Teaching photography and the spirit of sharing and collaboration

As students in Rafael Sepulveda’s Advanced course at RGV Photography Workshops in Downtown McAllen entered the studio-classroom February 15, it became obvious that a celebration was brewing. Food platters arrived. As they walked in, students immediately offered congratulations to one of their own, Ninfa Garza. A sense of support and pride filled the room.

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A member of the McAllen High School Class of 1990, Sepulveda graduated from Boston University in 1994 with a degree in advertising and marketing. He stayed in Boston and worked for an advertising agency there for six years. While working at this agency, Sepulveda was introduced to commercial photography and found himself drawn to it. So drawn, in fact, that he quit his job and moved to Atlanta to attend a two-year photography school.

After graduating from photography school, Sepulveda realized, ‘Rent’s due at the end of the month. How do I earn money?’ He found his niche as a wedding photographer and soon found a way to help other budding photographers.

“I started getting calls from others who graduated from photography school and were looking for work,” Sepulveda said. “I would hire them as my ‘second photographer’ and give them the opportunity to learn the ropes.”

Sepulveda realized that many of these fellow photographers knew how to get great shots, but they were not nearly as adept at marketing themselves and maintaining a business. He decided to create a second company to complement his photography company. He used his degree in advertising and marketing to create a company focused on teaching photographers about the ‘business of photography.’

But then the recession hit, and Sepulveda decided to return to his home in the Valley.

“I charged a lot more for weddings in Atlanta, as a high-end wedding photographer, than I could charge in the Valley,” Sepulveda said. “I had to reassess my career to find a way to be fulfilled, to be happy, and to earn an income.”

Sepulveda was still working as a full-time photographer at the time, but he was also teaching. “I realized my true passion is not only photography but teaching, as well,” he said.

In speaking to developing photographers, he learned it was relatively easy to find beginner photography classes, but there was a real need for upper-level classes. Valley residents who wanted these courses often traveled outside of the Valley to improve their skills. Sepulveda started filling the need six years ago by teaching classes on the side, calling the classes the ‘secret workshop.’

In 2015, the demand for Sepulveda’s classes grew to a point where he realized he couldn’t stay in the Downtown McAllen studio he shared with another photographer because he felt he was encroaching on her professional space.

So in November of 2015, Sepulveda opened his own studio/classroom, RGV Photography Workshops, on the upper floor of a building at 307 S. Broadway in Downtown McAllen. He offers three-week Beginner classes on Monday nights from 6-8 p.m. He also offers Emerging and Advanced classes. As the saying goes, he built it, and they have come.

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By day, Ninfa Garza is a high school Spanish teacher in Edinburg CISD. But outside of the classroom, this teacher, wife, and mother now has another title—photographer. It all started when her son was born.

“That’s why I got the camera in the first place,” Garza said. “When my son was born, my husband gave me a camera.” She started snapping pictures but wanted more. Garza began searching for a photography class offered locally, and she came across the RGV Photography Workshops website. She decided to sign up.

“It’s a lot of learning every class,” Garza said. “Every assignment has a target. He (Sepulveda) takes you through the steps. You have a lot of misses, but once it clicks…” Her broad smile ended the sentence without words.

As her skills developed, so did Garza’s opportunities. She shot a wedding with Sepulveda and then shot a small wedding on her own.

“I am building a portfolio,” Garza said. “I am also working toward certification, which requires a written test and a portfolio.” Her plan is to specialize in the portraiture of women. Garza does not plan to give up teaching, though.

“I like what I do,” she said. “I want to do both—teaching and photography.”

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On this night in February, Sepulveda is holding a ‘Patch Ceremony’ in honor of Garza. “The Patch’ is the highest honor in the school.

“This award is my recognition that I view the recipient as a peer, no longer as a student who has more to learn from me,” Sepulveda said. “It is my recognition that ‘you are on my level.’” Garza is one of only a handful of student photographers who have earned this honor from Sepulveda.

As Sepulveda prepared to present the school’s patch to Garza, he turned to her and said, “Your humbleness does not give you the credit you really deserve for your work. I give you a lesson and you go home and perfect it.”

Garza’s face revealed someone honored by the award while uncomfortable with public recognition. She expressed her gratitude to Sepulveda and to her husband.

“I am very blessed to have a very supportive husband,” Garza said. “It takes that support from home. Photography is my happy place. I compete with myself. Every time I have made ‘The Wall’ (a wall in the classroom considered a wall of honor because only superb photographs are displayed there), my husband has been very proud of me.”

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Sepulveda and his students celebrated the one-year anniversary of RGV Photography Workshops’ Downtown McAllen building November 2, 2016. Soon, Sepulveda will open two new photography studios in his school, one of them a Natural Light Studio.

“My students will have these studios to themselves,” Sepulveda said. “to learn how to use a photography studio and to clearly understand the cost of setting one up. This will really help with the learning curve. Now they won’t have to worry about the logistics of setting up a shot and finding a location.”

Since Sepulveda’s school focuses on sharing and collaboration, entering into a partnership with Hess Modeling Agency was a perfect fit.

“Before, my students had to go out and try to find models (for their shots),” Sepulveda said. Through this collaboration, his students have models and the models benefit, too, as they obtain portfolios made by Sepulveda’s students. It is a powerful example of win-win.

And there is another development in the school. For the first time, a group of photographers will graduate from the school. But even after they graduate, they will be welcome at the school to collaborate with their fellow photographers.

From advertising and marketing expert to professional photographer to teacher, and now a blend of all three, Sepulveda said the most positive outcome of the creation of his photography school can be summed up in one word: Bonding!

“My students recognize each other as fellow learners of photography,” he said. “For the first 10-15 minutes in my advanced class, they talk to each other, and what are they talking about? Photography. The most positive thing is their bonding.”