The Assistant’s Manual: The Gray Areas with Alissa Zimmerman
Everyone talks about what to do as an assistant on photo shoots or weddings, but no one ever really talks about the day-to-day. This month, I dig into a few more behind-the-scenes tips for those of you who are full-time salaried assistants, and give photographers tips on what to look for in an assistant.
Something I’ve learned over the past four years working under Sal Cincotta is that your attitude is everything, especially when you’re working with one person for 10 or more hours a day, seven days a week. The male/female team is something we implemented for weddings (it creates a nice balance for the wedding day to be able to work with the bride, groom and the whole bridal party). However, with that guy/girl combination comes a very drastic difference in attitudes—typically, females are emotionally driven and males are logic-driven. As I have said in previous articles, being 100 percent in sync with your assistant is crucial to your success. If your attitude isn’t right, getting in sync with your boss or assistant is going to be near impossible.
There is a time and place for everything—a time to speak your mind and a time to bite your tongue. The best skill you can master as an assistant is the art of knowing when to stay mum. Being right should never be your mission, and you should never undermine your boss in front of clients. Sal and I spend at least 12 hours every day together. He’s just as much my family as my own blood. Of course we are going to fight and bicker and get on each other’s nerves. But when it comes time for shoots or any kind of client interaction, we put all of that to the side and focus on the task at hand.
General rule of thumb for you and your business: Check your attitude at the door.
There comes a point in every twentysomething professional’s life when she stops seeing her work not as a job but as a career. This is all about perspective—something that takes time and effort, but something that, when that switch in your brain flips, makes the whole world seem to fall into place.
It was about a year and a half into my job that I started to realize I was, in fact, that whining, complaining, entitled millennial I always claimed to despise so much. I would go home after work and complain to my family about how unfairly I was being treated—you know, the typical overworked-and-underpaid, woe-is-me, closed-minded type of complaint where you don’t really tell both sides of the story. This mindset is cancer—eating away at you internally and turning you into an entitled, self-righteous person no one wants to be around. I let myself spiral into such a dark place that I had a letter of resignation written and ready to hand to Sal, coincidentally the same day he was planning on firing me.
However, I went away that weekend for a solo trip to clear my head (and also to visit a company where I was planning to apply for a job). Something clicked while I was away: I’m still not 100 percent sure what it was or how it happened, but it was then that I realized how fortunate I was in my current role. I realized that bitching and complaining won’t get me a raise—hard work and initiative will. In that moment, I was able to see myself as the annoying, self-righteous stereotype of my generation, and something needed to change.
It wasn’t the job that needed the change, though. It was my perspective. Three key things shifted in my head; three strategies I learned that helped me see that my mere job was now my career:
- Treat everything as if it were your own business. Start working like you’re risking everything.
- Take pride in everything you do. Do this, and you’ll see the results of doing your job with excellence.
- Own your mistakes. They’re going to happen, it’s inevitable. But if you don’t hold yourself accountable, you’ll never learn, and you’ll continue running into the same wall over and over again.
Never Stop Learning
If you want to become irreplaceable to your boss, the best thing you can do is become an expert at your craft. And I’m not talking about being the best reflector holder on the planet; I’m talking about taking your spare time to learn the things your boss would normally have to take the time to train you in. Take the initiative to read about things going on in the industry, to really understand lighting and posing techniques, to practice using the gear your boss uses—so that when it comes time for real-life shoots, your boss can be confident in your abilities as an assistant and not have to worry about doing everything for you. You want to become your boss’s trusted person, his or her right hand.
As a boss, it’s important to be open-minded and patient when teaching your assistant. Training someone to be the person you need takes time; usually when you decide to hire someone, you’re at a point in your business where you don’t really have that time. Make it. Know what areas you’re weak in, and learn alongside your assistant. That is one of my favorite things about working with Sal: We constantly push each other to learn new techniques and try new ideas. This builds the relationship and makes working together that much more enjoyable.
Because at the end of the day, you will be able to look at your results and see where you’ve come together as a team. And that success is what makes it all worthwhile.
Work Hard, Play Harder
If you want to be truly successful in this industry, you have to challenge yourself to never give up and never settle for mediocrity. Set goals together as a team, exceed those goals and keep going with that hunger to never be less than the best. That hunger is what will keep you at the top. But don’t forget to take the time to celebrate your victories together. Sal is big on giving gifts as a way of thanking his team for their hard work and dedication. After being on tour together for three months straight a few years ago, he walked me into Louis Vuitton in San Francisco and said to me, “Take your pick, whatever you want. Thanks for all of your hard work.”
Before I had the right perspective, I never understood why he wouldn’t just give me money. Until one day I finally just asked him.
“You have bills you have to pay,” he said, “but if I gave you cash, it would go straight to your bills, and 10 years from now, you would forget it ever happened. Whereas when I take you to a nice dinner or into Louis Vuitton, those are experiences you’ll never forget.”
We really do have the best jobs in the world, creating amazing art and memories for our clients and building lifelong relationships with them. Not to mention, we get to work side by side with our family every day, pushing each other to be the best versions of ourselves, both professionally and personally. Sal has pushed me to be a person I never thought possible. When I wanted to give up, he knew I had more left in me, and he forced me to the edge of the cliff because he knew I would fight to come back, stronger and wiser than before.
The gray areas of being an assistant are the best part of the job for me. They are the unspoken parts of the job that keep me motivated and constantly striving to be better.