Attack of the Former First Assistants

- - Photography Business

There’s no better way to get started in this business than assisting a photographer and if you can get on with one of the big shots you are guaranteed an Ivy League Education and possibly… tons of verbal abuse. There is an art to barking out orders and whipping the assistants into a frenzy and when done properly it feels like something important is about to take place. Next to “napalm in the morning” I love the sight of an assistant in a fast trot coming over the horizon from the grip truck 5 miles away with 150 lbs. of gear and one of those ridiculous belts with shit hanging off everywhere hitting them in the legs and torso.

Every great photographer I’ve ever worked with has an amazing first assistant.

It seems like there’s a new wave of former first’s–there’s always a group roaming around but this one seems to be particularly large–who’ve recently made the leap from shooting like their old boss to defining their own body of work and they’re starting to get a lot of jobs. If you hire a photographer enough you get to know the first’s and when they finally make the break to go out on their own I always meet with them to look at their book. They deserve it.

There Are 38 Comments On This Article.

  1. Always interesting to hear the romatacised ideas from those who never where on the other end of those ego’s.
    THE only thing I learnt from being someone’s personal slave was that when I came to hire my assistants, treat them in a better manner.

  2. I assisted once for a “famous” photographer and learned that I would never assist again.

    Agree with Jon-Paul, I learned that I would treat all people on my set extremely well no matter what the circumstance.

  3. It is nice to hear that editor’s are willing to give assistants the courtesy of looking at their books. Assisting seems like kind of a mixed bag. It is by far the best way to learn how to be a commercial photographer. The experience & connections are worth the low pay, long hours and physical labor. But it can be a trap, people get stuck in it, either because of the regular pay check, or because their style becomes so much like their bosses? I have seen that happen a great deal in the fine-art world, with the teacher/student or artist/studio manager relationship.

  4. “The experience & connections are worth the low pay, long hours and physical labor”

    Not it’s not !!!
    And being freelance, meant never having a regular paychech.
    My experience (so far) has been you never get work from those who could just employ your ex-boss. they see you as a sub standard version of the guy you worked for.

  5. Not a geezer but not a youngster

    When I was an assistant to the coke head, there was an art director who we worked with, who saw, that I put in long hours, worked hard and was talented. He asked me to come see him when I left the employ of Mr. Coke Addict. I did. He gave me solid advice and an ongoing corporate assignment that lasted a year and put me on solid ground.

    When an assistant is motivated and hungry, they are willing to learn. To be a sponge as another put it. Personality is a huge part of this. Getting along.

    When an assistant stays too long or becomes too familiar, than it starts to wear on you. My rule (after a bad experience with an assistant who stayed too long) is – always hire people who want to be shooters, who want to learn and work hard. If it becomes just a job to them, then it is time to leave. If an assistant looses respect for the photographer or process or thinks he is as good as the photographer, than this become poisonous. Time to clear the deck and start fresh.

    An assistant earlier (in a bit of cockiness, I might add) said that photographers would try to keep an assistant down, to stave off the competition. Bollocks!
    By the time you get to where I am, I will be long past that place.

    That is the crazy thing about this world of instant communication and the TV show discussed earlier. Assistants think it is about attitude and connections. If you can not deliver the goods, perfectly, the first time, you are cooked.

    It takes time and mistakes made along the way to understand the depth of your responsibility. There is far more to this than just showing up with your kit.

    The only way to truly understand everything it takes to make it in this business is to assist really good people. I have always been willing to help my assistants and have gone out of the way to loan them money when needed or to even cut them loose from a shot if they have the opportunity to take a gig with a Vanity Fair or Time shooter.

    Assistants – it takes time and effort on your part. It also takes time and energy on the photographers part. One screw-up from an assistant on set or on location can kill a shoot and a business relationship.

    Recently, an assistant who I have worked with for many years, got pissy in front of me, our subject and client. I had to micro-manage his emotions for a week on the road in order to insure the shoot was a success. Plus deal with the client fall-out and insure them that all was o.k.. My client of many years asked me to make sure that assistant was never on one of their shoots again.
    This was an assistant who I had worked with for a long-time. Yes he was tired, but he was unprofessional.

