Unpaid internships are common in the photography industry, yet some photographers are hesitant to take on student interns. Maybe they think they don’t have enough to offer a young photographer, or they’re afraid an intern will be too much work—more distraction than benefit. Yet other photographers swear by interns, making them an integral part of their day-to-day operations.
At the core of any successful internship is both parties getting some benefits, and to do that, both the pro photographer and the intern need to give something meaningful. If you think past the misconception that an intern is just free labor, you can find a beneficial and enduring partnership that helps your business. What’s the secret to finding success with an intern?
Find The Right Person
According to James Christianson of James & Schulze Photography, success begins with finding an intern who is motivated above all else. “I started with interns from university photography programs who came in not knowing what they wanted,” Christianson says, “or even if they wanted to be a photographer, so it was useless. They weren’t motivated and I didn’t get anything out of them. When I went after people who were burning for knowledge, the people who were trying to make a photography business work, they came in seeking my knowledge and it was a truly symbiotic relationship; they wanted to work hard for me so that I would give freely of my knowledge.”
Christianson has not had good luck finding passionate students so instead he prefers to work with young photographers who are already out in the working world, maybe even starting a second career. For others, like food photographer Jennifer Silverberg, students are preferable for more practical reasons.
“I only take them for class credit,” Silverberg says, “and that’s also for insurance reasons. I pay workers comp insurance and I pay insurance that’s part of my business and interns working for school credit are covered. And if they aren’t getting anything from it, it’s just unfair labor."
Silverberg has been working with interns ever since she became a freelance assignment photographer almost a decade ago. She never interned herself, but from day one as a freelancer shooting editorial assignments with limited budgets, having an extra set of hands that didn’t require an assistant’s pay was definitely a benefit.
“I had a cushy job for 14 years,” Silverberg says, “and then suddenly I got laid off and when I started my photography business, I thought, ‘this is a pretty steep learning curve, are you kidding me?’ I had to figure that out. I was far more dependent then on interns than I am now, because of the amount of editorial work I was doing. I couldn’t afford assistants and frankly there are some times when you just can’t do it all on your own."
Although unpaid internships are still common in photography. Christianson says he provides a nominal monthly stipend for his interns, but the value ultimately is in the experience of working alongside a professional photographer and gleaning as much information as possible. Silverberg agrees, and says that as long as the photographer is dedicated to ensuring the intern gains knowledge and experience from the internship it’s no problem offering unpaid internships. And when she has the opportunity to bring the intern on a paying gig, she happily pays them a traditional assistant’s day rate.
“I pay them when I can,” she says, "but I always say it’s an unpaid internship. Because I still like to do editorial work every now and again and I don’t pay them for editorial work. But when I’m on a commercial job and they’re with me, they get paid. They have the opportunity to make money with me and it’s sort of up to them. The other thing I do is, they will never have to lose money working for me. That means I buy them every meal when they’re with me. It matters. It shouldn’t cost them a cent to intern for me; parking or whatever. I feel really strongly about that. It’s a little for me but it means a lot more to them. It’s showing them respect, which in turn means I demand it from them."
"I think the key is not looking at 'What I can get out of this intern' but more, how can we help each other and grow together,” Christianson says. “There are two things: you have to decide what is the value that I’m bringing to them and what is the value they’re bringing to me? I know the value is my knowledge; that’s what I’m giving to them and I’m dedicated to spending time with them and sitting down with them. But they’re also going to come in and help catch me up on the items I've procrastinated on or just don't enjoy doing. That’s valuable to me. Because of that value I’m willing to spend time to give my knowledge. Take all the knowledge you want.”
Silverberg agrees that it all starts with finding the right match. “They need that spark,” she says. “Otherwise it’s not worth it. I will take a less talented photographer who is driven and excited and feels passionate. Any time.”
She also points out that it’s not enough for the intern to be seriously invested in the photographer’s business. It’s a two-way street. The photographer must be invested in the intern as well.
"Too many people take interns as a burden,” Silverberg says, "and they’re like ‘go do this, go do that’ and then wave them off. I think that’s bullshit. You’re not giving anything back, you’re not doing anyone a favor, and how is that possibly truly helping you? So why do it? You have to be invested.”
Timing & Scheduling
How is a photographer supposed to schedule an intern when there’s no such thing as repeatability on the calendar? This week’s shoot might be on Tuesday and Wednesday, while next week might have Monday and Thursday shoots. Interns most want to see photographers in action, and photographers know what to do with extra helping hands on set. But how do you strike the ideal balance between a pre-determined schedule and being available when the client’s needs dictate? Silverberg says it’s fine to establish a set schedule with the understanding that flexibility will be mutually beneficial.
