Getting Started: Assistants & Internships

by William Lulow

Getting started in the photography business is not always easy. It isn’t just a matter of getting a good camera, going out and taking some photographs and then saying “I am a photographer.” There’s a learning curve involved. Sometimes it’s a steep one, depending on your ability to deal with equipment and the science involved.

In the field of photography, or any artistic field for that matter, an internship presupposes that the period of time the intern works is sufficiently long so that he or she is able actually to see how the business or art is done and to participate in a learning environment. I have seen far too many people posting notices on work boards both electronic and actual, looking for “internships” of a week or a couple of days. Those artists are looking for ASSISTANTS. Assistants should not work for “no pay.” If an artist needs help with a job, or in her studio, or with a lighting problem, she needs to PAY SOMEONE for their help. An “internship” for a week or two is not an internship. Also, young, aspiring photographers or artists should NEVER accept these kinds of false internships no matter what the promise of “exposure,” portfolio “building” opportunities or the like. Far too many neophytes are looking for any kind of work, even if they have to work for free. THIS SHOULD NOT HAPPEN! When I ran my studio in Manhattan, I had interns from colleges like Pratt or Parsons or SVA for the full 16-week semester. They got college credit AND I paid them a weekly salary for their experiences and work.

So, don’t be fooled into thinking that you will actually learn anything valuable in two weeks. If a photographer needs help on a job, he has to HIRE an assistant and PAY for the services. After all, it’s a billable expense! If a photographer has enough work to hire assistants, they need to be paid for their work. That way, everyone will feel good about the whole arrangement.

Also, an “intern” relationship is a learning one. If a photographer needs help, he has to train someone to do the job he needs done. This is where the learning occurs. He has to show someone how to do the kinds of things he wants done. An intern may need to sweep the floors sometimes, but not all the time. That’s the job of a janitor. In addition, because the photographer knows that an internship is a learning situation, he or she has to treat the intern with respect. There really shouldn’t be any expectation that the intern already knows her way around a studio. That’s why she’s there; to learn.

When I was starting in photography, I was able to get assistant jobs with a small number of established, studio photographers. The longest time I spent in one studio was a year-and-a-half. Sometimes, these were free-lance assistant jobs that lasted anywhere from a couple of weeks to several months. I learned quite a lot from these jobs and it was important to see how many different types of lighting problems were solved.

One needs to be careful about what the terms of an internship are and decide whether there is a learning environment or not. That’s the key.