    If you can not be a professional on a shoot and control your emotions. Then stop assisting that photographer, find another gig or get out of the business.

    Showing up tired, wiped-out or depressed is no good. Please have enough respect for the photographer you work with, our industry, the client and mostly, yourself and stay home.

  6. In fact …. I know Jim Erickson (commercial guy in San Francisco – well, Petaluma actually) is looking for a first assistant – he’s losing his first assistant early next year. The hours are long, the travel is often, he’s tough but he’s fun, and your education and subsequent opportunities will be great. It’s a big operation so you will learn every aspect of the business.

  7. Life of Regrets?

    Not A Youngster wrote:

    “The only way to truly understand everything it takes to make it in this business is to assist really good people.”

    this cannot be emphasized enough. i’d advise any assistant who’s assisting in a b-level city to also assist in new york, before you go out on your own. don’t make your move to a shooter too quickly. that’s one of my main regrets; that i never assisted for a serious a-level photographer. there is some saying about “a high tide raises all boats”. if you assist a top notch photographer, you’re being exposed to his working methods, and lighting methods, but you’re also being exposed to top-notch hair and make-up artists, and top-notch clothing stylists. once you see “good hair” with your own eyes, then that instantly becomes your new standard, and what you’ll aim for in your own work later on. again, good advice in that other thread about being patient, and about assisting for as many QUALITY photographers as you can, before you start shooting on your own. be exposed to QUALITY.

  8. The photographers I work for are great. One calls me up sometimes and tells me off for assisting too much and not shooting enough. They have all looked at my work and offered advice.
    Why would a photographer want to keep you down? In the long run, that will just make you resentful and uninspired……..why would anyone want an assistant like that?

    In my opinion people want to work with people who are eager, passionate, and love photography? All about getting on with people and having a team that works together?
    And if you work for someone who treats you like shit? Don’t do it? Stop complaining, you’re getting paid to set up fucking lights? Far better than working in a shop or something in my opinion.

  9. To those here who assist or have assisted: How do you choose which photographers to approach? Do you do it primarily for the steady money, or because you see someone’s work and think, “I have to see how he/she is doing that?” Do you find assisting to be viciously competitive?

    To those here who hire assistants: What makes you hire one assistant over another? I mean, we’ve gone over the qualities of a good assistant, but what makes you call them up in the first place, without having worked together in the past?

  10. Personally, I approach photographers whose work I have seen and admired/been inspired by. If someone approaches me then I would generally meet up with them and check out their work and have a chat.
    Viciously competitive? There are a lot of assistants all wanting to work for the top photographers so yes. All I can figure is just do better.

  11. I always looked at the job of the assistant with mixed emotions. I’m totally thankfull and dependent on the people who assist me and they all have brought something really special to the process and my photographs. I so value these people, and the social skills are as important as the lugging, no question.

    Unfortunately, I never really thought they were getting some great learning experience: every day they were working for me they wern’t shooting for themselves or thinking about their own photographic statement/career/work. I kind of feel like it is a great job for two years and then it can quickly become a trap. Sadly, it seems the better the assistant the more deep in the trap they are and the harder it may be to find your own voice and enter the world of shooters. I need these folks and want them to be with me forever, but for them to thrive, they gotta get out and the sooner the better. I feel there should be some other path to become a shooter rather than assisting, cuz one needs to start practicing their voice early and often. Agree? Disagree?

  12. Having been on all 3 sides of the photographer/assistant/client triangle, I’m not in favor of verbal abuse in any situation – I think it just makes you look neurotic and freaky to your clients. I’ve opted against hiring photographers who I felt bring negative energy to a shoot. Also, my rule is never to hire a photographer who speaks through his assistants (there’s one Japanese photographer in particular who does this and uses it as a means of manipulation – he’s been living in NYC for 12 years now and can’t speak english).

    However, that said, I also think the best assistants are the ones who are **slightly scared**. The worst assistants are the ones who think they can do the photographer’s job, or even worse, if they think they are integral to the photographer’s success.

