30 Apr Mentorships and Assisting | Four Photographers Reflect on What They Learned
Sydelle Willow Smith
No matter your profession, craft or trade; learning from those who’ve gone before you is usually much better than going it alone. In the photography industry the options include mentorships or the prospect of assisting another photographer. However, knowing that not everyone can or will have the opportunity to learn directly from someone more established – and because it’s never too late to learn something new – we’ve spoken to a few people who did have this chance in order to unpack some of the knowledge, insights and practical skills they gained during their mentorships or time spent assisting.
A local photographer with an international reputation; Darren Gwynn spent two years jet-setting around the world with a significant portion spent in London as 2nd assistant to Rankin – the owner and co-founder of Dazed & Confused and Hunger magazines – shooting campaigns with the likes of Vivienne Westwood, Kate Moss and Heidi Klum. After returning to Cape Town in 2013, he founded co-directing, stills and creative studio ANDREA•GWYNN with Chloe Andrea, producing work for American Swiss, Kluk CGDT and AngloGold Ashanti (among others) while adding to a portrait and interview series called THE BOX which brought us up close and personal with dynamic local creatives. Darren has just moved to Johannesburg where he is represented by Lamppost to pursue a solo career in photography and directing.
When she was sixteen Sydelle Willow Smith began taking courses at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown. Early on, she turned her lens towards the local punk scene and her first published image was a double page spread of a band called The Vendetta Cartel in Blunt Magazine. From 2008-2011 Sydelle furthered her studies at the University of Cape Town where she graduated with an Honours Degree in social anthropology (focusing on visual anthropology) and an undergraduate in video production. As the 2013 recipient of the Gisèle Wulfsohn Mentorship in Photography, Sydelle developed a body of work titled Soft Walls under the mentorship of David Southwood. The series of images seeks to deal with the relationships between migrated African nationals and South Africans; revealing the subtle ways in which individuals make sense of their experiences.
Sydelle Willow Smith
The first time Jono Wood picked up a camera with a sense of purpose was on a daring adventure while on his gap year, paddling up the Orange River with his mother’s old film camera. He soon realised that having a camera in hand was a great excuse to be on an adventure and an interesting way of being able to bear witness to another person’s life. Since then Jono has assisted some of South Africa’s best photographers including David Prior, Ross Garrett and Pieter Hugo. At the end of 2014 he spent New Years Eve in Hillbrow, capturing the celebrations and altercations in a photo essay that caused quite a stir throughout January. Drawn to the grittier side of things, Jono’s adventurous spirit is reflected in his brave photography.
Based in Johannesburg as a freelance photographer, Paul Samuels studied a BA fine arts at Wits where he graduated with a distinction in photography in 2012. During his studies Paul worked as an intern at Glow Photographic, expanding his technical and professional knowledge. In his final year he was awarded a Tierney Fellowship for XVI X, a collection of portraits of young men from the suburb of Edenvale, which resulted in an ongoing mentorship with Jo Ractliffe. Much of Paul’s work explores the themes of identity and belonging in African subcultures and he is particularly interested in portraiture – a field which, for him, best expresses individual and societal interests and the ways that people live in relation to the broader formations of society.
How did your mentorship/opportunity to assist come about? Tell us a bit about your experience.
Darren: A mate of mine was working on a job here in South Africa, the job being from Monday to Friday. He could only do Monday to Thursday and so I took over the job on the Friday. On day of handover he mentioned to me that he was heading over to London to work as senior digi to Rankin. I kept in touch and when I moved over to London a few months later I got in contact with him. He mentioned to me that Rankin was looking for a senior light and I applied for the job. In my first 4 days at Rankin I worked for 90 hours in total and slept for 6, at which point I was offered the job. I then worked my way up to 2nd assistant and stand-in 1st. The experience was great and daunting at the same time, I was thrown into the deep end (and when I say deep I mean Marianas Trench deep) and I had to learn to swim very quickly.
Sydelle: At the end of 2012 I was awarded the first Gisele Wulfsohn Mentorship Grant from the Market Photo Workshop. The mentorship was launched to provide emerging photographers the infrastructural support to develop a body of work and to honour Gisèle’s memory and her work; it is seen as an opportunity to continue her approach and interests in photography. Gisèle dedicated her life and photography to awareness, openness and respect; she worked on issues of democracy, HIV/AIDS education and positive identities, social inclusion, gender issues and women’s rights, and maintained a commitment to education and social change. The Gisèle Wulfsohn Mentorship in Photography’s over-arching concept is the creation of a platform and opportunity for emerging photographers to build a substantial body of work with a view to assisting them in the establishment of a professional career within the field of photography.
