Honestly, the position of an assistant photographer is quite under estimated. On a photography course for example they teach many things (some of them quite useless, like developing and fixing…) but they never teach you how to become a good assistant: it is as if one would like to become a racing pilot and knows everything about the engine but doesn’t know how to open a door to get in…
The assistant is very important, because, if it works out, he’s the right hand man of a photographer.
A premise: it is undeniable that whoever is an assistant does it to learn things which are supposed to be useful when the latter will become a photographer. But this doesn’t mean that he’s only there to learn. It often happens that I receive emails with more or less this message: “good day, I am a photographer and I can’t seem to be one like I’d like to, I would like to become your assistant so that I can learn as much as possible”. No! It’s not like that, I’m sorry: it’s the assistant that must be useful to the photographer, not the other way around. Otherwise the money should go the other way compared to the usual…
-let’s cut to the chase, I will try to explain in a simple and schematic way what an assistant must do and know to be good:
-first rule, which comprises them all: three seconds before. Exactly, 3 seconds before, before everything. A good assistant must think/do/act three seconds before things happen/are needed/become complicated. This is the basic rule and it is the consequence of the fact that the assistant has to constantly think on his feet to think of what is going to happen to anticipate it.
-a rule that precedes the “three seconds before”, in a more wide and complete way: the assistant must always be prepared for any situation and think of anything that will happen. A good assistant mustn’t be a parcel that gets carried from one place to another, must not be dominated by the events, but must dominate the events.
-to dominate the events the good assistant has to be ready. Ready to confront the situations, places, events: if you are going to shoot up in the mountains you have to think at everything that could be useful. Everything means an infinite list of things, which might not be used for anything, which they might be not needed for anything, or maybe they will: warm shoes and impermeable, gloves, hats, scarfs, hot tea, swiss army knife, deer call, maps, gps to save oneself… and a thousand other things that could be useful. I was an assistant (a long time ago…) and I left on a plane heading for sicily to palermo with the photographer I used to work for. Too much wind at punta raisi so we landed in catania, where we rented a vehicle to drive to palermo: I brought a map of sicily with me, so thanks to that we arrived in palermo relaxed and tranquil…
-rule connected to prior: if there was an assistants school within the photographic school they would teach you a very fundamental thing which perhaps is bullshit but changes the light on the assistant in regards of the photographer in a radical way: a good assistant should have a fanny pack/backpack with things inside. Things?!? Everything! Everything that is in the fanny pack could be needed: tape, rope, lighter, tweezers, pegs, batteries, charger, pencils, pens, knife… everything and more. If the assistant pitches up on set up in the mountains with moon boots and this fanny pack won’t it be better than pitching up with moccasins and empty handed? And isn’t it a simple thing that goes in his favour? Definitely yes, what happens in most cases though is the coupling of moccasins/empty handed.. Didn’t you know? Now you know.
-a good assistant has to be informed. Once upon a time about film and developing, nowadays about computers. A good assistant at least knows MAC and PHOTOSHOP. When they tell me they know MAC I don’t do complicated tests, I tell them to create a new folder on the desktop. You won’t believe me but in most cases they start looking for FILE on the top left bar and they search and look… to create a new folder (and you know it!) is shift/apple/N. If one doesn’t know this they know nothing. A twenty something year old should know about computers more than I do! (from now on the MAC test will of course be different…)
-the assistant is and must be the last piece of shit of the group. Careful, I say this with the outmost respect. But I say this to be as clear as possible. It’s like that. And only by having this in your head things can work out. For example, at the table the assistant has to be the last one to sit down and the first to get up. (moccasins, empty handed and the first one to sit down?: go fuck yourself)
-English. You have to speak english
-small but important thing: NEVER have hands in your pockets NEVER
-not on time. Ten minutes earlier
-this is for the assistants but, obviously, for the photographers as well. It seems banal but it’s not: you have to like photography. Can you imagine! It is not that obvious. Especially in case of a photographer like… Me. If an assistant is my assistant especially because he likes to go to exotic places, because he likes pussy, because he thinks he’s going to have fun… we are not on the same page. I like photographing Max magazine’s beauties as well as I like photographing miss blumarine’s kids. honestly. Because above all I like to photograph and to do beautiful photographs. Same thing has to be for the assistant. (moccasins, empty handed, first to sit down, no english and mad for pussy?: so, you get it…)
-continuing from the previous argument a good assistant must have a knowledge in photography. And must know it better than me! Has to know the new chinese photography that, for example, I don’t know. Besides knowing, obviously, diane arbus and guy bourdin…
-delete from your personal vocabulary: “no”. “I do not know”, “I do not remember”… in short all the phrases that begin with the word “no”
-one word is too little, two are too many
-ok, I am afraid that I am going beyond the “photographic” aspect, but to be an assistant, therefore the photographer, often goes well beyond the “photographic” aspect: a good assistant must eat at the table in an educated manner. Yes, I think of it that way. A photographer s a strange, very strange job, where you sit and get confronted with cuban outlaws and next thing you sit and get confronted with heads of state. You have to be ready for everything. So in this context to eat well and in an educated manner at the table, believe me, is important. Between an assistant brilliant at photoshop but that eats like a beast at the table and one that doesn’t know photoshop but eats with good manners I prefer by far the second one: you can always learn photoshop, manners are way more difficult…
For now I can’t think of anything else. Know that to be a good assistant is the only concrete way to become a good photographer. In the end the good assistant is the one that does what he would do if he was the photographer. Therefore it is a unique training ground to learn what sooner or later, if it will ever happen, will be absolutely necessary.
PS: I have a feeling that this article will be printed out and pinned to the wall of many aspiring assistants. Be my guest. Give me as a present, wait much better, give an iTunes track as a present to whom you love for each copy that you will print…
PS #02: my dear friend toni thorimbert also gives a very interesting contribution on the subject: obviously on his blog