The spectre of unpaid employment looms large for many students and graduates whatever industry they are hoping to forge a career within and there is no doubt that the creative industries are a major offender in this regard. The impact of such a mindset on photography and photographers is that those working with unpaid colleagues see no reason why a photographer should not do exactly the same. It is an unhealthy and potentially manipulative work culture defined by accountants and spreadsheets focused on the ‘bottom line’ despite government legislature being put in place to prevent it from happening.
The rise of the ‘all-in’ budget when commissioning has placed the responsibility on the photographer as to how much to pay an assistant, if at all. If you do work with an assistant and pay them your fee goes down, therefore the temptation not to pay can be strong when money is tight and work is scarce. But the role of assistant has long been a gateway to establishing a career as a professional photographer and one that it is I believe important to protect and encourage.
I have always paid my assistants a comparative fee to the fee that I receive for any commission if they are contributing to the shoot with their knowledge and general usefulness. I never expect them to provide equipment, to drive my car or perform any task outside of that required by the commission and client. When I have worked with an inexperienced assistant just starting out I always pay their expenses on the day in cash, rather than a fee. This situation rarely occurs more than a few times as they learn what is required of them. When they are a fully contributing member of the team they get paid as anyone else would for doing a useful day’s work.
I worked purely with analogue until 2006 and an assistant was essential for loading backs, checking light readings and filing Polaroids. When I moved into digital I found the assistant to be just as useful downloading files, backing up work and helping with light readings but not essential. If the budget is too small I now work alone rather than not pay someone for doing an honest day’s work.
Simple really, so why am I writing this? Well, I recently saw a well recognised and award winning UK based photographer using social media to find assistants around the country. The expectation of the assistant was not only that they would not be paid but also that they would have to have a car as the photographer does not have one. The expectation therefore was for an unpaid assistant and driver. The photographer in question has a profile that would attract young photographers keen to work with them, to forego payment just to add the photographers name to their own CV’s. But his manipulative attitude to their potential assistant raises more issues than just lack of payment.
As a photographer it is my responsibility to pay for insurances to cover every shoot I undertake; motor insurance, equipment insurance and liability insurances. These are considerable costs but essential safety nets when working professionally. I question whether or not the photographer in question has the same safeguards in place and if they explain to their potential free assistant that they will also need equivalent cover. That the assistant will have to meet the cost for that cover alongside costs for fuel and car wear. The reality of this situation is not that the assistant is not being paid but that they are being asked to pay to work for free and to take risks that they may not even be aware of in doing so. That cannot be right, respectful or sustainable.
The title of this article is ‘Should you Pay an Assistant?’ and the answer of course is an emphatic YES! But perhaps more importantly it is the responsibility of the working, experienced professional photographer to maintain and install professional practice into the coming generations of photographers through their own ways of working. Students and young photographers need to be taught good practice, empathy and morals as part of their photo education. If we as photographers do not do this then we are letting them down. I don’t want to sound like a preacher here but sometimes it’s important to speak out!
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer in Professional Photography at the University of Gloucestershire, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019. He is currently work on his next documentary film project Woke Up This Morning: The Rock n’ Roll Thunder of Ray Lowry www.wokeupthismorningfilm.com.
His documentary film, Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay has been screened across the UK and the US in 2018 and will continue to be screened in 2019.
© Grant Scott 2019
Image Credit: Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images