Bumping into my old mentor at an American Photographic Artists lecture yesterday reminded me of the importance of building a photography community and the benefits beyond the obvious.
Life is a zero sum game, and it’s every man for himself. Well, not quite. But I’d wager a fairly large sum on the fact that you’ve encountered many fellow photographers with this philosophy over the course of your career. I’d even wager a bet that you yourself have fallen prey to this kind of thinking a time or two, even if only in passing. I'm sure I have.
The truth is that we are in a very competitive industry. It’s an industry with far more supply than demand. It’s a career where your longevity literally depends on your ability to “win” assignments. I am an advertising photographer, where it is industry practice that most ad agencies are required to triple bid projects. This means that for every job I successfully bid, at least two other photographers have to lose. And, conversely, every bid I lose means someone else was chosen.
But it is also true that we are all in this together. Sure, we may sometimes be pitted against one another for a particular assignment, but we are also just fellow men and women trying to pursue our passions and live our lives the best way we know how. And while it's tempting to think of our rivals as just opposite pieces on a chessboard, it's important to realize that, in many ways, we are also on the same team. And, while it may seem counterintuitive, there is a lot to be gained from this sort of thinking.
For one, knowledge. No matter where you are in your career, there are others with more experience in the business and a wealth of knowledge that can help you develop into a better photographer and a better businessperson. Likewise, there is a multitude more that can benefit from your own wealth of knowledge. Those photographers who are younger or less experienced than you that can benefit from mentorship and guidance.
Worried about sharing too many secrets and creating your own competition? Sure, it’s possible. But I would argue that to excel in photography, to really reach the highest of heights, it is about digging out that something special about your own individual voice that will set you apart from the competition and be able to see the world in a way that no one else can. Helping an assistant develop their lighting technique or refine their portfolio isn’t going to give them your creative voice. But it may help them develop their own.
I was fortunate enough to intern and assist legendary photographer Art Streiber early in my career. Watching a master at work is both humbling and exhilarating. The opportunity to observe and learn from both his lighting technique and (more importantly) his business practices has benefited me greatly over the years, as has his willingness to respond to my incessant emails even today when I’m faced with a scenario for which I don’t have the answer.
And it’s not just me. Art has made it part of his business practice over the years to regularly mentor young photographers, and the branches that have grown from that tree comprise some of the most talented photographers working today. I can’t tell you how many times I am at networking events and bump into the who’s who in the industry and learn that they too were once one of Art’s assistants. And they all have similar stories about how he helped them along the way.
But, no matter how good they may have gotten and no matter how successful their careers may have become, they aren’t Art Streiber. That’s not a quality assessment. That’s simply a point of fact. His voice is his own. Their voice is their own. Your voice is your own.
By taking time to help others on the way up, you are also paying back the contributions of those who helped you. We are not only forming potentially helpful future business connections, but also strengthening our community and, quite simply, doing the right thing as human beings.
So, next time you have an opportunity to offer advice to an assistant, be sure to take the time to help them along. And for those who took the time to help you along the way, don’t forget to be forever thankful. I know I am.