by Jain Lemos for The Picture Professional magazine

EVERY TIME you select an image or edit a photographer’s submission, you are mentoring that photographer. In an informal way, you are showing him/her how the photography works—or doesn’t work—for the application in mind. Mentoring is a natural and important part of our industry and it is happening all of the time. Seasoned picture professionals working in every aspect of the field frequently find themselves in the position to be a mentor, and taking it on can bring great rewards to all parties. There are no particular experience benchmarks—or age milestones—needed to qualify as a mentor; however, it is a good practice to limit your mentoring to your strongest areas of expertise. Mentoring in a focused and formal way will make you a better mentor, and you will get more out of the relationship as a result. Here are some specific strategies that can help you become an effective mentor.

Formalize the Relationship. Photographers with effective mentors have a critical component of their success strategy. Mentors take on many disguises and run parallel with coaches, reps, advisors, guides, consultants, sponsors, muses, experts, specialists, tutors, trainers, counselors, partners, teachers, fans and supporters. Of fundamental importance is that whatever you call yourself, both you and the person you mentor acknowledge the relationship. To structure such an association, you can offer your services on a contractual basis, hire a photographer to work on a project, or act as an agent. Veteran photographers often take on newer shooters as assistants or interns as a way of giving back to a profession that has been good to them. They share what they have learned and realize that they can use the mentoring opportunity to expand their own knowledge in a particular area. Whatever the arrangement, the relationship needs to have organization so the mentor can offer consistent feedback as the protégé develops new skills and broadens his/her awareness of the profession.

Understand Your Protégé. Oftentimes, photographers can’t see themselves or their work objectively enough to break through certain barriers to their accomplishments. Uncovering the emotional patterns and working habits of your protégé can help him/her to plan for the future. As your mentoring relationship is forming, learn all you can about the person you are helping. The key is not only to evaluate the images, but also to understand the protégé’s overarching persona as an artist (perhaps better done now than after historians are offering opinions). With this background profile, you can more easily point out any distractions or pitfalls that could hinder the professional objectives your protégé is working toward. Expectations, shortcomings, financial situations, personal philosophies, lifestyle choices, and immediate circumstances all have a bearing on success rates even before one photograph is taken. There might be times when your role turns to one of a quasi-therapist, and you’ll find yourself listening to personal problems or dealing with a current crisis. When these situations occur, gently steer the person back to the work as a way to refocus energies. The point is to objectively consider everything that is happening in your protégé’s life and then make specific suggestions to keep workflow on track. You’ll be helping your protégé to greet each day with a managed approach that allows for maximum creativity.

Addressing Fear and Rejection. One of the most difficult challenges that a creative person faces is overcoming fear. It is important to have a discussion about fears. Together, you then can take a practical approach to overcoming them. It’s possible that by the end of such a discussion, your protégé will discover that working as a professional photographer is not so desirable after all! More likely, such a conversation will allow your protégé to become more relaxed about embracing whatever the person feels is lacking at the moment. Most fears take the shape of an unknown future failure, which can have a paralyzing effect. Talking through examples of situations that professional photographers frequently encounter will alleviate some fears and provide your protégé with solutions to apply as needed. Rejection, since it is real rather than imagined, can be devastating and difficult to accept no matter how it arrives. Helping your protégé consider rejection as elimination and a chance to learn can decrease the amount of time lost mourning over what went wrong. If rejection is epidemic in your protégé’s life, chances are the person is more suited to a different type of photography. Going back to a time when a particular method was working for the photographer can help you identify positive steps that your protégé can take in order to move forward in a new direction with confidence.

Finding Inner Styles. Before anyone else sees their work, photographers instantly know which images are their favorites and which ones they think are terrible. When reviewing a protégé’s entire body of work, take special note of the images chosen as favorites. Look at the photos selected for portfolios and promos and the images hanging on the walls. Often, displayed works (like home and studio décor) are by other admired photographers, and these selections are revealing about your protégé’s own inner style. Ask your protégé to tell you in detail about the images he/she likes. You’ll likely find these frames were haphazard shots, ones taken to finish a roll of film or a flash card or, oddly enough, snaps the photographer doesn’t remember taking. Almost without exception, once you begin to dig into the “yellow boxes” or deep archives of a photographer, you will come across shots that you find are exceptional-but your protégé buried them simply because of a seemingly glaring technical flaw. Still, though, those images were kept for a reason, if only for someone like you to discover and evaluate them in a fresh way. As you edit and observe the collection, select a handful of images that illustrate the different styles, techniques or subject categories that your protégé has developed. Use these photographs as your gold standards for refining a more true vision.

Self-Assignments. Assignment editors know that photographers need to start with specific directions even if the plan falls apart once they arrive on location. The same is true for the directions you give as a mentor. Encourage your protégé to shoot something personal every day with an assignment in mind that you have outlined together. Be clear on a beginning, middle and end or predetermine a number of images that the resulting layout or project must contain before it can be deemed finished. The assignment doesn’t necessarily need to be photojournalistic; it just needs a framework. For example, shooting one color, one emotion or one species is an excellent self-assignment technique. Even if the idea changes mid-stream, the resulting pictures will have a common thread and allow your protégé to work on discipline and continuity. The protégé’s portfolios will look better, and he/she will be developing solid material for future articles, exhibits and books. Self assignments are critical to a protégé’s feelings of accomplishment and they will keep you on your toes-finding ways to challenge the photographer you are working with will help you grow creatively, too. Over time, your collaborations can produce new works that are bringing both of you recognition, income and pleasure.

Check-Ins. Consistency is a great way of helping photographers when they are ready to get serious about turning pro, make a change in style or genre, or start a new project. Regular phone calls or get-togethers are how you and your protégé can monitor progress. This provides a relaxed chance to run ideas by each other and discuss the successes and failures the protégé experienced since your last talk. Here is a suggested outline for check-ins:

  • Ask your protégé to first tell you some great news-for example, an accomplishment, small or large.
  • Review new images then compare and contrast them with the protégé’s pervious work.
  • If the protégé is working on a self-assignment, ask about the next step to ensure he/she is clear about what to do next.
  • Discuss any specific business problems that your protégé wants help with now.
  • Review anything left to be done on current commitments.
  • Talk about your protégé’s ongoing key challenge and its current status, including what progress has and hasn’t been made.
  • End your session with new challenges for next time.

Responsibilities. Remember that when you mentor photographers, you have a responsibility to lead them into specific and predetermined territories of creativity and productivity that they know they can’t manage on their own at present. Don’t take on someone if you are too busy or in the middle of a change yourself. Be clear about how to accomplish the goals your protégée has in mind; if you don’t know what is best, admit it upfront and then do your homework. Effective mentoring is so much more than just pontificating about what you know from experience. You need relevant resources and alternative solutions at your disposal to handle a variety of challenges. Your protégés will more than thank you and you just might find that you, too, learn something along the way.

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