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Photographers on the whole, are a highly individualistic lot. They tend to be loners (after all, it’s pretty difficult to have more then one eyeball behind a camera’s viewfinder, they are usually sole proprietors and, back in the day, spent hours alone in darkrooms, an activity now done in front of a computer, all of it largely self-directed and solitary.

Solitude can have a great many benefits, but it also has drawbacks, the primary one involving the task of moving forward in life both as an artist and in business. It’s hard to gain experience when you don’t have any. The old catch-22. So the question then becomes how to move forward in a career, or even on a more modest level, how to find your way through a project being guided only with the sound of your own voice? Not many of us have the capacity to be completely objective when it comes to our work and our businesses and even the most sage among us has the need for more experienced perspective in our work. Going it alone has pitfalls galore, and that is where the value of a mentor can become the most valuable relationship a photographer can cultivate in his life, especially early on in a career.

Two words here are indispensable:

  • A mentor is someone who is a wise and trusted counselor or teacher, or an influential senior sponsor or supporter.
  • To cultivate something means to ‘develop or improve by education or training’ or ‘to promote or improve growth by labor and attention.’ 

Finding and cultivating a mentor can have a tremendous impact on your life, and while it may be possible to make one’s way through life without one, having an older, more experienced ally you can trust can open doors you didn’t know existed, pave the way to greater growth both artistically and commercially, and give counsel when a ready solution to a problem is not at hand.

So how exactly to you “cultivate” a mentor? Some people have a natural gift for mentoring and other for being mentored, and often these roles happen as the result of good fortune and happy coincidence, but the vast majority of people, especially the photographer who often goes it alone, will need to seek out a mentor/mentee relationship and develop it to the benefit of both parties.

Clear Goals

Ask for what you want, but first make sure you know what it is you want from the mentor. When you know what you want, you can then find the right person to help you along the way. For example, if you are a product photographer, it would make sense to find someone whose work you admire. If learning more about the business of photography, a small-business lawyer or accountant might be the answer. You could conceivably have more than one! One photographer has what he calls a “board of directors,” a group he gets together with (individually of course) whenever there are questions about direction, or goal setting, or any subject the photographer is grappling with. Just be sure and ask an accountant the accounting questions and not the artist. You may run one idea past everyone, but make sure the most influential among your group is the last one to ask. There may come a time when, if you go to several people with your questions, one of those people will become the most reliable and therefore, your mentor. It never hurts to interview several people along the way for the job. Sort of like dating.

Identification

Finding a mentor first involves finding someone who has what you want. The mentor is usually an older, more experienced person, be it a fellow professional, or a teacher. As mentioned above, it may mean choosing from among several people or it may simply happen organically as you go along in your career. The right person will come along when you are ready to learn, but be sure you find someone you can closely identify with, even someone you admire, or whose career you would like to emulate.  Remember too, that along the way in your career, mentors may come and go. The mentor that was right for you at one stage in life might not be the best choice years down the road. Keep an eye out for allies at every step along your path. Even if you retain the same mentor for your entire career, don’t overlook the potential help a “temporary mentor” may provide in a specific time and place.

Approach

This relates closely to the last point. Once you’ve identified someone you think has all the qualifications you are looking for in a mentor, phone them or visit them and tell them straight off what it is you’re after. Whether they say yes or no, it is a virtual guarantee they will be flattered. If they say yes, you’re on your way. If they turn you down, don’t walk away without asking for a referral. Ask them who they know who might be interested in such relationship. Don’t make it as a question they can answer yes or no to, ask “who they know” instead of “do you know.” That last point is one to remember in all facets of your business. Ask the who question unless what you need is a yes or no answer.

Ground Rules

It’s always a good idea to establish ground rules for the relationship. Even if you have to keep the rules in your own head, having boundaries in any relationship will ensure the work between the two of you is well-defined. Don’t, unless you’re well into the relationship, ask an accountant for advice about your spouse. Save that kind of stuff for your friends. Keep the relationship with your mentor on a professional level.

Most photographers who go it alone are taking the long way around. They tend to reinvent the wheel, which usually takes significantly longer than if they had some guiding force in their lives, and that’s what a good mentor can do for you. With their experience, they can help you avoid costly traps, and believe them when they tell you that in business, mistakes always wind up costing money somewhere along the line. You’ll save yourself a great deal of time and money by finding someone who can provide you with sound advice, someone who’s been down the road you’re traveling. We all benefit from help, and a mentor can be a great help along the way.

James Schuck

James Schuck is a writer and photographer working in Southern California. He is a graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York City and has photographed everything from Architecture to Auto Parts to Cookies to Portraits and Weddings.

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