If you're an aspiring photographer with or without any formal training, one of the best ways to gain experience and learn the craft as well as business of photography is to assist an already established and professional photographer. For students coming out of photography school (do people still go to school for photography?) seeking an internship or assisting gigs with pro photographers is a good way to put their classroom training to practical use as well as get their foot in the door of the industry. But what if you're already an established professional photographer, do you ever actually assist another professional? Is that taking a step down? For me, the answer is no, that's not taking a step down and yes, you should most definitely assist if you have the opportunity and the situation makes sense to you.
Last year, I had the pleasure of connecting on social media with editorial photographer Brad Trent who's work I very much admired and have been following for quite some time. If you don't already know who who I'm talking about, I suggest you go see for yourself and discover the dude behind Damn Ugly Photography. While I do follow a bunch of other notable photographers, most aren't following me back. So, imagine my surprise to get an Instagram notification that read: Brad Trent is now following you. Cool. I kind of figured for a minute that perhaps he just had a bunch folks running his social media and by some random chance, they added/Followed me. To my surprise, that wasn't the case. I contacted Brad via messenger and he actually confirmed that yes, he followed me and the reason was because he admired my work. Well I'll be damn! Cool! We corresponded a bit more and I insisted that I shoot a headshot for him. While he sort of agreed, it still hasn't happened but it's an on going campaign that I assure him will eventually take place. More important, I made the offer to assist him if he ever needed anyone. Wasn't too long before I received a message from Mr. Ugly himself asking if I was available for a shoot! Heck yeah!
Meeting Brad and team was quite an experience to say the least. I tried to explain to my wife what it's like by telling her "Imagine being a decent guitar player, relatively successful and you're asked by John Meyer or Jack White or Paul McCartney to do some gigs with them?!" Yes, for me, it was like that. What can I say, I'm not so egocentric or too proud to admit being a fan. You should find photographers, mentors or whomever in whatever industry you're in and admire them, study them, learn from them and respect them. On that note, let me move this conversation beyond Brad Trent being a rock star and focus on the real message behind this posting. (sorry man!)
As I expected would happen, a few friends and such asked about me "assisting" and wondered "why?" Their take on it was that I was pretty damn decent of a photographer and knew a whole lotta stuff about shooting, lighting and most things photography related. I didn't need a job and I have assistants working with me sometimes. I'm the one teaching. lol. Why on earth would I go and spend time assisting a photographer as if I were some photography freshman? Well, here's my answer - Because I'm still a photography freshman! Regardless of how much I know or THINK I know and regardless of any tiny amount of success I have managed to achieve so far, I'm still just a guy learning, staying on my grind and eager to get to the next level! That is something that will never end and it shouldn't. If you talk to any real worth while photographers, successful photographers, the ones cool enough to keep it real, you'll find that most are always in a state of learning and continuing to grow. Old saying - You can never know enough! As artist, we'd be dead if we knew it all anyway.
Another major reason for me wanting to assist has to do with a philosophy I live by which is to always try and surround yourself with greatness and the people in your field who are much, much more advanced than you. MUCH MORE! I say it all the time to people - If you're a a tennis player, you don't keep playing tennis with people who are as good as you or who you can beat regularly. You find tennis players much better than you with much more experience and much more skill who can whoop your ass with ease. THAT'S how you achieve greatness with your work eventually. So it is for ANY sport or whatever, so it goes for photography. Now, anyone reading this now may be thinking "but wait, Christian Webb shoots headshots, not editorial stuff like Brad." Yes, true, however, there's still much to be learned and the experience flows the same way regardless of the genre. And, truth be told, outside of headshot photography, one of the only other types of photography I'd ever be interested in would be editorial. So, with no question, I'm in incredible company. Brad's been in the game for over 30 years. His experience as a photographer and the work he's done serves not only as an inspiration but as an educational resource unavailable to most.
Since first assisting with the Damn Uglies, I've been privileged to work with some incredible people and be part of some amazing work. The highlight of which I'd have to say would be the day we were in the Richard Rodgers Theater to shoot Lin-Manuel Miranda for Amtrak's Arrive Magazine. Need I say more? Hamilton! Every bit as cool and personable as one could imagine. An absolutely bad ass day and a true privilege to be amongst such company and part of an incredible shoot.
Let me add one more story about assisting before closing. The Friday before the latest snow storm, Jonas here in NY, I got a call from Brad asking me if I wanted to assist. Not him, but some other photographer. It would be a favor sort of as there was no budget and obviously, they weren't paying an assistant. Okay, no problem, I'd be in the city anyway and fortunately was available. I made it to Go Studios early where I met some of the team. It was a fashion shoot for Ubikwist Magazine. Soon, the photographer, Patrick Ibanez arrived and we immediately got to talking. Took seconds to realize what a great guy I'd be working with and how incredibly cool he is. We worked a good 8-10 hours that day and it was a great experience. Funny thing was, the studio put together a Nikon D810 kit for Patrick to shoot with. He wasn't familiar with it at all and immediately told me his concerns and shared some of his anxiety. Being an experienced Nikon shooter myself, D800/D810....I ended up being just the person he needed to work with that day. Best part, I met some great people and connected with a fellow photographer who's really solid with his work and has an awesome eye. You can check Patrick's website here: Patrick Ibanez
Overall, for me, it's about passion and loving photography. Doesn't matter if it's me shooting or helping someone else out. The experience, the immersion into the world and commitment to stay learning even the smallest things far outweighs ego or whether I'm being compensated. So long as the opportunities arise and so long as I have the availability and the photographer is someone I deem to be a true professional and whose work I admire, I'll always be open to lending my time, skills and experience. If you're a photographer, successful, semi successful, experienced, just starting out, finding the right photographers to align with and to learn from is one of the absolute best ways to enhance your own skills as well as build solid relationships within the industry.