Every once in a while, I receive a request from a beginner photographer who want to become my assistant. I usually decline their application, and in the following article, I'm going to explain why. This information is also useful for those who'd like to become apprentices of established professional photographers.
The Beginner Photographer's Perspective
As a photographer who's just starting up their journey and dipping their toes into the technical aspect of it, they want to advance their skills by learning from the pros. The best way, so far, is to become a student of a professional artist and devour every bit of precious information. This is way more convenient than just reading books or watching tutorials, because you have a real living encyclopedia right beside you.
The Professional Photographer's Perspective
A helping hand in the business of photography is invaluable. A beginner photographer can be a much cheaper assistant than a more technically advanced one. The drawback is they will probably make many mistakes, and they have to be taken care of like a baby. Although they can learn many things and become helpful assistants, they can turn their back at any moment and become a competitor.
Old Timers' Perspective
I have always admired the wisdom of older generations. I personally think, in general, they are much smarter than us, with a richer way of expressing themselves and better in many crafts. If you have read letters by simple people of old times, you will think they had the scholarship of today's academics. This is why I'd like to see how they dealt with that situation and to try to apply it to our time with our modern methods.
Apprenticeship back then had the same purpose then as today's assistants: students wanted to become professional and earn their money from that certain craft. Today, many want-to-be-paid assistants try to hide behind: "I just want to help you," but the real aim is to learn the craft and become masters (and a competitor, eventually). Back then, everyone was straight about it.
Masters faced the same problems: they had to babysit their students, deal with their mistakes, teach them the secrets of the craftsmanship, and knew they might see them as competition at any moment.
Let me translate that into more business-like terms. The master invests their time and efforts into teaching younger students and pays for their mistakes while they work on different projects. This is all an expense for the master and a gain for the apprentice. In business terms, that is not a good investment unless they return it with an extra profit. For that purpose masters, hired assistants for a period of several years, which guaranteed them that they would take advantage of the fruits of their teaching before the apprentice became a competitor.
Back to the Future
If a beginner photographer wants to become an assistant of a professional, the latter has to invest, let's say a $10,000 equivalent of their time, into teaching them the secrets of the craft. Sometimes, they have to re-do the lighting setup or completely retouch an image from the very beginning, because their student did a terrible job. In order to make sure their helpers won't turn their back and leave when they get "free education," which they even got paid for, it's good to have a formal agreement in the form of a contract. The contract has to state that the assistant must work for the professional photographer for at least a certain period (at a given salary). If they want to leave earlier, they have to reimburse the professional by paying back a certain percentage of the remaining salary and promise they will not become a commercial competitor until the end of that period.
That sounds quite fair to me in the position of the professional, but today's students won't like to take such a responsibility. Unless someone wants to sign a similar a contract, I think professional photographers would be better to hire well-trained and technically savvy assistants who can become real helpers from day one.
Let me know what you think about that situation both from a position of a professional who hires a paid assistant or from a position of an apprentice who wants to become a humble servant of a master artist.