The Long and Winding Road

To me it doesn't matter much whether you're black or white, male or female, rich or poor: becoming a photographer is no easy task. Beyond the glamour and excitement of living a roaming and freelance lifestyle, the journey is all too often painful, thankless, heartbreaking..

This blog is a discussion of my journey as I develop my career within this industry. As well as discussing what I am currently up to, I'll write about some of the things that I wish I'd known when I was getting started.

Hopefully this may provide a short-cut around some of the obstacles that could have taken me months or even years to work around and understand, as well as give a realistic insight into the highs and lows of the day-to-day life of a documentary photographer.

Assisting

 A typical buffet set-up at  Fantastic Bar , Kigali. Buffet is hugely popular around the city with a range of traditional African food being served up and piled high, from kasava, matoke (cooked or mashed banana), sweet potato, avocado, beef... it goes on. Don't be shy. 08.11.17

A typical buffet set-up at Fantastic Bar, Kigali. Buffet is hugely popular around the city with a range of traditional African food being served up and piled high, from kasava, matoke (cooked or mashed banana), sweet potato, avocado, beef... it goes on. Don't be shy. 08.11.17

So more travelling again since the last post. Following my unheroic return from Kisumu, I decided to head back out West to continue with a personal project of mine. After taking a 16-hour coach journey to Kampala, I stopped off for a day, joining the country's rock climbing club for a stint in a quarry in the middle of the city which they use as their stomping ground. For anyone interested in climbing, the granite is super smooth so it really makes you think twice before you allow yourself to commit your hands to a dodgy hold when you're 25 meters up. 

Fortunately they didn't fail me, which allowed me to continue my travels to Kigali the following day.

Of course Rwanda is best known for its brutal 1994 genocide which ravaged the country over the course of 100 days, killing somewhere between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Tutsis. As a result almost anyone you meet has a story about the bloodshed and brutality that took place here. That said, by looking at the capital city, you'd never be able to tell that anything like that could have happened a mere twenty years ago. 

Paul Kagame, the man responsible for putting a stop to the genocide, has been in power ever since. He runs an impressively tight ship with the roads and infrastructure making you feel more like you're in a city in the French Riviera rather than East Africa. The country is fastidiously clean and well-kept, with basic things like traffic and public transport running incredibly smoothly and peacefully. I may be picking out some seemingly odd details but compared to a city like Nairobi or Kampala this place is other-worldly. 

Of course, Africa being Africa, this has come at a cost. Though Kagame has genuinely brought the country into the 21st century, his people fear him. Freedom of speech is non-existent here when it comes to politics and media and so any dissent or disagreement against the regime is met quickly and harshly. Though officially the country is a democracy, the president has been 'winning' general elections with percentages in the high 90's. Soldiers and police are found on every street corner, providing a high level of safety but also seeming to serve as a reminder of the power and omnipotence of the government. This is a dictatorship with democratic veneer. 

But anyway, despite the fascinating political history, that is not what I am here for at this particular time. 

I came to see a mate. He's a photographer too. We met about 3 years ago when we were both still working as photo assistants back in London. I remember the day well because it was the first which I was acting as a first assistant to a fashion photographer. I'd not met this photographer before and was taking a bit of a punt with the job because my knowledge of assisting was still pretty limited. Nevertheless I'd landed myself the work through a Whatsapp group for assistants and didn't want to turn down the money.

The day turned into a bit of a mess with me not knowing what I was doing for half of the time, and the photographer being particularly wound-up and stressed-out. We blundered our way through the shoot but in the end I came out with a mate - the one who's brought me here to Kigali. (I also got a fair amount more work with that photographer back in London but Jesus only knows why..)

So for those who want to know more about assistant work in London, let this be a short guide to get you started. 

A photo assistant is someone who helps a photographer get through a photo shoot in one piece. There's often a ton of things to organise and remember and carry and process and light throughout a day's shooting and so leaving it all to the photographer is only going to result in a poor set of images if any at all. 

So he or she will hire one or several assistants. These are usually broken down into two categories: digital or lighting. Digital assistants (digis) handle things like computer and camera. More often than not, photographers will shoot tethered to a computer, meaning photos will go straight to the computer via a cable rather than using an SD or CF card as an intermediary. This allows the digi to go through files on the fly, keeping an eye on stuff like focus or exposure (certainly not composition), as well as filing the images and maybe giving them a quick retouch. This is almost always done through a programme called Capture One Pro. It's a lot like Lightroom but if you want to work as a digi on a fashion or advertising shoot then you need to know this programme back-to-front. Digis are generally also the go-to for troubleshooting with an overly-complicated and prone-to-break-down camera. 

