Casey Steffens and Mariah Winter. Photos by Jingyu Lin.

9 female photo assistants on how to make it in the industry

These women share their stories and best advice for entering the male-dominated industry.

by Jingyu Lin
|
Feb 7 2019, 7:59pm

Casey Steffens and Mariah Winter. Photos by Jingyu Lin.

In an age where we're striving for gender equality, photo assistant work remains a male-dominated field. It often feels as if there's a much steeper disparity between female and male assistants, than there is between photographers. And it's not uncommon for women to feel they're treated differently on set — often in the wake of older male assistants. "Objectification is not something that only occurs to women who stand in front of the camera," model and photographer Allison Brooks says. "It’s a problem that occurs within the entire photography industry. While not all men contribute to this problem, this is something that still needs to change."

i-D spoke to nine female photo assistants to see how their experiences stack up and to share their best advice on getting into the photography world.

Allison Brooks by Jingyu Lin
Allison Brooks. Photo by Jingyu Lin.

Allison Brooks, 24

How long have you been assisting and how did you get started?
I was given the opportunity to intern at Milk Studios when I moved here two and a half years ago. Soon after, I signed with a modeling agency. However, my casting schedule began to conflict and I was no longer able to do both. I decided to leave my internship and find assisting work on my own.

Who are some of the photographers you have worked for?
Charlotte Wales, Jason Kibbler, Rebekah Campbell, Jordan Hemingway...

Do you feel that there's a disadvantage to being female as a photo assistant?
Being a woman has nothing to do with my ability to assist on set. Women can work with the same speed, precision and passion as any man. I do, however, feel that women in the photography industry are disadvantaged by gender stereotypes and are often objectified. Objectification is not something that only occurs to women who stand in front of the camera; it’s a problem that occurs within the entire photography industry. While not all men contribute to this problem, this is something that still needs to change. After assisting for over 2.5 years, I continually make a conscious effort to dress in an “unattractive” manner that does not reveal an inch of skin or show off my figure in effort to seem like “one of the guys.” I've received comments like “Oh, you’re too pretty to assist,” as if my appearance had anything to do with my work performance.

When I first began assisting, I avoided revealing my passions for both modeling and acting while working with other male assistants. I restrained from sharing my social media account, as I knew that after viewing photos of me in which I am wearing makeup or minimal clothing that I would no longer be taken seriously and treated with less respect. As my confidence in my assisting abilities grew, so did my willingness to speak up and not let the opinions of others inhibit me. I no longer withhold from sharing my passions of modeling and acting out of fear of being objectified by some of my coworkers. I refuse to let others stop me from pursuing my dreams.

Any particularly memorable experiences as a photo assistant?
I remember the times I was sweating like a pig, running around with lights and extension cords under both my arms, all while climbing up a 16-foot ladder telling myself I’m not afraid of heights in order to get the set together in time. Or the hours I spent calling and emailing photographers only for many of them to never reply. Or the weeks I have spent not working, wondering where my next paycheck will come from, yet still refusing to ever get a “real job.” While freelance photo assisting can be incredibly frustrating at times, I did not let these struggles discourage me. Photo assisting has taught me to never give up and is a reminder of why I moved to New York: to push myself and fight for a big dream.

Advice?
My advice to any woman entering the photo industry would be to know your worth, SPEAK UP when something feels uncomfortable, keep going, ask for what you want because no one is going to give it to you, and as my mother would say, “KICK BUTT!”

Ally Chen by Jingyu Lin
Ally Chen. Photo by Jingyu Lin.

Ally Chen, 23

How long have you been assisting and how did you get started?
I'm a photographer/cinematographer, so I've dabbled in assisting for a few years now, but I didn't really start taking assisting seriously until I moved to New York in 2017.

Who are some of the photographers you have worked for?
James J. Robinson, India Sleem, and Levi Walton.

Do you feel that there's a disadvantage to being female as a photo assistant?
I've been extremely fortunate that I have worked with only empowering people, so I've been very lucky that I haven't experienced any particular disadvantages. But there have been moments on set where I've been mistaken as the MUA or Stylist (which is not a bad thing), but it’s interesting that people still continue the assumption that women don’t work in male dominated roles.

Any particularly memorable experiences as a photo assistant?
This past fall, I was lucky enough to fly to Mexico to assist on a billboard campaign released across North America which was pretty surreal. Or the time we shot Kylie Jenner.

Advice?
Further your ideas by speaking about them and don't be afraid to slide into the DM's of photographers who inspire you and ask if they ever need help!

