Demystifying Mystic Seminars

by Interview by Jacqueline Tobin

December 12, 2016

Mystic founder Walter van Dusen photographs Julia and Danny Dong. Photo © Miguel Angel

Walter van Dusen is an award-winning photographer who’s commitment to the industry led to the creation of Mystic Seminars. He believes in strength through community, growth through friendships and that education has no finish line. Here, Rangefinder Editor-in-Chief Jacqueline Tobin interviews van Dusen to learn more about the annual conference.

What is Mystic’s mission statement? 
Mystic has always been about photographers getting together and sharing their knowledge without expecting anything in return. It provides a non-judgmental environment for education, networking and the creation of long-term community.
 
How long has this conference been running for? 
Mystic began in 2005 when a small group of local Northeast photographers gathered to network, learn from each other and share their work and inspirations on what made their business successful. We are now going into our 12th year.
 
How many attendees do you typically get and what is the format of the program?
When Mystic began, I wanted the setting to be small and intimate—30 photographers attended. We have steadily grown over the years, now drawing upwards of 350 photographers. Even with the larger number of participants, we have still maintained that small and intimate feeling. Our platform program has just one speaker at a time. It is designed this way so every attendee has the opportunity to experience something magical.


Todd Laffler and Danette Pascarella. Photo © Lily Chau

What was your initial vision for the conference when it first began and how has that evolved over the years?
Mystic started as a small get-together, in Mystic, Connecticut. Sharing was the main goal, along with meeting other photographers whose work I admired. It turned out to be an experience that I and everyone attending will never forget. The rave reviews and encouragement from my fellow photographers inspired me to continue with the gathering and striving to improve each year. That is one of the reasons that Mystic now draws photographers from all over the world. What started out as a one-day conference turned into a two-day conference and now three days. We have been noticed by the industry and in 2008 we added a trade show attracting vendors like Nikon, Fundy Designer, B&H, Finao Albums, ProDPI, Millers and others. Most important is maintaining the original vision of providing a non-judgmental environment where photographers come to share their work, their passion and their friendship.
 
How do you choose speakers? 
At the completion of Mystic each year, I begin the search for speakers for the following year. I look for photographers with a distinctive style who are willing to take risks and continue to grow creatively. Speakers must be committed to their vision and their business. I find these people in many ways—I look to Rangefinder’s 30 Rising Stars roster, and review Facebook and Instagram pages. Many of the speakers have been attendees whose work I saw for the first time and felt they had something to say that was important for all to hear. Like the photographers selected for Mystic, I use my heart, I use my head, I take a risk and stay totally committed to find the very best talent in our community.
 
Any advice for emerging photographers? 
Emerging photographers should be themselves, because if you are not true to yourself, you will not be happy. With that in mind, you must grow creatively, commit to your vision, commit to your business and most of all give yourself permission to make mistakes. Mistakes allow us to push the boundaries, which is a good thing. When you have a challenging situation, find an uncomfortable solution and detach yourself from the final outcome. Last but not least, never be content in imitating others. Follow this advice and miracles will happen.


Ben Chrisman shoulder-bowls with Ken Liu. Photo © Miguel Angel

Who are you inspired by in photography?
I am inspired by so many photographers for so many reasons. If I had to choose one, I would choose Henri Cartier-Bresson. His photography is an extension of himself and his heart. He did not care if his work appealed to anyone and was more concerned with pleasing his inner being. He had only a moment to capture his images and few could do it better. As they say, the decisive moment is something we should all strive to master.
 
Why Portland, Oregon, and how does the name Mystic relate to new location, if at all? 
Before moving Mystic to Portland, my friend Andrew Funderburg of Fundy Designer, who lives and works there, would brag about the city and all Portland has to offer. I was intrigued. At first Angela and I considered a Mystic East and a Mystic West. Many of our attendees that came to Connecticut were from the West coast—why not make it easy for them? After careful consideration, we traveled to check Portland out and we discovered what an amazing city it is. The food, beer, vibe and the people made the decision easy. With a little more thought and advice we did not want to divide our effort.  Mystic Seminars made the move to Portland. Mystic is and will always be Mystic. Though the name came from the city in Connecticut, it quickly morphed into something bigger.  It became an experience, and Mystic is the perfect name.
 
Who are some of the speakers for 2017 and what are the exact dates and location for 2017? 
Mystic 2017 kicks off on Monday night, January 16 and ends Thursday, January 19 at the Hilton Portland and Executive Tower. Our great lineup of speakers includes Jonas Peterson, Gabe McClintock, Nicole Ashley, Daniel Aguilar, Petar Jurica, Jide Alakija and others.
 
In the end, why do people attend? What’s the number one takeaway?
Photographers attend because Mystic is original, unique, stirs their imagination and spirit, but most of all Mystic is genuine. Attendees leave with a sense of fear, which is good because as Steven Pressfield wrote in the The War of Art, “It shows you what you have to do.”

To read this article in the digital edition, click here.

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