The Other Side: Learning to Assist in order to Learn
How many of you have attended a workshop and were seriously impressed from the moment you stepped in the studio or room? I know I have been impressed a few times and I've been relatively unimpressed at least 2x. To be honest, it's been a 50-50% crap shoot.
In June 2017, I had the opportunity to work as a workshop assistant in New York City. There was no budget for the assistants but the trade off is that I would get to see production from the opposite side of the students, direct access to the photographer hosting the workshop, a portfolio review and get to shoot at least one day for some portfolio images. Now, I don't always advocate working for free because it sets a precedence that's generally undesirable but you have to know what you're getting in exchange for your hard work and efforts. I thought the trade off was fair and I liked the photographer.
Being on the other side of a workshop has really enlightened me. It's different when everything is set up for you and you walk in as a student and you're wide eyed in wonder. I think there's a ton of value in offering to work as an assistant for a photographer you admire even if you're not getting paid for it. I knew that I would be spending money to attend this workshop and work as an assistant. The budget wasn't there to pay for the entire cost of going to this workshop but I did reap the benefit of seeing the preparation and planning that goes into a workshop, meeting her stylists, working directly for a well established German photographer/student as a lighting assistant, and seeing how it comes together.
The other benefit of being on the other side of a workshop is you get to see how much effort goes into running a workshop. Everyone thinks they can run a workshop (myself included) and that people will be falling over themselves to learn from another. The reality is - it's a lot of hard work and sticking to your guns (beliefs and standards). It's also knowing what makes a great workshop and that is "production.”
The production side of a workshop makes or breaks a workshop. The level of detail, contingency planning, details, contributors all have a stake in making a workshop memorable or a waste of time. It's hard work and it should be hard work. It means you covered every detail possible for the workshop - the minutiae right down to the type of food you're offering because someone might have an allergy or making special accommodations for students. It's a lot of communication of intent and desires so that there is no mis-fires on what the expectations are and what the outcomes should be. There's a lot of time location scouting and finding the right place that will accommodate the size of your group, the stylists, the models, etc.
Working as a lighting assistant was really interesting. I worked for a German photographer who was well established as a production and creative director. He's worked on Audi commercials and produced large scale concert video projects. He really didn't need to do this workshop but he wanted to because it pushed him to create in a different environment, something he couldn't get in Munich. While walking with him while scouting the backstreets of Noho and Soho, I asked why he chose to come to this workshop. He said in Munich the city is much different; you couldn't get that gritty feel of NYC. He said everything in Munich was beautiful and just too "pretty."
As we walked along these back streets I would point out city back grounds and spaces that we could visualize our model in. He would take out his phone and use an app called Artemeis and snap a few images to see what each look would look like using a 50mm or 85mm. He would actually collaborate with me and we would stop and Brainstorm each location - how to light it and what we would want the model to do. In the end, we decided that natural light with a white reflector would be the way to go. It would be too difficult and risky to haul out the Profoto equipment onto the street, especially moving 3-5 times for different background scenes. I learned from him that shooting fashion didn't need to be complicated. Sometimes we over complicate photo shoots and think more is better. It's not. We, as junior photographers, can do fashion with the right vision and foresight; by being selective in styling choices and model choices and with the right conveyed intent - we can create fashion without all the hoopla that we "think" is happening on these sets. So I thank this photographer for simplifying it for me and showing me that it's ok to use natural light and basic tools to get an image.
When we went inside the NEO studios, he outlined to me what he would like for lighting and it was my task to go into the lighting room and pull the required equipment. I pulled all the lights, stands, and equipment to set up his lighting equipment while he took a break. Yeah, I wanted a break too, but I liked the challenge of having his "set" set up and ready to go. I was totally happy knowing "my" photographer walking on set and ready to go. Minor adjustments to the model's clothing and we were off shooting. The nice part was that the photographer I worked with was very low key, confident in his abilities, and was willing to share his knowledge. I learned a lot about helping the photographer achieve his lighting and also dialing in his lighting to achieve his vision.
The interesting part is that you'll find out that even the biggest photographers who are creating these amazing images are sometimes doing the same thing you're doing - working in a crammed location with stylist working off of kitchen tables and kitchen counters and the photographer crammed into small nooks trying to get the shot. These photographers and teams are doing the same thing you're doing already. They're getting up early, hiking/traveling to locations, grabbing their favorite teams and lighting assistants and a model and making images happen. They are you with more drive and tenacity. They. Are. You.
So, being an assistant is not really a bad thing. It's work, for sure. However, I think I came away with more knowledge about production and how to "work for someone else." I think a lot of photographers miss out on that aspect of the creative team. We are usually in charge of the process but we forget that in order to learn and lead, we must also follow others. If you're given the opportunity to assist, I highly recommend you grab the chance. You will learn much more than spending $1,500 to "ooh and aww" another photographer's achievements.
Here's what I learned from this assistant job:
1. High end production is expensive. It's not cheap. The cheaper you go, the cheaper the experience is for photographers or your client.
2. Location matters. Not just the city you're doing the workshop in, but the space that you're working in. The environment - what it offers and the capabilities to transform your environment into a photo set. You can't just pick a corner of a street and hope that you can make it this amazing photo shoot set. The photographer I assisted scouted the back of the Neo Studio building in Noho, NYC and we walked the entire back street. I suggested locations, we did some light testing, we crafted an imaginary picture of what our model would look like in that particular spot (i.e. Against a black door, in an alley way, where the light would hit at x-time). Location is important because it sets the scene and it inspires the photographer and model to bring forth their best.
3. Marketing is important. While I am privy to some stuff, I will just say that marketing is a 24/7 job. It's tiring and it's a necessary evil. Unless you're going to hire your own marketing guru and can afford it, it's on you to market your workshop and translate value to a potential client. How you do that - I couldn't tell you. I'm still learning how to do it myself.
Hope that gives you a little insight on what it's like to be an assistant and what to look for when you're working for "free." Not all free work is beneficial but if you can walk away with a wealth of knowledge, then you made the right decision.