    My rule is everybody makes mistakes – I say things only once, but if I have to repeat myself, you’re not getting hired again.

    The best learning experiences of my assisting career were the screamers – the ones who get so into the shoot they’re just going with it, but never become abusive… the ones who want things NOW. I’ve never worked with a tighter group of assistants. The “big guys” I assisted for ranged from great experiences to freaky neurotic assholes (who often weren’t the screamers, but would cut you down in a much more subtle, vindictive way, often deliberately in front of the client).

    Funniest thing is one of my current steady clients is one who saw me “cut down” as an assistant and decided not to hire the photographer again.

    Ha ha. I win.

  13. Not a youngster but not a GEEZER

    Dude say’s.

    “However, that said, I also think the best assistants are the ones who are **slightly scared**. The worst assistants are the ones who think they can do the photographer’s job, or even worse, if they think they are integral to the photographer’s success.”

    You hit it right on target. The second sentence says it all.

    Somehow, some assistants think that working for you is a stumbling block in their career path, instead of taking the time to research what it takes. I’ve opened some amazing doors for my former assistants. Some have gone on to successful careers, others not. Just the way it goes. We make our own luck to a good degree.

    Yes, I wished I had taken the opportunity to assist HIRO when I was 18. I turned it down because I was not ready to move to NY on my own without financial resources. Do I regret it? No. It was a decision and I stuck with it.

    I assisted for some great people. One I learned a huge amount of how to light. Another on how to do things right. Of course, Mr. Coke Addict taught me how to do things wrong, which was a valuable lesson in itself.

  14. “How do you choose which photographers to approach?”

    before I became full time with one photographer, i would approach guys whose work i admired for one reason or another, the beautiful lighting or the situations they seem to be sent to photograph. whether it’s a peter yang, chris buck, andrew eccles, or jason bell, they each are very different and have different things to learn from. at the same time, it quickly becomes obvious if there can be a long term work relationship, which i think is key in this industry. you want to be around someone whose work is inspirational, but also someone who you can spend some serious time with and absorb what they have to offer.

    i’m now in the position where i have a lot of input on hiring 2nd and 3rd assistants and it is very dependent on the shoot as to who we call first. the list of great assistants with skill and know-how is long, but each person, guy or girl, brings a different dynamic to the team. sometimes it’s better to hire the guy who has worked for annie for 3 years, but other times the young, eager kid brings a lot more energy and excitement to the shoot…

  15. Aggression is Foolish

    Well, I’m glad the photo editor finds pleasure in the verbal abuse of assistants. I find it completely unnecessary.
    Most photographers have emotional or mental problems that lead them to think they can treat people however they like. But if you’re clear with your assistants about what you need, you won’t ever have to scream or yell or bark. Such behavior shows your weakness, not strength.

  16. Assistant Lingo 101
    Yeller- A photographer who treats assistants like shit
    DB- Deadbeat- Don’t expect to get paid in 60-90 Days maybe never.
    OC Gears- Over Controlling Gear Head- A photog who is too busy micro managing the 12st and 2nd not worried about the shot.
    Man Hands- An assustant who tightens grip and lighting waay to much.
    Bull in A China Shop- Aka Stompy- An assistant who does not understand the concept of light and quick on the feet.
    Chatty McChatterson- Assiistant who talks waay to much.
    ” Scratchin Balls “- An assistant who is standing around when there is work to be done.
    Ladder Hands- An assistant who is too busy climbing the ladder to become a shooter and doesn’t care about the job at hand. Also brings business cards/ promo cards but will not bring a leatherman or a sharpee.

  17. Don't Name Me

    A year or so ago, there was an actual Discussion Board on the web. It was called Photo BlackList. Assistants would anonymously (A.P.A., before A.P.E.?), write in horror stories about who NOT work for. It seems to be gone now. That was one “Top Twenty List” that you hoped you never made.

  18. Cameron Davidson

    I’ve had three assistants go to become strong shooters with long careers and serious name recognition.

