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How to find a photography mentor

Eight professional photographers share their best tips for finding and approaching a potential mentor and for fostering a meaningful long-term relationship.

In 2003, the British photographer Caroline Irby spent two weeks travelling through the UK with children from the choir at the Milton Margai School for the Blind in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Tim Hetherington, who was working on a book project about the children, accompanied them on the journey. “Tim didn’t take many pictures during those weeks,” Caroline remembers. “He spent most of his time interacting with the children, organising their laundry and meals, and thinking.

“The first lesson I learned from Tim came from seeing him at work on that trip: prioritising relationships over ‘getting the picture.’ We became friends during that time, and the conversations that began on the tour bus driving up and down the country continued in emails and letters, and in-person whenever he passed through London.”

Juning in the chapel that she built on the family farm, where she hoped to hold mass every Sunday once she retired to the island. From ‘Someone Else’s Mother’ by Caroline Irby (@carolineirby on Instagram), published by Schilt.

Tim Hetherington was killed eight years later, in 2011, while documenting the conflict in Misrata, Libya. He was forty years old. “It’s nearly eleven years since he died now, but it’s still Tim’s words, more than anyone else’s, that feed my practice,” Caroline tells us.

“I saw him as my photographic big brother. Only in retrospect would I use the word ‘mentor.’ I ran almost every project or idea for a project past him at its inception, and when I’m wondering how to approach a story now, I often wonder what Tim would have had to say.”

Le Vide 2019 by Georges Senga (@Georges_senga on Instagram)

For many emerging photographers, mentorships with established pros can mean far more than learning how to make great pictures. The lessons learned and the foundation built during conversations with a mentor can help shape an artist’s vision, goals, and values.

We asked eight photographers to tell us about the mentors, role models, peers, and colleagues who helped them build their careers or find their voices. Read on for their best tips for finding and approaching a potential mentor, while fostering a meaningful long-term relationship.

1. Apply for a workshop

“I met my mentor, the Belgian photographer Marie-Françoise Plissart, after applying for a workshop she was leading in 2008,” the photographer Georges Senga remembers. “Ten of us young photographers from Lubumbashi were accepted to be part of the masterclass degree program. The two of us connected very quickly because she’s done a lot of architectural work, and my project was about the architecture of my city.

“Early in my career, Marie-Françoise helped me understand how to read the landscape and use shape and form in my images. She continues to inspire my work today, most recently with my project Le Vide / The Void, a series of photographs that investigates the exploitation of natural resources in the D.R. Congo. Throughout history, the main extraction method was (and still is) manual labour, so I’ve used hands as a recurring motif.”

Botanical no.0538 by Kari Herer (@Kariherer on Instagram)

2. Assist an established pro

Internships and assistant jobs are some of the most valuable ways to form relationships and learn about the business. “For six years, I have been a principal collaborator with National Geographic photographer Sam Abell on major campaigns as well as workshops dedicated to editorial storytelling,” the Maine-based photographer Kari Herer tells us. “I first connected with him by finding out where he was teaching and signing up for one of his workshops.

“After the workshop was over, I sent an email asking to assist him at the next year’s workshop, and he accepted. I think that the best advice I could give would be not to push. Prove that you would be a benefit instead of constantly asking for mentoring. The mentoring will come through the work you do together. Wait, listen, and learn.”

3. Learn about mentorship programs

“I was lucky enough to win a mentorship with the fashion photographer Elisabeth Hoff through a program at Another Production for female and non-binary post-graduates,” the London-based photographer Eva Watkins says. “I went through two interviews with Elisabeth before being chosen for it. I believe the reason I got it is that I was myself, and we found common ground. Working with her has been a huge and amazing learning curve for me.

“For those looking for a mentor, my first suggestion would be to look online to see what mentorships are being offered, as this is what I did. Building a relationship with a photographer you admire can also turn into a mentor/mentee relationship. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your favourite photographers and compliment their work. Be authentic; for mentorship to work, you need to be yourself.”

Synchronised Swimming by Eva Watkins (@evawatkinsphoto on Instagram)

4. Seek out communities for mentors and mentees

“Workshops and internships are often the best ways to find mentors, but there are also some great resources available that didn’t exist even just a few years ago,” the San Francisco-based photographer Michelle Yee explains. “For one, Mentorly is a site that you can use to connect with mentors across a wide range of disciplines. And for BIPOC photographers, there’s also the BIPOC Photo Mentorship that has an array of free mentorship opportunities available. Full disclosure: I’m a mentor with both!

