Work Experience – Some Basic Advice

Work Experience 1993

2nd day of work experience, aged 15, and I end up being a fashion model. I’m the one in the foreground, obviously.

Work experience was an absolutely fundamental part of getting my career started, and these days I get at least one request a week to take someone on for work experience. Given the importance to me, and the enormous range of approaches I’ve witnessed I felt it was high time I got off my chest a few issues about work experience.

First off, my own experience of being a “workie”. You can find some details of this in both the about page, and my post on Where work comes from. There were 2 key periods of work experience in my career, the first when I was 15 at my local paper in the East Midlands, and the 2nd when I was 19 down in London with a couple of advertising photographers, organised by the Association of Photographers.

There are a thousand stories I could tell about both periods, many of which I’d find hilarious, but would leave most people cold. What I will do instead is describe a few things from each instance, in the hope that they will best illustrate how you can make good use of real-world experience.

When I started at the local paper in February 1993 as a keen amateur 15 year old, I had no idea what to expect, and turned up with my own camera bag, and fairly smart clothes. Ilford Hypam fixer and Multigrade developer are very unkind to smart clothes, as I found out very soon. First lesson learnt. Within a very short space of time I’d been out with a few of the photographers on jobs, carrying their bags, holding lights for them, taking down people’s names, giving them directions whilst they were driving and so on. I was also taught how to develop and print black and white film, and by the end of the first week, was handling some of the reprint orders that came in. Highlights of my time there included chasing the police helicopter after an armed robbery, being a model in a fashion shoot, getting to play with more camera gear than I’d seen in my life before, attending a motorway fire during which the fire engine caused a small pile-up, and finding a huge stash of porn in the darkroom.

At the end of 2 weeks, the nice lady from HR who’d got me started the Monday before gave me a fiver for my trouble, which later turned out to be forged. Given that the building had it’s own printing press, reprographic and photographic departments, I was a little suspicious. By now I was hooked, and photography had ceased to be a mildly interesting hobby, and had become a passion, plus something that I thought I could make a living out of. From then until I left home for college 2 1/2 years later, I kept going back to the paper during weekends, school holidays and so on. I always asked permission before going in, and on arriving I would trot off to the darkroom, mix up the dev and fix, and make sure everything was clean and ready to go for the day. Then I’d spent my day printing work for the paper, going out on jobs, and occasionally getting to shoot a few myself. All of this was for no payment – at least officially anyway. I received so much HP5 plus, and access to the darkroom that I was very happy anyway. If the snappers needed anything doing, no matter how mundane, I jumped at the chance.

Work Experience 1993

Last day of official work experience. Note the motorwind held on with packing tape on the F1, and my own Pentax P30 hanging round my neck. Oh, and the fact that I look about 12.

Fast forward a few years to April 1997, and my second stint came up. This was a different kettle of fish, as the people involved would be slightly more high profile – no church fetes or school pantomimes here. My week in London was split between 2 photographers, originally it was supposed to be 3, but on meeting one of them (a fashion photographer called Zanna) on the Monday morning, she explained to me that she needed someone for both Thursday and Friday, and I could either take both days or none. A quick apologetic phone call to the bloke I was supposed to be working with on Thursday freed the day up, and that was that. Whilst working for the 2nd fella on Tuesday, he offered me the chance to come back on the Wednesday, which I duly did, and as I recall learnt a couple of very vital technical things, which still serve me well to this day.When Thursday rolled around I was slightly startled to discover I would be 2nd assistant on a fairly large advertising shoot, responsible for, amongst other things, loading film into a Pentax 67 (a camera I’ve always detested). Luckily the 1st assistant was a genius. Which was handy as we were shooting with gear I’d never encountered before (HMI’s, Kino Flo’s and other film lights), and it was all very heavyweight stuff. Added to this was the hours we worked. We started at 8am on the Thursday, and carried on until 10pm, then 8am again on Friday, finishing at Midnight.

Over the next 18 months I worked for Zanna another 5 times, usually a day at a time. Essentially I would call her PA, and when there was a suitable day I’d jump on a train down to London, work for the day, then crash on someone’s floor. Once I left college, it was pretty easy to get freelance assisting work from her, and as my previous post has explained, the foot in the door is a very important foot indeed.

Assisting at the Ragged School
Assisting work for Zanna, at her “Ragged School” Studio. I’m on the right, and the name badge on my natty overalls says: “Keen Tom”, because I was dead keen, me.