"I tell them we need flexibility,” she says. "I say 'okay, I know that they need to have something feeling a little concrete. I understand the anxiety of not having that.’ I say 'Let’s say there are two days a week, a six hour block, that this is when you’re working. I will do my best to schedule things during that time. And if I’m not able to, I will always give you the option to come when there is a shoot—hey, I’ve got a shoot on Thursday you’re welcome to come to if you’d like. You’re not obligated and I understand if you can’t.' I find that interns like a little bit of the stability. I think that feels appealing to them and there’s a little more accountability to that. And then there are days that we might need to skip and that’s fine too. I give them some structure where we can be flexible as well.”
So What Does An Intern Do?
For photographers afraid of finding themselves in a situation where they’re spending time looking for busywork for their intern—otherwise pejoratively known as babysitting—Silverberg says with a little planning there’s no shortage of things for interns to spend their time working on when they’re not directly helping the photographer on a shoot.
“There are tasks,” Silverberg says. “For instance, about once a year I like to regroup and make an inventory list for insurance purposes. Documenting serial numbers, etcetera. I haven’t done it in a couple of years so I’m way behind. If I have someone who’s super organized, I’ll have them working on that inventory list. There’s also research. I remember before I was buying my first RAID system and I needed to figure out what’s what. It was a great project: do the research to be able to explain to me the difference between different RAID systems. That was years ago, and at the time I had no idea. Give me the documents and come back not only with the information but be able to explain it to me. That was a research project that was both palatable and practical.”
Beyond useful tasks, Silverberg says the ideal way to forge a mutually beneficial internship experience is to pay attention to the intern, get to know them and figure out where their interests lie. Then you can task them with using their expertise to help you and your business.
“I look for their strengths and play to those strengths,” she says. “I get to know my interns. I don’t treat them like someone who just shows up because then I’d never understand what their strengths or interests are. I have to also be invested in them and I like that part of it. Because then I can figure out how to work best with them too. If things are really slow and I have time, I’ll bring in some of their work and say let’s think of a project for this semester that you can fall back and do. Something that I need and that matches your skills. For example, promo ideas. Give them tasks and give them deadlines. I had an intern that was really into printing zines, so I said ‘let’s do a zine!’"
Christianson agrees. “I had nine interns in nine years,” he says, “and I had each one do something different according to their strengths. Some were great at design and could put together blog posts that looked way better than I could. Some were super organized and could get my office running more smoothly. Some were great communicating with clients and others were excellent editors…so it was always different."
Christianson and Silverberg both say that one of the most valuable insights they provide to their interns is a look into the day-to-day business operations rather than photographic technique. Christianson says that with his interns he focuses primarily on imparting business knowledge.
“For interns,” he says, “I think the value is to find a photographer who is good at photography—that's obvious—but also someone who can teach you about business. The business of photography is much more nuanced and difficult to learn than the technicalities of photography. That’s always my emphasis.”
In the end, most interns want to assist the photographer with whom they are interning, or even take on the role of second shooter. Both Silverberg and Christianson agree, though, that not every intern is ideal on set. Don’t force it if it’s not a natural fit.
“If they are ready to assist, then they can move into a second assist role,” Silverberg says, "or a third assist or whatever it is depending on the nature of the shoot. It really depends, and I have to assess for myself where they will be most beneficial. I had an intern recently where I was said ‘okay, you’re ready, I have a food shoot that I need to do.’ It was a low-key editorial one and so I said, ‘You do the initial composition, show me what you think! Play with it, get involved, think about the food, think about the process. And then I’ll come and look at it with you. Tell me when you think you’re ready for me to shoot and we’ll start and then I’ll make adjustments.’ Either they get to that point or they don’t. Not every intern does and that’s fine too. You have to find their strengths and their loves and their passion.”
Personality Matters…A Lot
Silverberg also says that it’s not always essential that the intern shares your own shooting specialty or aesthetic style. As a food specialist, it might make great sense for Silverberg to take on an intern who hopes to follow in her shoes photographing all things food related, but in fact, she says, often her interns are interested in other things—like portraiture or documentary photography. There’s still plenty for them to learn about production and the process of professional photography, not to mention the principles of lighting that transcend subject matter. When they also want to photograph food, however, it’s an automatic fit.
"I think that’s the sweet spot,” she says, "but I’ve also had some very strong portrait photographers with whom I’ve gelled on a personal level and I said, ‘Even if I’m shooting things that aren’t directly relevant to you, here’s what you need to understand and what’s going to make you smart at what you do.’ I kind of lecture them a little, in my way, to say that there will be things that are universal. If we talk about the things that are universal in our business, it will make them stronger at what their photography interests are. It doesn’t matter that mine aren’t the exact match.”