    I’ve had others burn themselves out by hanging on to the steady assisting work rather than make the jump. It is sad to see people make that choice. In the end, they become angry and frustrated and search for other avenues. Or, the become professional assistants who only give what is asked of them.

    The idea that an assistant sit down near the end of his or her time with a person is really good. It is an opportunity for the photographer to say thank you, to help in anyway they can. It is also a chance for the assistant to take a long look at their work and where they want to go.

    It is not the time for an assistant to burn the bridge. The photographers you worked for can be a great ally in your career.

  19. Not Youngster/Geezer-

    Funny. I turned down an opportunity to work full time for a top still life photographer and don’t regret it one bit. I know a couple people who did assist that photographer and, while I’m sure they learned a lot from him, they haven’t exactly blown up in their careers either. Or course they’re still young and their careers are still ahead of them.

    Over the past several years, I also have known a couple ex-Steven K people and a couple ex-Annie (speaking of verbal abuse) and ex-Steven M people and, like the Raymond people, none of the ones I know have done exceedingly well. In fact, a couple of them have REALLY gone down in flames.

    A lot of assistants to bigshots only learn one way of doing things (the expensive way) and never really learn how to run a business, which is the most imporatant factor in success.

    Speaking of all this ex-bigshot-assistants’ careers going down in flames, and also to wrap this all back into the ever-important discussion of The Shot, look at the previous positions on Piper’s linkedin page and you’ll see a certain 4 years and 5 months worth of relevant work experience:

    Unless of course this is relevant to the “padding your client list” thread from a while back. Anyone know if she actually worked for Steven for 4 1/2 years?

  20. i assist 2-3 days a week for a guy called Zed Nelson over here in London. I’ve been working for him for almost 2 years now, and I’m planning on being there for a good while longer.

    Why? because every time i work with him there is something new that i learn. without exception. i think a good first/photographer relationship is built around trust, respect, and knowing when the jokes stop and the serious business starts.

    perhaps its different when things get highly commercial, but when assisting documentary/editorial photographers, its important to get on well – because you spend a lot of time working together. if you start to piss each other off regularly, it’s probably time to end it.

    loyalty is important, but as someone mentioned above, a good boss will give you leeway to follow your own projects; I have started to get my own assignments now, but we find ways to fit these in around Zed’s schedule.

    I’ll be in my 30’s by the time I finish with Zed, and will probably have 3-4 yrs of assisting under my belt; but you know what? i’d be up for doing a couple more years. a move to NYC to work in a really fast paced environment is definitely attractive.

    Reading some of the comments on here has been good the last couple of days. a lot of sense, and as someone who is still assisting, plenty that i agree with, and some ideas that are food for thought.



  21. at the end of the day, assisting isn’t that big of a deal.

    you either have what it takes, or you don’t.

    you’ll either figure out how to do it, or you won’t.

    many famous guys never assisted anyone. many did.

    the only sure thing in making it is that there is no sure thing.

    oh, that and photographers spend way too much time on the internet pretending what they do is that important and that they’ve got it all figured out.

  22. I got into photography late and felt like I was too old to assist (32). That and I was really bad at it. I assisted for 1 or 2 photographers and said screw this. When you were already successful in a past life its not easy to go back to the bottom somewhere else. I even received advice from one of the commentators in this thread not to bother with assisting after looking at my work… so thanks for that! (although I’m sure you don’t remember)

    I do feel like I’ve missed out on some things because I didn’t get to see how other photographers worked. But, I’m doing fine and sometimes think its a good thing… I mean do we really need more photographers who’s work looks exactly like the photographers they assisted?

    I always apologize to my assistant since she has to learn from someone who clearly has no idea what he’s doing.