Amelia Hammond by Jingyu Lin
Amelia Hammond. Photo by Jingyu Lin.

Amelia Hammond, 24

How long have you been assisting and how did you get started?
I've been assisting for a little over a year. I started when I moved to New York from Paris. I emailed all the photographers whose work I admired to see if they were looking for assistance and got a couple of responses! Then it was all through recommendation.

Who are some of the photographers you have worked for?
I've worked with Suzanne Saroff, Rémi Lamandé, Matt Tamarro, James Porto, Roger Tully, Francis Hammond.

Do you feel that there's a disadvantage to being female as a photo assistant?
Yes and no. Yes, because I feel like people don't expect me to know what I'm talking about and I also feel intimidated when I have a question about something I don't know. Almost like I'm afraid to ask as not to seem like I need help. And no, because I have been very lucky with the teams I've worked with and I've had a lot of all female crews! There is a certain solidarity.

Any particularly memorable experiences as a photo assistant?
My favorite job was going to Tulum with Suzanne Saroff for a bathing suit shoot. I spent four days with the most amazing crew.

Advice?
If you are unsure about going to photography school, don't! Intern with a photographer and then assist, you will learn so much more and faster. Do not be afraid of asking questions to other assistants. And don't forget to keep working on your personal work!

Austin Sandhaus by Jingyu Lin
Austin Sandhaus. Photo by Jingyu Lin

Austin Sandhaus

How long have you been assisting and how did you get started?
Almost two years ago. I started interning with Simon Burstall.

Who are some of the photographers you have worked for?

Danielle Levitt, Paola Kudacki, Simon Burstall, Katie McCurdy, Andrew Jacobs, and others.

Do you feel that there's a disadvantage to being female as a photo assistant?
No, I think it's actually pretty empowering being a female photo assistant.

Any particularly memorable experiences as a photo assistant?
Most experiences are memorable.

Advice?
The photo industry is still the service industry: be thorough, alert, and charming; develop a tough skin, but wear gloves if you like soft hands.

Casey Steffens by Jingyu Lin
Casey Steffens. Photo by Jingyu Lin.

Casey Steffens, 22

How long have you been assisting and how did you get started?
I have been assisting for about three years. I got started working at ROOT Studios in Brooklyn, and stayed there for a year and then started freelance right after.

Who are some of the photographers you have worked for?
I work mainly for Anne Menke. We're coming up on two years together and its been great. Before that, was a long mixed up list.

Do you feel that there's a disadvantage to being female as a photo assistant?
I have never felt a disadvantage of being a girl on a photo set. I have been lucky to work with such great people that have never treated me lesser. I feel that as long as you work hard people don't give you shit, at least in my experience. I mean, when I started some people didn't listen to me, but I felt it was more because of my age, not my gender.

Any particularly memorable experiences as a photo assistant?
I think being able to travel and work in many places with Anne has been my best experience so far. My favorite shoot was a Dutch Vogue editorial in Granada, Spain. One of my good friends was a stylist assistant on it. We stayed in a cave hotel and got to see a some beautiful, pure places with good people and flamenco!! Anne has been a mentor and supportive of my own creative endeavors, I couldn't be more grateful.

Advice?
Work hard and know what you are worth, and do what serves you. I'd rather work editorials for $150 and no lunch, then shoot E-Com in a dark studio all day. Everyone's different. Make sacrifices sometimes.

Ligeia Moltisanti by Jingyu Lin
Ligeia Moltisanti. Photo by Jingyu Lin.

Ligeia Moltisanti, 28

How long have you been assisting and how did you get started?
My first paid job was assisting photographer/stylist duo Alessandro D’Andrea & Cinzia Brandi on set when I was 15. In school, I took photography courses and always meticulously organized my work. When I was 24, Cinzia called on me, which turned into a full-time gig shooting for the UNIS in-house production team for five years.

During this time, I ran into photographer Simbarashe Cha one sunset, on 7th Avenue. He took my photo because I was carrying some jazz records, and of course — golden hour! For the last three or four years he has taught me almost everything I know. Simbarashe formally introduced me to Driely. It’s easy to feel lost in navigating a photo career. Brazilian spunk is infectious. It’s been a true gift to help her follow her vision.

Who are some of the photographers you have worked for (past and present)?
Alessandro D’Andrea & Cinzia Brandi, Simbarashe Cha, and Driely Carter.

