Every photographer starts off working for someone else. Whether you’re fresh out of school or going right into the photography world on your own, every photographer starts out working as an assistant, or a gofer, or worse, as an employee. Worse because most photographers are wildly independent characters and bristle at the idea of employment. There is a certain attitude that comes along with the lifestyle and it is mostly expressed in a fierce determination to lead a freelance life. If you’re reading this, it’s more likely you’re a leader and not a follower. Being the brave soul that you are is going to require something that you might never have considered: you’re going to be an employer, at least on a temporary basis, when you hire assistants and other personnel to work for you. If you are really successful, there’s going to be employees hanging about (which is a subject for another time), but for the most part you’re going to be hiring people on a job-by-job basis. They are going to be independent contractors, and they are going to be just like you: talented, creative individuals who don’t like to work for anyone but themselves.
Now, the question of pay and all kinds of compensation considerations (such as social security and taxes) are going to come up. It is not the purpose of this blog to advise you on that particular subject. That is the proper business of an accountant and perhaps even a labor lawyer. If you are heading in that direction or are already there, you had best consult a professional in those matters. What we want to concern ourselves with here is the job of being an independent character working and directing other independent people in business.
Hire the Young
As young as you may be, make sure you hire younger people. Their backs are stronger and they ought to be willing to do anything to learn what you know. And did I mention their backs are stronger? Don’t forget that most important consideration. You want to be relieved of carrying bags as soon as possible in your career. You will live longer and happier as a result.
Do not ever assume that an assistant knows anything. They don’t, no matter how much they say they do or where they went to school. They know nothing and it will soon become apparent when the work starts. They must know what you want them to know, and your job is to teach them what you want. Their heads may be filled with theories and brilliant ideas, but what you want is for them to do what you want them to do; nothing else and no exceptions. The most important thing they must know right off the bat is to be quiet. When you are working with clients, the assistant is seen and never heard!
A young assistant will gladly work a long day for the experience. At the end of a long shoot, you will be eternally grateful you have someone who will carry your bags that extra mile. Just make sure that you’re the boss. Nobody likes an assistant who wants to be a boss on your shoot.
Hire Someone You Like
Rule number one about hiring: hire people you like and feel comfortable with. You’re going to be spending a lot of time together and the hours will go by much faster with agreeable people. The people you hire should be equally passionate about your work as you are. In fact, if you can figure out a way to hire yourself, do so! But be sure and find someone as positive about their life and bring that spirit to your work. It will pay off handsomely.
Lay Down Rules
There should be rules laid down before the work starts. Rule number two should be: no drinking or smoking on the job. You want a clean workplace and those two activities have no place on set or on location.
Their dress should be appropriate. If your client wears a suit and you’re in a corporate environment, your assistant should dress the same, or at very least, wear the same sort of outfit you do.
Don’t be shy about showing them the little things you do to make life easier. For instance, one photographer closes all his bags by bringing both zippers together in the middle of the bag under the handles, not by pulling one to the other end. It’s a small thing, but when you’re in a hurry, it can save some exasperation. Another little trick involves raising stands and tripods from the topmost leg, not the bottom. You have a great many small things that you do out of habit or learned experience. Make sure you pass these idiosyncrasies on to your assistants. Remember, they must learn to do what you want them to do. You shouldn’t have to adjust to them.
Know When to Cut Your Losses
And then there is another really important thing to remember: cutting your losses. There are good assistants and bad ones. Don’t hang on to the bad ones. Once you’ve come to the realization that someone is not working out, don’t wait. Do the kind and considerate thing and let them go as soon as you know. It’s the hardest part of the job, but it will save you both a lot of aggravation, and it’s kind because you don’t have that perpetual discomfort between the two of you and it’s so much better to relieve the burden on both parties quickly rather than letting it linger. If you have some uncertainty, then a good long talk may come in handy. You are going to have to take the lead and tell them exactly what is wrong. You may want to give them a chance to rectify their mistakes. But if you are sure they are not doing what you need, prune that tree and do it quickly!
Reward Your Hard Working Assistant
Once you find a great assistant, pay him or her a bit more than the going rate. People like that are hard to find and when you do, make sure you keep them. A good assistant will be a refreshing someone to talk to on long days and with their enthusiasm and dedication, will make your work that much better because they will be interested in what you do and make it their own.