There’s a huge risk at this point that I will start to ramble on about the good old days, the thousands of polaroids, the heavy equipment, the long hours, the natty overalls, the complete lack of cash – you see it’s a very easy trap to fall into. However, I think I’ve rambled on enough about my own experiences, and hopefully the lessons I’ve learnt should be fairly near the surface and easy to spot. Now onto some more tangible advice.

Getting Work Experience.

I’ve already written a post about how to contact photographers if you’re an assistant/student/work experience type, and I direct you here to read it all. However, there are a couple of extra details I wish to add with regards to work experience as opposed to other candidates. I’ve made passing reference in the post to workies not appreciating that my diary is quite flexible, yet it still amazes me 9 months after I wrote the post. I couldn’t give a monkey’s testicle if your “official” college organised window for work experience is between, say, the 10th of October and the 20th. If I’ve got nothing on that’s suitable within that time frame you’re out of luck. And if I’ve got something on the 9th, you’d be very wise to accept my offer rather than tell me that you’re not sure you’ll be able to get away from college! It really is a case of when the photographer says “Jump” you say “How high, and can I make you some tea whilst I’m up there?”

I’m not trying to portray all photographers as scary ogres, though I’ve known a few who would suit a blood-stained club very well. The key thing is that we’re all busy, and as a work experience type, you’re not exactly high priority. Mucking us about will not win you brownie points.

One last thing before I start the inevitable bullet-point list bit. If by chance you are a mature student, or someone who has come to photography from another industry, and you find yourself doing work experience for someone about the same age as you, or even younger, then swallow your pride – it has no place here. Go on, take a big gulp – that’s it, all the way down. Now go and sweep the floor like I asked you to.

Work experience 1993

1993. Floppy hair, and no understanding of how to use a camera.

Work Experience Do’s and Don’ts

DO – Be prepared to do any job going – offer all the time. Expect the work you’re assigned to be fairly mundane. Remember that you are the bottom of the food chain. Speaking of food, you ought to be fed, but don’t be too surprised if you need to get your own lunch. Don’t get cocky – I’ve heard some classics in my time from workies who claimed to know it all. My response is simply to smile indulgently, but I know of several colleagues of mine who would deliberately put such arrogance to the test. I recently heard someone on the good side of 20 claim they knew 70% of everything there was to know about lighting. Make boasts like this and you’ll find yourself being sent to fetch a skyhook, long-weight and left handed K-Clamp.

DO – Be self-sufficient. Make sure you know where you’re going, and try and avoid calling the photographer every 5 minutes for directions. In the same vein, turn up early, it makes a good impression. Related to this, try not to be a burden on anyone – if you know you’re going on location, pack your own waterproof or umbrella, stout shoes and so on. Best not to have to ask for help when you’re supposed to be helping out.

DO – Turn Up. Seriously. I’ve twice in the past couple of years had people disappear on me. One left an answerphone message the night before with one of the lamest excuses I’ve heard in a very long time, and the other never materialised, but then emailed me again a few months afterwards with a standard “can I have some work experience” request. I presume his memory’s just not that great. Or he’s an idiot, one of the two. Hopefully everything in this post will drive home the message that work experience can be a very useful thing indeed, and when you appreciate what the photographer is offering you really should make every effort to get there. And yes, it is more important than your college work, believe me on this one.

DO – Send a polite email the day after to say thanks, then stay in touch every few weeks. If at all possible, and the experience was worthwhile, try and get some more. Do not presume that 1 day is enough to launch you on your own career either as an assistant or a photographer.

Guy Fawkes on Work Experience

Still on work experience at the local paper, shooting a story about Guy Fawkes. The gentleman in the middle is now working in the film industry in LA, Guy Fawkes is sadly still dead, and I’ve got rid of that shirt, as it was clearly too big for me.

DON’T – Turn up very smartly dressed. I’ll make it my mission to find you a particularly dirty job. This is not a fashion show (unless you’re working for a fashion photographer, in which case it is – but I’m presuming that if you’re sensible enough to be reading my blog you’re far too sensible to be following the fashion route.)

DON’T – Stick your portfolio straight under my nose, the client’s nose, my assistant’s nose, anyone’s nose for that matter. You’re here to see how a professional commercial shoot takes place, if the opportunity to have your work critiqued arises, grab it with both hands, but don’t expect it as standard.

DON’T – Shoot your mouth off, stand around chatting to the client, the art director, the model and so on, all day long. It’s not strictly a case of “don’t speak until you’re spoken to”, but on some big shoots you’re best staying quiet, apart from offering to make tea and carry things obviously.

To round up, work experience can change your life. 1 day spent on work experience is worth about 10 at college in my opinion. Used well it can be your springboard to a career in photography. If you waste your opportunity however, you’ll find the doors close before you can even put your foot in them.


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