Do you feel that there's a disadvantage to being female as a photo assistant?
I feel like I’ve had an unusual professional experience while assisting. I’ve always worked for people who, I could tell, deeply respected me. This industry is the only one where I haven’t experienced any sexism, only sincere camaraderie to produce efficient and graceful teamwork.

Advice?
Study meticulously the work of those you admire, and study their references too. If you do better in hands-on situations, seek them out. Speak your truth. Build a meaningful creative relationship with at least one other photographer, preferably someone with more experience. Be humble and understand that you can learn loads from these relationships. One more tip: If a photographer is experienced enough to have an agent, they most likely have a whole team behind them.

Elizabeth Stemmler by Jingyu Lin
Elizabeth Stemmler. Photo by Jingyu Lin.

Elizabeth Stemmler, 27

How long have you been assisting and how did you get started?
I've been assisting for a little over three years. I studied and received my bachelors degree in photography. Shortly after, I started working in a photo studio's equipment room. I worked there for about three years. It got to the point where I just took a risk and quit to freelance as an assistant. I sent out emails and a few people took a chance on me in the beginning and it all kind of picked up as time went on.

Who are some of the photographers you have worked for?

A few would include Sacha Maric, Alique, Martin Schoeller, Ryan McGinley, Lara Jade, Christian Hogstedt, and Tawni Bannister.

Do you feel that there's a disadvantage to being female as a photo assistant?
I would never say that it's a disadvantage, but I'd say that being a female assistant can be challenging at times. There have been many times that I was underestimated because of the fact that I am a woman. Another thing that gets to me on set, is when someone tells me "Oh that's heavy, let me get that for you," and it's the gear that I pick up and move everyday. It's annoying to always be painted as a fragile thing because I am a women. I worked extremely hard to get where I am and I don't like to be underestimated because of my gender.

Any particularly memorable experiences as a photo assistant?
You get to be on some of the most outrageous sets, travel to beautiful places, and meet some of the coolest people. One memory that makes me laugh, as simple as it is, is was when we traveled to Alicante, Spain and it was off season. The whole town and hotel were pretty empty, besides the team, and there was just this crazy instrumental Christmas music playing on loop everywhere we went. It felt like we were all just in this parallel universe.

Advice?
Take that leap of faith and work your ass off. It will come full circle if you put in everything you have and if you don't take no as an answer.

Mariah Winter by Jingyu Lin
Mariah Winter. Photo by Jingyu Lin.

Mariah Winter, 26

How long have you been assisting and how did you get started?
Assisting for the last four years and started when I was 22.

Who are some of the photographers you have worked for?
Bon Duke, Remi Lamande, David Slijper, and many more.

Do you feel that there's a disadvantage to being female as a photo assistant?

I feel that a lot of the disadvantage is mental. I use to feel it more when I started, but then realized that anyone who treats a female differently on set or in any environment because of the fact they are a female, then the problem is them and not yourself. Anyone who won't hire a woman because "she can't lift" enough or any reason, is probably someone I wouldn't want to work with anyway.

Any particularly memorable experiences as a photo assistant?
I've had amazing experiences with assisting, such as traveling to random locations all over, working alongside industry professionals that I've always respected and learned a LOT from. But also, I have had some photographers treat me badly and weirdly. It's all a learning experience and definitely helps change your state of mind.

Advice?
Know as much as you can technically, obviously, but also find people over time who you feel you can be yourself around and form a mentorship with. Thats when I feel like you get the most out of it and also get the best on set experience.

Marion Grand by Jingyu Lin
Marion Grand. Photo by Jingyu Lin.

Marion Grand, 27

How long have you been assisting and how did you get started?
I’ve been assisting for eight years. I started in Paris. After photo school, I started to work in a studio where I learnt a lot about the fashion industry. Meanwhile, I photographed e-commerce for Louis Vuitton in the same studio.

Who are some of the photographers you have worked for (past and present)?

Greg Kadel, Giampaolo Sgura, Jason Nocito, Zoey Grossman, etc.

Do you feel that there's a disadvantage to being female as a photo assistant?

It’s definitely more challenging to build your path, but once you’ve met few people and connected with them — I feel like it became easier. At the beginning though, you have to work three times harder than men to prove that you are able to do the same as them, if not more.

Any particularly memorable experiences as a photo assistant?

I’ve been on really cool jobs, met amazing people, and traveled to places I wouldn’t never thought I would go. Just trying to make each day memorable!

Advice?
SMILE, be polite, and be on time. Don’t forget to have fun!