“Mentorship has been crucial for my career because there is a lot to consider when you are developing as a photographer. The journey can be especially overwhelming when you’re working alone and in the early stages of your career. Having a mentor who not only has the experience you seek, but who is also willing to guide you, is priceless and can help you create tremendous momentum if used wisely.”

The Wilderness Inside by Michelle Yee (@_michelleyee on Instagram)

5. Reach out through social media

“I don’t know if I have a mentor as such, but last year, I came across a photographer on Pinterest named Louise Hagger,” the London-based photographer Hayley Benoit tells us. “I began to dig into her work and instantly fell in love with all her images, so I added her on Instagram and regularly read through her updates.

“During the Black Lives Matter movement in June/July last year, Louise created a UK Based Food and Still Life list for BAME inclusive commissioning. I added my name to the list and responded to some of Louise’s Stories, which she then responded to. After a few messages here and there, Louise and I naturally kept in contact with each other throughout the months.

“Louise has also nominated me to photography groups, something that I have found beneficial for my career development. Simply connecting with photographers you admire and providing genuine interest over social media can leverage your career in a variety of ways, and it only takes a short message in someone’s inbox to make this happen.”

Yellows on Yellow by Hayley Benoit (@hayleybenoit on Instagram)

6. Set up a meeting

“I have several people that I consider mentors, including Annemie Tonken, one of the cofounders of The Family Narrative, a community for family photographers,” the Durham-based photographer Cornell Watson says. “I initially reached out to her via email, and then we met up for coffee. She invited me to help assist on one of her shoots, and I later attended her Family Narrative conference.

“Through that conference, I then met Yan Palmer, whom I also consider a mentor. We communicated via Instagram a few times before the conference, but meeting in person is so different. Conferences really are a great place to meet people and build long-lasting relationships. I have a whole community of photographers who are practically my family that I’ve met from conferences, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.”

“2020 Election Burnout” Bikers celebrated the historic win of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris downtown Durham, NC with tire burnouts. Photo taken on November 7th by Cornell Watson (@cornwhizzle on Instagram).

7. Join a collective

“More so than a mentor, I feel that I have a larger photo community that I can rely on for support,” the Austin and New York City-based photographer Mary Inhea Kang says. “Through collectives such as Authority Collective, Women Photograph, and DiversifyPhoto, I have had very uplifting experiences in which I shared mutual aid with others. Each collective has a Facebook group where one can ask questions and/or respond to others’ questions. I have had great learning experiences reading through these discussions.

“Other collectives and organisations I’d recommend are the African Photojournalism Database, American Photography Association, American Society of Media Photographers, Black Women Photographers, British Press Photographers Association, Color Positive, Foto Feminas, International Association of Press Photography, MFON: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora, National Press Photographers Association, Indigenous Photograph, News Photographers Association of Canada, Professional Photographers of America, The Everyday Projects, UK Black Female Photographers, and Wedding and Portrait Photographers International.

“The Facebook group NYC Image Makers has also been a great resource. The members have diverse experiences in photography, so whoever responds offers a unique and helpful perspective. I have also made great friends through these collectives who I feel comfortable reaching out to for subjects involving photography or even for emotional support. Additionally, these collectives sometimes offer mentorship programs and workshops to which one can apply.”

Devin Person, a self-proclaimed professional wizard, posing with Amber Leon at the Washington Square Park in New York, photographed for the New York Times by Mary Inhea Kang (@mary.kang on Instagram).

8. Lastly, take notes

Once you find a mentor, keep in touch, ask questions, and take notes on what you learn. “I have kept all those emails from Tim (Hetherington), and I still refer to them,” Caroline Irby tells us. “Just a few months after we met, I was on a shoot in Senegal for the non-profit organisation Sight Savers, and I was really struggling to make good pictures, so I sent Tim an email asking for help.

“He wrote back, ‘Caroline, Don’t worry about trying to force pictures. If you become frustrated about it, you’ll start making graphically interesting but emotionally bland images. You’re waiting for something you have no control over to come into play. Just be aware and enjoy meeting people.’ He was always lucid. I miss our conversations, but I’m glad I still have those messages.”

About the contributor

Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.