What can the assistant bring to the photographer?

When I wrote the recent post on “Group questions versus individual questions,” I was obviously writing about that topic. But, I was also using the process of writing to clarify my own thinking on that subject. As I started to answer a query from a student in the Fotovision class that I just finished in California, I ended up similarly clarifying my own thinking on another topic.

She wrote me:

“I have a question about trying to get assistant jobs (and developing the skills for it) to work with travel and street photographers or photojournalists. I know it’s very competitive but what kind of experience, knowledge and qualities you think that are important to apply for this job (besides being young and beautiful :-))? What would be your advice?”

As I started to compose my answer her, I drew on my own experience, both working as an assistant and later hiring assistants. To some degree, I also drew on what I have seen other assistants and photographers do over the years.

The best assistants are people who bring something to the shoot that is needed by the photographer who hires the assistant. I know that sounds obvious, but it is very important. When I was at my best as an assistant, I was doing something for my boss that he or she needed done and could not do. They may have been busy doing something else or physically not able to do the work I was asked to do. I may have been carrying heavy stuff or keeping their strobes properly wired, but in all cases, I was adding something to the shoot.

The veteran photographer Maggie Steber once hired me to assist her while she was doing a photo story on life backstage at a fashion show. Besides carrying and setting up lights, what she especially wanted me to do was take pictures of the models as they passed through the working kitchen that the women needed to pass through after exiting the main stage. She simply could not be in two places at once, so I worked as a photographer for that part of my assisting gig. To her credit, when one of the photos that I made was published, she made sure the magazine gave me a proper byline.

The point is the photographers who hired me, like Maggie, did not hire me because I was cool or because I needed money to do my documentary projects. They may have liked me as a person, and supported what I was doing as a photographer, but they needed to have a given job done. And to be honest, in writing this I have to admit that when I was younger and stupider, I may not have always done as much as I could to support the efforts of the folks who hired me.

So, to answer the original question, start by asking what can an assistant bring to a photographer who hires them? I am not sure that an assistant can bring much to someone who does street photography, unless the assistant has language skills that the photographer lacks. Similarly, someone aspiring to assist a travel photographer would also need facilities in local languages, as well as an understanding of local cultures and knowledge of the area’s geography.

The only assistants I ever hired when I was working as a photojournalist were all what we called “fixers.” These were people who lived in the area where I was working, who knew the language, the culture, the highways and the back roads. They also knew whom to call when I needed them to find something. I used to work with a lot of “fixers” in the Middle East, who did all of the above as well as vouch for my credentials as a journalist. They could usually find me the perfect family or village to photograph for a given assignment.

One new assisting opportunity exists today that is a unique by-product of the digital imaging revolution. For older photographers, who have not fully embraced digital imaging, it is often easier to hire an assistant whose sole responsibility is downloading, organizing, archiving and outputting images. The job of the digital tech is a fairly new one in the industry. They are in essence, the film processing-lab that is now moved to the location of the shoot. Because it requires sophisticated digital imaging skills (and gear,) not everyone can do it. The pay is better and the work more steady than conventional assisting. Digital techs are perfect examples of assistants who fill in gaps in the skill sets of the photographers who hire them.

The other time I used to hire assistants a lot was when I was doing corporate work, particularly annual reports. Since I was usually hired to do the projects in what was called the “National Geographic” style, I did not need an assistant to help me with lights or carrying heavy gear. No, I needed an assistant to solve the two problems that regularly came up when I was doing location work for advertisers and corporations. I needed an assistant to keep people out of my way, whether it was the subjects I was photographing or the people I was working for. I also needed someone to get the subjects I was photographing to sign model releases.

The best assistants in those case were usually good looking young women, who knew enough about photography to keep people from ruining my shots and had the charm to talk subjects into signing model releases. The cold, hard reality is that women will cooperate and sign releases for women. Men will do the same for women but usually not for other men. The charm required in those situations is one skill I have always lacked. In that case like all others, when it comes to assisting, the only question that really matters is what can the assistant bring to the photographer they are working for?

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