The Price of Failure to Perform as an Assistant/2nd Shooter

I’ll admit it up front: I am furious about this.  Remember a few posts ago I wrote out a number of rules for Assistants and 2nd Shooters.  That post was in response to an event where my shooting partner, Cynthia, agreed to help someone by hiring them as a 2nd shooter and in response to that kindness they basically violated nearly ALL of those rules, most egregiously (but not solely) by not delivering what they were asked to deliver because that was the requirements by her client.

I received, to my surprise and amazement, some push back to my post based on the attitude of, “So What?” and “Why are you making this a big deal?”  That attitude displayed an absolute absence of understanding as to the most basic business ethics.  Since it didn’t effect me directly, in fact would serve to lower the competition nearly as well as drugs, I let it go.  Perhaps, I could try to rationalize, it is just the local cultural values or lack of them, perhaps it was a failure of education or parenting or authority modelling; none of which excuses it but might serve to explain it a little.

But to return to the question, what does it really matter?  And why should others care?  As a competitor, as noted above, I truly am indifferent if you wish to ruin your own career before it ever gets started.  If you wish to prove your own incompetence or untrustworthiness early on that is cool on one hand.  Think of the disappointed clients you will save and the number of good competitors you might help by taking yourself out of their way quickly.  The problem however is that it is rarely just your own work and reputation that gets sullied.

If you are hired as an assistant or 2nd shooter, or even just an intern or apprentice, your work reflects directly on the person who took you into their fold and trust and offered you a job.  YOUR behavior or poor work can end up not just ending your own career but theirs as well.  I know you may not have thought of that because, in some self-centered narcissistic, desperately needy way, you probably never intended to hurt them because you never even thought of them.  How you might effect someone trying to help you was not even on your radar.  Paying careful and close attention to the instructions was just boring since you were anxious to be cut free to do your stuff and if that happened, by coincidence to be of value to your “boss” then fine but that was not as important as shooting your own stuff or being seen by others around you as someone they should hire.  This was YOUR chance to blow everyone’s doors off and if you failed some stupid instructions for purposes unimportant to you, who cares?  The only one you might be hurting was you, right?

I really do wish that was true but it is not.  Your stupidity, ignorance, incompetence, or ethical lapse might deliver the death blow to your primary or mentor.   And now, to my massive irritation just such an event has come home to roost.   And. it does in fact now have an effect on a business partner as well as on me directly.  And I am so far beyond angry I do not quite know how to deal with it except to write this post and maybe by showing readers why it IS a big deal I can help preclude it from happening in the future.

My shooting partner, who is also an attorney (and nurse) had agreed to come as a guest lecturer on my Bristlecone Pines Workshop coming up later this month to talk to the participants about legal issues especially copyright, etc. as pertains to Landscape Photography.  Based on that, a number of the participants were even more anxious to come along.

In order for her to come along, however, she had to find a substitute shooter for a repeating gig she has to shoot open air concerts each Friday evening through this summer.  But – and here is why you never know when something will come around to bite you in a tender spot – the lady who runs that concert event and hired her was also part of the sailing event that was supposed to have been handled by that 2nd shooter. Indeed she was on the boat he was supposed to be shooting.  Operative word… SUPPOSED to have been handled.  From several hours on a sailing party/cruise ship, part of a larger sailing event, the job was to take 100 images of the VIP participants having a good time for the sponsors, Junior Achievement, to select and use for promotional purposes.  He was also told NOT to be doing other shooting, not to spend any time or attention on shooting other boats, those were her job and he needed to pay close attention to the task at hand.  This was not a freebie favor for him, this was a job, a real paying gig, and it demanded a professional performance.

Bottom line, it didn’t get that performance. Nor anything close. When the smoke cleared he turned in 38 shots of which 6  — SIX –were acceptable to pass on.  But he did have a number of sailing photos of other boats from the event which he proudly posted quickly on Facebook.  And he mentioned, proudly, how he may have scored some personal work from people on the boat…

I’m calming down and if I recite more of the infractions I’ll get angry again.  The fallout though is this:  The lady running the Friday concert event told Cynthia she was NOT to allow ANYONE else to shoot for her on Friday: i.e. she has to do the shooting herself; she no longer had confidence in Cynthia’s ability to supply good additional or substitute photographers.  Cynthia was also told categorically to never EVER show up with that other shooter again.  And, as a major player in the world of local and regional community events, she also said she would tell “Everyone she knew” about the events and the failure.

That hit to Cynthia’s reputation is serious and, maddeningly, it creates a highly negative situation without a solution.  It cannot be solved with apologies or money (such as returning what she paid to him for the ‘work’) though she also took a pay hit over the failure of that specified part of her contract.  Worse yet, the client herself precluded any chance to try again to make up for it with additional shooting.  After all it was a unique event.  It would be like screwing up a wedding shoot and then asking if you could try again. She is so good at what she does, and works so incredibly hard at it, to see her take a shot to her reputation because of the failure of someone ELSE to simply do as they were asked make me want to see a head in a basket.

