February 24, 2012

Growing up, I was taught never to sacrifice happiness if I did not have to, and I continue to practice this invaluable lesson even today. However, there are – as I’ve discovered – many people (photographers) who would prefer to remove this discipline from me and try – perhaps unknowingly – to do so as frequently as the realm of possibility will allow them. To be fair, there are also photographers with whom I’ve worked who praise the contribution they receive, though this circumstance is far rarer, it does indeed exist.

I shall not name the photographers with whom I’ve worked so as to maintain a professionalism to my accusations as I draw on my own experiences working for them, however when recounting my experiences there are singular, specific individuals who I am recalling located in the vicinity of Dallas.

To begin, it’s important to recognize that every photographer has their routine; their way of doing things. Understanding this routine, their equipment and their expectations will undoubtedly prepare you for success, and failure to understand them will prevent you from garnishing future work.

With respect to content, all of the assignments I’ve assisted with have been still portraits of individuals local to the Dallas area. Some have been CEO’s, while others have been high-profile business people, while still others have been families, artists, and other various individuals.

My inspiration for this entry originates from a recent assistant position which I abruptly left that was short-lived and filled with personal discontent.

To begin, I had been assisting a photographer who I’ll name AH. My responsibilities included loading/unloading equipment, setting it up and breaking it down; the ‘typical’ responsibilities for most photo-assistants.

Here’s the rundown of a recent shoot I assisted on with AH:

  1. Arrive at photo studio
  2. Pack all equipment into cases (lights, light stands, clamps, power packs, grids, reflectors, tripod, muslins, etc)
  3. Place everything onto a cart in a specific way
  4. Wheel the cart through the studio to the dock where the car is
  5. Unload the cart, placing everything in the car a specific way
  6. Go to the shoot
  7. Unload the car, placing everything back on the cart the same as it was in the studio
  8. Transport the cart to the location (up ramps, in elevators, through revolving doors, etc)
  9. Unload the cart at the location, unzip all of the bags
  10. Set up light stands, background, lights, reflectors, etc – turn on power
  11. Let AH take a few photos, making adjustments as he barks to do so
  12. Photo shoot ends
  13. Break everything down, wind up cables
  14. Pack everything up, load onto cart
  15. Transit cart back to the car
  16. Unload cart, pack car
  17. Arrive back at studio
  18. Unload car, pack cart
  19. Transit through photo studio
  20. Unload cart
  21. Unzip all bags, set everything up, again (for anyone who missed their portrait on-location, they’ll be coming to the studio the next day)
  22. Put bags away
  23. Leave

All the while having instructions barked at me and being uncomfortably watched by AH, who does nothing to help.

To develop this scenario (this ‘assistant’ relationship) even further, it’s important that I declare how openly vocal AH was about how unskilled I am as a photographer. I was repeatedly told that my images were, quote ‘terrible’, and compared to another assistant where he indifferently muttered ‘ also a talentless photographer’.

This was obviously not the kind-of atmosphere that I felt was conducive to a positive learning experience. As an assistant for this person, I felt bad about myself and my photography, and regardless of my talent, no one – myself included – should ever sacrifice their happiness if it can be avoided.

My point to all of this is you need to follow your heart. If something is difficult but you love it, stay with it and rise to the challenge. But if something is difficult, you’re not gaining anything from it, and on top of it all you’re being accosted, get the hell out of there. NEVER walk out on a job, unless something has happened that is absolutely uncalled for or egregious, and never let your emotions control you. Consider your actions – and their consequences – carefully, but ultimately you should always do what’s right for you.

There are plenty of photographers out there with good personalities who are willing to help you grow as a photographer and who just need some help with their business. I know because I’ve worked for them. Having seen both sides of this industry has been good for me. I continue to learn about equipment, the business of photography, client relationships, as well as the roles and duties of an assistant. What’s more: Despite my repeated involvement in an agressive, uncomfortable, hostile environment, I remain true to my school and true to my morals, and I would never treat anyone that same way I’ve been treated. It’s not right, it’s not healthy, and no one benefits from that behavior.

Whether it’s Eddie Adams, Annie Leibovitz, or AH, make healthy choices that are mutually beneficial. Slavery is defined as ‘a condition compared to that of a slave in respect of exhausting labor’. I didn’t go to college and perform internships across the country, for free, for months, to come home to slave labor work. I think that’s nonsense, and I quickly put an end to it. If you’re in a similar situation and can afford to do the same, I would highly recommend it.

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  • Reply Thorpeland February 24, 2012 at 4:02 PM

    Good stuff. You hit the nail on the head with, “But if something is difficult, you’re not gaining anything from it, and on top of it all you’re being accosted, get the hell out of there.” You’re right, there are photographers who are friendly, helpful and will treat you like an equal. Go find them.

  • Reply taylormahoney February 24, 2012 at 4:05 PM

    Sorry to hear about the dubious quality of your assisting experience. I have been fortunate to assist photographers who are down to earth, easy to get along with and supportive (not to mention talented). There is often a lot of ego in photography and it makes many photographers quite un-pleasant…

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