  23. Older Geezer...

    Since I added a bit to Old Geezer’s items, I’d like to respond that there should be rules for photographers too:

    1. Photographers, treat your assistants like family – the closest members of your family – and they will watch your back 24/7.
    2. Feed them well and eat with them at the same table, just like family.
    3. Laugh with them. Share your concerns with them.
    4. Delegate to them intelligently. Take it in steps, and then delegate more. Give them directions but then don’t micromanage. Follow up when they are through, offering guidance for tweaks or improvements.
    5. Keep on them about shooting their work on the side. Enable that process.
    6. When they screw up take them aside to let them know. Don’t do it publicly.
    7. If as a photographer you say that you are accountable, then when something doesn’t go right, even if it’s the assistants fault, tell the client it’s your fault and that you take responsiblity. And it’s best if the assistant hear’s you taking responsibility for their actions, and it probably won’t happen again. There’s nothing worse than a photographer who blames his or her assistants unfairly, when in fact the photographer should always be on top of the steady progression of the shoot.
    8. Drama isn’t necessary. Historionics, neurosis, all of that is a waste of energy. Use them sparingly for punctuation but let the sentences be your postive actions.
    9. Don’t ignore your assistant. Listen. Care. Guide. Assert, but don’t ignore them. If you are ignoring them there’s a reason and its either that you are an ass, or they are bumming you out on set on a regular basis. If they bum you out on set, help them off your set and hire a different assistant.
    10. Try to teach them at least one thing every day, even if it’s subtle, whether it’s about the business, how to train second assistants, how to fold a dinner napkin, or what to look for on set.
    11. When it comes time to ask them to move on, do it with heart. Give them the push they need and help them to determine what their options are.

  24. Anon said….

    “oh, that and photographers spend way too much time on the internet pretending what they do is that important and that they’ve got it all figured out.”

    Classic line.

  25. Yeah ok I spend too much time online. But I don’t have it all figured out.
    Hmmm I’m now wondering if theres any connection between those two things.

  26. Some people spend too much time online doing things OTHER than blogging, if you know what I mean.

  27. So cool,

    I’ve been assisting for 5 years and still going and feel time for me to move on to being behind the camera. All the things that I read hear touches my heart. This was forwarded to me by a friend. “Is this what its like in your line of work?” he says. I must have bumped into some of you guys, in my years of assisting. Some really good advice. When you walk home after a shoot and no ones hears what you want to say and this blog says it all.

    Thanks guys

  28. Another word of advice….take a look at where people’s assistants have gone. are they still shooting? if their former assistants are still in the game, it is usually a sign that they are good to work for and assist.

    Too often, photo milk assistants and don’t help them out – because they are afraid of the competition etc…. Generosity pays off in the long run. Photographers who are good to their assistants foster loyalty and everyone benefits in the long run.

  29. The leap from assisting to shooting is less of a leap and more of a slow and steady rub against the same spot until it gives way.

    There is nothing like my 4am 5am call times as a photo assistant. The grueling 18-20 hr days not made any easier by the demands and requests made by the best of the game. The days that you hate, but love deep inside more than you hate.

    Its the days I spent in the beginning working for the small and mid-level working photogrpaher that was hard. Its my days now working the past 3 yrs for Mark Seliger and Norman Jean Roy while trying to rub way that have truly been the hardest , most grueling and respected days of my transition.

    Thank you for this blog and the Finding a new Photographer blog.

    Today is my first, and will not not be my last.

  30. I don’t believe you have to be an assistant to become a good photographer. In fact, I believe very few assistants will become well-know photographers. It works the other way: how many great photographers have been assistants?

    It also depends on your ambition. Everybody wants to be Annie Leibovitz (well, at least the girls). If you’re happy shooting baby diapers, that’s another story (this also being a professional).

    I worked as an assistant once, for a not-so-good photographer. He had all the fancy equipment but not that many ideas. I could have learned some technical stuff – it helps, but it’s not related to creativity- but I had the feeling to loose my time. Of course, working for a top notch photographer might have changed my life.

    My advice for an aspiring photographer would be: learn as much as you can in college, feed yourself with other’s work, shoot as much as you can, show your work. You’ll soon know if you have “something to say” – or not.

  31. Assisting, assisting… Ohh my sweet lover Miss Assisting.

    I met her when i was young and in need of help. She welcomed me with open arms. Then we fought for almost ten years. On again off again. We saw others people. I bought a house and we started hanging around again. We fought some more. I was filed the divorce papers finally. I got a new love interest. ( my work again )