Being mentored by Dave Southwood was an educational experience, and also a lot of fun. I would rock up at his house twice a month on a Thursday evening for 18 months while I was doing the body of work Soft Walls. We would drink red wine and talk about photographers, experiences of photographing, ethical questions, music, his dog Cressida and other random things. It was a lot of fun getting to know Dave in that context and he was incredibly enthusiastic and motivational in a quiet and persistent way. I really learnt a lot about framing from him, and he pushed me to shoot the body of work on one lens, a 35mm, working a lot more with a tripod than I had been used to in the past.
The thing I appreciated the most about the process was that when I was first looking for a mentor for the Grant all the photographers I asked agreed, and I was confused about who to choose. I told Dave this, and he laughed and said “Well Syd, if you work with me I am going to call you on your bullshit” and that’s exactly what he did. He was very honest and straight talking, but I never felt like he was trying to push me in a particular direction or make me shoot in a particular style. We also went up to Joburg for crit sessions with the rest of the Market Photo Workshop and I never felt like he was trying to direct me, rather he gently taught me many things that have stuck with me since then.
Jono: I studied photography for two years at the National College of Photography, in my second year I was offered an opportunity to assist Des Ellis on a Coca Cola shoot through one of my lecturers. I was given an opportunity to be on a professional commercial set and managed to create a relationship with both Red Hot Ops and Des, which lead to me assisting Des on a freelance basis and being put in touch with other photographers also needing assistants. As a result I assisted many photographers and got experience in many ﬁelds of photography including advertising, portraiture, fashion, products and documentary.
As I gained more experience I was in higher demand and got to eventually choose which photographers I wanted to work with on a regular basis. After a while I settled into working most frequently with David Prior – a legend in the advertising industry, Ross Garrett – an unbelievably talented portraiture and fashion photographer and Pieter Hugo – a successful ﬁne art documentarian on his recent project Kin in the Johannesburg regions of the project. I assisted for ﬁve or six years before Red Hot Ops signed me as one of their photographers.
Paul: I was studying fine arts at Wits University, I think I was in my 3rd year at this point. One day I was forced out of my usual tutorial class and Jo Ractliffe become my new supervisor. At first I didn’t want anything to do with it. I was sick and tired of the university forcing me to do anything, I just wanted out. In fact, I was asked to present my work for the first class which had very bad titles and, of course, she spotted them and basically told me that they were crap and needed work – at which point I slammed my laptop closed and walked out. I was a bit of a punk I guess. But that’s where it started. Jo saw I had a passion for what I did, and she made a mission to help me, even though in the beginning I didn’t want any help and thought I knew better.
A few months later I was awarded the Tierney fellowship and under that comes a mentorship, which was with Jo. A mentorship is one of the biggest emotional journeys you can take. That person gets inside your head, and sees how you function. For me that was a scary thing. When one’s personal work is critiqued, it’s hard to separate emotions from work, as they feel so entwined. So when we spoke about an image that I loved and she gave me the reasons why it was bad, there was a fight. She was right most of the time, obviously. The trust of letting someone else come into that space to say what they believe is right or wrong is scary as hell, and that is a big part of having a mentor. Allowing for that to happen and to trust it.
What are the advantages of assisting someone or finding a mentor, as opposed to going it alone?
Darren: Wow, the list I could write here. To be really honest, the things that you learn on set with someone like Rankin are infinite. But also not just Rankin. Assisting local guys who are good at what they do will give such insight to the industry. Anybody can learn light and learn how to direct a model but it’s the smaller things that you only learn from being on set.
Sydelle: You learn so much from those who have gone before you, insight, approach, it helps you find your own voice.
Jono: I found that studying photography for two years gave me a really good grounding for the basics of what photography was and how to operate a camera, but being mentored really taught me how to be a professional and think like an artist on my own. The lessons learnt through assisting were invaluable and had to be earned, not paid for. Through assisting I learnt how a client existed within photography and how to operate high end camera systems. I learnt how to light professionally, process images and how different artists work and approach solutions based on their creative strengths as a competent artist. I felt that gaining these skills was really something that would set you apart from other photographers and give you an advantage to your work through earning your stripes. Many photographers succeed without formal training and assisting experience, I suppose I just wasn’t naturally talented enough to follow that route.
Paul: Well to be straight up, I would have landed up being a really bad wedding photographer if I hadn’t gone through this process. Before I started the Fellowship, all I wanted to do was to be technically perfect. Sharp, correctly exposed, perfectly composed. And through this process I learnt to read image, and trust image. When I say this I mean the idea that an image can exist, be poetic, be functional, as well as meaningful, even if all the technical aspects of that image were wrong. These are sorts of things you would never learn anywhere else. Simply log on to the South African wildlife competitions, and you will see guys complementing each other on how sharp their image is. That means your image is so boring that the only thing you look at is how “correct” it is. Without Jo that thought process would have never shifted, and I believe that is something you can never learn alone. She would see where my work was going, even before I did, and would give me a push in that direction.
