did a number of exercises together and individually as they explored how to find and tell stories.

People not lucky enough to be selected could follow the Socially Awkward campers on social media, another specialty of Soth and his crew at the Little Brown Mushroom publishing house. He worries a little however that the postings didn’t tell the whole story.

“We were projecting a lot of fun,” he said of the camp. “And we had a ton of fun. But I think every camper would tell you it was incredibly grueling, the schedule and the pressure they were under, so I don’t think people were aware of that.”

Socially Awkward Storytellers shoot in the wood. One of the field trips during the week-long camp took participants into the woods in a Minneapolis park, which offered Brad Zellar a chance to don a gilly suit. (MPR photo/Euan Kerr)

The final aim was to have each participant create a slideshow for the end of the camp. Originally it was just going to be with the other campers in the audience, but Soth and Zellar upped the ante by deciding to make it a public event. Many of the campers were used to working on long term projects. Faced with having to produce something in just five days, the participants had to take a rigorous approach — something Soth and Zellar urged.

“A big part of the process was when the participants pitched their ideas to us, and it’s something that’s really quite unusual in arts circles — to have to say ‘this is what I want to do’ and make that compelling,” Soth said. “I think that was really instructive for people, and we were kind of tough. We were like, ‘That’s not enough. I’m not engaged by that idea; make it more specific.'”

Of course, Soth and Zellar are also great believers in serendipity. Camper Wenxin Zhang, a native of China who lives in San Francisco, came in and pitched going to a thrift store. They didn’t like that, and urged her to develop the idea. She then revealed the thrift store was on a ‘to do’ list she had created for her visit to the Twin Cities. The list also included “ride and elevator” and “find romance.” Soth said that made more sense to them and sent her off on her quest.

Then there was Tara Wray, a documentary film maker and photographer.

“When we were talking about pitching ideas she said ‘This is embarrassing, but I am under incredible economic stress,'” Soth recalled. “And she told this story — that her husband had called that morning and told her he had had this nightmare the night before that he had robbed a bank and was going to prison. And he woke up and he was really relieved he wasn’t going to prison.  And he told her this.

“So she ended up producing this work kind of out of this economic fear about robbing a bank and sort of playing with the idea of robbing a bank. And she ended up going to this armored truck place, and she kind of snuck into an armored truck place and got detained and it was a very engaging story, but it came out of this authentic domestic concern that she had.”

The camp culminated with a show open to the public at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis. A rehearsal earlier in the day was disastrous and nothing seemed to gel. Worse than that, Soth, he found himself stepping into the role of a director, something which he found very awkward.

Then the lights went down on the night, and the campers began to shine.

“The actual performance was transformed. It was incredible: they lit up when the audience was there,” Soth said with a smile. “And I think they all kind of worked. They all captured people’s attention.”

“There were 15 different performances and, more or less, slideshows,” Soth said. One person told a story which became a slideshow as it was projected as text on the screen and there were a couple of short films. He called one piece “a kind of performance work.”

“It proved to me that there is some sort of weird artistic potential in the slideshow,” he said. “And I know that sounds dorky when we are talking about changing media, but there was something about that, just telling a story with a projector that works. Which is one of the things that I wanted to work out from this.”

Now Soth is allowing what happened to percolate in his mind, especially the lessons he learned. One thing which stuck in his mind was a comment from comedian Brian Beatty who was MC at the Soap Factory event:  “A story doesn’t mean a plot or anything. A story is just a shape, and it’s a heart.

“I thought that was really amazing,” Soth said.

The camp, he said, had an affect on the participants.

“A couple folks stayed around town for a couple of days afterwards and told me they instinctively started working on another slideshow,” Soth said. “They were of that mindset.”

Now he’s considering how it may touch his own work in the future.

“I feel it is definitely changing something in me,” Soth said. “I don’t know what it will end up being but I’ll produce something that is different based on that experience.”

Will there be another Summer Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers? Soth said he just doesn’t know.

“The Soap Factory, they were really happy with how the event went, and said you know ‘Next year? Shall we pencil it in?’ And part of my concern is that I wanted this to be a camp and not a school. Because I wanted it not to turn into a curriculum and creating a budget and all the sort of infrastructure, and then losing the spontaneity of it,” he said.”So I am worried about the idea of repeating it because that’s what you supposed to do in school.

“It wouldn’t feel so alive. But I definitely want to do something.”