Advancing Your Photography Through Mentorships

Story and Photography by Margaret Gaines

Learning a craft used to happen under a master and apprentice relationship. The masters, experts in their fields, would accept apprentices to work under them and learn the trade or craft. The arrangement required the apprentice to live with or close to the master.

Through the years learning trades and crafts moved to schools. Books and teachers replaced the master and students were sent on our way to figure things out on our own. I love school and learning from books and teachers, and I taught myself photography from books and practice. But I also got to a point where I needed additional feedback from living people who cared about my photography and my goals and who could push me beyond my comfort zone, which is what mentorships are designed to do. And unlike centuries (or even decades) ago, mentors and protégés (or masters and apprentices) don’t necessarily need to be in the same place at the same time to have a meaningful relationship.

What is a mentorship? It’s a personal development relationship in which a person with more experience (the mentor) guides and assists a person with less experience (the protégé) through whatever challenges the protégé wants to tackle. It’s personal. It’s tailored to the individual. And, it can be anything the two people agree on. The mentor is there to share knowledge and experience and to help the protégé advance his/her skills in the field.

Photography mentorships can address anything related to the art and business of photography. They can focus on learning technical aspects of creating impactful images, processing skills, creativity and how to develop it, building or fine-tuning a business, and creating a portfolio, magazine submission or gallery exhibit. The goal of the mentorship directs the types of activities the mentor gives the protégé to do. It could include practicing techniques while shooting, learning new software or new ways to use software programs, reading books on anything from philosophy to art history to technical manuals, or preparing images for critiques. The mentor designs assignments that encourage the protégé to experience new things, think about aspects of photography in a new way or work in small steps to achieve a goal.

So how does a mentorship differ from a class or a workshop? Classes and workshops usually revolve around a preplanned syllabus or teaching material that is relevant to the workshop the attendees signed up for. A mentorship is flexible and is personalized to address exactly what the protégé needs to get out of it, rather than what a teacher or workshop leader chooses to teach. The mentorship can last much longer, too. A class meets periodically for a few weeks or months, and a workshop is usually less than two weeks. A mentorship can be short or last months or years and can grow and evolve over time.

There are a variety of photography mentorships advertised online. Some are designed to be question-and-answer sessions (short, sweet and to the point); others are long-term commitments that are time and money intensive. Some involve only two individuals; others include a community component, so that small groups work together to encourage and help each other develop their skills under the direction of a single mentor. Prices are as diverse as the mentorships themselves. Some are free (yes, really!). Others cost thousands of dollars. And still others require a small monthly fee. There really is a mentorship out there to fit everyone’s needs and budgets.

The internet is making it easier for people to connect, and mentorships can now take advantage of technology. Mentors and protégés don’t need to live near each other anymore. They can live on opposite sides of the world and still be present via Skype or Google Hangouts, able to work together across the internet. Google+ Mentorships for Photographers (https://plus.google.com/105385385448524520257/posts) and The Arcanum (www.thearcanum.com) are online mentorship programs.

Google+ Mentorships are short mini-mentorships focusing on specific topics. Recent programs included “Blurs and Unsharp Photography,” “Lighting with Intent” and “Single Frame” (cinematic storytelling). These mentorships are free, usually last a few months, and are made up of a small group of photographers chosen by the mentor from a group of applicants who are active on Google+.

The Arcanum is a larger platform designed with a master having cohorts of up to 20 apprentices who work together to “level up” their skills.

Santa Fe Photographic Workshops (http://www.santafeworkshops.com/info/mentorships.php) advertises mentoring programs that can be short (question-and-answer sessions over the phone) or as long as a year with prices commensurate with the level of commitment requested of the mentor.

Many individual photographers also work with a protégé, and some advertise their availability online while others decide on a case-by-case basis if and when someone approaches them. The best way to find out if your favorite photographer is interested in establishing a mentor relationship with you is to ask.

Mentorships are helping many people advance their photography skills. They are also helping to build community in what has often been a lonely and competitive profession. Protégés are learning new skills and getting the support they need to continue reaching for their dream. And they’re making friends along the way. Protégés benefit from pushing their technical and teaching skills. Some have told me how life-changing mentorships have been for them and how grateful they are to have had the opportunity to work with an expert to improve their photography and find the confidence to share their photography with the world.

Margaret Gaines is a nature photographer and biologist who resides in Palmer, Alaska.  She is a member of the NANPA Communications Committee and a former member of the Summit Committee.  Her work can be seen at: www.alaskagaines.net.