And that means that in order to fulfill Cynthia’s commitment to my workshop AND to the event client, she would have to leave Friday night after shooting the concert, and then drive the five-plus hours to reach a point where she could spend the night and then get up early and drive the additional several hours’ time up to where we will be staying in the Bristlecone Pines Forest.  She would arrive (at 10,100 ft in elevation) about in time to give her presentation, crash, and then head back the next morning to work on the stuff from the concert she has to edit and deliver by early in the week. That is simply neither safe nor acceptable: not generally, not in principal, and not to me specifically.  I don’t think I can abide or be OK with that scenario.

She has been put between a mutually exclusive rock and a hard spot: be in two places at once.  She has, because of this, lost trust and faith in her ability to form a team by people who hire photographers for gigs that nearly always REQUIRE a team to do correctly.  At least the client still believes in HER personal photographic abilities!  But she has been put there through no fault of her own beyond her taking my word that the 2nd shooter ought to have no problem doing that simple job.  Her other client will not budge or compromise.  So that is now left to me.

Taking my word that she could rely on him is the only thing she did wrong.  My word… let that sink in for a moment.  MY WORD.

Now, do you still wonder why I am furious?  Or why I’ll be hesitant to recommend anyone in the future?

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About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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3 Responses to The Price of Failure to Perform as an Assistant/2nd Shooter

  1. Rick Stanford says:

    David – you are so completely right that I can’t believe there was ANY room for discussion. If one is getting paid to do work (and even working for experience only with no money involved is getting paid), then one should do exactly as one is told by the boss. Period. End of discussion.

  2. John Pryor says:

    I agree, with caveats. You are completely right about the second shooter being completely out of line. No argument at all. What I have found interesting, however, is that the role of the senior shooter has been apparently unexamined. I’ve been a boss for many years. If I take on someone new on one of my gigs, I monitor them. Sure, they have their assignment and they need to do it and I am busy at my own work, but you’d better believe I would check in with the second person at least 2 or 3 times. For the second shooter to come in with only 38 pics, of which only 6 were useful, I have to ask, and it may enrage you, for which I am sorry in advance, but why in the world didn’t the primary shooter take 2 minutes to go to the secondary and say, show me what you’ve got so far?? And then bawl them out and/or tweak their subjects, as appropriate? Yes, the secondary shooter was out of line, but the primary still has responsibility for executing the assignment and from the description given, did not pay enough attention to that. If it’s my assignment, I am responsible and part of that responsibility is in supervising anyone else I bring in, not just doing the technical work. I realize this may not be the response you were looking for. Perhaps there were factors I was not aware of that were not included in the articles you’ve posted about this, but from the facts as given, the primary needs to be asking herself some tough questions, in my opinion. I can tell you that if I was the customer, I would most certainly be asking the primary why she wasn’t monitoring the second shooter more closely, and it would affect whether I would use the primary again on any shoot that required a secondary. Hard to hear, I’m sure, but that’s the way it seems to me. Not looking to pick a fight, just expanding the discussion.

    • ndking says:

      Why would a legitimate question enrage me? What you missed however, due to my loose description of the situation, was that the event was complex and spread out over several locations, including a party boat that, once launched, never returned to land until the event was over. It was on that boat that the second shooter was assigned their part because technically and logistically it was the easiest of all the parts: the others requiring staging and studio lighting on location. The specified task did not seem to be all that difficult, the 2nd shooter was certainly competent to fire the shutter sufficient times and in the confines of a sailing vessel, even a large one, it would require such a purposeful avoidance of targets as to be, for me at least, nearly unfathomable that so little was accomplished after several hours of opportunity. Even some artsy shots of the boat and rigging with people experiencing this old technology would have been counted in the total.

      Now that does also raise the equally legitimate question as to why a primary would entrust a critical, even if seemingly easy part of a gig to an untried shooter in an environment where monitoring was not possible. Good question. Alas there I must accept responsibility because it was my recommendation that the hired shooter could do the work that was accepted without question. I believed then and believe now that the 2nd shooter was CAPABLE of performing the job as instructed and I fully expected them to do so. That they did not was astonishing to me and totally unanticipated. None of us expected to see a modern Bresson at work capturing stunning examples of critical moments: it was a party boat for goodness sake. Shots of smiling people having a good time was the extent of the need.

      I have known people to freeze when the realization of a real job dawned on them… it happens. Well, OK, not many people but a couple. But they were (figuratively) on their knees apologizing for a screw up they knew they had done. In this case the card was turned over without comment, explanation, recitation of any issues, payment was accepted and everything seemed fine… until that card was downloaded and reviewed later.

      So John I think you raised some very good points, especially in terms of precautionary things the primary might have done. It was a comedy of errors in many ways and one for which I also bear responsibility. But, after almost 40 years of shooting for hire and often hiring crews, I’ve never personally experienced anything quite like this. The reason for the post is to point out to newbies that accepting a job carries real responsibilities and can have very serious impacts not only on them but on the people for whom they are shooting. It also is a cautionary tale for primary shooters as well. So I think your points were right on target and welcome them.

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