Lightings guys handle everything on set. Not only do they have to manage all things lighting, but they're often needed to shift heavy stuff and perform unreasonably dangerous duties in the name of the shot. It's a physical job which, depending on the needs of the shoot, can require a lot of skill and knowledge. 

So while there will almost always only be only one digital assistant on a job, it's not uncommon for there to be two or three lighting guys to keep everything moving. In such situations, there will generally be a first, second, third etc. assistant, with the first being the person with the most knowledge and experience. Depending on the expertise of the photographer in the way of lighting, the assistants will either be working under his/her direction or under the first assistant.

Assisting, for many, can end up a life-long career with many earning a really, really good day-rate. Though I'd never have been happy with becoming a career assistant, for a couple of years it was my full-time job and allowed me to get out and shoot my own projects because of the money and flexibility it offered.

While some assistants will work full-time for a single photographer, many more act as freelancers, building up a portfolio of clients that they will get regular or irregular work with. Others are drifters who will get work with one guy for a while before moving onto the next and then the next with other odd jobs in between. 

Pay is very good. While as a complete novice, you'll have to be prepared to do a lot of work for free but as you build up your knowledge you'll start to be able to charge between £50 - £100 per day before having £150 as your most basic day-rate. Depending on the job however (usually based on whether its a commercial or editorial job - the former paying more handsomely) your day-rate can move to £200, £250, £300 per day. Though generally digis will earn more than people doing the lights, getting a week-long job on a shoot can sometimes be enough to cover your rent and expenses for a month or longer. 

So how can you get involved?

There are a couple of ways. The way I got into the assisting scene was simply by reaching out to London-based photographers whose work I liked and asking them if they needed an assistant. I'd offer them a hand for free in return for an insight into how he/she would work when on shoot and some tips when it comes to lighting. A few took me up on the offer and if I was working for free, would always cover my lunch and travel expenses (you'd be well within your right to expect the same). 

Another way is to get in through one of the several photo studios based around town. Generally advertising and fashion photographers don't own or rent their own photo studios but will just hire a studio for the duration of a shoot. Studios like Spring, RIDA, Blue Sky, Sunbeam, Holborn or Shoreditch Studios are extremely popular in London and regularly have top names coming in to use their spaces for shoots.

All of these need studio assistants to keep things moving. Each studio space will have its own studio assistant who will fetch and provide anything required by the photo assistants or photographers who are working on set. This can range from food and drinks to lighting equipment to packages... Beyond this they need to keep the studio tidy and in check. This requires a lot of cleaning, fixing, moving stuff around and cove painting.

To be honest this job feels more like you're working in a hotel than in a studio so get in and get out quick. The pay is not as good. You will be getting an hourly rate (Somewhere around £7.50 - £9.00(?) per hour) and the work is often hard, long, boring and thankless. Though studio assistants are generally expected to be seen and not heard, I'd recommend chumming up with the photographer's assistants on set and building up contacts that way. Before you know if you may be invited to assist a photographer directly through them.

With that said, be extremely cautious not be a nuisance in doing this. There were many times where I'd have a studio assistant trying to chat and be mates with me when I was under a lot of stress and pressure from a shoot and didn't have time to talk. I understood that they were only trying to make a good impression and network, which is completely reasonable, but there is definitely a right and a wrong time for that. Be very mindful. 

So yeah those are the basics with assisting. With regards to any of the above don't let yourself be put off if you don't know anything about it. I entered the game as a complete novice. I never made out like I knew more than I did but I also did often step out of my comfort zone and threw myself into jobs where I maybe didn't have every skill required for the job. At that point just act confident and admit when you don't know how to do what the photographer or anyone else wants. It's better to be straight up and fix a problem on set quickly rather than try and hide it.

Most importantly however, if you take your photography career seriously, please always remember to put your own work first. Assistant work is primarily a means to allowing you to shoot the work you want. You will not be assisting every day so make sure you spend the days in between pursuing your own projects. Don't allow it to become a full-time thing (unless of course you realise you love it, in which case go for it!)


I haven't said anything about this yet, but if you're reading the blog and have any questions or would like me to cover a specific topic then please do get in touch. I'd be very interested to hear from you.