What Makes A Good Mentor?

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We asked PDN readers: Who was your mentor? Many responded with stories of experienced photographers who had generously shared their knowledge and thoughts about photography, creativity, how to run a business or simply how to make a life as a freelance photographer. We learned that in taking the time to teach a fellow photographer, they not only helped an up and comer, they also learned something themselves.

Raoul Benavides on Douglas Beasley

"I feel Douglas Beasley has been a mentor to half of the Minneapolis-St.Paul photo community," says Twin Cities photographer Raoul Benavides.

Benavides took one of Beasley's Vision Quest Photo Workshops in 1993 shortly after finishing college, and eventually moved from Chicago to Minneapolis, where he started to assist Beasley.

"He really taught me to be spiritual in my process," says Benavides. "He taught me that the relationship between the photographer and his subject is one of the most important things to creating meaningful and authentic work."

Beasley says that as he gained success, up-and-coming photographers sought him out. "I was willing to talk to people, and word got around." Through teaching and mentoring, he says, he's gained friendships and more.

"I've always seen that in this business there are people who figure that they gained their knowledge through hard knocks, so they're not going to give any away. That's understandable, but what I don't like about it is that it creates a scarcity mentality, the idea that: If you get this assignment, that means that I don't. I think that's detrimental to all of us. Camaraderie is important." He adds, "Sometimes someone you help will surpass you in your career. But it's wonderful to be a part of that. It's life affirming."

What does he hope his students and assistants learn from him? "It's not just about your photography career, it's about the kind of life you want to lead, it's about where you're headed with your life."




John McDermott on Jay Maisel


San Francisco photographer John McDermott says of Jay Maisel, "I learned so much from him, about photography to be sure, but even more about how to be a decent human being and a good businessman."

They met when Maisel was working on a Time-Life book about San Francisco in the mid Seventies; photojournalist Charles Moore introduced them. "He asked me if I could help him out over the next few days and I agreed.

"I wasn't 'assisting' in the usual sense, more just watching, listening and lending a hand. I learned a lot just watching him shoot�mostly about 'seeing.'"

Maisel gave McDermott feedback and business advice. McDermott says, "He's big on the importance of copyright and the point that the most powerful weapon you have in negotiations is the willingness to respectfully say no and risk not getting the job, that you have to know what you're worth, what you want, and not be afraid ask for it."

Maisel says, "The thing I try to tell most photographers is: You live your whole life with integrity. You have certain standards by which you do business. One day someone calls you with a deal and they hold it over your head that you want to work, you want to make photographs. Don't let one phone call change your life."

McDermott adds, "Many times over the years I have found myself asking "what would Jay do?" when faced with a particularly difficult photographic or business challenge. The example he set, and continues to set, has been a guiding force. It's also why I have always tried to be as helpful to others, especially younger photographers, as he was to me."



Christine Chang on Chenin Boutwell


Wedding photographer Christine Chang admired the photography of Chenin Boutwell, a wedding photographer and workshop leader based in Mission Viejo, California. "So I e-mailed her and asked if I could intern for her this past summer, and she said yes." The result has been a continuing mentorship. Says Chang, "I drive over to her office once a week and she shows me the ropes with regards to running the back end of the wedding photography, which is equally as important as artistic vision and taking the photo." While working in the studio, Chang has learned Boutwell's method for invoicing and making guest books. Boutwell "has also allowed me to ask a ton of questions, not only business related but [about] camera techniques, marketing and such. But simply by being around her, I am able to witness how she runs her business on a day-to-day level�when she meets with potential clients, or handles mothers-in-law who can be a bit overbearing, for example."

"I enjoy seeing people grow as business owners and as artists," says Boutwell, who has mentored many photographers.

To Boutwell, mentoring is a learning experience. "I think we always learn when we teach. Sometimes it is nice to recap or reiterate the basics�it helps me to remember all the building blocks that make up a great photo or a successful business. And it helps to articulate, to another individual, why something works or doesn't work."



Jono Fisher on Harry DeZitter


Jono Fisher, a photographer now based in Nashville, says "I don't think Harry DeZitter ever set out to be a mentor," but working as DeZitter's producer and assistant on shoots in South African and Kenya inspired Fisher and reinforced in him "the value of thorough pre-production and planning."

DeZitter told him, "Don't talk a good picture, go and shoot it." Says Fisher, "A lot of my peers at the time would sit around and pontificate about all the great ideas they had for new work which amounted to all talk and nothing created. Harry's inspiration and energy demonstrated that nothing happens unless you take action on your ideas."

