The word mentor variously means a wise and trusted counselor or a teacher; or an influential senior sponsor or supporter. In the photographic world it usually means a teacher in your early days, or a senior supporter when the photographer has started to build a career.
The importance and value of the mentor varies over a photographer’s career. As a student, you are influenced by your teachers and their skill base – particularly in a visual area. This is a great way to learn, but there is a need to start developing a personal style that is independent of the tutor; to continue slavishly following a tutor’s style is heading down the pathway of plagiarism. At this point the concept of mentorship is called into question. As a teacher one is required to delicately judge the difference between showing a direction and demanding an art output that is comparable to the tutor’s work. It is sad to recognise a photographer’s teacher by the student’s output.
For the mid-career, or mature photographer, the importance of a mentor is different. This is where assistance can come in refining an aesthetic goal or concept. To have access to someone whose opinion is not only technically valid but attuned to the artist’s specific style is a godsend. Finding a mentor who can give an unbiased peer review is critical to one’s continued personal development. Some times ‘tough love’ is required from a mentor.
An objective mentor can counterbalance a subjective photographer. Sometimes a photographer can become so dogmatic in their approach to their craft that such arrogance of opinion can stifle creative productive output. This is where a mentor has an advantage by offering suggestions that prove helpful in terms of circumnavigating such stumbling blocks.
The time of connection with a mentor can vary. For a student it will be during the teaching process, and probably that will fade until a career is developed when perhaps a further mentorship will be required. For the established photographer, a mentor may be required to work through a particular problem, job or assignment. For example, when preparing for an exhibition of work the assistance of a trusted mentor offers a great opportunity to objectively analyse images ensuring that these collectively convey the message being given, or the story being told. For the creative photographer a mentor is also useful when ‘writer’s block’ is encountered, and a mentor may assist to assess past work and offer directions for future endeavours.
Recently I was presented with the phrase ‘growth through exposure to the sunlight of another, or others’ and was struck by it’s appropriateness to this topic. With members of professional bodies, institutes and associations, there is an easy solution. Attending their conventions and awards programs can often act as a step towards a mentoring process, as by listening and learning from presenters you have access to many potential mentors or influences in one place. It may be by forming a connection with another photographer with a similar style or direction you might be able to produce a mentor/mentored relationship. The ease of communication offered by the internet, makes it possible for these relationships to flourish beyond national borders and outside of common, and often conflicting, marketplaces.
Having a good mentor can assist in avoiding creative stagnation and encourage continued personal growth in all photographers.
Consider one of your own.
This text was first published in the f11 Magazine, June 2013