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You Are Here:  Home  >  FAQ  >  Blogs  >  Why being a Photographer's Assistant is a bad career choice

Why being a Photographer's Assistant is a bad career choice

Monday, July 11, 2005

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Every week or two, I get an email from someone asking if I'm hiring assistants. They'd like to work for me, not just for the job, but because they feel being in my presence will give them insight into the photo business world. They think they can jump ahead of the pack and learn the secrets of the trade, and possibly to get in front of their clients sooner.

While the idea sounds good in theory, reality tends to play things out quite differently. Business cannot be learned efficiently or effectively by assisting someone else. While you may learn some rudimentary tasks here and there, you can do that easily on your own just by taking a basic business class at a local university's extension program. Doing business well involves knowing basic fundamental business principles, and most photographers don't know those. Those who do don't necessarily teach them well. There are certain paradigms about how to assess difficult financial challenges, choosing whether to advertise in the short term, or invest in a longer-term project, and so on. A "paradigm" is a mental model, and most pro photographers don't usually adopt structured, cogent models. They simply perform tasks that earn short-term money; most don't strategically plan careers. Truly difficult business decisions is what separates skilled professionals from those who know how to robotically repeat certain tasks.

Another thing to note is that most all photo businesses vary in some very major way depending on the photographer. Some have great technical skills, and maybe a great client base, but they may not have the best negotiation skills or even marketing savvy. Others may have those all swapped. Photographers are somewhat like snowflakes in that they all look roughly the same when viewed from afar, but close-up, each is so uniquely differently, that it's a big mistake if you try to copy one by observation. If any given photographer is successful, chances are that he is so because of who he is: his unique qualities and characteristics happen to make it all work. A different individual will never be able to match these attributes perfectly, and trying to do so may cause more harm than good to one's own career.

Therefore, I usually advise photographers never to assist or intern for other photographers, if they believe that it will help leverage their photo careers. There may be many reasons to assist, but the main reason not to is because you think it'll help your career. This then begs the question, how do you build a career?

Since the topic of this article is "assisting" (interning) for other photographers, this question is out of scope. But to give you some context, most start by being photographers of things (or for businesses) that they know really, really well. Usually the kinds of things they did before they took up photography. This may include a previous career, hobby, interest, or degree they got in college (outside of photography). The better you know something else, the better your chance for leveraging that knowledge to build a photo career. Anything that separates you from everyone else.

For example: if you come from the auto industry and know a lot about cars, chances are you will speak persuasively and authoritatively about cars in general, which can help you network and befriend others in the industry, which will much more quickly result in jobs with clients who need you to photograph cars. Knowing the business of the marketplace you are shooting gives you immeasurable insight into the business culture of that target market, which is far more valuable.

So, here's the caveat: those who have no substantive background before photography are not likely to do well in this business. Yes, this applies to the wide-eyed and ambitious 18-year olds who email me saying, "I don't care what I shoot, I just want to learn the business and have a career in photography." Such people who intern for other photographers almost always end up either assisting their entire careers, or they lose interest in photography and go elsewhere. Yes, there are certainly some success stories, but there are also lottery winners who get a million dollars by picking the right number. Both have the same ratio of success, but the lottery method doesn't take nearly as much time.

A more thorough discussion on building a career can be found in the article, Photography and Business Sense.

If one were determined to assist for a photographer, at least follow this advice:

  1. Seek out someone you know.
    Asking a total stranger is guaranteed to fail for a number of reasons, most of which have to do with you. It demonstrates that you're naive about the industry; that you have no strong, focused, knowledge-based interest in anything else (or you wouldn't pick someone you haven't already established a rapport with separately); and that you're probably costly to manage as an employee or intern. (Keep in mind that even though many interns are not "paid", the cost of managing such people is not insignificant. Time and resources are spent teaching someone do things that the photographer could do just as quickly and more efficiently on his own.)
  2. Do not work for "cagey" photographers.
    Pro photographers have a well-deserved reputation for being secretive about their business practices. You may know and respect a photographer that does the kind of work you want to do, but working with that photographer is a very different experience. Many feel threatened or annoyed by other photographers, and often use interns just for their cheap labor, so they have them do unrelated grunt work they just don't want to do themselves.
  3. Not all photographers have something worth knowing
    Noting that some photographers are just lucky lottery winners, who happened to capitalize on opportunities early in life, it's difficult to know which photographers those are at first blush. Success is easy to see—how they got there is not. A hundred people could have done the same thing and not yielded the same success. Luck played a role, and it's not easy to discern between a "lucky" or an "intelligent" business person. The younger and less experienced you are, the harder it is to make this assessment. Arrogance in a photographer is a sure way to rule him out.
  4. Try to find those who are used to helping people learn
    Photography teachers generally good employers, but they also don't really hire interns that aren't their own students.
  5. Seek photographers who entered the business after the year 2000.
    It's tempting to find seasoned professionals who've been in the business for years and years, but they built their career at a time when conditions are too dissimilar to today's economic climate. They are decidedly ineffective role models. They only need to maintain their businesses, not build new ones. And "reinventing yourself" by building a new website, or acquiring different clients is not the same thing.

    Photographers who became pros after 2000 were more likely to have used the internet as their primary marketing mechanism, not just a secondary one. They are more internet-savvy and know how to use it, not learned it reluctantly later in their career. The role that the internet plays in business development, and the business mechanics of working in the digital age is rare, if not unheard of, by seasoned pros who started their career prior to 2000.

Why I don't hire assistants is a catch-22: if anyone were talented and smart enough to actually be useful to me, they would not want to work for anyone. They would instead be working on their own to build their careers. Everyone else, I wouldn't want to hire.

Unless I had some grunt work I needed done for me.

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