DeZitter also encouraged his photography. "On lunch breaks or travel days he would insist that I go off and shoot personal work. This was huge. When we got back and the job was completed, he would go over the personal work that I had shot and offer critique and suggestions. He was pretty blunt with his critique, and told you right away if your work sucked! I was grateful for this. "

Of the advice he gave Fisher, DeZitter says, "I meet a lot of young photographers who have the gift of the gab, but you have to walk the walk." When he's not shooting, he encourages assistants like Fisher to pursue their own work. "I wanted him to be his own person," he says. Not every photographer does that, he says, "But if you're that threatened, you don't have much confidence in yourself."




Wayne Lawrence on Jamel Shabazz

Meeting Jamel Shabazz changed Wayne Lawrence's direction as a photographer, influencing not only the subjects he photographs but how he photographs them.

Several photographers have helped him "develop my ideas about photography and the business of photography, namely, Kwaku Alston, Christopher Anderson, Garth Aikens and Jamel Shabazz." Shabazz, he says, "is like a big brother to me." Shabazz says, "I call Wayne a little brother and a friend."

Lawrence and Shabazz, both based in Brooklyn, met about three years ago when Lawrence was invited to join Kamoinge, the nearly 50-year-old collective of African-American photographers. Lawrence was already a fan of Shabazz's work, having discovered Shabazz's book, Back in the Days, shortly after he launched his photography career. The book documents the rise of hip hop style in the Eighties through Shabazz's street portraits of people in his own community. Lawrence says, "Before that, I studied every voice in Magnum Photos, but when I saw Jamel's work, it was so refreshing to me." After they got to know each other, Lawrence learned the personal story behind Shabazz's approach. "He showed me something deeper in his work. I never knew Jamel had been a corrections officer at Riker's Island [prison in New York City]. He said that after seeing all the horrendous stuff he'd see daily, photography was his visual medicine. He would look for pictures of strength, joy, beauty."

Their conversations are wide ranging. "One of the things I share with him is about reading body language in understanding if a person is open to being photographed," says Shabazz.

Shabazz adds, "I look for love, compassion, the human spirit of a person. If you look at the eyes of the subjects Wayne has photographed, and the eyes of the people I've photographed, you'll see we look for that spiritual depth. It's about recording history for future generations to see, and showing the dignity and the integrity in our community, something that's not often shown in the media."




Jacob Pritchard on Andrew Hetherington


Jacob Pritchard met Andrew Hetherington through a mentor program run by the New York chapter of ASMP. "I started looking for a mentor because I wanted advice in terms of marketing and self-promotion. Over the last year, Andrew and I have gotten together in person every couple of months. In addition, I've had a few phone calls with him when some important decisions have come up."

Hetherington says that before he agreed to be part of the mentor program, he wanted to meet with each photographer first to find out what they hoped to learn. When he learned that Pritchard, like Hetherington, was interested in editorial and commercial work, and wanted advice about approaching clients, he says, "We agreed that we would meet in person for an hour or two, usually once a month, with an agenda. It's nice to get together rather than do it on the phone."

Pritchard had an idea for a personal project that required him to hit the road. Pritchard recalls, "It was at a point where I was hesitant to leave New York City, worried that I would have to turn down jobs that were potentially the start of long-term relationships. Andrew gave me feedback on the value of doing personal work, as well as ideas that helped me structure the project. In large part because of his advice I decided to hit the road for three weeks to work on the project, 'Where I've Been Sleeping.' It's been a great conversation piece for when I show my book and I've gotten lots of positive feedback from it."

Says Hetherington, "Jacob knows he can trust me. I don't think it's fair to sugarcoat things." He notes that in meeting with Pritchard and others, "It's almost like I'm mentoring myself. It's nice to bounce ideas off people."




Mark Olwick on David duChemin


An avid reader of David duChemin's blog, photographer Mark Olwick decided to drive from his home in Seattle to Vancouver, where duChemin was signing a copy of his first book, Within The Frame. Olwick told him that, after 30 years as an avid amateur, he was hoping to attempt a professional photography career. He says, "We had a great discussion that continued even after the party via e-mail and Twitter."

In his latest book, Visionmongers, duChemin stresses the importance of having a mentor. Says Olwick, "I sucked up my courage and asked if he'd mentor me. To my surprise, he said yes and our relationship has continued since. We meet almost every month for a long lunch. We talk about strategies, goals and the specific steps to get me where I want to be." Olwick says duChemin has the two most importantly qualities a mentor needs: "He's incredibly encouraging, but also honest in his feedback on my work."

He adds, "Beyond the lessons, we've also become friends, which is a bonus."
 

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