A word to the wise for interns and teaching assistants

In the general media and especially the business press there has been a lot of discussion (yelling and screaming) in the last year about internships. Most of that noise revolves around the question of paid vs. unpaid internships, which can also be thought of as job stealing (unpaid) vs job making (paid.) I have blogged a lot on internships in the past and I can argue both sides of the paid vs unpaid question. What I am blogging about this week is what interns should be doing once they have internships, paid or unpaid.

I will be talking about interns and teaching assistants interchangeably. Teaching Assistants (T.A.s) usually work with me for only a week or two during a photography workshop, but that work is usually full-time and intensive for the shorter duration of the workshop. This is as compared to working as an intern, which usually has shorter hours spread out over a longer time period.

The first thing any intern (or workshop teaching assistant) should do is understand the ground rules. If you take an internship and it is unpaid, you have to accept the choices you made and work as hard as you can. (Or you should quit the internship!) If you have concerns about the paid vs unpaid issue (which can be very legitimate concerns) then don’t take an unpaid internship.

I am aware that taking notes and writing things down is not cool, but that is exactly what you should be doing as an intern or T.A. Unless you are a genius, with a photographic memory, you simply can not remember everything that your mentor does during any one time you are working as their intern. You should be studying the mentor’s process. I can not tell you how many T.A.s I have had who have claimed to want to be a photography teacher someday yet pay no attention to studying the art of teaching.

Having won the PDN magazine “best workshop instructor” designation, I feel comfortable saying I am good teacher and most aspiring teachers could learn a good bit from watching me teach. When I first started teaching workshops I watched some great (and a few awful) photo workshop instructors at work (and took notes about what I was seeing.) I quickly figured out how to ignore the content of what they were teaching and focus on the approach/style of teaching they practiced.

In photography, I have over 10,000 of the hours of the “good practice” that Malcolm Gladwell argues is required for anyone to achieve mastery. Those hours of photography (and the lessons learned along the way) make me a master photographer. The same thing is true in terms of my mastery of teaching, which is one of the few other pursuits where I have over 10,000 hours of “good practice.”

I have a teaching style just like I have a style of photography. My mastery of teaching workshops is built in the idea that just like in photography, any aspiring teacher should study the teaching style of many master teachers in order to learn from them all and then develop their own teaching style.

I mention all of this because 95% of my interns and T.A.s think that showing up and doing “my” work gets them where they want. Most of my interns do fairly mundane, business-related office work such as data entry, keywording or filing. These are tasks which I need to done and they need to learn how to do if they are to become successful commercial photographers. The issue I have is that many interns think that by doing that work alone, they are completing the internship. I am always shocked at how few understand how “their” work is as important as “my” work.

An internship (or teaching assistantship) is a trade-off of course, one that unfolds in a certain order. First, the intern needs to earn their mentor’s trust by showing they can do the job that needs to be done. Then when the mentor trusts the intern, that is when they both should talk about what the intern needs. I try to help my interns appreciate how the mundane work that they do for me advances their understanding of the business side of photography, just as it gets things done that I need to have done.

Once you are in an internship (or teaching assistantship) and things are going well, then, and only then, do you start to negotiate the future directions of the internship . From the point of view of a mentor, I can also tell you that, although I want my interns to succeed, the ones who ask for too much, too early and thus are only working for themselves don’t do well with me, (or in the real world.) The flip side of this is that if I am not careful I can let them slip into the overused and under-aided corner of my mind so… The point is making sure that the intern and the mentor both get what they need out of an internship is a balancing act.

My most successful interns (measured by their post internship success) had one thing in common. They pushed hard to do my work, to make me happy and to learn the business side of photography. They pushed just as hard to get what THEY wanted out of the internship. I was happy for them in the end, but we had to negotiate an understanding. They had to do my work first AND then I would then help them out, guiding them as they figured out their way into the real world of photography. The important lesson they learned, I learned and I am hoping to pass on in this blog goes something like this:

In any internship (or teaching assistant) opportunity know that both parties need to get something out of the arrangement. The mentor has first priority since his or her expertise is the thing that is most valued. Access to that expertise is something that an intern earns by proving themselves. Having earned that access, the most successful intern is the one who keeps his or her eye on the prize, doing the mentor’s work AND their own. Any intern who can successfully balance their own interests with that of others is bound to succeed in whatever field they pursue since so much of life itself is that same kind of balancing act.

2 responses to “A word to the wise for interns and teaching assistants”

  1. I think we (‘we’ meaning the nebulous world of photographers) seem to now lack that determined period of apprenticeship that many ‘true’ crafts once had.

    I think that serious students of photography do themselves a disservice attempting to learn the craft by simply reading books and going to various workshops in hopes of someday garnering enough skills to master the skills (not at all to imply that these things don’t have a legitimate place).

    However, photography is definitively a craft to be studied and worked at and there are skills and artistry that are learned over a lifetime. To sit with a master and learn from him/her over time is invaluable (both to the individual and to the collective knowledge built over generations like any craft).

    I just want to make a note about attending one of David’s classes at Maine Media Workshops in 1999. We had an excellent TA for the course (I can’t remember his name, David. He was Latino I think, worked in large format color…). David made sure to take time for the TA to show and discuss his own work with the workshop participants (it wasn’t all about the master) so that we had a shared learning experience. I’ve seen TA’s and interns treated like crap. How refreshing it is to have a mutually respectful interchange of ideas and artistry. That kind of respect is, perhaps more than technical knowledge, something to be shared and passed along in what can be a rather acidic professional environment at times.

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