In your personal experience, did being mentored/assisting change your way of thinking about photography or your approach to taking photographs?
Darren: To be completely honest, no, not about photography but yes to other things. Yes to the business side of photography.
Sydelle: It taught me a lot about the patience, dedication and a little bit of craziness that is required to produce a long term body of work. There were times were I felt like I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and I would have a chat with Dave and look at all the work he has completed and feel motivated to carry on.
Sydelle Willow Smith
Jono: All the artists I worked with had their own personal looks and styles and I realised this was because each of them had a unique approach to being a photographer and their own understanding the medium. They taught me how to mature my stye by working with them in theirs, and this inspired and educated me all at once. It took me a long way from the ‘run and gun’ imaging and often not meeting technical basics that I was doing before.
Paul: When I first started I was searching for the image, the good image. Now I’m searching for the right images. And there is a big difference between the two. The good images is the image that is immediate, which is ‘correct’, while the right image is the image that tells the story. Sometimes they are the same, but very rarely. Right now I’m looking for a collection of images which tell a story, that come together and create something larger than the immediacy of a single image; a complex web of meaning, understanding and thought around a subject or an idea.
Are there any practical tips you learned during your mentorship/time spent assisting that you still use regularly when shooting?
Darren: Yeah there definitely are. A funny little trick that Rankin does is, after looking through the viewfinder for a few minutes while shooting, he’ll quickly stop, look in the other direction into the corner of the room and then carry on shooting. I asked him why he does that and he told me that it helps him compose a better shot because when he takes his focus away and then comes back to the shot he is effectively looking at the shot with new eyes.
Sydelle: Always check the edges of your frame!
Jono: I experienced a lot of phenomenal shoots as an assistant and have remembered one or two little tricks which still serve me well today. It does get tricky because you don’t want to emulate your mentor’s style and I needed to learn why they did things more often than how they did them. The creative intelligence gained through mentorship with more successful artists is probably the most important asset to be earned by a young artist.
Paul: Watch how images work together. Jo taught me how to sequence images. How three images together can create a dialogue which one image simply cannot. Even if you are not initially aware of this, sequencing and connection between images is just as important as each image itself. Images shift dramatically, and their meaning can shift when dialogue happens. If you walk into a gallery and there are images next to each other, they are like that for a reason, not just because they needed a spot. I try to keep that in mind when I shoot, how a certain frame might work with that one I took earlier. Sometimes you can predict it, but other times it only comes at the end once you have printed them.
The other thing would be to watch light. I know it sounds like a dumb thing to say, but when I first started shooting I didn’t really look at light, I looked at scene which is a huge mistake. The way light falls across subject is so important. Unfortunately because of this there are countless shots that I missed or completely screwed simply because I didn’t look at light, and it was a learning curve for me in the beginning.
I used to have an issue of shooting wide. When I first got my camera I was shooting on a 16-35mm lens, and this distorted people so hectically that the image felt like effect more than anything. That is something that Jo pointed out to me that has always stuck.
What advice would you pass on to younger photographers (or a younger version of yourself)?
Darren: I would say: go assist. Get out there and work. When you are on set, never stop. Don’t ever sit down. Don’t ever stop moving. A good assistant knows what the photographer wants before the photographer knows what he/she wants. And that really comes down to being vigilant on set. I found the trick was to think like it was your set and not the photographer’s you are assisting. This way you constantly are thinking about what you would do in that situation.
Sydelle: Look at other photographer’s work, learn business practice, hustle, learn, listen, engage, hustle, listen some more!
Jono: My advice would be to go and assist better artists than yourself until your ﬁngers bleed and constantly keep creating your own work.
Paul: There are two things. Firstly, Instead of just getting drunk in the bar, get drunk in the bar and take photographs. Some of the most poetic moments happen in these spaces. The way your friends hold each other when they drunk and depressed. The drunk alone at the bar with cigarette hanging out of his mouth, which hasn’t been tapped since it was light. The pool hustler stacking his R5’s on the corner of the table under the table light. The bar man asleep in the corner under the neon sign with people trying to steal beer from the tap. The police searching us on the pavements with our shoes off. The bloody fight seen from the balcony. I never got those images. That is something I would change. Images don’t wait. Always carry a camera.
Secondly, work your fucken’ ass off! I had to work at it every day – I painted infinity curves, worked for free, carried and packed up people’s equipment…I had to do the worst jobs in the world to try and make something happen. That is how you learn the entire process that goes into your images. You will also learn respect for the people who do those jobs, which is something I feel a lot of people forget. Also, working up in this way really makes you appreciate what you have accomplished.
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