If you asked me what the best piece of advice I’ve ever had in the industry, it would be this one sentence. ‘Get Your A** to London and Get Work Experience’. It was said by a very wise photographer who mentored me when I was trying to figure out if I needed to apply for a photography degree. He said nobody would ever ask me if I had a degree in photography, it was all about putting yourself in the right place at the right time.
I wasn’t so sure but I had just come out of my year’s foundation at Art College in Brighton and I confess that I was more confused about what direction to take than when I went in. I thought of it as my ‘Gap Year’. I would try the whole work experience thing and if that failed, I’d apply for a degree.
Well one year later, I was travelling all over the world as an assistant to a well known rock music photographer. A further two years later when my art college pals were coming out of their degrees and looking at starting careers, I had an agent and regular work for record companies and magazines.
But getting work experience in the first place is not easy and I now find myself at the opposite side of the equation. I receive on average two or three emails a week asking me to give somebody work experience.. here is one from this morning's inbox and it is fairly typical...
"Hello, my name is xxxxxxxx I am a photography student and have been studying for the past year and a half, I am now coming to the end of my second year. Before I finish college I would love to find a photographer who is in need of an assistant or for any other job going with them. I want to get work experience in shooting, editing and getting clients.”
To me there are quite a few things wrong with this... First up and probably the most irritating thing about nearly all of these requests is that they haven't addressed me by name. This makes me think it is a lazy cut and paste sent to a few photographers that they most likely plucked off the first page of google. There is absolutely no indication that they know anything about my work so I don’t feel like I owe them anything. Now I've not written this to put anyone off, I want to help. I've been where you are and work experience was absolutely the catalyst to my entire career. So having been at both ends of the scale, I have some tips that might help you come up with a better approach.
- Be selective about who you target. It should be someone who's work you genuinely admire as then you will be able to display your knowledge of their images and why you think you might be a good fit. Don’t send a link to your own work. - You are not going to be taking the images.
- Time it well. Don't contact anyone first thing on a Monday morning or last thing on a Friday afternoon. Nobody really wants to deal with anything above and beyond what needs to happen at either of these times and you will be far down anyone's priority list. If the person you are approaching is successful then they will be busy.
- Put yourself in the other person's shoes. Think what's in it for them? They won't be sitting there thinking I wish there was someone here asking me loads of questions and learning how I do everything so that they can set up in competition against me. What do you really have to offer? What skill sets do you bring that will actually improve that photographer's life? You need to sell yourself as someone that will benefit them. I'm sorry to tell you that most photographers don't need help with the shooting side of things as much as the admin side. It's more likely that you will be editing and making tea rather than getting your hands on all their expensive gear.
- Show your personality. Don't be afraid to show your character traits. You can assume that if someone is a level where you want to approach them, then so will several others, so aim to stand out. When people write I have a GSOH in dating profiles it doesn't mean anything but the person who shows wit in how they word their biography will be more appealing.
- Think creatively. This is a creative industry, so it amazes me how people approach so much of it in uncreative ways. Everyone else is sending a lazy cut and paste email? Then send your communication some other way. Show how creative you are by posting them something lovely, show how brave you are by actually picking up the phone and talking to the person you are asking to train you.
- Be realistic. Aim not to land a full time job but aim to get your foot in the door. You are highly unlikely to contact someone sitting there with a full time job to give you. Aim instead to get a day or a week's work experience and then make yourself utterly indispensable.
I don't think it's hard to do this well, which is why I'm constantly disappointed by how badly people do it. I've now stopped answering the ones that don't address me by name. If they can't be bothered then neither can I.
Way back when I was at this point in my career, I made a list of my favourite music photographers working in London. I telephoned them one by one until I found someone who could offer me work experience. I was utterly terrified every time I picked up the phone but I kept thinking they don't know me, if they say no, it's not because they don't like me, it's because the timing is not right for them.
When that one photographer said yes, I made the very best use of that one day's work experience to make other connections in the industry but most importantly to show how useful and keen I was. That one day lead to others and I was always very appreciative of the opportunities that came my way. I was courteous, punctual and very quick to learn. It wasn't long before I was getting paid a small amount per day and then I advanced to proper assistant rates and was getting some fantastic jobs. I think by managing to leave my own ego at the door and being aware of the main photographer's needs or the client’s above any of my own, I was a useful asset.
I'm eternally grateful to the photographers that said yes when I was looking for experience as I know now more than ever just how valuable that it is. You cannot learn in a classroom how the real world of shooting is and the particular pressures that it brings. You must be out on real jobs to pick up the skills you need. I made a hell of a lot of cups of tea in my time but all the while, I was watching, making notes and when there was time, I would ask questions. For me, it was definitely a fast pass into the industry but it was also very hard work at times. Sometimes it meant early starts and late finishes. I was once so tired after working at a video shoot that I fell asleep whilst walking down the street. Yes this is possible! If this doesn’t scare you off and you are prepared that as the work experience person, you are always the least important in the room then I hope these tips help you.