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Martin Gommel, in a guest post at Digital Photography School, listed “Search for a Mentor” as #92 in his post 100 Things I’ve Learned About Photography. This post by Peter Carey expands on that idea with 6 steps to help you in your search.
Mentoring is a time honored method for passing on decades of learned information from one person to another. Not only can you learn a specific topic, finding a mentor can bring growth to other aspects of your art you were never aware of. It’s also great to know there is someone who has your best interest at heart and will give you candid, honest feedback while helping your improve. Picking a mentor need not be a hard process or one fraught with fear. Ok, there might be a bit of fear but the benefits of getting over that fear far outweigh the effort. Grab a notebook and let’s take a look at some of the important points in picking a photography mentor.
Let’s start with you first. What is your favorite topic? Are you big on architectural photography? Wildlife? Sports? The list goes on and on and chances are you fit into more than one bucket. Most of us do. After listing out a couple of your favorite topics, narrow the list down to your top two. These are the, “If I could only study two types of photography, I want them to be ……” topics. It’s important to do this step first. First, it helps you focus (har har har) and second, it helps you really focus. You’ll have time later to find a mentor for each topic, for now, let’s keep it simple with just two.
Chances are you already have some names rolling around in your head. Favorite photographers you’ve picked up along the way. Write these names down first as they are the easy ones. Then start doing some searching. Looking online is a good start since you’re already at a computer. But also check out your local photography scene. Check your nearby college. Visits all the art galleries in your area until you find a good match for your topics and style.
This is a very important step in the process. Without it, both you and your mentor may be left floundering or spending a lot of time on tasks that should have been done before you got in touch. Are you simply looking for regular critiques? Do you want hands on help with equipment? Maybe you wish to shadow the person for a day, a week, on a shoot. Or just need someone to help you with a new direction in photography. Whatever the case, list out how long, why, when and what. Be specific or vague as you wish, but make sure it would be clear to the other person what you are asking of them.
Now for the part that stops most people in their tracks; getting up the nerve to contact possible mentors. For some, this part is easy and if that’s you, I’m sure you already know what to do. For the rest of us (myself included) this step might seem a bit daunting. I mean, you are actually going to let someone else know that you are not perfect and would like some help. EEeek!! Now get over it. Right now. Gather up some courage (“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.” – Mark Twain) and contact the people on your list. You may have to write or call the person, or maybe start with email. It all matters on the contact information you have gathered. No matter than manner, write out a little script first and practice/proofread it so you know what you want to say clearly. The step before should have made this easy to fill in.
And don’t let your brain tell you, “Oh, that person would be too busy or important to mentor you.” If you never ask the person, the answer is always no. Don’t ask ‘should I contact this person’, just do it! The worst they can do is say no and they just might say yes! If it’s ‘no, thanks’, you may be referred to other mentors who would be willing to help. Just ask and let the chips fall where they may.
Let’s say you have contacted someone and they agree to help mentor your in your art. GREAT!! Now make sure you take plenty of notes. And not just notes on the subject at hand. Here I’m talking about notes on your relationship. This first mentor is not necessarily your be-all, end-all mentor. You may go through many in your life. It’s important to know what works for you and what doesn’t. What kind of communication style, how much, in what form, etc… These notes will be important in continuing your relationship or in choosing the next mentor.
The actual process of picking a mentor may put images in your mind of just exactly how the relationship will work. While it’s fine to visualize an intended goal, don’t get too hung up on it. Think of Daniel in the movie The Karate Kid. Miyagi, his mentor, had him painting fences and doing all sorts of other things he thought had no relation to his goal, which was to learn karate and beat up some bullies. But Miyagi’s methods, while odd to Daniel, were simply a different path toward his goal than Daniel had imagined. So keep an open mind and take a few chances if your mentor is asking you to stretch or try something new.
Peter is an avid photographer who enjoys travel, portraiture and wildlife photography. A travel related blog of his past and current shenanigans can be found at The Carey Adventures.