I’m just back from a three-week photo assignment shooting a rockstar that took me and my camera through Shanghai, London, New York, Miami and up and down the California coast. Life on assignment is a form of organized chaos — rushing through airports, sleepless nights, surreal days, checking in and checking out, fighting crowds, making instinctual decisions, transferring files to hard drives in the backseats of cars, forgetting to eat for upwards of twelve hours at a time, stressing out, developing rashes, meeting the oddest of characters, shouldering up to celebrity, royalty and a running into an odd amount of body guards and security. On this trip alone, I was in the presence of Prince Charles, Queen Elizabeth, Lady Gaga, the Eagles, Jack White, A$AP Ferg, Metallica and Druids. We visited the Bund in Shanghai, a winery in Napa, the beaches of Miami, the streets of Manhattan and Stonehenge on the morning of the Summer Solstice with 15,000 people tripping out. Including Druids.
To write it out all out, it does sound incredible. Maybe it was, I wouldn’t know. As an assignment photographer, my job is not really to think, but to react and capture. I’d imagined this as my life for so long, spent so much time wishing for it, it is almost impossible for me to be on assignment without losing myself entirely to the assignment itself. I only truly experience it later, when I’m home and the stress has left my body through a variety of welts.
But let’s back up and talk for a minute about how one becomes an assignment photographer. Because before you ever go on assignment, it’s my experience that you first must imagine going on assignment.
Before the Assignment, Imagining the Assignment.
At twelve years old, when I got my first rangefinder camera (we’re talking 1980), I would read Time, Rolling Stone and National Geographic with my Nikkormat next to me and imagine what it would be like to be out on assignment; with a journalist or at a Hollywood party or backstage at a concert. That is the assignment mentality — the imagining of it. The make-believe scenario-izing that I was good enough and sought after enough to warrant a call from an editor somewhere. That I could manage myself in the company of strangers, amidst difficult environments — maybe a revolution, an uprising or the Running of the Bulls. I pictured myself rushing toward conflict with my rangefinder in my fist, finding peace in the quiet wait for a watering hole skirmish with a long lens and high ISO or making myself into a trusted wallflower in the backstage before the band went on, capturing some antic or ritual. It felt hard, challenging and, in my imagination, I wasn’t entirely sure if I’d even be able to do it. Then I would. I’d have to.
The mentality comes first, no matter what kind of photography you want to do. You first imagine inhabiting that world. And it accepting and loving your presence there. You see it. Seeing it then becomes a sense of impending identity. A would-be you. With accomplishment and peace waiting for you at the end of the assignment. If you’re even able to do it.
This mentality stuck with me, all through my non-photography career in advertising. For over twenty years, I qualified as a person who had a “photography habit.” Despite a career in another field, I remained an avid photographer and, in my secret moments, my mind still wandered out on assignment. I stayed up-to-speed on new trends, advancements in digital, lighting and techniques — more as a kind of tangential remnant of my dream than anything else. And I continued to shoot and fantasize. I never lost my mentality of imagining being a person on assignment. It just sat hidden as a secret flame inside, for over two decades.
Then, in 2016, I went with my girlfriend, her parents and our 1-year old to Hungary and Romania to visit family and tour around. It was a vacation, but I imagined I was headed off at the request of a magazine. And then I thought, why not reach out to someone about it? Social media had changed the landscape and, for the time being, it seemed like anything was possible. I ended up taking over the Leica Instagram feed for a week with images and stories from the journey. And this began a snowball effect of more assignment work. And then more. And then much more.
I believe when people say things like, “follow your dreams,” this is sort of what they mean. To continue to imagine things that feel embarrassing to admit out loud. To continue to think of yourself in terms that nobody else thinks of you as. Family, friends, coworkers — they all see you a certain way, but you hold out hope for something different for yourself. This is what makes dreams so hard.
Being on Assignment Forces You To Impress Someone
I used to think that people dreamed of doing things that put them above everyone else — literally, like being an astronaut, or figuratively, like being President, a doctor or a rock star. That we longed for a certain unassailability. And I think some people do dream of that. But I’ve come to realize that most people’s real dreams involve impressing others. The idea of living like a rockstar means very little if there’s nobody to hear the music, cheer for you, wait outside your hotel for you, ask you personal questions for an article — or take pictures of you. In this way, most of our dreams entail living beneath people, not above them; doing things that need approval for us to feel some kind of fulfillment of the dream.
So, perhaps our dreams are just blown-up versions of an idealized childhood, where mom and dad are continually impressed and awed by our every accomplishment. And if so, for me, my photography was this very kind of dream. A life where a new set of images met wide-eyed appreciation and confirmed a certain lovableness I longed to believe I posessed.
This can be a powerful motivator. In all professions, I think people push themselves harder when they want to impress someone. Do you strive to impress the people you work for, or is work just work? It makes a difference, right? I believe wanting to impress people has an immediate and direct impact on how hard you try at something; from homework for that special teacher to cooking a meal for Jonathan Gold to taking photos for the dream client. My last three assignments had me taking images of a top Premiere League soccer team, a two-time Academy Award-winning actress and an international rockstar. This coming week, I shoot for the NFL. This has all been a process of inviting bigger expectations and finding myself continually wanting to do better for that approval. I enjoy doing work for others and am happier seeing my work do well on other people’s feeds than in my own. I attribute any success I’ve been able to have to this desire to impress others.
Treat All Photography Like You Are On Assignment
Of all photography genres, for me there is nothing close to being on assignment. I’ve photographed the homeless inside their tents on Skid Row, I’ve photographed a Major League Baseball team, I’ve traveled across the United States photographing people and interviewing them about their jobs. Assignments put me in situations that are new and unpredictable and I get to see them with fresh eyes. And that is the ultimate gift.
Fresh eyes are the way not just to view assignments — but all photography. And perhaps life as a whole. As a photographer, you get to look at things with a kind of childish excitement, where others are jaded, tired and accustomed. This adds energy and spice to a situation that can feel like it honors life. You are the witness, the testimonial, the audience. You have enthusiasm for the moment, for the detail, for the story untold. And you — the photographer — are somebody’s dream come true. You create the document for which their own hopes and dreams are written down and displayed, for their own audience. And this is true whether you do portraits, product shots and even landscapes. Landscapes, I believe, long to be seen, as well.
All shoots are of a subject of some kind, even if that subject is your own vision or idea. And so all shoots can benefit from an assignment mentality, where you desire to impress and, ultimately, find beauty and your own sense of self in the viewing, framing and capturing. This drive to capture an image, to do it beautifully, differently, honestly, artistically or simply accurately — it assumes a standard, then it sets a bar above that standard and, depending on your ability to run toward it, through the thrown rocks and doubtful watchers and unarticulated hopes and desire, you give yourself an opportunity to get there. You will get there. Because the assignment is to get there. And you took on the assignment.